Sunday, 16 December 2012

Creating a new style of bellydance

I’ve always struggled with the concept of authenticity. As I said in a past blog post: I’m not Egyptian, I’m from that most English of towns, Cheltenham Spa, and now live near its uptight and green-inked cousin, Tunbridge Wells. You can’t get much more English than that!

After many years of trying to recreate Egyptian styling and Egyptian sensibilities I finally came to the conclusion that in aiming to be ‘authentic’ I was in effect being its exact opposite. I was pretending to be something I am not. When I was trying to dance with the soul of an Egyptian woman I was certainly not being true to myself. And I believe that if I’m to communicate through my dancing I must say something that is real and true to me.

But what should I do, as an English, middle-class, ballet-mad girl who grew up into a jazz dancing young woman, studied contemporary dance for her degree but then fell in love with bellydance in her twenties? As for so many women, bellydance felt like it was made for me. The movements seem created for my body. They celebrate my curves rather than encouraging me to starve them away. And the first time I saw a bellydancer, and then tried the moves out for myself, I knew it was what I wanted to do.

But one of the major difficulties for me is that the dance I love comes from another culture. It’s middle eastern. So I don’t feel I own it, despite having danced and taught it for decades. And my inner conflict has been deepened recently by news stories highlighting the sometimes shocking treatment of women in the middle east. I read reports of organised gang rapes of women in Cairo, or the recent beheading of young men and women for dancing in mixed company at a wedding in Afghanistan, and I wonder what I, as a western feminist, am doing teaching a dance from a part of the world that thinks it is shameful and wicked for a woman even to dance socially with a man, let alone bellydance in public.

To be truthful I have sometimes even thought about giving up bellydance in recent months. It’s started to feel wrong to me. I’m a feminist, I believe in freedom and equality for women. So I’ve been deeply affected reading about the lives of women in that part of the world who seem to me not to have the freedoms and the respect that I take for granted.

I’ll also be honest and say too, that for a long time I’ve found the bellydance movement vocabulary narrow compared to the dance forms I grew up with. Much of that comes from the costuming - there is little opportunity for expansive leg gestures in a bellydance costume. A full chiffon skirt hides anything going on below the hip line and a modern lycra skirt is way too tight. And the weight! It’s hard enough work hauling all those crystals and sequins and stiffening around the stage, let alone trying to leap and twirl and soar.

And here we find ourselves back to the subject of culture. Leaping and twirling and soaring is not what a nice Egyptian girl does. Let’s face it, she’s not even meant to dance in public! I find it noticeable that the grand, exciting stuff in Egyptian dance: the jumps and leaps and dynamic movements are given to the men. The female vocabulary is far more internalised, smaller, more ‘feminine’.

I’m also painfully aware of the fact that bellydance as a performance art just doesn’t cut it with a western audience. Small, internalised isolations don’t work well on the big stage or even on TV. And the narrow dynamic range and lack of dramatic, exciting movements leave modern westerners frankly a bit bored. I believe it’s one of several reasons bellydance isn’t taken seriously here.

Yet bellydance is a truly beautiful dance form. And it has a remarkable ability to help women feel good about themselves and their bodies. Moreover, for me, as a musician (I’m a trained opera singer) it has a unique and very deep association with music. I adore the way a bellydancer tries to show the music through her body. To me it’s very profound and has the ability to deepen the whole experience, both for dancer and audience.

I'll always love traditional, culturally authentic bellydance, whether it's performed by Arabs, Turks or Westerners. And I really don’t want to give up the dance I love so much. Even if I am sometimes frustrated, often troubled by inner conflict.

But maybe, as with so much art, inner conflict, limitation and frustration is the mother of creativity. Because I’m finding that the limitations and the conflicts and the feeling of disassociation are driving me towards creating a new style of bellydance. My style of bellydance. Without constraints, without cultural baggage, without apologies. Just dancing the way it feels right to me to dance.

If I allow myself to break free from the cultural straightjacket what will happen? If I no longer have to worry about whether what I’m doing is ‘correct’ or ‘authentic’, what will my dancing and my teaching look like? Where might it go?

My thinking is also driven by my desire to create a large spectacular bellydance show sometime in the future. Whatever happens with the Hollywood film - whether it is made or not, and if it is, where it leads - all my creative energies at the moment are working towards trying to create a style of bellydance which will work on the big stage and appeal to a western audience.

I started with Project Lift Off - my initiative to try and raise British bellydance nearer to the professional standard of other styles of performance dance and to work with larger, more dynamic movements. But I’ve found myself terribly constrained by the desire to teach ‘authentically’. I’ve found it impossible to break free from the cultural and historical background of our dance. Of course I could ignore the cultural relevance. I could just teach bellydance moves without caring about their provenance, but that would go against my grain. I know bellydance has a cultural core and I can't ignore that.

So I’ve made a decision to stop trying to copy or recreate, and instead to create.

I’ve found it helpful to think in terms of creating a new style of dance. With a new name, so that I don’t feel I’m doing something inappropriate. Right now in my mind I’m calling it Western Oriental style bellydance. Because that to me is what I’m trying to create.

I’ve started by working with two superb young dancers who come to my Project Lift Off classes and who have agreed to be my muses - the clay for me to work with. And I’m going to start teaching jazz-bellydance classes at Dance Works in central London from January onwards, as a way of experimenting with marrying bellydance to the western dance forms that have influenced me and breaking away from my natural desire to do things ‘right’.

I’m sure there are people reading this who will think what I’m doing is wrong, or at the very least arrogant. But every style of dance has had its innovators, including bellydance - tribal and tribal fusion are wonderful, exciting styles which rightly take their place alongside Egyptian or Turkish bellydance. I’m just trying to do my bit. For myself, if no-one else!

And for those people who might think I’m rejecting Egyptian bellydance, please know this. I will never reject Egyptian bellydance, it’s part of my dance heritage. I may have deep inner conflict about cultural attitudes towards women and dance in the middle east, but I truly love the Egyptian people, women and men both. And I don’t believe that will ever change.

And I'm sure I will always teach classic Egyptian style bellydance. I love it and my students love it. I’m just trying to do something alongside it. To develop something that feels more like me, rather than trying to pretend I’m something I’m not.

It’s really exciting for me to be travelling down this road. Exciting and pretty scary too. I’ll write more about the journey as I travel it. And I hope some of you will come with me to see where it takes us. Hold tight, it could be an exciting ride!

Thursday, 29 November 2012

How it all started!

Imagine the scene: it’s an evening in late December and Markbeech village hall is decorated for Christmas. A tree sparkles in one corner, silver stars tumble from the ceiling. Flowers and candles adorn large round tables squeezed tightly together in the tiny hall. At the end of the hall is a small stage, the red velvet curtains hanging a little crookedly. Laughter fills the room.
Around the tables sit men and women of all ages, chatting animatedly. Everyone in the village is here and all are looking splendid. The men wear dinner jackets and bow ties; the women are in evening gowns and good jewellery. This is not fancy dress. This is just what we did ten years ago in Markbeech. Give us an excuse for a party and out would come the glad rags.

In the tiny kitchen across the corridor there's a slightly frantic air as Nicky and her team, in full length evening gowns and pearls topped by slightly crumpled aprons, manhandle giant casserole dishes or tip steaming potatoes out of enormous saucepans.

Nicky, wife of Charles, heir to the aristocratic family who founded Markbeech almost two hundred years ago, had spent the previous month organising the women in the village in preparing the feast about to be served. And only half an hour earlier the food had arrived, still hot from home kitchens, borne in enormous bowls and pans by beautifully-spoken women desperately trying not to trip over in long dresses and high heels.

In an ante-room off the main hall five or six people are waiting nervously. All wear large, outlandish hats topping off their evening dress. One woman has a model of Blackpool Tower on her head, another has a crescent moon, suspended from a wire coat-hanger. Paul and Andro are there, smart in dinner jackets, scripts in their hands. I’m there too.

I peer through the door to the main hall, look back at Paul and Andro: “They’re ready, let’s go!”

On the stage a piano strikes up a triumphal tune as the curtains open rather crankily. Charles, in slightly rumpled white tuxedo and unruly hair, is at the piano, thumping out the tune with gusto. The audience erupts in cheers as Paul and Andro stride out onto the stage.

The first-ever Markbeech Christmas Cabaret is underway!

Blackpool Tower appears. It's Ann, the Parish Clerk, reciting a witty Blackpool monologue. And the crescent moon is another Ann, our 80 year old ex-SOE operative, with a poem about an oyster singing to the moon. And as the evening continues, more crazily be-hatted villagers take the stage. Some of the poems and monologues are well known, but in amongst the party pieces are wonderful songs and stories telling of the rich cast of characters living in Markbeech. The audience are in raptures, shouting and cheering their friends on.

Then a hush descends. The stage is empty. Sinuous middle eastern music starts up. A character appears on stage entirely covered in a red veil. It glides around and quiet voices are heard asking who it could be.  Suddenly the music changes to an up tempo bellydance piece, the character throws the veil off and shimmies and undulates around the stage, ending with a drop to the floor. There's a slight gasp, followed by cheers and whistles from the audience.

Now, I need to explain a couple of things. Firstly you need to know that even though it's only a tiny hamlet of thirty houses, Markbeech is full of creative people. Some might even say there’s an air of eccentricity here. Despite being slap bang in the middle of the UK’s stockbroker belt, where million pound houses are ten a penny, we are a village of writers, artists, musicians, photographers, designers and, yes, a secret bellydancer.

Secret, because in those days no-one knew I was a bellydancer. You see, Markbeech is posh. Proper posh. Much posher than I am. I might sound a bit upmarket, but I’m not really - I’m the daughter of a vacuum-cleaner salesman and a primary school teacher. I just managed to pick up a nice accent somewhere along the line. Whereas Markbeech is a village of gently aristocratic and well-connected families who can trace their lineage back hundreds of years. And when Paul and I moved there we were worried enough about the fact that we weren’t married - we didn’t dare let on that I used to be a bellydancer!

No, in those days I was known as a singer. I had actually given up dancing fifteen years previously and had concentrated all my artistic efforts on singing. I was a pretty good classically trained mezzo-soprano soloist, performing in oratorios and recitals, booked for weddings, funerals and all celebrations in between.

But as time went on Paul and I realised just how creative and unusual this tiny village is. Charles and Nicky would put on an opera every other year in the grounds of their ancestral home and Charles’ sister Joanna and her family were deeply involved in the opera and theatre worlds as well as running a gallery and library of historic photographs.

I’ve already mentioned our writer and photographer friends Andro and Marie-Lou, but Markbeech also boasts a wonderfully creative embroidery artist, two superb garden designers, a once-famous jeweller and a fine artist who paints gorgeous Pre-Raphaelite-style oil paintings and whose wife is portrayed, clad only in her long hair and a mermaid’s tail, on the sign for local pub, The Rock.

Ten years ago Paul, Andro, Marie-Lou and myself felt it was about time we harnessed some of the village creativity and decided to put on a cabaret between Christmas and New Year. We sent out an invitation to anyone who wanted to do a party piece and then Paul and Andro started writing amusing songs and monologues about the village and its characters. And I’m not being partisan when I say their comic writing is brilliant.

Embroidery artist Jacqi came up with the idea of the crazy hats as a way of ‘dressing’ the performers and the Christmas holiday was put aside for ten days of full-on rehearsals and preparations. In the meantime Nicky put together a menu and sent the ladies of Markbeech recipes and cooking instructions while Marie-Lou sourced curtains for the stage and decorations for the hall.

But what was I going to do? Everyone was used to hearing me sing. I was kind of a Markbeech staple act, wheeled out for Harvest Suppers or parties, singing anything from opera to Ivor Novello and usually accompanied by Charles on piano. But those who know me know I don’t like to rest on my laurels or take the easy route. I like to keep things moving, push my boundaries.

I knew it was time to dust off the sequins and come out to my neighbours and friends. But I have to tell you, the last time I bellydanced I was 26, slim and as fit as I was ever going to be. Now I was a 43 year old pre-menopausal matron with far too much weight and no dancing experience for 15 years.

I kept the secret until the very last minute. I even sang some silky cabaret numbers with Charles to put people off the scent. And as I changed in the loos I seriously wondered what on earth I thought I was doing, baring a very large amount of middle-aged flesh to the whole village!

In the event it was the older audience members who were the most open and enthusiastic in response to my unveiling; apparently some of the thirty year olds were horribly shocked. And honestly, it wasn’t the best bellydance I’ve ever done. I was very out of practice and my costume was pretty cheap and cheesy by the standards of what I wear these days. But I did it.

And it’s how it all began.

This is part of my life story, sections of which I'm publishing on my blog. You can read the next part here.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Welcome to my world

Come with me. Let me take your hand and we’ll walk together. Past the pond where the moorhens nest and the trees are so tall; past the doctor’s house and the big new house we’re really not sure about. Just a few yards along the blackberried lane and here we are at the heart of the village.

See how low the cottages sit, how tall and foolishly fancy the chimneys are. Look how proudly the year 1879 is carved on the front. Mind you, that’s not so old to boast about - at least not for round here. Hever, not so far away, has a castle with a proper drawbridge and moat. Where poor Anne Boleyn was first courted by Henry VIII all the way back in 1526.

But still these houses feel old. And quaint. The whole village feels quaint. See the old school house in golden stone with its dedication to Queen Victoria’s jubilee on the front? They say it’s haunted by the ghost of Miss Brown, the schoolmistress. Geraldine and Jamie swear things flew through the air unaided when they lived there. Lights turned themselves on and off and footsteps were heard when they were alone in the house.

Next door is Zandra’s tiny home. She moved into this little house after her husband Oscar died. Outrageous, marvellous Oscar, who, on his first day working at the Stock Exchange put half a client’s inheritance he’d been entrusted with on a single horse at Ascot. Which lost.

At the little crossroads, with the tree and the cast iron sign that my husband Paul designed for the millenium celebrations, is the pub, The Kentish Horse. Kentish, rather than ‘of Kent’, because it’s west of the river Medway and because things like that matter round here. The pub is low slung like the houses. Low and whitewashed and welcoming. An open fire in the winter and a magical view across the Weald from the willow shaded garden in summer.

What do we have next to the pub? The church of course. And here in the churchyard, arranged side by side are Mike Roberts, Robin DP and Peter Bellamy. Old friends lying together, just as they once drank together and brought their children up together in the village.

If we turn the corner, we’re in Cow Lane, tiny Cow Lane, winding its way down towards Horseshoe Green. Walking down Cow Lane always makes me feel nostalgic for some reason. Maybe it's the way the hedgerows, softened by honeysuckle and hawthorn, make the lane seem slightly misty. Or is it the way the lane slopes gently downwards towards a half hidden pond and then opens out to a glorious view across the county border into Sussex? Whatever the reason, I always feel that I'm being drawn backwards in time - a time of baskets and bonnets and East End families coming down for the hop picking.

Along Cow Lane, the vicarage is as grand as Victorian vicarages can ever be. Michael, the city trader, who lives there now with his warm-hearted wife Jayne and their family, rises at 5am to take the train from our tiny unmanned station up to the City. In the past, before the cuts, the station master would often call round the wives in the village: “Mrs Roberts? Just to let you know, the down train is delayed tonight, so don’t come to pick up Mr Roberts until 6.15.”

Before Michael, the vicarage was home to Jane - one of many redoubtable elderly women round here who worked for the Special Operations Executive during World War 2. Desperate to do her bit for the war effort, Ann managed to talk her way into this secret organisation of British spies by pretending she spoke Chinese.

Posted, aged 21, to Shanghai, her adventures included being billeted overnight in a Chinese brothel (her honour protected by a group of young British officers) and hiding thousands of pounds of government money in her handbag to exchange it on street corners at vastly inflated rates. This unofficial money laundering resulted in the Shanghai office of the SOE making a remarkable £77 million pounds profit - money which went to provide assistance to Allied prisoners of war.

As I continue along Cow Lane I always pause at Old Farm. To admire its crazily steep cat-slide roof, to peer through at the rich tangle of roses and clematis in the beautiful old garden but also to imagine my dear friends inside. Alexander upstairs writing - his mind soaring across centuries and oceans as he writes his stories of the founding of nations. His wife Silvia cooking in her big country kitchen or working on her beautiful food photographs.

This is the village I’ve lived in and loved for the past sixteen years. A tiny hamlet on the highest ridge of the beautiful High Weald of Kent. A hidden corner of what’s known as The Garden of England; rich in history, even richer in community. A place where we can still leave our doors unlocked and where the social life revolves around laughter-filled suppers with neighbours who have become true friends. Where Harvest Supper or the annual New Year’s Day booze-fuelled lunch are attended by almost everyone. Because they are great, joyous, heart-filling affairs.

I’ll never forget my first Parish lunch - an annual summer event held in Alexander and Silvia’s magical garden. In one corner the two hosts wrestled chickens and burgers over a bank of blazing barbecues; in the other, tables groaned with salads and puddings which had arrived in bowls and tupperware from every home in the village.

I stood at the top of the garden and looked out at the deep old-fashioned double borders, flanked by shaded lawns rolling down to a magnificent view over fields populated by lazy cattle.  Around 70 people sat chatting on the lawns; beer, wine or Pimms in one hand, a filled paper plate in the other. Everyone was talking, all were sitting with friends.

And as I gazed around I realised, with a real sense of wonder, that I knew more than 60 of these people well enough to sit down and be welcomed into their group. Paul and I had lived in this tiny village for less than a year, but already we knew over 60 people - had been invited to their homes, had shared food and laughter with them and could strike up conversation with any one of them at any time.

How different from urban Croydon where we had previously lived. Please don’t get me wrong, I love Croydon, indeed I’m a town girl at heart. But a quick ‘hiya, how are you doing’ is all that is expected in terms of neighbourliness there. And the strangest thing was that, after less than a year, this tiny place with its slightly eccentric characters and its long sense of history felt more like home than anywhere I had ever lived.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Partying with Dina

I know the question you’re all dying to ask… So what’s Dina like? You know, as a person…

Let’s face it, Dina is the biggest star in the bellydance firmament. She’s Lady Gaga, Madonna and Beyoncé rolled into one. The woman whose costuming and dance style changed bellydance forever. Who commands enormous fees and who has bellydancers screaming her name on the rare occasions that she performs in the West.

So really, she has every right to be the very biggest diva in a world where, frankly, a lot of diva behaviour goes on.

Of course Khaled and I were worried about what she’d be like. Would she be difficult? Would she be demanding? Would she expect us to run around her like servants.  We had both experienced behaviour like that from other big stars we’d helped bring to the UK in the past.

But I have to report, Dina is a total darling!

Firstly, she’s tiny. And seems slightly shy. She does that dip thing so many of us do when she gets a compliment or when she meets someone for the first time. She sort of dips down and slightly away from you, as if not wanting to make herself too big and important. And she has a lovely sweet, shy smile.

She also has a great sense of humour. The audience got a sense of that in the Saturday night show as she joked and backchatted with them between her dances. And backstage she was really joyful and funny. I mentioned in my last post the cartoon run she did from the wings, winding herself up and going off like Roadrunner. And we could see that she was having the time of her life in the wings watching the show. We had assumed she’d be ensconced in her dressing room until her time came to dance. But no, there she was with the rest of us backstage, laughing and zhagareeting and clapping along to our performances. 

But her sense of humour really shone at the Sunday evening dinner.

I have to tell you here and now - the Sunday evening event is billed as a relaxing dinner at the end of a busy festival. But in fact it always turns into the mother of all parties! Get together an international crowd of bellydancers who have been working hard all weekend (and going to bed early to be fresh for each morning’s workshops) and you’ll get the best party you’ve ever been to!

The restaurant had promised to clear a space for us to dance but when we arrived, the table that should have been moved away was still there. Occupied by two very elderly, very tipsy, ladies who had been there since lunchtime and were showing no sign of moving. We all got increasingly jittery as 8, then 9 o’clock came and went and still they stayed put.

Then they stood up and got their coats and you felt the tension in the restaurant tighten as we anticipated the moment we had been waiting for. Two waiters carried the table away and it all kicked off! Khaled immediately got up on his chair and started dancing. Aziza, not to be outdone was up on hers in an instant! It was the signal we all needed and the rest of the party went wild!

Then there was the remarkable moment when Dina got up to dance. We had put together a CD of mixed bellydance party music – Shaabi, pop, a few drum solos and some classic favourites. Suddenly Tahtil Shibbak came on and everyone looked to Dina. She got up from the table, pretended to elbow her way through the crowd and, memorably dressed in combat boots, trousers and a buttoned up cardigan, launched into a wonderful, lightly caricatured version of her signature dance. Laughing her head off all the way through.

As the party continued I think all of us were pinching ourselves to find ourselves dancing around in a circle with Dina.  But none of us had a more memorable time than Behiye Binnaz, a lovely, popular girl in the local bellydance community, who suddenly found herself dancing in the centre of the circle with Dina, Kazafy and Khaled pretending to be her backing dancers. They were playing the part of the Ghawazee dancers who often appear in old films behind stars like Samiya Gamal. As people realized what was going on, we all joined in and Behiye was surrounded by the whole international crowd, joyfully clapping along and calling out her name.

I can’t begin to tell you the respect I felt for Behiye in managing to hold it together, when most of us would have blushed and run away. In her modesty, she did try to escape a few times, but we wouldn’t let her. So she danced and danced and danced. With some of the greatest names in bellydance cheering her on.

And then when the track finished and she sat down, her teacher, Ann Hall, came over and showed her the video she had taken of the moment. And Behiya wept rich tears of joy and disbelief.

What else to tell you? Well apparently there’s a video somewhere of Dina climbing a ladder outside the restaurant, but I haven’t seen that yet. And there was the beautiful moment when I saw Aziza and Dina, two dancers I admire more than any in the world, exchange glances of friendship and understanding. And what about the Debke line which snaked around the restaurant, filled with some of the biggest dance stars in the world?

But the biggest, most scandalous news I can give you? Dina had three puddings!! Yes THREE! Ice-cream, cake and chocolate brownie with cream and yet more ice-cream.

How on earth does she stay that tiny?

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Gala Show with Dina! Backstage stories!

There are twenty minutes to go until curtain up. The audience is in the auditorium, the house lights are up and backstage all is slightly frenzied final preparations.

Dina’s hairdresser (Hipsinc’s very own Chantel) has just left, Orit has lost the friend who is meant to be helping her dress, Aziza is in her dressing room cutting a thigh-high slit into the skirt she just bought that afternoon to wear in her second set and I have only just started my makeup. Which usually takes around an hour to get right.

We get the final call. Five minutes to go until curtain up. Aziza and I reach the wings at the same time: “OMG Charlotte, do you have any hairspray?” I don’t. The closest dressing room is the boys’ – we’re not likely to find anything there. The next one is Dina. I start to run to Dina’s dressing room to see if she has any hairspray Aziza can borrow. But Khaled has overheard our conversation. “Don’t worry Aziza, Kazafy has hairspray!”

You heard it here first. Aziza was wearing Kazafy’s hairspray on stage at Shimmy in the City.

The show started and the audience went crazy! Watching a great show from the audience is wonderful. The performers are focusing all their attention on you and of course you see the dance from the direction you are meant to. But the audience may or may not be aware that off in the wings are all the other performers, having the time of their lives. Clapping and zhagareeting and cheering their co-performers on.

At one point in the second half, Dina turned to me and said: “I’m having a wonderful time! I’ve never done this in my life before – stood backstage with everyone and watched from the wings. It’s fantastic!”

And I have to tell you all, Dina had the time of her life in London this year. She loved the teaching but she absolutely adored performing for such an appreciative audience. She rarely travels to international festivals (I think I’m right in saying Shimmy in the City was only the third festival she had done outside Egypt) and it was amazing for her to dance for an audience that was so genuinely (and loudly) excited to see her.

All performers are in need of appreciation. We all fear we are not quite good enough. And the pure joy and pleasure on Dina’s face when she came off stage was a beautiful sight to behold.

So would you like a few more insider memories of backstage at Shimmy in the City?

Well, there was the fact that the haze machine broke down during the first half. The technical team managed to fix it during Prince Kayammer’s set, but there was a massive cloud of smoke for no obvious reason during his drum solo. I panicked when I saw all that haze because I knew it was meant for my own solo which followed.  It was as I feared. Prince’s bright, perky drum solo, loads of haze. My moody start, no haze. Such is life as a performer… 

I think you also need to know that only a minute before that moody start I was frantically ironing my veil. As I mentioned in my previous blog, when you are organising a show you never have enough time for your own preparation. During Prince Kayammer's drum solo I was in the room known as 'wardrobe' listening to every beat of it through the backstage loudspeakers and trying to work out if it sounded like the music was coming to an end. If it did, and the applause started, I would have to dash to the wings and go on stage with a half ironed veil. I made it with about 30 seconds to spare!

And I'm dying to tell you about the remarkable sprint that Dina did at the end of every set. She would gesture to the sound technician to start her next piece of music and then literally run through the wings and into her dressing room, where Elena Eleftheriou was all set to help her out of one costume and into the next. Just over a minute later she would reappear back in the wings and do a crazy cartoon preparation, winding herself up for the next run on to stage, laughing all the way!

There was also the mad run with Khaled through the main foyer and bar of the Fairfield Halls at about 9.30pm. Me wearing a galabaya, him wearing a very tight, brief two-piece costume and a large quantity of glitter and makeup. He needed to get from backstage to the back of the auditorium for his second entrance and that was the only way to go. We got some very funny looks I can tell you!

Then there was the moment we lost Orit on the TV screen backstage and didn’t know what to do. The backstage screen only shows the stage and about half of the auditorium and Orit had gone into the audience to dance. Towards the end of her set she went high up into the auditorium and we lost her. Then her music finished. And she didn’t reappear.

Where had she gone? Was she still in the audience or had she decided to go out of one of the doors in the auditorium to get backstage? We left it a couple of minutes to see if she would reappear, but nothing. No music, but still no Orit. What to do? Should we bring the house lights back down and start the next performance?

Thankfully, after what seemed like an age to us (but was probably only half a minute) she reappeared and we were able to wait for her to come back onto the stage. And we avoided the embarrassment of bringing the lights down on one of the world’s top stars!

One of the best times for me was the wonderful four minutes I spent watching my Project Lift Off girls perform. I had decided to choreograph a crazy country sha’abi piece for the group, which consisted of 19 dancers who had been regularly attending my courses for the past few months. It included several fast, complex step patterns, some great jokes, and a lot of characterization and theatricality.

I had frightened the life out of them in the first rehearsal, six weeks earlier, when I told them that we had to make sure the performance was really good, because not only would there be around 400 experienced international bellydancers in the audience, there would also be my Hollywood studio executive and the film writer. Oh and Dina, Aziza, Orit and Kazafy would probably be watching from the wings!

I’m not sure they totally believed the bit about Dina watching from the wings, and as one of the dancers posted on my Facebook page after the event, she almost passed out when she looked out into the wings and there was Dina watching!! There was also Khaled laughing his head off at their antics and me, bursting with pride at the quality and enthusiasm of their performance.

But possibly the memory I’ll cherish forever is of Khaled and I standing in the wings watching Dina perform. I was standing behind Khaled, my arms around him. He was clutching my hand. And with tears in our eyes we whispered to each other that this was the dream we had both held for years, but never quite imagined would really happen. And here it was. And it was perfect.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Shimmy in the City workshops and show preparation!

Gosh it's been a crazy, full-on weekend! Non-stop work, an amazing show, and all topped off by the craziest party night I've ever experienced!

Saturday began with dancers congregating from every corner of the world to take workshops with some of the very biggest names in bellydance. Aziza and Kazafy kicked off in the morning and then the big moment came at 12.30 when the doors opened for Dina's technique workshop - the hottest ticket in town!

I was hidden in the theatre, preparing the show for the whole day, but I peeked in at one point to see everyone on the floor, gazing in rapt attention as Dina explained some fine point of technique to them. The feedback afterwards was just amazing. People were knocked out by her generosity of spirit, her superb teaching skills and her incredible technique. Any fears about the ability of such an enormous star to teach disappeared in an instant.

My day continued non-stop. I had allocated time slots for each star to come and rehearse and talk to the technical crew about their lighting and sound requirements, so there was a steady stream of performers coming through. Then there were dressing rooms to organise, programmes to fold, water and snacks to be organised and music to be checked. And I also had to try and remember to get my own rehearsal and lighting tech in!

With me throughout the day (and also on Friday) was Gwyn, the film writer. This weekend was the start of her research for the script she is writing for the Hollywood studio and it was an amazing opportunity to see behind the scenes at a big event. Gwyn's a keen bellydancer herself so I lost her several times in the souk, but she managed to control herself to an extent!

One of the drawbacks of organising a show is that you never get enough time to prepare for your own performance. Each year I tell myself I'll shut myself in my dressing room at least an hour before the show and get my makeup and hair done properly. I never manage it! There's always some last minute crisis. This time I had exactly twenty minutes to get changed and made up.

The truth must be told! I went on stage with my toenail paint smudged, the roughest face paint I've ever done, no glitter and no false eyelashes!! Well, as long as the dance was OK hopefully no-one noticed!

And now it's checkout time at the hotel. Dina has just left and Aziza and I have to pack up and leave. Aziza is staying with me for a few days so we can both chill and recover from the weekend. I'll try to write more later (it'll be tomorrow at the latest) because I know you're dying to know what it was like backstage. I can tell you now - it was fabulous!

Friday, 21 September 2012

Shimmy in the City Day One!

Well, it's not often I admit defeat, but blogging throughout the day was way too ambitious given that I'm also running a pretty large international bellydance festival AND hosting the biggest star in the bellydance firmament! And I've got so many stories to tell you from today! Where to start?

Do I tell you about the wonderful atmosphere as dancers from Portugal, Russia, Japan, Singapore, Belgium, France and of course the UK, started to gather in the big ballroom of the Fairfield Halls? To compete, to perform, to support their friends, or just to watch and marvel.

Or should I try to describe the incredible colours of the souk? The fabulous costumes from the very best importers and costumiers the UK can boast.

Do I tell you about the moment that Dina, tiny, delicate and utterly beautiful, walked through the doors of the arrivals hall, wearing the biggest smile I've ever seen?

Or about the ripple that grew into a roar as she arrived at the hafla? And everyone got to their feet and clapped and cheered and zhagareeted until they could clap no more. Whilst Dina looked completely abashed and shy and adorable as she acknowledged our love and thanks for everything she has given our dance.

I could tell you about trying to cram four people (Khaled, me, Eman Zaki and Gwyn the film writer) into my small car along with eight enormous suitcases.

Or the surprise to see Dina's chauffeur appear in the hafla, in the guise of the leader of the band!

But it's late and I need to sleep. So I'll just leave you with a few pictures, including my favourite of the day - Eman and Khaled squashed together in the back of that car just after we had miraculously managed to fit everything in.

And here's the big moment we had been waiting for - Dina arriving at the airport.

 And finally, Aziza, Orit and I dancing at the hafla, just before Dina's arrival.

I'll try to write more tomorrow. I'll be spending the day in the theatre, preparing the show. And then at 7.30 the curtains will open on the biggest, most exciting bellydance show the UK has ever seen! See you all there!

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Thursday - pickup day

Well, it's 5.30am and the adrenaline has kicked in! For the organisers, Thursday is really day one of the festival - it's the day we start picking up the stars from the airports and we all begin congregating at the hotel.

Last night Aziza tweeted me a photo of her plane with the message 'I'm on my way!' I've just checked Aziza's flight and it's due in early - 6.50. So I'll drink my tea, jump in the shower and off I go! I warned her I'd take a photo of her coming through arrivals - she's the only person I know who can come off an overnight transatlantic flight looking adorable and I think the world needs to see the cruel truth!
So what did I tell you? Eight hours on a plane overnight from Canada, no sleep at all, and she looks great! Laughing too! We're now back at my place, drinking coffees, stroking my cats and catching up after what seems like years but in fact is just 18 months. So much to share - our time together never seems long enough.

And now it's 12.30 and Orit is due to land at Heathrow any minute, where the taxi I booked yesterday will be picking her up. Kazafy and Prince Kayammer are already here, so that just leaves Dina. Dina's big performance night in Cairo is Thursday so she'll be flying in on Friday. We'll be picking her up at around 2pm and bringing her to the hotel for a rest before joining us all for the Friday night hafla - which is surely going to be the classiest bop ever seen in bellydance circles!

I'll be updating my blog throughout the day for the next four days, so check back regularly or keep an eye on my Facebook updates for all the latest news!

8pm and the question on my mind is 'why does something I think will take an hour always take three?' And why do all the tiniest last minute jobs take an absolute age? Or do I just have to recognise that when you've got a dear friend with you that you only see once a year, you really do need to factor in a year's worth of catch up.

Anyway. We just arrived at the hotel and guess what? The hotel reception staff are Arabic and they're unbearably excited because they've learned that Dina is coming to stay! How cool is that?

And the hotel is chock full of gorgeous looking girls from every corner of the world that just have that bellydancer look about them - you know, long hair, great figure and an unmistakeable hint of last night's glitter and eyelash glue about them.

So, now I'm off to the bar and a chance to see who's up for a chat and a glass of wine. See you all tomorrow at the hafla!!

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Countdown Wednesday!

It's Wednesday, it's 7.30 in the evening and I'm shattered! But I thought it would be fun to give you an insight into a typical day in the run up to a big festival like Shimmy in the City. I'm nothing if not public spirited!

My day started, as has every day this week, with a head-to-head with the big whiteboard in my home office upstairs in my home in rural Kent. This morning it was covered with tasks. Now there is just one left. But after I've finished this blog entry it will be covered with jobs for tomorrow!

So what exactly did my list look like today? OK here goes...
  • Write, design and print out 500 programmes for the show.
  • Print out the running orders to go up on dressing room doors and backstage.
  • Type up and print out certificates for everyone entering the competitions.
  • Write and oversee the design of flyers advertising next year's festival (yes, we work that far in advance, and unfortunately I only received photos of the stars yesterday morning!)
  • Book a cab for Orit (she's coming on a different flight from that expected and I won't be able to pick her up).
  • Liaise with the technical team at the theatre on lighting and sound requirements.
  • Edit and publish to You Tube a rehearsal video for my Project Lift Off performers.
  • Book an extra show ticket for a guest of the studio executive for my Hollywood film
  • Organise a hire car because my own car suddenly sprung a tyre leak and the garage can't repair it until tomorrow. (I'm picking up Aziza from the airport at 7.30am and I need a car!)
  • Put in an application for a performance and teaching slot at MOVE IT show in March - I know I should have done it last week but, things always get left until the last minute at times like this!! 
  • In addition I had to shop for my husband for the weekend - he's just had a hip replacement so can't drive to the supermarket! Bad timing or what?
But enough of my mad work schedule! What you want is the insider griff from the festival. OK, just for you, I'll let you know a bit about the show programme...

Well, I can tell you that the show will be opened by the fabulous Aziza. I truly cannot think of a more exciting opening! There will be three sets, with Orit closing the first set with an entrance piece, followed by a heartfelt Tarab - the emotional style of musical interpretation she will be teaching in her Sunday workshop. A request has been sent to the lighting team for lots of smoke haze!

In between Kazafy will dance two duets plus a saidi stick solo. Khaled will be showcasing the most incredible costume I have ever seen, which he made himself (you will not believe this one - it's genius!) Prince Kayammer will dance an oriental solo, I'll be doing a seriously emotional number, (cue more smoke haze) and there will be lots of going into the audience and generally warming you up for the moment you've all been waiting for...

... a full set from Dina! Yes, 30-45 minutes of the queen of bellydance! On stage. In Croydon. Right in front of your very eyes!!

I can't imagine how amazing the atmosphere in the auditorium is going to be, but I reckon it's going to be noisy and it's going to be electric!

Now I'm off for my dinner, cooked by my titanium hipped husband. Then it's an early night in readiness for a 7am drive to Heathrow and Aziza!

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Behind the scenes at Shimmy in the City!!

Well, I've just sent out the last Shimmy in the City newsletter and now the fun really starts!! From tomorrow onwards I'll be blogging and tweeting my way through one of the most exciting weekends British bellydancing has ever seen!!

Khaled has just picked up Kazafy from Heathrow, I'll be giving you the show running order tomorrow, Aziza, Orit and Prince Kayammer arrive on Thursday and on Friday we go to pick up Dina and the festival swings into action!!

So bookmark this link and check back every day to get the latest gossip, fun and insider info from Shimmy in the City!

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

A darkness at the heart of bellydance

I was intending to write today about my joy on signing my contract with the film studio. But a Facebook posting from Lorna Gow, the only British dancer working professionally in Cairo today, has driven me to come clean about something I feel very strongly about, and which has affected me personally on a very profound level.

WARNING: This story details experiences of rape and may be traumatic for anyone who has been through such an experience themselves.

Lorna wrote:
“So very very sad… Landlady discovered I am a dancer and has thrown me out. I have spent the entire week packing and crying. I am totally gutted. This flat has been my home for nearly 6 years and I can't count how many fun times I have had here not to mention all the wonderful people from all over the world who have stayed here with me. Thank you all. Here's wishing for a more tolerant, accepting Egypt in the future....”

Most women who learn bellydancing in the West find it incredibly empowering. The community is largely supportive and accepting of all and women tell me again and again that bellydance has changed their lives. They say they have learned to accept themselves and their bodies for the first time since adulthood, that it has helped them overcome fears and phobias and that they have made wonderful new friends as well as discovering a rich culture and a beautiful art form.

But the dark alter ego of our dance is the attitude in its home country towards dancers. There’s a very strange dichotomy in Egyptian society. Egyptians love music and dancing and elevate famous dancers to the status of megastars, yet at the same time, they look down on them, viewing them as ‘haram’  or sinful. In films, bellydancers are portrayed as sexual temptresses, trying to lure the hero away from the heroine and to have a dancer in the family is a cause of terrible shame.

In Egypt, dancers are assumed to be prostitutes. And indeed some are. The reason most top dancers in Cairo are Westerners is that nice Egyptian girls do not dance in public. And certainly not in revealing clothing. The natural extension of this attitude is a belief that all women who dance in public are sluts.

And it’s not just dancers. There is a firm conviction amongst Arab men that all Western women are sexually rapacious – desperate for sex with any man, at any time of the day or night. It’s an attitude I discovered when I lived in the Middle East and which is confirmed by female friends who live out there now. And I experienced the horrible consequences of that attitude myself, the first time I visited Egypt.

I first visited Cairo in 1982, at the age of 24. I was living in the Gulf at the time and wanted to learn more about bellydance in its spiritual home. While I was there I was gang raped. I had met two young men who were also on holiday in Cairo and we had stopped off at their apartment before going on to a nightclub. There was suddenly a frantic knocking at the door from the concierge, who told us the police were in the building because they had learned that there was a girl in an apartment with two men. He insisted that what we were doing was illegal and we would be arrested. He suggested the boys went out the front way and he would take me down the back stairs to safety.

You can guess the rest. Half way down the stairs I was pushed into a side room where he raped me. He then brought men from other apartments in the building to have sex with me. I assume he charged them for the privilege. Although I wept and begged them to stop, only one did. One Japanese man at least had the decency to stop raping me in response to my pleas.  The Arab men just continued.

I would guess that these men assumed I was a prostitute because I was with two men. And that therefore I was fair game. In recent years, when I talked about it to friends who live in Cairo or who visit regularly, they told me that sort of thing doesn’t happen there. But I have a feeling that military rule may just have kept a lid on it. Because the public gang rape of Western women is becoming frighteningly prevalent in Egypt since the revolution.

In Tahrir Square on the very day of Mubarak’s resignation, a Western female reporter was violently gang raped with hundreds of men watching on. It happened to a French woman in January this year and then, just eight weeks ago a British female student was violently and publicly raped in Tahrir Square, even though she was with two Western male friends. Her friends were overcome and the woman was brutally sexually attacked by an enormous crowd of men. In public. In broad daylight. In the middle of the biggest square in Cairo.

And it has been going on for years much closer to home. In our very own bellydance community. Not gang rape as far as I’m aware, but the sexual abuse of Western dancers by certain Arab men who believe that all dancers are sluts and are asking for it.

I don’t actually blame these men for their attitudes – if you have been told something all your life, of course you will believe it. And this belief in the sexual rapaciousness of Western women, compounded by a belief that only bad women dance in public, is all pervasive and very, very strong.

In America last year there was a high profile scandal when the wife of Yousry Sharif – one of the best known and most respected Egyptian dance teachers in the world – accused him of years of physical and sexual abuse. And shockingly she said that he had always made it clear to her that he believed that all Western women who bellydance are sluts (yes, those same women who give him his living as a bellydance teacher). Furthermore, she challenged all women married to Arab men to acknowledge that their husbands despise Western women.

Now I know that it’s absolutely not true that all Arab men despise Western women. Wonderful men like Khaled Mahmoud and Hossam Ramzy respect us enormously and are good and kind and supportive to us and our community. They have been living in the UK for a long time and understand and respect our values. And I’m sure there are many other Arab men here who are just as respectful.

But I also know of shocking incidents in our own UK bellydance community. One of my closest friends was raped several years ago by a prominent member of the community. This man then told her friends, other dancers and even some potential employers that she had come on to him and begged him for sex. She was so traumatised by the event that for two years she wouldn’t leave the house alone. And I understand it has happened to others.

I know this is difficult stuff to talk about – to say that many Arab men think we are sluts for being Western AND bellydancers is not only tough and unpleasant, it also risks feeding the Islamophobia that is increasingly prevalent in our society.  But it is very important that we Western women understand that attitudes are different in other societies and our modern ways can be very easily misinterpreted by men who hold ugly, outdated beliefs about us.

And I believe passionately that women should be open and honest about the abuse that happens to us and fight prejudice with all our might. It’s only by bringing things out into the clear light of day that we can look at them honestly and attempt to change the world for the better.

Cairo is a wonderful, amazing, exciting city. I love it and I love the Egyptian people, despite what happened to me in the past. But if you are going there at the moment, please dress modestly and do everything you can to keep yourself safe. And ideally go with an organised group such as Kay Taylor’s Farida Adventures.

Most of all, behave with propriety and self respect, both here and abroad. And of course continue to enjoy all the beauty and pleasure that there is in bellydance.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

How I teach - a clarification

Someone wrote to me via Facebook the other day with reference to a statement in my previous post Challenging and Changing the Way I Teach that "for years I’ve only taught moves that are manageable for the least fit at any particular level." She was concerned that the way I had written the post gave the impression that I teach to the level of the least able students in class - the 'lowest common denominator' and that I was thereby not challenging the more able students enough. That's definitely not the case so I replied to her to explain and she suggested I write up a clarification in my blog so there was no confusion. So here goes...

Like most bellydance teachers, I have a very wide mix of ages and fitness levels in every class. When I started teaching in Croydon my oldest student was 84 (see Memories of Lilian in this blog) I also had a student aged 75 who had recently had two hip replacements and was walking with a stick and another who was, by her own admission, mortally obese.

It would not have been safe or appropriate to have taught deep stretches or a jazz-style warm up for those women. So, given that I was focused on creating a class that was accessible to all, rather than one aimed at preparing professional dancers for a career in bellydance, I tailored my teaching accordingly.

All my classes are challenging in terms of moves - at beginners level, learning upwards 8s or the Egyptian Walk is a challenge for anyone. At improver/intermediate level I bring in more complex step patterns, prop work and short choreographies as well as more challenging moves. And I make the class more aerobic to encourage greater fitness. If students get as far as my Croydon advanced class (and this is not for everyone - I have to be convinced that a student can manage it) then they get a far more demanding class with very challenging technique and choreographies. At this level I also introduce some physically demanding drills and latterly I've brought in half an hour of the dance conditioning that I teach in my London Project Lift Off class.

Oh and a clarification too for those people who have said they don't have time to teach body conditioning as they want to spend the time teaching dance. I agree it's hard if you only teach an hour's class, but early on I decided to make my Croydon advanced class one hour 20 minutes long, so with 30 minutes of conditioning we still have nearly an hour of bellydance technique etc. And my Project Lift Off classes are two hours - so 45 minutes of body conditioning gives us loads of time for everything else! However, it's fair to say that I currently go to a demanding jazz class at the Pineapple which is an hour long, of which 35 minutes is dance conditioning and only 25 minutes is taken up with 'dancing'. And it's packed to the gunnels every week with dancers at both student and pro level.

It's also fair to say that until recently even my Croydon advanced class was aimed at a fitness level that I felt everyone in that class could achieve. I was aware that several of the women were unable to get down on the floor (or as they say, they can get down, but they can't get up again!) So I didn't teach floor work and I also didn't do deep stretches or strength work such as press ups. But I've had such remarkable results with my London Project Lift Off classes that I decided I would go ahead and introduce those things to the Croydon class. The ladies that struggle with floor work do the moves standing up and everyone does as much of the body conditioning as they can cope with and then sits and laughs at the rest of us if they retire defeated at any point!

I should also point out (as someone also mentioned on Facebook) that I have decades of experience in this stuff. As well as having a degree in dance and education, I was one of the first teachers of stretch classes in London in the early 80s and I have been a dancer for five decades. I also have a decent understanding of anatomy and physiology as well as a good knowledge of safe exercise and a deep interest in current exercise practice, injury prevention and sports science. And, at a time when people can qualify to teach Zumba in a weekend, I care passionately about standards in teaching.

I hope this clears up any ambiguities in my previous post and please do feel free to comment on anything I write - I'm always really happy to answer questions or comments. Most people tend to comment via Facebook or by private message or email but it would be lovely to get them in the comments box below, so that the questions and answers are there for everyone to see and join the debate. A couple of people have said that they have had trouble adding comments here on the blog, so I've changed some of the settings and hopefully it will work now. Do let me know if you still have trouble posting here and I'll try to sort out what's going wrong.

But of course, do also feel free to comment via Facebook or email if you prefer!!

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Changing the way I teach

This Sunday was the final session in my Project Lift Off course before the summer break. As ever, we left the class exhausted, smelly and spent; our hair wringing wet against the napes of our necks, our muscles trembling. I like to think we also left with our adrenaline running high, our spirits lifted and our determination stronger than ever.

In Project Lift Off I’m trying to do no less than change the face of British bellydancing  (I’ve never been one for small challenges) and in our first, faltering steps I can see the beginnings of that metamorphosis. It’s not that I want to change bellydance itself - although within my personal remit is the desire to create a new style to live alongside existing ones - but to change the way ‘serious’ bellydancers view themselves.

I grew up as a dancer. From the age of five to twenty five dance was my central core - it was how I viewed myself, how I introduced myself. One of my earliest memories is of my first ballet lesson, aged five. I remember the large ornate, but slightly mottled, mirror in the classroom, I remember my pink ballet slippers, I remember struggling with the steps. But most of all I remember knowing that this was what I wanted to do. 

I lived, breathed and slept ballet throughout my childhood, until late adolescence when my ever-widening hips and chunky legs shattered all my dreams. But my disappointment led me to discover contemporary dance and, later, jazz - both of which are more accepting of larger body types. At college I studied Laban and contemporary dance and after graduating spent every day doing jazz and jazz-ballet classes in the nascent Pineapple Dance Centre in London’s Covent Garden. 

What all these dance forms have in common is a fierce discipline. The daily class is non-negotiable. Late arrival in class is frowned upon. The body is trained and stretched beyond normal limits and tiredness or sickness is just something to be worked through.

The daily jazz class at the Pineapple was taught by a fearsome black American. Entry was by invite only and those of us not yet admitted would press our noses against the misted up windows of the enormous studio, filled to bursting with dancers working their bodies to a state of exhaustion. Every so often one of us would pluck up the courage to ask if we could join. He’d look you up and down and usually say no. Then one day he might relent and you were in. But you could never rest on your laurels - one missed class you might get away with, three in a row and you were out, never to be allowed back. A holiday could be booked in advance, sickness wasn’t on the agenda.

I remember the joy and total fear I felt the day he said yes to me. It wasn’t yes, you can come tomorrow, it was yes, go and find a place at the back of class. I was finally in and I was working my body harder than it had ever been worked before. Forty-five minutes of press ups, sit ups, leg lifts, buttock clenches. Then half an hour of centre work - arms, legs, turns, jumps. And finally, for fifteen minutes at the end, the hardest, fastest, scariest jazz routine I had ever faced.

I started that class feeling out of place and not up to the job. My brain couldn’t compute the routine fast enough for my legs to keep up and my body felt weak and uncoordinated, despite years of dancing. But after a few months of daily class I was strong, supple and fast, able to manage a passable attempt at the routine and no longer feeling like I was about to die during the conditioning section.

The longest part of a typical jazz class isn’t the dancing, it’s the body conditioning, which prepares the body and gets it strong and flexible enough to dance. Ballet is the same - the barre and centre exercises form the majority of the work done. Actual dancing takes up only a short section at the very end of class. Contrast this to a bellydance class, where we typically do a short warm up and then we’re straight into ‘moves’.

This is largely because of hobbyist nature of our dance - most women who bellydance do it once a week for fun. They want to learn how to shimmy and undulate, not do the equivalent of a gym circuit for half the class. And I believe that my main job, for most of my students, is to give them a damn good time whilst learning to dance to wonderful music. After all, the vast majority of bellydance students have no desire or pretension to perform professionally.

But whether because of the hobbyist nature of the dance, or because many people view bellydance as a folk dance rather than an art form, even at the highest level we don’t treat ourselves like other dancers. We don’t work at strengthening our body, we don’t stretch it out. We might complain about our upper arms wobbling as we do a shoulder shimmy, but it doesn’t occur to us to do triceps dips in class to stop it happening.

And the truth is that for years I’ve only taught moves that are manageable for the least fit at any particular level. I have never expected even my most advanced students to do the splits or a deep backbend in class, because I know that few of their bodies are capable of either. And that goes for my own body too. But the result of my lack of dance conditioning in the intervening years between that daily jazz class and today, is that when I dance on stage I often find my legs don’t feel quite strong enough to carry me. And when I choreograph for even my most advanced students I give them what I know they are capable of, rather than what I would really love them to do.

So with Project Lift Off I decided that it was about time I started to work with bellydancers in the way teachers and choreographers work in other dance forms. To treat them like ‘proper’ dancers. To give them 45 minutes of tough, tough body conditioning in every class. To push them beyond what they think their limits are and then a bit further. To give them routines that their brains and their bodies can hardly handle. Because I know that that way we can all grow.

The truly remarkable thing for me personally, is the way my own body has responded. It’s been an inspiration and total revelation to me. I’m 54 years old and post-menopausal. I assumed I would have to direct the most demanding parts of the conditioning without doing it myself. I certainly didn’t expect my ageing body would get much stronger or particularly flexible. But it has responded exactly the way it did 35 years ago, and just as fast. Every muscle is building strength and length, I’m almost down in the splits and even my old creaking knees are responding to the demands I’m putting on them with a sigh of relief. In fact my whole body seems to be thanking me for making it work, as if that’s what it was made for.

And I’m by no means the oldest in my class. The wonderful, inspirational Ann Hall is challenging even the youngest in stamina, strength and flexibility. And I know she won’t mind me saying she’s racing towards her seventh decade.

And what of the impact on our dancing? Well, it’s early days yet - Project Lift Off has only been going a few months - but I’m already noticing significant improvements in everyone’s dancing, myself included. I’m noticing far greater flow and connection; stronger, more explosive movements as well as more beauty in grace and line; and much faster assimilation of complex routines from everyone.

We’re about to start on our next adventure - a big performance piece for the main Saturday night show at Shimmy in the City. It’s a challenge for me to choreograph for twenty dancers, most of whom have only been studying with me for a few months. But even more, to try and create something interesting and dynamic without putting impossible demands on the dancers at the stage they are right now. I've decided to create a lively sha’abi piece to a classic number which I hope will lift the audience’s hearts.

Wish us luck!

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Heather and Chantel - two remarkable women

This has been a happy and optimistic week. Full of positive signs for the future for two amazing, strong women who are central to my story.

On Tuesday I got a text from Heather. Croydon has agreed to finance cyber-surgery on her brain tumour (see previous post).  She's had to live through weeks of waiting to find out if funding would be approved and I couldn't imagine what it must have been like for her - to know that a decision on her life was being made around a committee table. But now she has a date for the surgery and it's just two weeks away.  There's no guarantee it will work, but it's another stage in her fight, another opportunity to cheat the death sentence she has faced for five years now.

For the first few years of her terminal cancer diagnosis I would devise new bellydance challenges for Heather to focus on. A duet, a solo, a semi-professional booking. Anything for her to look forward to and work towards. And now there's something unbelievably exciting to stay alive for. To walk up the red carpet at a world premiere. To sit in the darkness and laugh and weep alongside hundreds of others for whom her story is fresh and new. To see that story writ large on the big screen; beautiful, funny, heartbreaking.

The seemingly slow progress on the film (and all those in the know say it's moving remarkably fast) clashes horribly with each new danger to Heather. I think to myself: "Can she last another two years? Three?" I so want her to be alive to see it. I can't bear the thought of the film ending with a dedication to her memory. So I push and worry and send fervent prayers, in the hope that one day I'll sit in a dark cinema with her, holding her hand. Marvelling.

Holding my other hand will be Chantel. Beautiful, talented, hardworking Chantel - the first of my students to go professional and the girl I think of as my daughter. With the looks of a supermodel, the work ethic of a captain of industry and a voice to shatter glass at a hundred paces there's no-one quite like her.

Chantel has battled enormous adversity in her life. And her story is a beautiful and inspiring one. A tale of childhood suffering, of the hazards of adult love. And ultimately a tale of redemption through dance.

Her terrible taste in men has been legendary amongst her friends. But seven months ago she met a wonderful man. Thoughtful, caring and utterly gorgeous, he loves her with a passion. And on her birthday a few days ago he proposed. When she broke the news to me, when she showed me the beautiful diamond solitaire he had given her, I wept. I'm weeping now as I write this. Because nobody deserves love and happiness more than Chantel.

I had given up hope that she would find someone who could give her the support and the love that she gives others. She had given up hope too - had forsworn men, not trusting her own judgement. And then suddenly he arrived. Stable, loving, handsome and strong.

Cinderella has found her Prince. Love has triumphed. The story has a happy ending.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Heather's story

Heather had been coming to my classes for some time. A quiet woman in her mid forties with a habit of putting herself down, she stayed at the back of class and quietly got on with it. She wasn't a natural dancer - her emotional reticence showed in her movements, and she didn't have the easy grace and body awareness that makes dancing seem effortless for some.

But I found myself starting to notice Heather after a while. Her dogged persistence started to yield results: her movements became more accurate, and her natural reticence started to translate into a careful softness that drew you in and made you want to watch her.

We had a hafla coming up. A hafla is a bellydance party that typically includes performances and I wanted four students to do very short solos within a group number. I chose three obvious candidates and one who hadn't expected it. Heather.

I had thought it might be a special moment for her, but I had no idea how moving it would be for me. But as I watched her go slightly pink and then a bit weepy, I started to get an insight into how dance can have a profound effect on people's perceptions of themselves. Heather had never imagined that she was the kind of person who could dance, let alone perform. And a solo? That was beyond her imaginings. It was the sort of stuff that other people did, not her.

I went home with a full heart. Feeling very satisfied with life and how much good there is in the world.

Next week, we started to work on the dance. Heather and the others stayed late to learn their solos but I noticed that Heather kept holding her side as if she had a pain below her ribs. She carried on dancing though and I don't think the matter was discussed.

She was even quieter than usual the following week. And in the break I noticed a group of friends around her. I went over and sat down and then she told me. She'd gone to her doctor about the pain in her side and hospital scans had disclosed cancer. Bad cancer. The sort of cancer they couldn't cure.

She'd demanded to know how long she had left. They said maybe four months, maximum eighteen. She cried out that she had teenage children. She'd never see them grow up, never see them married, never see her grandchildren.

The hafla was just three months away. Heather might not see that hafla. Might never get her chance to perform. The speed with which the terror of death had hit her, suddenly hit us. And brought home the horror of what she was facing.

We all hugged her and cried and hugged some more. And she looked at me and said: 'I'm going to do that dance, whatever happens. I won't have any hair, and I may not be any good but I'm going to dance even if it's in a wheelchair.'

The resolve with which Heather said it sparked a symmetrical resolve in me. I'd make damn sure that once the show was over, I'd be giving her another challenge. Come hell or high water, we'd have some kind of a performance every six months. Just far enough away for her to aim at but not so far she thought she mightn't make it.

The hafla was a success. Heather danced with a proud lift of her head. No-one outside her own class knew that her new hairdo was, in fact, a wig. And I still have the card saying: 'Thank you for making me believe I could dance.'

It was her birthday that night and after she left the stage, laden down with her birthday cake, I announced that we would be doing a big public show in six months time. Later I mentioned to Heather that I'd like her to dance a duet in that show. And left before she could argue with me.

By this time Heather was undertaking regular chemotherapy sessions at the Royal Marsden cancer hospital. Each time she'd come straight to class from her chemotherapy session. Very occasionally the chemo would make her too sick to attend, but those times were rare.

The class, and the people in it, clearly gave her strength and support. Apart from her children, I think they were what kept her going through the dark days. She never complained, never sat out, never gave in to her illness.

Her dancing improved and improved. She earned her place dancing that duet. I paired her with Janine, another woman in her forties with no dance background, but who was becoming a beautiful dancer. The two of them shared similar body types, similar colouring and the same calm style threaded with a core of steel.

In our big public show they danced a traditional stick dance from Luxor. Performing in the style of the Ma'alima, the village boss woman, each wielded a long staff; alternately thumping the floor, then twirling it high.

The calm power Heather displayed in that performance mirrored that with which she was conducting her life. We all felt the same awe watching her dancing. And watching her navigate the most frightening thing anyone can experience, with her head held high.

Thumping the ground and refusing to give in.

People often ask me what happened to Heather. Remarkably she is still alive, five years later. Advances in cancer treatment are keeping up with her illness and although she says 'one day this thing will kill me' it hasn't got her yet.

Heather's story will be a central one in the film and she can't quite believe that one day she might be portrayed by a famous actress - it's the most exciting thing she could ever imagine. The only request she has made is that she isn't portrayed as 'the sick one' - an object of pity. And we have already made steps to ensure that won't happen (several Hollywood writers wanted to do just that, but were turned down.)

I've kept Heather updated every step of the way along the film's journey. Always keeping her involved, always ensuring she has something exciting to look forward to in the future.

And then in January she went quiet. She stopped answering her phone, stopped responding to my texts. I feared the worst and I wasn't far wrong.

She's been diagnosed with a brain tumour. It's in the cerebellum and is impossible to operate on. She heard last week that she may be able to have a cyber-surgery on it - a futuristic sounding operation which may work. But of course it's expensive. She has to wait six weeks to hear if Croydon will fund the operation. But in this era of cutbacks I'm really concerned for her. If nothing else, I just want so much for her to be alive when the film comes out. To join me in walking along the red carpet to the premiere. To see herself immortalised on celluloid.

Heather is the reason why on Sunday I will be leading a group of bellydancers around the 5 kilometre route of Cancer Research's Race for Life in Lloyds Park, Croydon. Every year I get up at the crack of dawn for several Sundays in a row to teach thousands of women to bellydance as part of the warm up for the Races for Life in several London locations. I always do it for Heather (and for my husband Paul, who also had cancer, and survived.)

I'm telling you this story now because I'd like to ask you to help the work of Cancer Research by donating towards my fundraising for Race for Life. I know we can't even begin to raise the funds that would be necessary to enable Heather to have that life-saving surgery, but we can at least help towards the work of Cancer Research - a charity that receives no government funding (everything comes from donations) but that has made a major impact in the fight against cancer. So many people, like Heather, are surviving this frightening disease and living much longer than anyone thought possible even five years ago, because of the work of organisations such as Cancer Research.

I have set up a Just Giving page, which makes it very easy to donate. To get to it, just click here. Even the tiniest amount will make a difference - as Cancer Research says: 'Together we CAN fight cancer.'

Thank you so much for reading.

Heather's name has been changed in this story (although many of you know her and know who I am writing about.)

Saturday, 7 July 2012

A film of my life story!! How did I get to this point?

I promised to answer any questions about the film in this blog and last week Manon Claus from the Netherlands asked how much involvement I would have in the making of the film and whether or not I would have any control over the finished product. I thought the answer would give me an opportunity to explain a bit about what happened in the run up to the present day. How did I actually get to the stage of having a Hollywood film company want to make a film of my life story?
Well, the story is based on a large body of writing I’ve done over the past ten years. My husband Paul, and Andro, a very dear friend of ours who is a writer, always loved the stories I would tell them of my students and bellydance friends. They found them inspiring, funny and uplifting. Sometimes they found them heartbreaking. They nagged me for years to write the stories down.
I had always believed that the tale of teaching the ladies in my tiny Kentish village to bellydance would make an amazing film, and I’ve worried away for years about how I might make it happen. Writing the stories down would at least give me something to work from in the future, so I followed their advice. I kept the stories private – only showing them to Paul and Andro, who were always supportive and encouraging.
Two years ago a local sculptor who had seen my first-ever show in our little local town, introduced me to an independent film producer, who agreed that the story would indeed make an amazing film. The sculptor put together a small production team (which included me and the producer) and we started to work together. 
In the first meeting the other members of the team were very excited and, in their enthusiasm, started to make up all sorts of fanciful stories about me and my students. I came home seriously concerned that the story would go off on a crazy tangent, so Paul suggested I take a few weeks off teaching and write down everything that had happened to me – from the first moment I saw a bellydancer in 1981, right up to the present day. It was long, hard work, but at the end of the process I had a 13,000 word document which told my story and that of my students in my own words. I copyrighted it, signed it, sealed it and posted it to myself by recorded delivery (to give me a confirmed, dated record of my story).
I then sent a copy off to the producer (alongside the essays I had written) who loved it and said there was enough material in there for more than one film and that it would also make an amazing West End show. Everyone was terribly excited and convinced they had a potential hit on their hands, but as the months went by I became increasingly unhappy. I found the other members of the team overbearing and often felt bullied (not an easy thing to do to me!) 
The original idea was that the producer would introduce us to a film company to make the film, but it soon became clear that the team members wanted to do everything themselves – casting, choosing the director, raising the finance, even undertaking the advertising and publicity. I felt that they were all playing at being film makers and I just couldn’t see the project ever actually seeing the light of day. I was increasingly convinced that, even if it did get made, it would disappear without trace. So, when the writer we hired to write the screenplay had to pull out at the last minute, I decided to take matters into my own hands. 
A film script has two stages. A story outline – called a treatment, and a working script. I took it upon myself to write the treatment and on holiday in Turkey last July I did just that. And that was when the magic started to happen (see blog post here)
I want to explain what happened next at a later date, when I can name the film company (it’s a beautiful, magical sequence of events) so I won’t go into any detail here. But just to say, I ended up with my story being taken on by one of Hollywood’s biggest and most famous film studios.
And here is where the answer to Manon’s question comes in. The first team was very collaborative and democratic (albeit overbearing at times). Everyone was going to have an equal stake in the production company, any profits would be shared between us and we would all have a say in the script, choice of director, casting, everything.  
Now that I’m signing with a big studio I have far less say in the process. I don’t mind that too much. My attitude is, these guys make hit movies for a living - they know what works and what audiences will pay to go and watch. However, what they don’t know is the bellydance world. They don’t know how to go about choosing music and they don’t know where to buy bellydance costumes. They don’t know sha’abi from saidi, Bella from Eman or a hipdrop from a camel! Which is where I will come in.
My initial role will be twofold. As the story is based on my life and that of my students the writer will need to spend a lot of time with me in person and by phone and email. She’ll be coming to my classes, spending time in my village and meeting the people who fill my life. Of course, she will need to fictionalise certain things (this is a feature film, not a documentary) so some characters will undoubtedly be composites and some stories will be wholly or partly made up. And I really don’t want to interfere in that process – as I said earlier, they are the professionals. Of course, if there is something that is just plain wrong then I’ll say so. But I won’t have final say on the storyline. And neither do I want it.
Likewise, the studio chose the writer and the producer. I wasn’t involved in that decision, although I am thrilled with the choices. Together with the producer, they will choose the director and the cast. I’m sure if I have a strong desire for a certain actress to play me or a central character, I can put that view forward and it will be considered, but I certainly won’t have the right to demand anything. Locations and so on will be chosen by the director.
If and when we get to the point of filming (and, with a lot of luck and a fair wind, it might be this time next year) I’ve been promised I’ll be retained to do the choreography, teach the actresses to bellydance and advise on music and costuming. Those are the elements where I believe I can really bring something to the table. But as for the rest of it, I have to be prepared to sit back and let the professionals take over. 
I don’t know how hard that will be until I’m going through the process. I’m sure there will be many private tears shed on Paul’s shoulder. But as long as the final result is a great success and gives me, my team and the world of bellydance an exciting time and a higher profile in the future then I’ll be very happy.