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.