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...


  1. I love your Extreme Bellydance classes you have recently started in London. They are different and refreshing and your sensitive approach is totally inclusive. Can't wait to be there again soon after missing it for two weeks.

    1. Thank you so much Silvana!! I'm really glad you enjoy the classes - I must admit, I love teaching them!

  2. You make a great point, and it's not just restaurants where the public has such expectations - it's private functions as well. I started belly dancing late in life and was encouraged to take on a few private gigs in my fifties. Most of the time I got a great reception (and was even invited back). However I still feel scarred by comments at a couple of gigs where some of the audience clearly felt I was far too old to be belly dancing (even though I was thirty years younger than them!). I had been basking in the positive reviews from haflas and forgetting that the general public has different standards.

    1. Thanks Dorothy, and yes, now that I'm in my late 50s all I can say is thank goodness for haflas! Having said that, some of our hipsinc students are ladies of a certain age (one is over 70) and they've formed a troupe which performs for local groups such as the Rotary Club etc. They are in really hot demand but I think the key there is that they make it quite clear that they are older ladies so people know what to expect. But I've certainly had the experience you describe and it's not nice at all.


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