"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.