Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Recreating the harem. Without the Sultan!

Today I had an email from Chloe, one of our hipsinc teachers who teaches in Hastings and London. She was inviting me to her latest Grand Harem afternoon - an afternoon of dancing, shopping, cake and pampering!

It started me reminiscing about our first harem afternoon and the concept itself. My idea was this: in the days of the sultans the women of the harem had nothing to do all day except sit around on cushions, eat sweetmeats and gossip. Doesn't sound all bad, does it...?

Now I know that the harem wasn't exactly a trail-blazer for female emancipation, but I thought it was about time we reclaimed the harem for ourselves.

I advertised it to my students as an opportunity to get together, gossip, watch videos of great dancers and eat lots of sweet things. I also said I'd dance for them, because one of the features of the harem was visits and performances from a group of professional dancers called the awalim. The awalim were an educated, higher class of dancer who would perform only for women and were shielded from the sight of men.

In the middle east, where bellydance originates, men and women socialize apart. After all, this is a predominantly Muslim part of the world and men and women are not meant to mix too much. Dance is an important feature of middle-eastern life and all celebrations include dancing. But a good Muslim girl would never dance in public in mixed company, except in the context of a family occasion, such as a wedding. Instead, they dance for each other in the privacy of their own homes.

So I held the first one in my home. I prepared the room with candles, cushions, soft drinks and copious quantities of middle eastern sweets. I was surprisingly nervous about it and when only six people arrived at the start I was convinced I had a flop on my hands. But in the course of the next hour, the doorbell rang again and again until we had more than twenty women sitting around on cushions and chatting to each other about their belly dance classes.

I made mint tea, played videos of famous belly dancers through the ages and invited them to ask any questions they wanted. And at the end I danced for them.

The harem afternoon concept was repeated with various entertainments after that. One time I invited Gayle Buckley, a terrific makeup artist and a bellydancer herself, who taught the girls how to apply bellydancer-style makeup, I loved the sight of tables covered with glitter and makeup, populated by women peering deeply into mirrors as they tried to apply false eyelashes and flick an oriental-style line with black eyeliner.

More recently Chloe has taken the concept even further and created her wonderful Grand Harem afternoons, which comprise costume, makeup and jewellery stalls, beauty treatments, performances and of course lots of cake. Cake is the constant feature of any hipsinc Harem Afternoon!

But my memories of that first afternoon are of the rush to the sweet table whenever a video finished. Of standing in the kitchen listening to the sounds of noisy, happy chatter. Of them laughing and dancing around my coffee table. And finally, of my husband arriving home to find the house full of women, high on sugar and foreign culture, shimmying through the candlelit house.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Hold that pencil...

Well, it's been quite a while since I last posted here. The reason? I've been shooting my first-ever instructional DVDs. It's something I've wanted to do for years but I've always put it off for two reasons. Both entirely foolish.

Firstly I was worried about my weight, and blogged about it here. But the main reason had to do with my pencil technique...

All my students will know what I mean. When women first come to my beginners class, one of the first things I say to them is that I need them to imagine they have a pencil "where they don't think I could possibly mean I want them to have a pencil!" They have to grip that pencil and lift it. In other words, I want them to lift up in the pelvic floor. We then go on to draw circles and figure 8s with our imaginary pencil.

I don't do it to be smutty. There are solid reasons behind the concept. It helps them imagine the shapes that form some of bellydance's core moves and it keeps the pelvis level which makes those moves better. It also strengthens the all-important pelvic floor and helps keep the lower back safe.

I've probably said it to thousands of women over the years. And it's always been a great ice breaker in class and a really useful teaching tool. But oh how I stressed about saying it to camera!

Every time I thought about it I broke out in a cold sweat.

It wasn't so much the thought of all the people who don't know me watching me say those words in the comfort of their living rooms. After all, I say it every week of my working life. No, it was the fear of the disapproval of other bellydance teachers.

I sometimes think bellydance teachers form two distinct groups. Those who rejoice in the ability to use words like 'bum' in the course of earning their living and those who would never allow such a word to pass their lips. One group is surprisingly prim and proper, the other... not!

I remember a row breaking out on a bellydance forum over whether students should allow the breasts to move at all in the execution of a shoulder shimmy. Many insisted they should stay absolutely still. Excuse me people, try shaking your shoulders without the 'girls' moving! What are you going to do, tie them down?

On that same forum many years ago, when I was very new to the business, some teachers were talking about how difficult it was to teach the figure eight - a foundation move in bellydance. I piped up about the pencil technique, assuming that people would either use it themselves or be interested in how well it worked.

Oh the shock and horror that was expressed by everyone on the forum. From California to Australia and back again people protested that what I was suggesting was disgusting. It was like listening to a group of blue-rinsed matrons from the 1970s! I fought my corner for a while and was really grateful for a lone voice from the north of England who confessed that she used the image, although she never let on to other teachers for fear of ridicule. But I finally slunk off with my tail between my legs and resolved never to talk about it in bellydance circles again.

Even worse, someone on the forum came up with the concept of the 'excremental video party' where dancers would bring their worst bellydance videos to laugh over together. Suggestions were made for videos to bring and yes, the top vote was for an instructional video by a teacher who taught the pencil technique.

So, dear reader, that's why I've put off filming my instructional DVD for the last five years. Fear and shame. Remember I'm English and public embarrassment is one of our very worst fears. Shame is what keeps us awake at night, bathed in a cold sweat.

Of course I could have found some other way of teaching those moves on the DVD, but I know it works. I've taught it for years. And I'm nothing if not brave. So, dear reader, I looked straight into that camera and I said those words. I didn't blush, I didn't stammer. I said them out, I said them proud.

A week later, the video cameraman contacted me to say the film had inexplicably juddered over that section and my words had been lost. I'd have to do it all over again.

It must have been the revenge of the bellydance matrons!

Thursday, 10 June 2010

To diet or not to diet?

I’m currently on a diet. Like a quarter of the population, I’m trying to lose weight. But, unlike most of my fellow dieters, I’m finding it a bit of an ethical dilemma.

Oh, give over Charlotte! Spare us the existential angst! I hear you say.

I know, I know. It doesn’t really sit comfortably with the big ethical questions of our age: should we buy clothes made by workers on poverty wages? Is animal testing justified? Should we have gone to war with Iraq?

Should Charlotte be on a diet?

But there is a fundamental mismatch between what I tell my students and how I treat myself. It’s not that I tell my students not to diet. But I do tell them that they are beautiful just as they are. And they truly are.

One of the most moving things about being a bellydance teacher is hearing so many women say that bellydance has enabled them to feel good about themselves for the first time in their lives.

We are bombarded every day with images in the media of beautiful, slender women. Photographs of even the most beautiful and seemingly perfect are airbrushed to remove ‘imperfections’. And I know, because I hear it time and time again, that many women feel truly awful about themselves as a result of judging themselves against these images.

Only a couple of days ago, two women of very different shapes (one slim, one voluptuous) confided to me that they stand at the back of class because they cannot bear to see themselves in a mirror. As I say in the sidebar on this blog, I know without any shadow of a doubt that a very large proportion of women look in the mirror and they judge themselves. They see themselves as unattractive, or fat, or just not good enough. And they live with that every day of their lives.

Yet men look at us and love us. Painters have painted voluptuous women for centuries. Ordinary men, normal men, think we are beautiful. They think we are lovely just as we are.

I’ll never forget my first student show, held in the Women’s Institute Hall in the little town near where I live. The students had only been dancing a year and were a fabulously mixed bunch of ages, shapes and sizes.  None of us could possibly have withstood the scrutiny of TV, but we went out there and danced our socks off, tummies proudly displayed, in front of 100 people.

Afterwards I was truly astounded by the responses of the men in the audience. Every single one I spoke to commented on how beautiful the women were. Several men made a point of coming over to tell me just that. We were all very ordinary women. Aged between 20 and 60 and a wide range of body types. But to the men we were really beautiful.

Even more interestingly, each woman seemed to have one person unrelated to her, who singled her out as being particularly lovely. In other words, each of us had people in that audience who thought we were really special.

A year later I took some non-dancer friends to see the Bellydance Superstars, a bellydance troupe from the US managed by music promoter, Miles Copeland. The Superstars are a well-rehearsed, highly professional troupe of slim, beautiful girls. They left my friends cold.

They said they were put off by the cookie-cutter nature of the dancers. That the array of slender bodies and perfect smiles made them feel they were watching Californian cheerleaders. And every single one said they had preferred our student show in that little WI hall. The reason? Because there, they were seeing ‘real’ women. In all their imperfect beauty.

So what’s with the diet then?

Well, I’m shooting an instructional DVD in a couple of months and the truth is that I am just as affected by media images as every woman out there. And just as self-conscious about my wobbly belly.

I fear that when I look at the DVD in the future, all I will notice is the roll of fat that always shows when I do a hip drop. And the extra belly fat that hangs over my hip belt no matter how good my posture is.

I don’t want to lose too much though. I think it’s important that people see real women on this DVD. I want them to realise that a woman in her 50s and with curves can still be a good dancer. And I hope they can identify with me as being like them: a real woman, not an unobtainable image of perfection and beauty.

But as a real woman, I also have to hold my hand up and say; I wish I were thinner! More beautiful. Just a bit more like Cheryl Cole.

Thank goodness for my husband, who never fails to tell me he loves me exactly as I am!

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Hipsinc's Got Talent!

Two very excited texts appeared on my mobile within seconds of each other. OMG they've shown us on Britain's Got Talent!!

Chantel and Cheryl are two of my very best dancers. Absolute naturals both of them, Chantel was the first of my students to turn professional and now teaches seven classes a week for hipsinc. Cheryl arrived later and now teaches private lessons for us.

I clearly remember the very first time I saw each of them in class.

Chantel is frankly stunning. No-one could ever miss her. Tall, leggy, with the look of a glamour model, she has a face you can't take your eyes off. The day she arrived in class she had just recently fixed the one part of her anatomy that didn't conform to glamour model ideal. Barely covered by a tiny tie-front top, the first sight of Chantel's cleavage as she leaned forwards in a deep hip circle will be forever seared into my memory banks!

As I got to know her I also discovered she has the personality of an angel and the work ethic of a captain of industry.

Cheryl is beautiful too, but in a quieter way. She seemed to arrive in the beginners class fully formed as a dancer. She executed every move perfectly and I was astounded when she insisted that not only had she never done a bellydance class in her life, she had never done ballet or any other form of dance, even as a child.

Almost nothing dance-wise is beyond her. New moves never faze her and complex combinations and choreographies are approached with focus and almost immediate proficiency.

The two of them met when Cheryl completed her fast track through to the advanced class. But their dance partnership was sealed when Cheryl started to attend Chantel's weekly street-bellydance class. Street-bellydance is a mixture of hip hop and bellydance and is typified by stars such as Shakira, Christina Aguilera and Beyoncé. Chantel's remarkable energy and glamour girl looks are perfectly suited to this youthful style of bellydance and she loves teaching it.

The two of them started to perform together and soon created a duo, calling themselves Mystika.

Last autumn they decided to enter Britain's Got Talent and were thrilled to go through into the main heats. With tens of thousands of entrants and only a few hundred getting to that stage, that was a major achievement. Now they were going to be performing on the enormous stage at the Hammersmith Apollo, in front of Simon Cowell, Piers Morgan and Amanda Holden. And filmed for a TV audience of millions!

I went along to support them on what turned out to be a very long and decidedly odd day. The 'holding area' - a large function room nearby, was full of every kind of eccentric and forever-hopeful entertainer it was possible to imagine. Fully painted clowns jostled with Madonna impersonators. Sixteen stone pearly kings chatted to tiny circus performers with hoops hanging off every limb. And a group of men dressed only in dressing gowns and socks solemnly informed me they were balloon dancers.

It was a long day of interviews, waiting around, more interviews and much more waiting around. We arrived at 10am. Just before midnight the girls finally made it onstage.

They went down well with Simon Cowell and Piers Morgan. Simon said he really liked them and Piers said it was a treat to see bellydancers who were so “easy on the eye!” But Amanda Holden wasn’t happy. In a sequence not shown on TV, Amanda buzzed the girls almost immediately she saw them. Simon turned to Amanda and asked what her problem was, at which point a member of the audience shouted out: “She’s jealous!”

Amanda hotly denied it, but all the talk backstage that day was about Amanda’s attitude to attractive contestants. All the girls were saying, 'Amanda will buzz you off. She’s buzzing all the pretty girls as soon as she sees them!' Every young female contestant we met had the same story to tell: the moment they went out on stage, Amanda had buzzed them. As she did with Chantel and Cheryl.

But Mystika got the support of Simon and Piers who voted them through to the next round. We didn't know whether they would actually be shown on TV (not everyone who is filmed and voted through is broadcast) so we were all thrilled and relieved that they they were part of Saturday night's broadcast.

Even better, there is a lively interview with them on the main Britain's Got Talent website.

I love these girls so much. And I am unspeakably proud of them. I can't wait to see what they do next.

Watch Chantel and Cheryl's interview here

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

I never thought I'd be teaching cubs to bellydance!

Fifteen Cub Scouts, half of them autistic, all of them highly excited. And all swinging sticks around like mad helicopters. Not for the first time in my career as a bellydance teacher, I seriously questioned my own judgment.

My sister is Akela of her local Cub Scout pack and had asked me if I'd teach the Cubs some Egyptian-style dancing as part of their Faith badge. Bellydancing may be primarily a female dance form, but men are also keen dancers in Egypt. And in Luxor, near the Valley of the Kings, they are famous for dancing with big sticks in a stylised martial arts dance called Raqs Tahtib.

Teaching the Cubs how to do stick dancing had seemed like a good idea when she had first asked me - I thought the boys would appreciate a more masculine style of dance. So my husband visited the local wood merchants to buy lengths of wooden dowelling to cut to size and I choreographed a simple routine involving lots of mock fighting.

Ten minutes before I left on the day itself, my sister rang: "Just to confirm, we'll have around fifteen boys. Oh and by the way, seven of them are autistic or somewhere along the autistic spectrum."

Huh? Boys. Sticks. Fighting. Autistic spectrum. Help!

I'd better give you some context here. I'm childless. By choice. I trained to be a primary school teacher but gave up half way through because I realised I was useless with children. I've got a bit better since becoming an aunt but really, I don't do children.

And here I was, going off with armfuls of dowelling to teach 15 lively boys, half of whom had communication or behavioural problems, how to fight-dance with sticks.

My first contact with the Cubs was a little unnerving. A solemn boy marched up to me and demanded to know why I was wearing makeup. But my response that "I always do", seemed to be acceptable. And when they were all gathered together it was clear that for many of them, keeping their attention and channelling their energy was going to be quite a challenge.

My sister was brilliant with them though. She told them stupid jokes, bossed them about and managed to keep their focus on all things Egyptian rather than on beating each other up or racing around the room. And there was always the bellydancers time-honoured way of gaining attention - a zhagareet (high-pitched ululation) stopped them in their tracks most effectively!

It turned out to be a great day. The boys were certainly challenging, but they really did learn how to stick dance. Not brilliantly, but with bucketloads of enthusiasm.

There were particular areas of appeal: I had choreographed some sections of partner dancing where they would do some very stylized mock fighting. That went down particularly well, although as you can imagine, we had to calm them down a couple of times during practice sessions.

Then there was the salute. One of the characteristic things in this style of Egyptian dancing is to touch the hand to the forehead in a sort of salute. Of course this appealed enormously to the Cubs and one boy insisted on saluting through the whole dance - even when he had the stick in that hand!

And the autistic boys particularly enjoyed counting the beats in the music. As my sister pointed out - counting is a big thing with many autistic people and they loved the regularity and repetition of the beat threading through the music.

At the end of the afternoon the Cubs performed their stick dance to an audience of parents and siblings. As I stood at the back of the audience, discretely directing, I was overcome by the look of utter pride on the parents' faces.

I had thought I would be pleased just to get through the day without someone losing an eye. I didn't expect to be quite so moved by this funny little bunch of boys.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Unforseen circumstances

"Hello, my name's Amir Thaleb and I'm here to teach you how to dance Thaleb-style."

These were the words I was looking forward to hearing last weekend. But I hadn't expected them to be coming from my own mouth!

For years I have wanted to take a class with Argentinian-based dancer Amir Thaleb. With a strong ballet-influenced style and a classically-trained dancer's emphasis on strong technique, he has been a major influence on my own mentor, Aziza.

To my knowledge Amir Thaleb has never taught in the UK, so when bellydance festival, Jewel of Yorkshire (JoY) booked him to teach, I signed up immediately.

I was very excited at the prospect of learning from someone who not only dances in a style I am increasingly developing for myself, but who has an amazing dance school in Buenos Aires. Aziza teaches at his festival every year and tells incredible stories of the exacting standards expected of the students, and of massive workshops of 1,500 attendees!

I told my Thursday students I was travelling the following morning to Yorkshire to take workshops with this great teacher flying in from Argentina. To which they replied: 'Oh no he isn't!'

A volcano had just erupted in Iceland, sending a gigantic ash cloud over the UK and northern Europe. And all flights into and out of the UK had been cancelled!

The next morning I rang Mandy, the JoY festival organiser, to find out whether Amir Thaleb had arrived before the volcano had done its deed. She told me that he had left Argentina and was actually in the air as we spoke, but there was no knowing whether or where he would be able to land. She had two other international teachers booked. Both were currently stuck in Cairo, with no knowledge of whether they would be able to fly in at any time over the weekend.

For a festival organiser it was the stuff of nightmares. The workshops couldn't be cancelled, because the international teachers might manage to get there, at least on one of the days. And since they had contracts, they would expect to teach, and to be paid. So Mandy and her colleague, Chris, had to continue with the festival, asking local teachers to be prepared to cover if necessary, knowing that many people, like me, were coming specifically to take classes with international teachers and would be unhappy with local substitutes.

I offered to help in whatever way I could. And Mandy asked if I would perform in the show and be ready to teach if the international teachers were unable to get there.

For me it was a great opportunity to showcase myself in the north of England where I'm not well known. And to help out a fellow event organiser. On the downside, I was truly knackered after a hard few weeks and was worried about how well I would perform, both in the show and teaching - especially since I was unprepared for both!

It was a long, five and a half hours drive to Yorkshire and I arrived late in the evening, tired and worried I had done the wrong thing. But soon the bar filled up with bellydance friends from around the UK and I felt my energy lift.

One of the great things about working in a niche industry is that you make friends from far away, often online. Festivals and weekend workshops bring us all together and when we meet, we have our love of bellydance and many friends in common. So conversation flows easily and we are all relieved to be able to talk about our passion with people who share it.

And the festival itself was a delight. JoY is certainly well named! Set in a fabulously decorative  concert hall within a charming Victorian village on the Yorkshire moors, the central theatre was bright with sparkling bellydance bazaars and full of the warmth of women chatting with friends and revelling in a weekend dedicated to dance.

There was a certain amount of tension at first amongst people who clearly hadn't put two and two together - that closed airports mean international visitors can't arrive, even to teach bellydance workshops! But as the weekend went on, everyone relaxed, and the atmosphere that JoY is renowned for started to manifest itself.

That atmosphere was really lovely. I performed in the show to a fantastic reception - the warmth from the audience was palpable and extremely welcome, given that I had had so little time to prepare. And on the Sunday I was very amused to be teaching the very same workshop I had hoped to take!

I was so grateful to the workshop students. They were very accepting of me, gave me back so many smiles and worked really hard. Even though it was the last workshop of the weekend and they were probably exhausted.

I drove the five and a half hours back to Kent feeling relieved that I had been accepted by the delegates, and very pleased that I had decided to go to JoY despite the lack of international teachers. I really hope others felt the same. It's a truly lovely festival and the organisers are warm and generous people.

I'll certainly be going again.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

But is it authentic...?

Since I returned to bellydancing eight years ago, I've often been troubled by the question of authenticity. As an English woman from Cheltenham Spa, living near, of all places, Tunbridge Wells, what exactly am I doing bellydancing?

And when I dance, who do I dance as? Do I imagine myself as Egyptian? Do I try, as many do, to recreate the gestures used by Egyptian dancers? Or attempt to feel music the way the Egyptians do?

I remember being in a workshop with Aida Nour, an Egyptian bellydance star of the 1980s, now a popular international teacher. It was an advanced workshop with many experienced dancers. Aida became increasingly irritated because she said we weren't dancing on the beat. And the more we concentrated on just that, the more irritated she became. Finally, exasperated, she asked me to video everyone dancing the routine, herself included. She then left the room (in pretty high dudgeon) and told us to review what we were doing wrong.

Well, I'm a trained classical singer with a strong sense of rhythm and I was flummoxed. I knew I had been dancing on the beat. And the video confirmed it. But oddest of all, the only person who wasn't dancing on the beat was Aida Nour herself! She was behind throughout.

And there, of course, was our answer. We were hearing the beat as punctual Brits. She heard it as a woman from a hot country with little sense of urgency. Arabs use the term 'English Time' to mean punctuality. In practice it means being only half an hour late.

Aida Nour confirmed our suspicions. We were dancing 'early'. And of course the more she had complained, the earlier we had become. No wonder she found us infuriating!

Later she thoughtfully explained that no-one outside Egypt hears the music correctly. It wasn't just the Brits, it was everyone - from the US to Japan, Norway to South Africa. And I've heard that said by Egyptians time and again - dancers and ordinary people alike. No-one dances bellydance like the Egyptians. No-one feels the dance or hears the music like them. Good try but no cigar.

So where does that leave me? Cheltenham born, English speaking, a ballet girl from the age of five. Faced with the realisation that I'm never going to get it right, you can see why I sometimes ask myself the question in that first paragraph.

For a long time I tried hard to recreate 'authentic' Egyptian styling and gestures. To denote heartache or love I would dutifully hold my hand under my ribcage as the Egyptians do. I would take little trouble with my arm technique and try to look 'lazy' in my arabesques.

But the more I tried to be authentic, the more hidebound I felt in my dancing. And the more I felt like a fraud. Because you see, I'm not Egyptian. I'm English. Always have been, always will be. I love the Arab world, but I'm not from it.

The breakthrough for me came, surprisingly, in a workshop by an Egyptian teacher. Professor Hassan Khalil came to teach at Fantasia and brought with him a technique chock-full of ballet moves and ballet terminology. Suddenly I realised I didn't have to deny my years of ballet training; I could draw upon it; I could revel in my ability to dance graceful arabesques, to spin and to posé.

The next revelation was meeting Aziza from the US. Quite simply, her first trip to the UK, which I organised, and now organise every year, changed my personal dance world. Interestingly, Aziza, who styles herself an American Cabaret-style bellydancer was a little intimidated by the fact that the UK has a reputation for being very Egyptian focussed. She feared we may look down on her as not being properly authentic (yes that word again!)

But seeing Aziza dance was an inspiration. I've never seen anything quite as wonderful. Like me, her early training was in ballet, jazz and contemporary dance. But unlike me, she wasn't trying to deny it. Typically American, she had simply grafted her western dance forms onto the middle eastern one. And in the process created something uniquely hers. And uniquely beautiful.

The time since has been a fascinating journey for me. It's a journey I'm still on. I always have to ask myself at what point does something stop being bellydance and become something else. There is a lot of fusion dance around at the moment and, although I respect and enjoy it, I believe one needs to be very sure of what one is fusing and why.

When I started to break free of what I increasingly saw as an Egyptian strait jacket, I knew I needed a lodestar to guide me. A fixed point I could weave around and still know where I was going. I had been lucky enough to have as my first teachers, Hossam and Serena Ramzy - true giants of Egyptian bellydance. Hossam is one of the greatest musicians and composers of Egyptian music alive today. His wife is a superbly musical and beautiful bellydancer.

Hossam and Serena taught me how to interpret the instruments and rhythms of the Egyptian orchestra. They taught me one of the greatest truths about bellydance: that 'the art of oriental dancing is to visually hear the music'. And this has become my guiding principle.

So here, for what they are worth, are my own dance rules. Firstly I dance to Arabic music, secondly I expect to use a significant number of 'core' bellydance moves. And finally I try to show the music through my body.

This is what I personally call bellydance. They are only my rules - and I certainly don't demand others follow them. But they are rules that have perversely given me freedom.

Like a child I need boundaries, but they are boundaries I embrace. Boundaries I hope others understand and appreciate. And which represent my own personal authenticity.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Memories of Lilian

Lilian was supermodel thin, with porcelain skin, stunning clothes sense and a filthy mind. Lilian never missed a class. Or a party. Lilian was 87.

A former competition ballroom dancer, whose dancing partner died in her arms of a heart attack, she's had her fair share of troubles. But she always arrived at her weekly bellydance class looking like a Vogue fashion spread circa 1952. Sparkling white coiffed hair, white swing coat, pillar box red hat, gloves and shoes. And her make up perfect. The lips just the right shade of matching red and not a smudge or cracked line anywhere.

The lift of Lilian's head when she danced was a lesson to us all. She danced with drama and elan, ready to fly off in the arms of some latin lover, or perform a tango in front of an adoring crowd. She was in her element with a veil; one minute swirling it as if in a paso doble, the next posing, draped like a Greek statue.

She was also deaf as a post and unable to remember a step of choreography.

We girls used to worry about Lilian. We didn't let her know - she wouldn't allow any of that sort of rubbish. But one evening a couple of years ago, I was momentarily terrified I'd killed her.

In bellydance we have a move called an arabesque. Evolved from classical ballet, it consists of two or three steps followed by a rise onto one leg as the other lifts in the air. The Egyptians, being a relaxed people with a dislike of too much energy usage, keep it pretty grounded, even desultory. But not our Lilian. This was a chance to fly!

And fly she did. She launched herself off from the side of the room in her pink chiffon skirt and pink satin ballet shoes. And as she rose onto one leg those shiny pink satin slippers betrayed her, and off she went, like a skater on an icy lake. Accelerating across the room, one leg in the air.

And then down she went, skirts, knickers and teeth everywhere.

I saw the look of horror frozen onto every face and knew they were reflections of mine. This was an 87 year-old woman. Eighty-seven year-old women die from falls. And not many of them fall from the top of their toes. On one leg. Whilst traveling at speed.

That terrible, still moment, when I asked myself what on earth I thought I was playing at, allowing an elderly lady to do something so dangerous, was followed by an almighty 'whoosh' as everyone ran to her.

As we gathered around her, she sat absolutely still. Totally silent. Head down. And then she looked up and shrieked: "Ooo, did you all see my knickers?"

Many arms reached out to lift her up. Many relieved sighs were breathed. Lilian was dusted off and hugged and fussed over. But she brushed away our concerns as if we were over-indulgent mothers who hadn't realized she'd grown up.

And at the end of the evening, as always, she walked me to my car "to make sure I was safe" and then disappeared off to catch the bus back home. Refusing, as ever, all offers of lifts, in her pride and her refusal to give in to her age.

Yesterday I received a letter from Lilian. She had finally accepted she was never going to dance again. She'd parceled up all her bellydance clothes and wanted to know if anyone might like them. I'll go and see her at her home - I feel guilty I haven't visited for over a year. She gave me so much and I miss her terribly.

It was one of those strange co-incidences life throws up, that her letter arrived the day one of our newest students celebrated her 90th birthday. Jo Holden reminds me uncannily of Lilian. Hollywood beautiful, the TV crew that came to film her for the evening news called her 'One Take Jo.' My husband, taking photographs for the local paper, noted how as soon as he pointed a camera at her, she lifted her head and tilted it slightly, knowing just how to make the very best of herself.

My mother-in-law died recently, aged 93 and, seeing her unhappy decline, I told myself I didn't want to live to be 90. Now I'm really not so sure...