Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Thrills... and spills on our journey to a new bellydance!

I’ve been back from holiday for a just over a week now but already the sunshine and the simplicity of life in northern Provence seem very far away. I’m left with some lovely memories and a greatly expanded waistline from relaxing lunches in the ancient towns and villages of a beautiful part of France. We were feasting on salty black olives from Nyons, light young wine from the local vineyards of the Cotes du Rhone and cool goats cheeses and bright salads from the bustling farmers markets of the area. And yes, my shimmies now have a life of their own!

But I’m really glad to be back. Holidays are wonderful but my ‘real’ life is so rich, varied and full of exciting possibilities that I’m never that happy putting my life on hold, although I do relish the opportunity of a proper rest.

Most of all I’m so glad to be back to work with my new dance company on the preparations for our show in January, where we will be showcasing the new style of bellydance we are creating together. (Save the date: 25/26th January at the Cockpit!) This month is particularly exciting because Ozgen is back from his travels - he was touring in Australia with One Day in Istanbul and then spent a month fulfilling his national service in the army.

It’s marvelous to be working with a male dancer, especially one as superb as Ozgen – it gives a completely new dynamic to the group. And Ozgen’s style is perfect for the work we are doing – dramatic, contemporary and full of exciting footwork and spins.

We’ve been working on the new style since February. Each Friday I hire a studio at Danceworks in London and we work hard from 2pm until 5.30. We begin with an hour and a half class, starting with a warm up, before going on to bellydance drills, floorwork and strength and flexibility conditioning work. The next 40 minutes is a ballet-based class, including barre work, spins, jumps and some challenging leaps!

Then we have two hours of choreography development and rehearsal. Sometimes this involves me teaching a section of choreography I’ve already prepared for everyone to do in unison, but more often than not I’ve got the outline ideas, but either I need to see them working on the dancers’ bodies, or we have to work out travelling floor patterns for the dancers to weave in and out of each other around the stage.

As the company director I have the challenge too of trying to create a shared movement style amongst dancers with very different backgrounds, whilst still honouring their individual dance personalities. A ballet, jazz or contemporary choreographer knows that all her dancers have had pretty much identical training from a very early age, so is able to create a very uniform look. But bellydancers don’t have such rigorous early training and are encouraged to develop their own dance identity. I need to try to get everyone looking very coherent in the unison sections but don’t want to end up squashing their individuality.

We’re gradually becoming very pleased with what we’re doing. It’s challenging and I know they were all very sore and exhausted when we first started out back in the spring, but all the work is really paying off. I remember there were times when we were first working together, I’d ask them to do something particularly demanding and they’d look at me as if to say, “you can’t be serious!”  But now they’re pushing me to do tougher and tougher stuff and I love to see them working together – trying out exciting new ways of getting down onto the floor (and up again!) creating amazing shapes and difficult dance tricks, sharing and learning so much from each other.

Last week was exciting but scary when we started working on lifts with Ozgen – something I’ve been wanting to do for ages. Without giving too much away, I wanted to create the sense of an explosion in one of our dances, and a big lift was part of that. Bellydancers don’t usually do lifts (we do so little partner work) so this was very new for most of us, although Ozgen and Caasi had both done them in the past.

We were all trying to find ways for Itziar to climb up Ozgen, getting up onto his shoulders and then spiralling back down again. She tried coming up from the front, from behind, from knee to waist to shoulder, from a chair, everything. But nothing was creating the explosive effect I was looking for.

And then Agata suggested she (Agata) could stand behind Ozgen and do a handstand into a backflip, ending up with her ankles round his neck. She asked Ozgen to use his core muscles to jerk forwards a little and at the same time she would use hers to pull herself upright from her handstand to end up sitting high on his shoulders.

It was daring and brave. I couldn’t believe Agata had even suggested it – the very idea seemed terrifying to me. But both of them were game and off they went. It took two or three goes before they got the co-ordination right but when they made it, it looked amazing! It was so fast and exciting.

They tried a couple more times and everything worked smoothly so it was time to try and incorporate it into the dance with the music playing. I was excited and very tense in the build up to the big moment, Chantel, Caasi and Itziar were in the front of the group, Ozgen at the back, with Agata hidden behind.  The music slowly built to a climax and on the count of seven Agata did her handstand, on eight Ozgen leaned forward and Agata flipped herself up onto her shoulders.

And then the pair of them crashed to the floor! Ozgen on top of Agata, Agata in a heap underneath.

Agata had fallen from six feet high - a real shock to us all. Everyone rushed over to them. Ozgen was mortified and kept apologizing and Agata was silent at first, I thought she was going to cry. But then she shook her head and said she was fine, not to worry. Of course we did worry – a lot. Her shoulders were scraped and were clearly going to be bruised and she had broken a nail. Agata is a high profile burlesque dancer (check out Ms Veronique DeVine on Facebook) so bruises and broken nails are not good news for her performance work.

But she was amazing. Once she’d got over the shock, she insisted it was all part of the job and she was game to try it all over again – just not immediately!!

So, this Friday we’ll back at Danceworks and giving it another go. But this time I’ll be hiring studio 1, upstairs from our usual studio. Why?

Studio 1 has mattresses!

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Shimmy in the City crisis: the background

It's been over a month since I last wrote here. There's been too much going on and, as many of you know, I've had a very difficult time indeed...

Firstly, and very sadly, I never got to China. Two days before I was meant to fly out my husband Paul suffered a mini-stroke and lost partial sight in one eye. So, instead of living it up in Shanghai, I spent two weeks in and out of various hospitals as he underwent a barrage of tests. The obvious fear was that he might have a full stroke so he had brain scans, artery scans, blood tests, and lots and lots of scans of his eyes.

Thankfully the news is good - his arteries are clear, the brain scan was fine and his blood tests were pretty good. But he will be checked up every few weeks for a while and he'll never completely regain that section of his eyesight. As a graphic designer and photographer, Paul's eyesight is possibly his most important asset, so it's been a very scary time for us.

Whilst this was going on I was also getting concerned by the number of telephone calls I was receiving from Embassies around the world in relation to people coming to Shimmy in the City (the international festival I run with Khaled Mahmoud). I'm a registered sponsor with the UK Border Agency's Points Based immigration system which enables me to bring dancers here on temporary contracts for events such as this. It was a long and complex road gaining this status, but it should mean that it's a smooth and easy process bringing people to the UK for festivals and workshops.

Not this year! It started with telephone calls from British Embassy officials in Moscow about dancers who were just coming on visiting visas to attend workshops at Shimmy in the City. I became even more concerned when I had a long and very challenging phone call from the British Embassy in Abu Dhabi about the costumier Hanan. The official wanted to know where I'd met her, who I'd been with when I first met her, how long I'd known her, how many children she had, what her husband did and a lot more besides. It was very unnerving. But why Abu Dhabi? Hanan had applied for her visa in Cairo.

A few weeks previously Tito, Aziza and Raqia Hassan had gone to pick up their visas from the British Embassy in Cairo. They had applied several months in advance because they are experienced enough to know how important it is to leave nothing to chance. They were given a date to pick up their visas but when they got there the Embassy was closed due to the fighting in Cairo. They were told to come back a month later and that all visas would now be processed in Abu Dhabi.

Meanwhile in Moscow, Nour and Yasser were being sent back time and time again to get more and more detailed personal information in support of their visa application. As it got closer to the date everyone became increasingly concerned. Finally, last Tuesday we were given the news. No Yasser or Nour for our festival.

It was a blow, but one we could deal with. Khaled and I quickly rearranged the programme - speaking to the other stars, agreeing who could cover which workshop, re-jigging the show. By the time we had finished we were pretty sure everything would be OK.

And then two days later, devastating news came like a body blow. Raqia and Aziza had also been refused. Only Tito was allowed into the country.

It was an unbelievable shock and one we knew the festival couldn't sustain. We had invited five stars, only one was going to be there. We toyed briefly with the idea of trying to bring in other stars who wouldn't need visas, but we only had one week to try and rescue everything. And we knew that people who had paid good money for workshops with Raqia, Aziza or Nour would not take kindly to being given substitutes, no matter how good.

We knew we had to cancel the whole festival.

I'll leave you to imagine our feelings. A whole year of hard work and dreams had exploded in our faces. Not only that, but we were going to let down hundreds of people - most of them friends. And of course we would lose a lot of money. But it wasn't just us. Other local businesses - the Fairfield Halls, the Croydon Park Hotel, Aqua Brasserie would all lose thousands of pounds. Not to mention our dear friend Kay Taylor, who had just received an advance consignment of 13 boxes of Hanan's fabulous designer costumes in time for the, now cancelled, festival!

Most of all, we were distressed to know that there would be dancers coming from all over the world - from as far away as Korea and Peru - who wouldn't be able to cancel their flights.

It was Khaled who came up with the beautiful Plan B. He immediately said he and his dear friend Kazafy (who had planned on coming over just to be with us and help out) would put on free workshops on the Saturday for anyone who couldn't cancel their flight. And, movingly, when he phoned Tito to tell him the festival had been cancelled, Tito insisted he would come anyway, and would also teach a free workshop for us.

The generosity of these boys is unbelievable. The friendship they share and their readiness to help each other out is remarkable.

Plan B grew and became two days of free workshops for anyone who had already booked for a workshop at Shimmy in the City. An informal Saturday night hafla was added, and then Kay said she would travel all the way from Newcastle to bring us a souk of Hanan's beautiful costumes. So now we will have a mini festival with an atmosphere, I'm sure, like nothing ever experienced before. The goodwill and kindness shown to Khaled and I in the past week has been so moving, so inspiring. I can't tell you how grateful we are.

However, I won't be there.

It's been a really hard decision to make and I feel very emotional about it. But Paul and I had already planned to take a week's holiday after Shimmy in the City. Pressure of work has meant that we haven't had a holiday for two years and this was going to be a very well-earned rest. When we first realised Shimmy in the City had to be cancelled, Paul said: "Let's go away early, put this all behind us - the stroke, the endless visits to hospital, the cancellation of the China trip, and now the shock of Shimmy in the City. We'll put a line under this past month and come back in October happy and positive about the future."

So that's what we'll do. Khaled understands - he's been worried about Paul too. And there's little I can do to help at the festival itself - it will all be done before the weekend and it's very much the boys' show, as I can't perform at the moment (I had a knee operation recently).

There's another reason too. Several months ago I had to tell Khaled the difficult news that I couldn't continue with Shimmy in the City next year, because my other commitments have just become too much for me. Next year will be even busier and I don't want to end up letting him down.

Khaled will still go ahead with Shimmy in the City next year, but I won't be his partner in putting it together.  So it feels right somehow that he takes centre stage on Saturday. He's an amazing man and together with Tito and Kazafy (ably supported by Sheila and Kay) he'll give everyone a fantastic time.

I've had a wonderful few years working with Khaled on Shimmy in the City. He's the most remarkable person and a fantastic business partner. We think alike on so many things and, no matter what's happened, we've always been able to laugh together. I love him very much and I know our friendship will never end.

I wish everyone a fabulous time this weekend and if you want to see the details of the revised programme take a look at the website here.

The wonderful Galit Mersand will be covering my classes while I'm away and she'll give everyone a great time too. And I look forward to coming back refreshed and raring to go!

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Taking UK bellydance to China!

Exciting news! I’m off to China next month to represent UK bellydance!

Yes, in three weeks time I’ll be experiencing the biggest bellydance festival in China. And in China they certainly do things big!!  The lineup is awesome - stellar names from Egypt, America and Turkey: Fifi Abdou, Rachel Brice, Didem and yes, a lot more. And they’ve invited representatives from every country, so there will be a truly international crowd there, making the most of the gala shows, haflas, workshops and bazaars. Plus of course the unparalleled opportunity for global bellydance networking.

It’s that last element that really made my mind up for me. To be honest, stellar line ups are what I do in my own festival (Shimmy in the City). Last year Dina, Aziza of Montreal, Orit and Gazafy; this year Raqia Hassan, Tito, Aziza of Cairo and Nour. So it’s not that I’m blasé about seeing great artists perform, it’s just that there’s no reason for me to travel five thousand miles for the pleasure.

No, the big thing for me is the opportunity to discuss current trends in bellydance with an international crowd. And in an environment where I’m not running around organising everything. Most excitingly for me, I’ll not only be performing in one of the gala shows, I’ll be giving a talk on my new bellydance style.

And my new bellydance style is what is exciting me beyond measure right now!

The brief I gave myself was to come up with a style that could help bellydance cross over to the general public. You can read my reasoning here. And I’ve spent the last six months working experimentally with my truly marvellous new company of dancers to create something exciting and inspiring. It needed to have its roots firmly in traditional bellydance - I’m not a fusion dancer and I have no desire to create a fusion style. I needed to see all the core bellydance vocabulary in there - to my mind it’s not bellydance if it doesn’t have camels, snake arms, eights or shimmies. But I wanted something else too - I wanted fire, drama, emotion and maybe even some storytelling. And I wanted my dancers to leap and soar and spin. To go beyond our usual bellydance boundaries, both emotionally and physically.

Thankfully, in my company I have five dancers who are wonderfully strong and flexible - not only bodily but in their open mindedness and their enthusiasm to embrace every challenge I throw at them. Agata, Caasi, Chantel, Itziar and Maelle are five of the very best dancers in London right now and I’m incredibly honoured and thrilled that they’re helping me realise my vision.

But it’s not just about amazing performance dance - about excellence on stage - I also wanted to create something that every bellydance student could enjoy. As I say in my earlier blog posting, I’ve struggled for years with the concept of authenticity - trying (and ultimately failing) to be more Egyptian, when honestly I’m as English as they come. I increasingly felt that, in the process of trying to be something I was not, I was losing the truth of myself as an artist. And I knew I couldn't be the only dancer who wanted to express herself through bellydance without trying to access a middle eastern personality.

I believe that traditional bellydance has something very special to give and I wanted to capture that in a new way, a way that would feel more Westernised (and therefore possibly more natural to a Western dance student) without losing the essential nature of bellydance. And, most gratifyingly, as I started to develop my new style and introduce elements of it into my classes, my students at all levels seemed excited and inspired by some of the things I was teaching them and the choreographies I was creating.

So where am I now? So far, with my company of dancers we’ve created a very contemporary theatrical style that’s looking amazing, I’ve gone a little way towards developing an oriental style that feels right, and now I’m working with a group of my London advanced students on an upbeat pop number. I’m showcasing the new style at the Saturday night gala show at Shimmy in the City in a theatrical piece performed by my new company, and the aforementioned pop number by my student group.

I ought to be intimidated by the fact that I’ll be showcasing this new style in front of none other than Raqia Hassan, who created the Modern Cairo style which took the bellydance world by storm more than a decade ago. But I know the Egyptians well enough to know how open minded they are and how generously they embrace new ideas in bellydance. And to be honest, it’s the Egyptians who have been most enthusiastic every time I’ve performed something a little bit different in the past.

I’ll never forget being in a question and answer session in a workshop with Fifi Abdou. Someone asked her what she thought of tribal fusion, with the clear inference that the questioner disliked the style herself and was expecting Fifi to be negative about it too.

“I love it” said Fifi. “I think it’s wonderful that dancers around the world are taking bellydance and developing it. It’s amazing to us that you love bellydance so much that you want to make it your own.” I tell you, Fifi had an even firmer grip on my heart from that moment on.

I’m so grateful to all my dancers who are on this journey with me and who are being so open and enthusiastic. If you’re coming to the Saturday show at Shimmy in the City I hope you enjoy their performances and I’ll be teaching a workshop in the style on Sunday from 12.30-3pm. If you’d like to try it out for yourself, you can check out the details and book for the workshop here.

I can’t wait!

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Remarkable people, a hidden, magical place

He was a small man. Neat, elderly and charming. Making polite but engaging conversation, asking me about myself, passing the butter and filling up my glass whenever he noticed it getting low. It was summer and the subject soon moved onto holidays and thence to favourite destinations. I told him about the wonderful holiday Paul and I had enjoyed in Sri Lanka a few years previously.

“Ahh, Sri Lanka! I love Sri Lanka.” He told me it was his favourite place and went on to ask me where we’d been, and to talk knowledgeably about the various towns and historic sites we’d visited. He spoke of the country with such affection I asked him how often he’d been there.

“Well,  I lived in Sri Lanka for quite a while. It was known as Ceylon in those days - when it was still part of the British Empire.”

“Really? What did you do when you were out there?”

“I ran it.”

I’d never met anyone like my new neighbours. Growing up in a provincial town and born into a fairly poor family with a proudly working class father and a middle class but politically left wing mother, the well-bred, well connected upper classes were another race to me. A race I knew I’d never meet.

Until Paul and I decided to move into the country and found ourselves in the middle of the most remarkable community I could ever have imagined.

Oh it’s true that sometimes I feel my lack of public school education. And yes, at times I’m jealous of the privileges enjoyed by the children of my friends and neighbours - privileges which will ensure them easy entrance to Oxbridge and thence to the City and a life of wealth. But this place isn’t really about privilege, although we know we are all privileged in some way. No, it’s about characters. The tiniest of hamlets, this place is chock full of real characters - artistic, unusual and, we’d all agree, often a little eccentric.

First there are the female ex-spies, of which there are more than one. Members of the undercover organisation known as SOE (Special Operations Executive) which carried out espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance missions during the Second World War, the elderly women who now sit genteelly in church, or man the cake stall at the village fete, once undertook missions of such daring and danger they could have come straight from a Boys Own annual.

Whilst Jane in the vicarage was money laundering for the war effort in Shanghai (see here), Celia nearby was running agents into occupied Norway. Dropping Allied undercover agents and radio operatives behind enemy lines, she also helped co-ordinate the raid to sabotage the Norwegian heavy water plant, thereby halting German development of nuclear weapons.

Celia knows how privileged she has been. Born into a wealthy family in one of London’s great squares, she grew up with a butler and a ladies maid and, so grand and so well-connected was her family that Queen Mary came to tea on occasion. Then, some time after Her Majesty had left, a footman would appear on the doorstep with a small collection of the family’s silver teaspoons that “must have been mislaid.” Queen Mary being famous not only for her hats, but for her kleptomania...

Later Celia married David, the eldest son of a wealthy family, who sold the family business and instead raised chickens - very successfully mind you - but not before his photograph had appeared on the front page of The Times in the freezing winter of 1963. Published as an example of true English spirit, it showed David, surrounded by deep drifts of snow, driving his open-topped Aston Martin through country lanes on his way into London. The heavy snow falls and bitter temperatures of that winter had made no difference to David. No matter the weather, he would never dream of putting the roof up on the car.

Kathleen is my closest neighbour and yet another indomitable character. Born into an old and well-connected family, she met her then husband when she was one of the very last court debutantes and he a dashing ‘deb’s delight’. Their honeymoon was spent driving an open topped Jaguar from the top to the tail of Africa - a remarkable adventure for a young girl in those days so soon after the war.

But for real Boys Own stories of derring do, there’s no-one to beat Roland. Whether it’s a tale of riding at Newmarket or racing at Brands Hatch, or maybe of helping to smuggle Bishop Makarios out of Cyprus, Roland always has a story to tell. The trouble is that you’re never quite sure which of the stories to believe. But we wouldn’t have it any other way, because Roland is without a doubt one of the village’s great characters.

Most of these people are now in their late seventies and eighties. Some have already passed away. And my husband Paul worries that the village’s unique character will change forever when that generation have finally passed on.

So I gently remind him of our own age group who live here.

What about Jonathan, whose first job was looking after Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels, and who went on to be part of a famous partnership designing outrageous jewellery for rock stars? The long standing captain of the village cricket team, he takes a party of villagers out to the Caribbean every year to lose to the West Indians at village cricket and attempt to beat them at hard drinking.

Or there’s Alexander, the writer, who, as a young graduate was English tutor to the many adopted children of French exotic singer/dancer Josephine Baker, moving on from a life of public school and Cambridge to be thrown in amongst the oddest cast of characters and hangers on in her enormous rented chateau in France. Maybe it was that experience that encouraged him to live for a while on an otherwise uninhabited island off the coast of Scotland and later amongst the headhunters of Borneo. Who knows? But try telling me again that our generation of residents are boring...

I know these days we might not have spirit of the generation who lived through the war years, but we’re an interesting and artistic lot. Until recently James and Emma put on full scale operas in the grounds of their ancestral home and Sarah’s family are deeply involved in the opera and theatre worlds as well as running a historic photographic library and gallery.

Then, as well as Alexander’s photographer wife Silvia, there’s Jennie, a fine embroidery artist, and John, a painter, whose wife is portrayed, clad only in her long hair and a mermaid’s tail, on the sign for local pub The Rock. And Lily, who has started a business making organic artisan chocolates from her family home.

In a tiny village of only around thirty houses, we are blessedly rich in interesting and engaging characters. And it’s not just the people who make this place so special. We’re surrounded by countryside of such gentle beauty and magic it stirs my heart and lifts my spirits throughout every season of the year.

The lane that forms the spine of the village is long and straight. It runs along the highest ridge in the High Weald of Kent and seems to be part of a line connecting an ancient Saxon fort to the west with a large rock formation in the next village, thought to be a Saxon boundary marker. Some people say it’s one of the earliest recorded ley-lines and although the road veers off to the right just outside the village boundary, you can see the line itself continuing straight ahead via a bridle path directly into an ancient wood.

The path is churned up by horses for much of the year but you can still pick your way through and follow it - straight as a die along the continuation of the ridge - through the wood. In true English tradition this is a beech wood. Small leaves of the purest, lightest green filter the sunlight to create a dreamy dappled shade, dark ponds half hidden by fallen branches seem secret and mysterious and the overpowering colour and scent of bluebells draws everyone in to experience their heady narcotic in spring.

You may hear a snapping, even a crashing of branches as wild deer try to escape your presence. If you are lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of them speeding through the wood - twenty or more of them - soft eyed does, proud stags with full antlers, tiny fawns looking like they’re preparing for a Disney casting call. Such a large herd of sizeable animals, yet they are completely wild. So that every time I see them I find myself wondering where they sleep. How do they keep warm in winter?

They live in such proximity to us in the village that we often find deer droppings scattered across our gardens and the bark of roses or young fruit trees eaten away. Sometimes Paul and I see the whole herd crossing the field above our home. One by one, twenty-five, maybe thirty of them. A white hart in the line, gloriously endowed with an enormous set of antlers, will often stand and look down at the village from on high. Before continuing his way back into the magical wood.

Continue along the bridle path, along the ridge and if you know the place, you can plunge down the left hand side into a field. There you’ll find a cave which will take you underneath the ridge, and thence to a small, narrow entrance into another cave, guarded by enormous spiders. Dare to go through that entrance and the cave opens up into a small vault, the walls of which have niches carved into them. And on those niches, the remains of wax candles.

I’m too scared of spiders to have been there myself, but my neighbour’s sensible adult sons swear they saw the remains of the candles when they were children, knew the place as the witches cave. Scared themselves silly by going in there. And it’s not only those men who talk of local witches; other residents have spotted phials hanging from trees in the wood, and, on taking them down discovered spells written on paper folded inside.

I often imagine going into that wood at night, passing the badgers snuffling around their setts, feeling the bright eyes of the deer watching me make my way. And then sitting down on the woodland floor, my back against a broad tree trunk, waiting for a shaft of moonlight to make its way through the dark branches. And watching the fairies and wood elves dancing in the silvery light.

Instead I stand by my front door and look up at the stars. Stars of a brilliance and abundance that can never be experienced in the light-sodden towns. I breathe in the heady scent of philadelphus in summer, viburnum in winter and hear the childcry of foxes mating in the wood. A blackbird sings from the top of one of our trees, to be answered by a rival across the road.

And I marvel at the magic in this place.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Teaching memories - early days at Croydon's Fairfield Halls

It’s true the room isn’t the most salubrious. There’s a bar at one end and those green walls and brown paintwork do lower the spirits somewhat. But roll back the carpet and there’s a beautiful sprung wooden dance floor just begging us to dance on it and tall mirrors along one of the long walls. The mirrors are too slender and too few to work for a dance class, but I've bought five nice big ones to fill in the spaces and there they stand, inviting the students to watch themselves as they move.

Most of all it’s private. Because I have the fear that my advertising will bring young men to laugh and jeer at us. But access to our room is down a long corridor to the very back of the building and if we close the big double doors there’s only a tiny window to peer through if you really want to see what’s going on.

So what is going on?

Well, it’s a nice big class, bigger than I could have dreamed. Every week around twenty five women of all ages and varying skin colour clatter into the room. They are Turkish and Greek and Pakistani and West Indian and, yes, white English too. But most of all there are those girls I always associate with Croydon: with skin the colour of milk coffee, an indeterminate heritage and an accent to burst your eardrums.

Nails are long, false and appliquéd. Hair is ironed straight or pulled back tightly into what’s known as a ‘Croydon facelift.’ And these Croydon girls are so fast talking and so feisty and funny that I fall in love with them instantly.

I’m going to veer off here, because I realise that once women become part of my life I tend to refer to them as ‘girls’. I got into a Facebook debate recently with some American dancers who were strongly objecting to being referred to as girls by dance teachers, saying it infantilises women and puts a dance student into a position of inferiority. I was mortified because I know I use it a lot, so I checked with my students. They were honestly perplexed at the idea that they might be offended.

In the UK we often use the diminutives ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ when we are talking with affection about people. Women will say they’re going for a night out with the girls and men will say they are going for a night out with the boys or the lads. It implies friendship and being part of a group. So when I talk about my girls, I kind of mean my gang, my people, whereas calling them ladies or women would distance me somewhat.

My girls are just as likely to be 80 as 18. They may be hairdressers or fund managers. But they’re my girls and I love them.

So here we are in my Croydon class. It's 2003 and I’ve started to develop a technique now - my own way of teaching. The classes are drop in style, which means new people are starting each week. Which of course means I do the 'pencil talk' each week.

We finish our warm up and then I go over to the new class members. I gather them closely around me and I lower my voice confidentially, as if I’m about to impart a big secret. The others exchange smiles and knowing looks. They know what I'm about to say.

The new women lean towards me and I quietly tell them: “I need you to imagine you have a pencil, where you don’t think I could possibly mean I want you to have a pencil.” Most understand immediately - I see the recognition move across their faces. And then they always laugh. So I continue: “I need you to squeeze that pencil and lift it up - the point facing downwards so you don’t do yourself an injury!” More laughter. “And then we’re going to draw with it!”

Every week I worry in case someone takes it badly, but the laughter always seems real and delighted. And the rest of the class look at them and laugh with them. And it feels like the new women have just been initiated into the sisterhood of bellydancers. They’ve had the pencil talk!

If you want to understand the pencil talk, see my posts here or here...

So here we are, we've had the pencil talk and despite the mirrors, we're standing in a circle, with me in the centre. The circle creates a sense of togetherness and means everyone can see me and I can see them. Most of all, it means they can take real pleasure in seeing each other trying out the moves. Moves that make the hips bounce, the flesh quiver and the whole body undulate. Moves that are beautiful, sensual, and more than a little flirty.

And they love expressing that flirtatiousness, in the way women so often do when they are together. See a group of women dancing at a nightclub, handbags in the centre of the circle? They’re probably dancing more for each other, than for the men watching.

And the women in my class feel safe, because in the circle they can see that everyone is finding it a bit more difficult than they’d expected; but they can also see how each of them is improving over the weeks. And the circle feels like they are sharing this experience.

And they're learning how to create circles and figures of eights with their hips - taking them backwards, forwards, up and down, how to make their hips nice and sharp for hip drops, snaps and hits, how to gently undulate forwards and back, how to create beautiful snake arms and of course how to shimmy their hips and shoulders.

And now some of them have been coming for several months and we need to start to put the moves they’ve learned into travelling steps. Side to side, forwards and back. Learning our lefts from our rights and how to transition from one move into another. It’s time to introduce an intermediate class.

Which is where the mirrors come in. We’d get far too muddled trying to do that in the circle, so now we move into lines. My back to them so they can copy me, and all facing the mirrors so they watch themselves at the same time.

It's scary for them at first. They don't like looking at themselves in the mirrors at the best of times, but a full length mirror in a room with shockingly unflattering lighting? No way! So I tell them how mirrors are not there for hating how big your bum is or beating yourself up for not sticking to that diet you started. No, they're there to check whether you're doing the move the same way I am. Nothing more than that.

And I notice how each one of them is starting to have her own place in the room by now.  To my left or right, front row or back, next to their friend or right out on the edge. If anyone arrives late in class and the others are already in their lines, she’ll still head straight for that spot. And the line will move to accommodate her. Because everyone knows that’s her place.

The only thing that upsets the natural order of things is when someone realises which mirror is the slim one. Because of course every woman knows that some mirrors are fat, some are slim. It’s a very slight instance of the effect of fairground distorting mirrors - the glass doesn’t quite lay flat or something. But the result is a seeming couple of inches off the waistline of the viewer and there’s a sudden jostling for the space in front.

We’ve never really worked out which one is the slim mirror, and even if I did know, I’d never mark it. Each week I stack the mirrors away in a different order and I forget which one cheered them up so much. It cheers me up too. There’s nothing like a slim mirror for making you feel better about yourself. Until you move away and realise it was just an illusion.

And as the weeks go on I’m telling them how well they’re doing, and how gorgeous they’re looking (because they are) and they are starting to believe me now. They are feeling a little more feminine, a little bit lovelier, a little bit better about themselves day by day. I watch them coming into class tired and stressed from the office or the home. And as the hour goes on I see their tired bodies start to lift, their stiff shoulders drop, and their laughter starts to fill the room.

And after class I smile to hear the sound of that laughter blended with the jingle of coin hip belts ringing down the corridor as they leave for their buses, their cars and their trains.

My girls.

Monday, 13 May 2013

How beautiful are we!

She was twenty, she was blonde, she had skin like a soft peach, a face to inspire poets and the sweetest of personalities. Anna gazed out at the world through clear, grey eyes, enhanced with expertly applied make up. Anna was beautiful

But Anna was fat.

Not to me, not to her friends, not to the others in the class. But in Anna’s mind, she was fat. When I looked at Anna I saw a glorious, sumptuous girl with dewy skin and plump arms like that of a baby. I confess at times I had an overwhelming desire to sink my teeth into those arms, they looked so succulent. But Anna wouldn’t have understood how much I loved the look of her. Because, like far too many women, Anna hated her body.

Despite being beautiful, Anna's perceived fatness defined her sense of self and stopped her doing the things a twenty year old should be doing. Dancing in nightclubs, lying in the sun on a foreign beach, wearing the latest fashions.

She came every week without fail, along with her friend Jess. Pretty, blonde, slimline Jess with the bubbly personality and the handsome boyfriend. The two of them were inseparable. I know it’s easy to categorise the friendship as the pretty one and the fat one, but I really don’t think it was like that. Because Anna honestly was beautiful. And gentle. And thoughtful. And oh, just the very best friend a girl could have.

She’d been coming to my classes for around a year. Always standing in the same place, gazing at me clear eyed, trying to replicate my moves. Sweetly thanking me after class, asking careful, thoughtful questions.

There was a time that neither of them had been around for a couple of weeks; but then they were back, same places as before. Happy, smiling, a little tanned, a lovely glow about the pair of them.

That night Anna hung back after class. Then came over to me, bright and bubbly and terribly excited about something. She wanted to tell me something wonderful, something so momentous and remarkable she just couldn’t keep it in. She wanted to tell me I’d changed her life.

“Charlotte!! We’ve been away on holiday and… and… I wore a bikini for the first time in my entire life!”

I know I’m an emotional person, but I’m crying right now as I remember that moment. Beautiful, sumptuous, gorgeous Anna confessed to me that until that holiday she’d never worn a sleeveless top. Never exposed her peachy arms outside of our classes. Kept herself hidden out of shame.

But, she said, since she’d been coming to my bellydance classes she’d realised gradually that yes, she was beautiful. That she didn’t need to be thin, she was lovely just as she was. She told me that recently she’d started to go clubbing with Jess wearing the latest fashions, rather than trying to cover herself up. And then, the biggest moment in her life she said, she bought a bikini to go away on holiday. And wore it on the beach. And felt proud of herself.

Time and time again women come up to me after class to tell me stories like this. How bellydance has helped them feel better about themselves, how they’ve learned to love their bodies, how they can now look at themselves in the mirror without fear.

One of the things people always ask when they phone about classes is what they should wear. I tell them to wear comfortable clothes they can move easily in and not to worry, they don’t have to show their belly. There’s always a laugh and a sigh of relief at that point. It’s what they’re most worried about - getting their bellies out in public. So they come along to class in baggy sweatpants and loose tops, well covered up, trying to hide at the back of the class, avoiding all sight of themselves in the mirrors.

Early on they buy themselves a coin hipscarf, then, as the months go on, the t-shirts get a bit shorter and the bellies start peeking out. The full midriff is usually out and proud by the intermediate class. And then the dressing up starts. The sparkly cropped tops, the rhinestoned classwear, the fancy tribal  pants - all wide legged swishyness and drapery. And I smile to myself, remembering how afraid they were when they started.

The thing is, I truly believe all women are beautiful in their own ways. When I look at my class I see a rich array of lovely women - tall, short, slim or voluptuous. Red heads and brunettes, pale skinned and dark, fine featured or generous. All of them have their own personal beauty.

One of the most remarkable memories I have of my first show (see story here) was of the conversations my husband Paul had as people were leaving. One after another, men came up to him and remarked on how beautiful those dancing women were. But each time they would confide to him that there was one dancer who was particularly lovely, one who stood out amongst all the rest.

And you know what? Each man would single out a different woman. And not only that, but every one of the women who danced in that show had someone who thought she was the most beautiful of all. When I think about it, it seems the most remarkable thing I can imagine. We were all ordinary women, with insecurities and bits we hated, but in those men’s eyes we were all beautiful and they loved us. And each one of us had someone thinking we were the loveliest of all.

Of course men love us! They love our soft skin and our soft flesh. And each man is attracted to something different. Some men love skinny women, some like us chubby. Some go for a nice big backside, others are attracted to large breasts. It’s we women that stress about our cellulite or our stretch marks, not them. Just as some of us are attracted to big chunky men, others to willowy artistic types, so men love women of all shapes and sizes. Sex, love and chemistry is what makes the world go round.

And now you know the truth - every single one of us has someone who thinks we’re hot.

You can be absolutely sure of that.

Friday, 26 April 2013

How I learned to bellydance. The shocking truth!

This post continues from the story told here.

I was 25, not long out of college and I’d fallen in love. With a foreign culture and with a dance that seemed made for my body.

As a girl I'd been ballet mad, spending my Saturdays at the Lister School of Dance, the rest of the time reading and dreaming about ballerinas. I remember my first ever ballet class, aged five. I remember the pride and excitement of my first pair of pointe shoes, and the pain of the blisters that followed. I would paint my toes with surgical spirit and wrap lamb’s wool around them in a vain attempt to stop the skin rubbing off, but I have very soft feet and nothing would work. I also have a long big toe which made pointe work difficult and I really struggled with getting up and staying on those poor skinned toes during pirouettes and fouettés.

However, these problems paled into insignificance when I reached adolescence and the terrible truth emerged. I had hips. Proper childbearing hips. A nice small waist yes, but that doesn’t count for much in western dance. No, the big problem was those hips.

All ballet girls hold fear in them as they approach adolescence. Because no matter how hard you train, how dedicated you are, there’s one thing you really can’t control and that’s your developing body. It let me down completely at the age of 14 when I contracted a bad case of glandular fever and was ill for months. Banned from dancing for a year, by the time I was back in class it was too late - my adult body was well on its way and I was never going to be a dancer. I was too tall, too wide hipped, too chunky.

But if you’re a dancer you dance. It’s just what you do. And I always held the dream that one day I’d find a dance that could accept my body. So I trained to be a teacher, with dance as my primary subject and later took daily jazz classes at London’s newly opened Pineapple Dance Centre; working the phones in a marketing research company to pay the bills.

And then, in an Arabic nightclub I saw my first bellydancer and I knew this was it. This was a dance that was made for hips! A dance that seemed to celebrate a woman’s body rather than wanting to starve it into submission. A dance that gloried in the sensuality and sexuality of the feminine form rather than trying to keep women as girl children, denying them breasts, bellies or hips.

I would beg my Libyan boyfriend to take me to those nightclubs, night after night. And I'd sit staring. Trying to analyse what the dancers were doing. How did they move in such a sensual way but not seem overtly sexual? Music videos and R&B dancing these days use highly sexualised moves, but bellydance doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) pout or thrust, there’s something far more pure about it, almost innocent. It’s as if the dancer is just letting her body be taken by the music. 

At the end of the night I’d go back to my little flat in Clapham Junction and try to make the moves work on me. I’d stand in the middle of my room in the very early hours of the morning, shimmying and undulating. Then drop down to the carpeted floor to writhe and shiver like I’d seen that fiery Syrian dancer do just a few hours earlier.

Then I broke up with my boyfriend and I could no longer go to the nightclubs. The world of the Arabic nightclub was not one that Westerners ventured into alone and it was most certainly off limits to a young Western woman. I knew I had to find out more about bellydancing, but I had no idea how - in 1981 there were no bellydance teachers in London, no videos and certainly no internet.

It’s so easy to learn stuff today. Type bellydance into You Tube and you'll be presented with videos of dancers from every country in the world. A quick trawl of the internet and you’ll discover countless instructional DVDs and online courses, teaching you everything from absolute beginning moves through to the most complex specialist bellydance techniques. But when I started there was nothing. Even CDs hadn’t been invented!

I took a trip to the HMV record shop in London’s Oxford Street and there, in its then tiny World Music section, I found a single cassette tape. The Joy of Bellydance by George Abdo - a Lebanese singer living in America. With his long drooping moustache, sideburns, velvet bow tie and heavily frilled shirt, George Abdo was the very essence of 1970’s sexual allure. And the music, played by his band ‘The Flames of Araby’ was everything a young English girl wanted bellydance music to be. Exotic, sinuous, magical.

On the cover of the cassette a bellydancer, barely clad in skimpy chain-mail costume, posed dramatically, her nails long and silvery, eyes heavy with makeup. I dreamed of that dancer while George Abdo’s mellifluous voice transported me in my imagination to a perfumed tent in the desert. To be ravaged by a dark eyed sheik.

And then I found a book. A book on bellydancing. In a health food cafe in the scruffy south London suburb of Balham. I was riffling through the books on yoga and vegetarianism and there it was: How To Bellydance. I remember the moment I found it. Picked it up, flicked through it, saw the black and white line drawings. I couldn’t believe it! Beside myself with excitement I took it home and read it obsessively. I discovered the names of the moves I’d been trying to copy: figure of eight, snake arms, ribcage isolations. I learned how to do a bellyroll, how to do a backbend into a laydown. And how to use finger cymbals.

So yes, it's time to come clean. Time to admit the terrible truth. I might pride myself on my technique and my standards. Indeed, people tell me I'm one of the most respected bellydance teachers in the UK. And I'm proud to say that some of the best dancers in London come to my classes to learn from me.

But I can't deny it - I learned to bellydance from a book!

Friday, 5 April 2013

Sweat, struggle and wild imaginings!

I’m 54 years old. I’ve got arthritis in my knees, my toes, my right ankle and my spine. I currently have a torn cartilage in my left knee which is so painful it stops me sleeping at night. Yet later on today I’ll be leaping in the air, spinning like a top, then dropping to the floor, to roll over and then rise back up through an extended backbend.

I’ll be doing it vicariously of course. If I actually performed any of those feats right now, my torn cartilage would probably never recover. No, I’ll be doing it via five of the most exciting dancers I’ve ever worked with. Five young bellydance professionals who are giving me wings and enabling me to fly.

When I was younger I felt sure I could never teach dance - I thought I’d be insanely jealous of anyone who was better than me, or prettier, or more able to descend into the splits. I couldn’t imagine standing by and watching a lovely young woman dancing in my place, let alone helping her develop the ability to be better than I could ever be.

But the last twelve years have shown me how wrong I was. I’ve realised the intense pleasure of imparting knowledge; of seeing the joy and satisfaction women gain from moving to music; of helping bellydance students improve and become richer in their abilities; and now, of stretching excellent dancers further than they had ever expected to go.

I suppose I always had it in me. I have four siblings and although one of my brothers is older than me, I was very much the older sister. And as any big sister will know, younger siblings are terribly useful things - the ability to use them as actors in whatever game you wish to play goes some way towards compensating for all the responsibility that’s heaped on your shoulders throughout your childhood and teenage years.

My sister and younger brothers willingly played supporting roles in the plays of my childhood. Me as an eight year old blushing bride (my six year old brother as the groom, wearing an old raincoat, a flat cap and smoking a pipe.) Me as teacher, my three pupils sitting dutifully in front of me as I lectured them for hours. But most of all, me as director of countless musicals and plays which relatives were corralled into watching whenever they came to visit. When we knew a visit was forthcoming my siblings were expected to spend days rehearsing my vision for our latest show. They were remarkably dutiful and obliging so I got very used to the idea of expectant young faces looking up at me, awaiting instruction.

The girl guides were my next training ground. After a few years in the brownies and guides, I was made patrol leader (Chaffinch Patrol, 6th Cheltenham Girl Guides if you’re asking) and now had several teenagers under my command. They expected knots and flags; they got song and dance routines. The guide leader was a piano teacher and more accommodating of my artistic leanings than others might have been, but I blush when I think of those poor girls rehearsing Chattanooga Choo Choo week in and week out. Spending their precious evenings being bossed about by me as I tried to fashion non-dancing adolescents into a highly trained dance troupe.

So by rights I should always have been a dance teacher and choreographer/director. In fact, teaching is in my blood and I had grown up expecting to be a primary school teacher, like my mother. I went to an excellent teacher’s training college but it took just two weeks of teaching practice to make me realise I just wasn’t cut out for it. I was a truly dreadful school teacher - intimidated by the children, depressed by the surroundings. The tiny chairs, the smell of wax crayons, the chipped mugs in the staff room. My heart sank like a stone when I tried to picture myself there.

So I swapped my teaching degree for one in dance and decided I would be a dancer. The trouble was, I was never quite good enough or committed enough. A professional dancer needs to be practicing every single day. Nothing stands in the way of that practice, and nothing gives a dancer greater joy than performance. But both were a struggle for me. I have a fully equipped home dance studio these days but my computer is a far stronger pull than my ballet barre. Worse though, is the horrible truth that I hate performing.

That last fact will probably come as a surprise to many people, but performing makes me bad tempered and miserable. Not only that, but I have never experienced the fabled post-performance high; only an immediate, cruel, come down which can last for days. I don’t suffer from stage fright - I was pretty much brought up on stage (my first proper stage performance was at the age of eight) and when I’m on stage, walking through my choreography or standing waiting for the curtains to open, I feel like I’m at home. But the trouble is, I’m not as good a dancer as I want to be. I know I'm not and I never will be. Especially now I’m 54 years old with arthritic toes and knackered knees.

When I started bellydancing in 1981 there were no bellydance teachers in London. I learned by watching the dancers perform in the remarkable Arabic nightclubs of the time, going home to my little flat in Clapham Junction in the early hours of the morning and practicing, bleary eyed, until it was time to go off to work. In those days there was no concept of technique, it was just about trying to analyse how they did the moves and most of all, getting the feeling right. So, as a young performer my bellydance technique was very rough and ready. I would flit around the stage, shimmying and undulating and playing zills like a demon, but I didn’t really know what I was doing.

When I came back to it twenty years later everything had changed. The internet and videos had opened up an amazing world of bellydance and introduced us to the strong teaching technique of dancers from the US. I soaked up everything I could learn from workshops with visiting teachers and from the remarkable bellydance forum Bhuz.com.

But although I worked hard and despite having trained non-stop in dance from five to twenty-five, it was too late. By the time my bellydance technique was good enough for me to be up there with the very best of professional dancers world-wide, I was in my late forties and my body was letting me down badly. Twenty years of sitting at a computer desk had resulted in arthritis of my upper spine, the natural ageing process had stiffened my neck and all those early dance years had taken their toll on my knees and toes. The truth is I just can’t do the things a twenty year old can do. A backbend, head spin or big rippling undulation is actually not possible for me any more.

At times that’s been very hard to accept. It’s not just having to come to terms with the sight of my wrinkles on video footage of my dancing (we all have a fantasy image inside our heads of what our bellydancing self looks like - mine is 25 and gorgeous. Those videos lie I tell you!) No, the most difficult thing has been the fact that I have a incredibly strong idea of what I want my bellydance style to be. It’s thrilling and fabulous and unlike anything that has been done before. It’s just that my body won’t let me do it.

So that’s why I started to do the work I now do every Friday afternoon. In London’s Dance Works from 2pm until 6pm I work with five wonderful dancers who can realise my vision for me. I push them harder than they’ve been pushed before. Their bodies are young and strong and supple and I’m getting them to leap and spin; to drop into backbends and splits and become the fantasy bellydancers that have been populating my imagination for so long.

The unexpected result is that, over the past few months, I’ve felt as if I’m in some sort of a mania. Suddenly the half-formed ideas that have been floating around my imagination have flowered into vibrant life. And instead of seeing myself moving in my head, I’m visualising my dancers, who I know are able to do whatever I want and more. At times I’ve thought my head was about to burst with the noise and the images spinning around. Indeed, many nights I’ve been unable to sleep for the music and the pictures in my head. Then, in the morning, the first thing I see are more pictures, as my brain brings forward what it worked on when finally I slept.

It’s as if I’ve always been a choreographer but it’s all been bottled up inside me for fifty years and now it’s desperate to get out. And, far from being jealous of the abilities of my young company of dancers, I’m unbearably excited. My adrenaline is flowing right now as I think about the work we’ll be doing today. And while we’re working together I feel absolute joy. I know they feel the same way - last Friday was Good Friday and a holiday, but that wasn’t going to stop us. We were all there in the classroom working as hard as we could ever work.

I know that they hurt after our classes. I know that their bodies are sore and exhausted. But from what they tell me, they feel alive and deeply satisfied. That they are stretching themselves to the limits; that they are helping create something new and exciting; that they are pushing the boundaries of what our dance can be.

We’ll be premiering our work for the first time at Shimmy in the City in September - just one dance as a taster of what we can do. Raqia Hassan will be there and I can’t wait to talk to her about what it’s like to create a new style and have wonderful dancers executing it on your behalf. But mainly we’re working towards an exciting high profile show in January next year.

My five dancers will form the core of that show, which we hope will blow the audience away. My Project Lift Off girls will be dancing too - in three big group numbers. I just hope I can do them all justice with my choreography. I’m excited and I’m frightened in equal measure - I want so much and I really hope I can deliver the goods.

Oh, and I promise to spill the beans on who these wonderful dancers are very soon!

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Remembering my first bellydance show

I walked into the long dressing room above the stage. All was colour and sparkle. Lightbulbs glowed around mirrors, glitter eyeshadow spilled across tables, sequinned bras hung from the backs of chairs. Half dressed, but full to the brim with uncontrollable excitement and fear, my girls primped and preened and yelped with laughter.

They turned and looked at me. And all talked at once. None of them had ever done anything like this before. The lightbulbs! The mirrors! The costumes! “Look Charlotte! Look! Look!!” I looked. And saw a room of excited women about to embark on something most people are truly terrified of - public performance.  But more than that, what I saw was a room full of women who were comfortable in their own skins.

Someone had brought along a bottle of vodka, someone else a phial of Bach Flower Rescue Remedy. And so, between them, they came up with what I still think is the perfect cocktail for pre-show nerves - Vodka and Rescue Remedy!

I had my own fears but mine were different from theirs. I knew we hadn’t managed to sell many tickets. We had lots of promises but little hard cash. I wasn’t worried about the money - the small Women’s Institute Hall hadn’t cost that much to hire. But I was worried about the atmosphere in the hall and, most of all, the disappointment for the girls if, after months of hard work, they came out on stage to find themselves performing to only a few people.

Two weeks earlier I had sat in the hall all alone and imagined rows and rows of seats facing the stage. In my imagination I saw twenty people huddled in coats. Sitting, chilly and miserable in the two front rows as my girls desperately tried to entertain them with their shimmies and eights and hip drops.

So I had determined to do something about the atmosphere at least. I decided to set the room out with round tables, cabaret-style, reasoning that it would make the hall seem fuller and the audience more relaxed. I bought candles and nuts and olives, Lea and Heather talked their husbands into running a bar.

The day before the show I had arrived in the hall to find a small group of my girls hard at work, carrying swathes of chiffon to make drapes for the back stage wall. An elderly man I’d never seen before was painting a beautiful oriental-shaped window looking out onto stars and minarets. “Who’s he?” I asked. “We don’t know! We just found him here and Shelley flirted with him like mad until he offered to paint some scenery for us.”

On the day of the show itself we rehearsed on stage until the last minute. Paul worked the sound, my nephew Alasdair the lighting. The bar was being prepared, the tables set. At 7pm I lit the candles, gave Paul and Alasdair a hug, then said an urgent internal prayer, before climbing the rickety stairs up to the dressing room.

And now we were close to the moment for me to go down to the stage and confront my own fears. Like many people I have a fear of failure. It’s mostly a fear of being shown up as a fool for thinking I can do something. And, like most people I also have an internal critic. Mine sits on my right shoulder and spends a lot of time pointing out my many shortcomings. That critic knows that one of my greatest fears is of publicly being seen to fail. It never ever actually stops me from doing anything, but whenever I push myself, I know that fear and doubt will be my constant companions.

The girls were excitedly buzzing around, squeezing into costumes, sharing makeup, posing for photographs, sneaking another Vodka snifter. Thrilled to be there, telling me how wonderful everything was. But inside my head I was as low as I could possibly be. Knowing that no-one was going to turn up. Wondering what on earth I was doing trying to put on a show with fifteen women who had never been on stage before and who had been bellydancing for less than a year. Knowing that I really wasn’t up to the job and never had been.

And then the sound of feet running up the stairs, a frantic knocking on the door.  Paul’s voice. “Can I come in?” A quick look round, everyone decent? I opened the door.

Paul burst into the room. “The hall’s full! We’re having to pass chairs over heads and tell people just to find anywhere they can to sit! You’re meant to be on in five minutes and they’re still queuing down the High Street! You’ve got a hit on your hands girls!!”

The excitement rose several notches. And as my fear abated, theirs lifted. “Oh my God, we’re going to go out on stage in front of hundreds of people!!”

I turned round to them, told them they were wonderful. They were my girls and they were gorgeous. Everyone would love them, they were going to be fabulous! And at that moment someone sprayed glitter up into the air. The girls looked upwards. And glitter rained gently down onto their glowing faces.

I don’t remember much of the actual show. But Shelley remembers standing in the wings waiting to go on stage and seeing a line of girls in the wings opposite; their costumes and excitement mirroring hers. I remember them all sitting around on the stage, playing finger cymbals as one by one they got up to dance short solo numbers within a bigger group dance.  I remember Louisa, blonde and dressed to kill in very little, burning up the stage as she danced a dramatic drum solo. 

And I remember Chantal. Not the Chantel who now teaches at Hipsinc. No, this first Chantal was the quietest, the shyest of all my students. A young woman with a dark beehive, milk white skin and dark eyes. Who hardly spoke a word in class but whom I had noticed as time had gone on and realised was a lovely dancer. I had asked her if she would dance a solo and very quietly she had agreed. I had taught her a gentle, fluid veil solo and now she danced. Softly, with reserve, but with such tenderness and beauty that every man in that hall fell in love with her.

I know the bar ran out of alcohol and the guys had to run out and buy more during the second half. And I know how many men made a point of saying to Paul that every single woman in that show was so beautiful. Which was when I realised that men don’t expect us to be supermodels. They love us for being women, with all our lovely soft flesh and our lumps and bumps and our imperfections.

I remember the applause from the audience that seemed to go on forever. And the wonderful bouquet of flowers they presented me with at the end of the show. I remember seeing the vicar in the audience, cheering his head off. And Chantal being dragged off into the night by her boyfriend; a wonderful Mona Lisa smile on her face, a look of lust on his. And I remember Lea calling out: “come on girls, let’s go and raise some more money - we’ll charge them a quid a shimmy!!” And seeing them in amongst the audience, laughing and shimmying and rattling the collection tins. As the bar ran out of alcohol once again and the audience refused to go home.

And finally I remember standing at the back of the hall, watching all the laughter and mayhem and joy. And thinking to myself. “This would make an amazing film.”

Saturday, 2 March 2013

On The Button, Voted Best Bellydance Blog!

I'm absolutely thrilled that On The Button has been voted Best Bellydance Blog in an international competition organised by Daily Bellydance Quickies!

Thank you so much to everyone who voted for me, I'm really grateful and incredibly happy that so many people enjoy reading the blog. It was a very tight contest with only two votes between the top two - myself and Princess Farhana's Missives From the Royal Palace, which is very amusing because Princess Farhana is actually staying with me right now - it's been bellydance swords at dawn I tell you!

And do check out the Daily Bellydance Quickies! Mahin Sciacca sends out a daily email to your inbox. It might be a bellydance tip or a short combination or a zill pattern. Or it might be a video of a great dancer or a recommendation for a book. Whatever it is, it's always interesting.

And on a totally unrelated note, this blogger programme has just randomly sent an old post from this blog to my inbox, and presumably to everyone who is subscribed. It did the same thing last month and I have no idea why!! So apologies if you had an email with a post about me restarting the blog - it's actually from May last year and I can't for the life of me work out why it got sent out!

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Restaurants and haflas. Two very different worlds

The last blog post I wrote - about my youthful bellygram career - resulted in a fascinating discussion on my Facebook page, in the course of which I mentioned that I increasingly feel uncomfortable about restaurant dancing. I'll explain more...

I think ours is a very schizophrenic dance form. Bellydancing exists, I would argue, in two very different worlds. On the one hand we have the world of dance classes and haflas. A primarily female world, it’s one where we learn about the fascinating dance and culture of the middle east. It's a world where it doesn’t matter what age or what dress size you are. Where women are encouraged and supported and recognised as beautiful and special.

In this world, haflas and showcases give us the opportunity to perform a wide variety of styles grouped under the general banner of bellydancing. We dance baladi, saidi, khaleeji, sharqi. We whip out a stick or a set of wings, set the audience alight with a drum solo, or move them to tears with an Om Khalsoum number. We experiment with fusion: tribal, gothic, hip hop or samba. Or keep it pure, with none so pure as Egyptian.

It’s wonderful participating in these events. Our audiences are wildly appreciative. They whoop and zhagareet and clap along at the drop of a hip. Forgiving us when we go wrong, not caring about our age or our stretch marks. Every clever belly trick, every quivering shimmy, is recognised and applauded. We are given space and time and attention.

Then there’s the other world. The world of the restaurant dancer. A world that (with a few notable exceptions) only the young, beautiful and slender may enter. A world where we have to dance whilst squeezing between tables, trying to avoid waiters and taking care not to step on broken glass or spilled humous. This is a world where the (mixed) audience cares not a jot for the authenticity of our performance, they just want to look at the pretty girl in the sparkly costume. Sadly, a few of them really wish we weren’t there and some just can’t bear to watch, especially when we get up close.

And, however appreciative the audience at a restaurant, in most cases we are never able to properly dance. There will only be space for a bit of undulating, a few isolations and pops and of course, some of our very best shimmying. Our job is to create a party atmosphere. A taste of the exotic. And, in most cases, to get up close and personal with the punters.

Maybe it’s my age, maybe it’s because I’ve just been around too long; but I find myself increasingly uncomfortable when I’m in a small space and a dancer’s naked flesh is very close. I don’t think I’m a prude and I love the sight of a beautiful body, male or female. But the tight layout of many restaurants means that at times I find my eyes just a bit too close to a bouncing pair of partially covered breasts for comfort. I know that many men really don’t know where to look when a bellydancer comes up to their table. And actually I understand how they feel. I can imagine that for some men it might sometimes feel a little too near to lap dancing.

I’m sure that one of the reasons bellydance isn’t taken seriously as an art form is that most people only see a bellydancer in a restaurant setting. Where she can’t dance properly and where the flesh on show is not only close, but is highlighted by the costuming and by those few movements we have at our disposal. A bellydance bra really pushes the breasts up high. And then we do a chest bump! What’s a man to think? That it’s art?

But! Restaurant bellydancing is great! People love it. Most diners in a Middle Eastern restaurant really enjoy seeing a bellydancer - she’s exotic, she’s lively and she lifts the atmosphere wonderfully. People often ring me to book my gorgeous colleague Chantel Phillips to dance at an event. “She’s amazing”, they say, “we saw her dance at a restaurant and she was incredible!”

Because, of course, restaurants not only offer bellydancers regular income, but they're also a public showcase. They are the only venues a professional bellydancer can perform for the general public and be paid too!

But we’re caught in a vicious circle. Our only public platform doesn’t enable us to dance properly. So we’re not taken seriously. Here in the West, no-one outside the world of haflas and monthly showcases sees our ‘real’ dancing, so no mainstream promoter is ever going to put on a bellydance show. And so the circle winds round and binds us in to the chest bumps and the belly pops and the association with pole dancing or worse.

I just wish that there were other opportunities for professional dancers to perform. In spaces where we can really stretch our legs and showcase our dance skills. And that's why all my energies are currently channelled into trying to create a new bellydance style for the big stage. A style to thrill the general public and keep them coming back for more. A style to capture the attention of journalists and mainstream promoters. A style with drama and excitement and big ideas. Bellydance for the future.

I’ve started work on my dream properly now. In January I started to develop my new way of dancing in my Project Lift Off classes in London. We used far more drama, more dynamic range, greater extension in our movements - leg kicks, jumps, dramatic floorwork. My Extreme Bellydance classes are part of it too, of experimenting with different ways of moving. Incorporating exciting footwork, jumps, leaps and spins. And the exploratory process will continue throughout the coming year - in all my classes in London and Croydon.

And, most excitingly, I’ve gathered together a small company of six superb full-time professional dancers who will be exploring the future with me. We start this Friday, working experimentally to create something that we hope will be really amazing. We have until September to create the style (when we will showcase it for the first time at Shimmy in the City). And we’re giving ourselves a year to create a show to thrill.

We première the show next January in London and we are beyond excited about it. We believe it’s the future. That we can move bellydance forward and create new opportunities for dancers and new experiences for audiences.

Whatever happens, it's the start of an exhilarating journey! Maybe to a different bellydance world...

Monday, 21 January 2013

Backbends and Bellygrams

There was only one place to hide - a narrow cupboard in the corner. The problem was that it had a slatted wooden door, so if I moved I’d be seen. It was cramped too, but I had no choice. I climbed in quickly and shut the door behind me before I could be discovered.

Then I heard voices. There were four of them. The boss (a man I had only seen once, but who, I could tell, was strong and powerful) and his three employees. The big man entered first, the others followed, quiet and subdued.

When the big man spoke he was clearly angry. His rage was controlled, held in check, but anyone could tell there was trouble ahead for his three shaken colleagues. He started to berate them. Told them how they’d messed up, how they’d lost him money and credibility. One was in hotter water than the others and, with a cold voice, the boss outlined how, while the target of his wrath had been away, the job had gone dreadfully, terribly wrong.

The man being accused was clearly shaken. It was sounding bad.

The big man’s invective was coming to a head. “To see what I mean, JUST LISTEN TO THIS!!!” He pressed a button. The room filled with bellydance music. I leapt out of the cupboard, headed for the man on the far left and started to gyrate and shimmy, before dropping down to the floor and writhing in front of the shocked employee.

It was the man's birthday. And I was the surprise. Thank goodness he was young or I think we could have been calling an ambulance!

The place was an advertising agency in Covent Garden, the year was 1982 and I’d been booked as a bellygram. Singing telegrams and strippergrams were all the rage at the time: out of work actors dressed as police officers, nuns or gorillas would appear out of the blue and proceed to sing or strip to embarrass a birthday boy or girl. As far as I knew, I was the only bellygram in London. I would climb on to my motorbike (dressed head to toe in black leather if you’re asking…) and ride off to a venue somewhere in London where I would find a place to change secretly. At the appointed time I’d burst into the restaurant or bar, place my Sony Walkman on the floor or table and proceed to dance and undulate around the victim. I did a mean backbend and some pretty sultry floor work in those days too.

I remember changing in a freezing outside toilet in a slightly dangerous looking pub in the Old Kent Road, directing the heat of the hand-dryer onto my icy body before parting the crowds in the public bar. I jumped up on tables in restaurants, shimmying my way through the plates and glasses. And I got up on the antique polished desk of the manager of The Who, went down into a backbend and laid myself out in front of him, while his laughing staff looked on.

Yesterday, on Facebook, someone asked me what I thought about bellydancers who advertise themselves as exotic dancers and perform in nightclubs alongside pole dancers or strippers.  The questioner pointed out that, by doing so, they are perpetuating the perception of bellydance as a sleazy activity, rather than a serious dance form. I think it’s a fascinating question and one that goes right to the heart of how bellydance is viewed.

These days most professional bellydancers want to be seen as serious dancers - as artists. They want people to understand that bellydance is an ancient dance form with its roots in the folk culture of the Middle East. That it's a richly textured and challenging dance which deserves to have a place alongside Western mainstream styles such as jazz or hip hop. And I’m one of them. I want bellydance to be appreciated by a far wider public as the beautiful, rich and fascinating dance form that it is. I want to hold my head up high amongst the ballet and West End dancers and choreographers and I want aspiring bellydance professionals to undergo the type of tough physical training that those dancers have always expected, so that we can be the very best performers possible.

So, in the light of the question I was asked yesterday, I look back at that 24 year old girl, undulating on the floor in front of a shocked advertising executive and I wonder what I think of her.

Well, firstly I have to say that I was just doing what I had seen Syrian and Palestinian dancers doing in the Arab nightclubs in London (see blog post here). In those performances there was a lot of jumping up in the air and dropping to the floor to shiver and undulate. And in front of a large crowd of Arab men too. Men who would most certainly have assumed those dancers were prostitutes.

Those of us who bellydance in the West have to accept that in the Arab world, bellydancers are considered to be prostitutes. And truthfully, many of them are. At the very least, they are behaving in a way that is far outside social norms. Bellydance has never been something that nice Arabic girls do in public. It’s true that Arab girls absolutely love to dance and will almost certainly dance at home with their female friends. But in public? No. If a Muslim woman dances in public in front of of a mixed audience she is believed to be the very worst kind of woman. And in countries like Egypt, professional bellydancers have to live with the shame of knowing that what they do is considered wicked by the majority of society.

So in trying to promote bellydance as a high art, we in the West are being revisionist. We are trying to create a bellydance culture that feels acceptable to us, that we can be proud of. There is nothing wrong with trying to change the way that bellydance is viewed, but we can’t hide from the fact that ‘exotic dancer’ is exactly what bellydancers traditionally were.

I also have to look back at my younger self and admit that I was fascinated by the sexual sub-culture of London. I was thrilled to be part of it, to walk around Soho at night and feel that, as a bellydancer I belonged to that dark, slightly dangerous underworld. I’ve always loved the ‘other’ in society - the exotic, the experimental, the people who push at the boundaries.

Of course in a perfect world I’d also love bellydance to be accepted by mainstream society, for people not to look down on the dance I make my living from. But I also rather like the fact that when I say I’m a bellydancer I know I’m immediately interesting to most people. I’m different and, yes, exotic. And I know that many of my students feel the same. It’s a giggle to tell people at drinks parties that you are a bellydancer.

Indeed, I’m prepared to guess that for many of us in the West, the exoticism and slightly risqué reputation is one of the things that drew us to bellydance in the first place. There’s something excitingly naughty for many women in learning to bellydance and I think we should accept that. Even embrace it.

That doesn’t mean of course, that we can’t disapprove of certain things. It’s everyone’s prerogative to dislike and, yes, disapprove. Personally I don’t like heavily sexualised bellydancing. I don't like seeing loads of chest bumps in a dance and I can’t abide a pouty face or a floor hump. And don't get me started on the dancers who shake their breasts or backsides in men's faces! But even if I don't like it, I don’t want to shut that dancing down, just as I don’t want to stop ‘commercial’ R & B dancing on music videos, even though I personally dislike it. Instead I want to create something that in my mind is ‘better’ and put it out there in the hope that people will love it and choose it over the other.

And I have to admit that I did my fair share of ‘floor humping’ in the past. Not least on that beautiful polished antique desk, behind which sat The Who’s manager. I’d jumped up there because I’d never seen anyone look quite so bored with my performance as Bill Curbishley did that day. I suppose when you’re the manager of The Who it’s hard to be impressed and I would imagine you get to see an awful lot of semi-naked young women in the course of your job. But his staff had paid for me as a birthday treat for him, and were now crowded in the doorway, excitedly watching me dance.

I leapt up on the desk, did a full backbend and then descended slowly down onto my knees and then my back in front of him. I undulated, I belly rolled, I fluttered. I was 24 years old, I was in great shape, I was dressed in very little and I knew I looked amazing. Surely I’d get a reaction from him now!

He looked down, held my eye, took his cigar out of his mouth. And said: “Mind the desk love.”

Oh well, you can’t win them all.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Teaching my first bellydance class

It was frosty the day after the village cabaret (read about it here) and the hedgerows were white as Paul and I walked down the lane. The pub and church looked like they belonged on a Christmas card, standing bright and clear in the cold morning air. Like the houses in the village the church and pub are Victorian pretty. The hall on the other hand is as dull and utilitarian as a 20th century building could be. It squats across the road from its characterful cousins, low, brick-built and deeply, boringly rectangular.
Peer in through the windows and you’ll see scuffed wooden floors and the shabby little stage. But those floors are scuffed from decades of chairs pushed back after warm-hearted village lunches and lively Harvest Suppers, the participants full of good, home cooked food and copious quantities of wine.

Alcohol is rather a feature of the social life here in Markbeech. At the annual Royal British Legion dinner, where the older men of the village reputedly get plastered and tell stories of past glory, legend has it that Sir Robin Leigh Pemberton, then Governor of the Bank of England and that year’s keynote speaker, found one of the revellers in a ditch after dinner and had to pull him out before he could get into his chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce and head off home!

The lock to the front door of the village hall is tricky. There’s a knack to it that I’ve never quite mastered, but there’s always a lovely rush of warm air as the handle finally turns and you walk into the entrance hall. Warm because of the village nursery school held there every weekday. And because the view is held that it’s cheaper to leave the heating on constant rather than try and reheat such a big space from scratch every day. But there’s also the warmth of memories. Memories of happy evenings with friends.

There’s such a sense of community history when you enter a place like this. Markbeech villagers have been putting on shows and celebrating the signposts of the year in this hall for several generations. Stories are still told of the shows staged here by long-dead villagers before and during the second world war. When we arrived (aged 40 and 50 respectively) Paul and I were considered youngsters and the generation just above us were responsible for the parties and events. As a result the dress code was often dinner jackets and evening dress, yet there was an air of post-war austerity about meal choices and ticket pricing.

Ten years ago our age group started to take over proceedings and things changed a little. Meals got a bit fancier, more music was introduced, dress became more casual. And recently a lively younger team have started to introduce canapés and sparkling wine before dinner - a sign of the greater affluence of the generation who grew up in the 80s.

That morning Paul and I walked into a busy scene as friends cleared up the hall after the cabaret. Andro was up a ladder taking down the silver stars, Pam from next door was sweeping the floor. Serving dishes were being gathered to redistribute to their rightful owners, rubbish bags were piled high before being taken outside.

All the talk was of the success of the night before. Those of us who had performed were still high on adrenaline and audience members were full of excitement and praise. Of course people wanted to know where I learned to bellydance and so I told them a little of my story - how I had trained to be a dancer then had fallen in love with bellydance in a London nightclub in 1982 (see here).

When a group of women discover I’m a bellydancer there is always at least one person who will try out a bit of a wriggle, one who will say they’ve certainly got the belly for it, and invariably someone who will ask how you do it. On this morning there was a group of five or six women, ranging in age from around 40 to mid seventies. All were upper class, all beautifully spoken. And yes, like so many woman, they wanted to know how I did the wriggling.

Now, although I was originally self-taught, many years before I had been to classes with Jacqueline Chapman - one of the first bellydance teachers in London. A seemingly rather prim lady but with a penchant for dressing up in full performance costume to teach, Jacqueline has a killer way of teaching one of the key moves in bellydance. It’s called a figure of eight and it’s a smooth twisting movement in the hips.

Jacqueline tells her students to imagine they have a pencil where you’d never think a lady would tell you to have a pencil… She then instructs you to squeeze it and lift it up. In doing so, she’s getting you to lift the pelvic floor and thereby engage the core stability muscles. It also helps the posture; but most importantly Jacqueline then tells you to imagine drawing shapes, in particular circles and figures of 8, with that imaginary pencil.

It is a brilliant way of enabling women to visualise the movement. I’ve known bellydance teachers try to break down a figure of eight by showing a twist in the waist, then a transfer of weight followed by a half circle backwards with one hip, a twist in the opposite direction another transfer of weight and a half circle with the other hip. And I always think “Oh for goodness sake! Just teach them the bloody pencil technique!”

On this particular morning, Paul remembers a line of women of varying ages standing in front of me, one or two still holding brooms. He saw me lean towards them and whisper confidentially. Then he saw smiles start to spread across their faces, which grew into giggles and then outright laughter. My husband knew exactly what I was telling them.

He also says he had a sense of the men in the hall being excluded from a wonderful feminine secret. That there was something the women were about to do and enjoy that he could never be part of.

Andro remembers being high up on the ladder, looking down on the scene as we started to move. Me showing the women how to make the figure of eight. The line of women copying. And them laughing and exclaiming and laughing some more. I showed them how to shimmy their hips by moving their knees, how to roll their shoulders. And finally how to shimmy their shoulders by shaking them gently.

Now there are some bellydance teachers who don’t like to admit that this dance is in any way sexy. No they say, it’s a folk dance, a cultural dance from a Muslim part of the world (as indeed it is) and there should be nothing sexual about it. They say, for example, that women should never touch their own bodies when they dance (not even a hand on the hip) and they insist that when executing a shoulder shimmy the breasts should not move.

Excuse me people, if you're a woman how do you shake your shoulders without your breasts moving? It’s impossible to do it without the girls going too! They’re in the same region for goodness sake. OK maybe a bit lower now than they were when you were twenty, but even so! I've heard famous Egyptian teachers call it a breast shimmy and what's good enough for them is good enough for me.

So there they were, that beautiful winter morning, my lovely Markbeech ladies. Elegant, cultured, well bred. Standing in a line in front of me in our little village hall. Wriggling their hips and shaking their breasts.

And laughing and loving it.