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.