The Awesomeness of Ozgen

Last week, on a very hot Sunday, Atlanta Fusion Bellydance hosted a super cool workshop with Ozgen. I first met him in Toronto during the IBCC. One of the panels he spoke on was about Men in Bellydance and he contributed to the event with some great insight. I appreciated his work and what he provided. So, when Faaridah told me he’d be in town, I knew I had to clear my schedule so I wouldn’t miss him. I’ve been making some improvements to my health. Right now missing physician appointments and being absent from taking great strides at swim meet and activities designed specifically to get me back on track are not an option. However, I rescheduled my swim meet for the 4th of July and told my physician that missing Ozgen wasn’t an option either. His work is a part of my healing and wellbeing. Ozgen did not disappoint.

Ozgen taught Turkish Romany and also Turkish Technique/Choroegraphy. I felt these were important because this was his first time in Atlanta. I understood that some dancers may not be familiar with his work if they don’t travel internationally. Given that, I felt this would be the most comprehensible and give them a foundation that would allow them to enjoy his future workshops. Ozgen did not hold back on the complexity of his work. I attended the second half of the day’s workshops which included the technique course. To the naked eye or non-traveller one might think he taught a complex choreography. But there was more to it than that. There were parts and nuances that I’ve always admired about Turkish dancers. Specifically, when he lifted his arms on a travelling step, his stance and posture was very regional. Every time he went through that part in the choreography I swooned. And there were times when the class would just stop and watch him because he was just so enjoyable to just soak up and appreciate.

Swoonfest
I felt guilty because I had come simply to watch him dance. I wanted to remember the moments from IBCC Toronto and just watch a master at work. He really has some clean lines and culturally specific combinations that make him one of a kind. I felt blessed sitting there and at one point he just enjoyed the song as we watched. He danced around and Stewnell and I simultaneously fluttered in our seats in admiration. We looked at each other and said, “Isn’t it beautiful?” simultaneously. We were on cloud 9 the whole workshop. I could have watched him for hours. He said later that this was a more feminine style that he was teaching and that his own personal performances were a little more indicative of a masculine take on the dance. I saw that in Toronto and was impressed as well.

Dinner & Dancing
We went to Café Istanbul in Decatur afterward. Ozgen was very patient as the restaurant opened an hour later than scheduled. They used to open at 1pm on Sundays but today it was 5pm and we were under the impression (and according to online) that they’d be open at 4pm. The waitress came at 4:45pm and graciously let us in a bit early. She was alone and prepared all the drinks, sides and took our orders. She was also able to converse and chat with Ozgen in language and she also spoke Portugues do Brasil so I had a good time chatting with her as well. She was exceptionally kind. The bread was fresh so my little gluten intolerant body was able to eat it without the issues that come from bread mixed with preservatives. I mean, down to the details it was really great and Ozgen danced for us as well. It was an absolutely perfect Sunday.

Room for Improvement? No – Just Want More!
I don’t think there was anything that could be improved for this workshop. The venue was comfortable. The timing was early enough on Sunday that you didn’t get home too late. Ozgen delivered a solid set that everyone could take home. He allowed us to video tape it in the end. I feel that he was generous to give us a dance at the end of the day as that’s usually something stars do for an additional fee. He was animated and fun. I do agree with him that an information or chat session would be good to include in the future where we hear the low down or down low on what is happening from his point of view (or anyone’s point of view). He mentioned how much he enjoyed the panels in Toronto and how important and helpful they were. I agree. Dancers have stories from their travels and culture that we need to hear in order to truly be ensconced and related as we portray their art. I feel if there had been time AFBD would have had that. AFBD is not one to skip the important things.

One thing that works in our community is themes. I feel it would be beneficial if AFBD took this to another level with a full line up of dynamic men. A mini-conference at a great hotel featuring Egyptian Tommy King, European Rashid, North American Nath Keo for Fusion and perhaps a wonderful raqs celeb from South America. I’m always asked to note something that can be changed because surely nothing is perfect but this was as good as it could get so the only thing to do is just keep going by highlighting more men. So, onward and upward! Let’s keep the momentum going!

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Excited About Ozgen

One of my fondest memories of bellydance was at the International Bellydance Conference of Canada. In 2008, they hosted Tito Seif, Aida Nour and several incredible stars from around the globe. Ozgen was among the list of instructors and I learned a lot being in his presence.

Ozgun at IBCC

Ozgen in Toronto at the IBCC

Ozgen is a great instructor but he also has a wealth of knowledge about men in dance and what goes on from a man’s perspective. I’m not sure about now but being a male dancer at that time, you heard a lot of stories about odd reactions to men being on stage and how rare it was in the west for men to dance. Now, those of us who grew up in the culture are fully aware that men dance. Men taught me everything I know about raqs sharqi and I do feel like Ozgen contributed to that knowledge during the conference.

In addition to being a great instructor and advisor in the world of cultural dance, in particular, Turkish dance, he also has some really great energy and dance style. I’m excited about him coming to Atlanta, hosted by Atlanta Fusion Belly Dance. He will be teaching several classes and it is worth your while to get his perspective on where we are today in the industry as well as learn his technique in Turkish Romany. To say I’m excited is an understatement!

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Attend Ozgen’s workshops by registering here. You’re going to have an amazing time and learn a lot! He is really down to earth and easy to with which to work. He’s very handsome and quite kind. I added that top picture because that’s my fondest memory of him even more than seeing him on stage. I loved listening to his advice along with everyone that spoke that Saturday afternoon. It was such a great memory that I wish I could repeat in modern times. Nothing beats that conference and the panels. I’m so glad he was there and added to the experience.

This is one of those workshops that you won’t forget. It will ground you and help you have a better grasp on Turkish culture and global entertainment. The one thing we all want to do is represent the region well. For those that were not raised in the culture, this is an opportunity to touch, be engulfed and surround yourself with incredible knowledge through music and dance. I’m supposed to have a medical procedure that day but I’m rescheduling so I can be there. It’s that important to me. Can’t wait!!

From Good to Great to Gold – AFBD, Raqs Royalty of Atlanta

This is dedicated to the late Queen Harish for whom we owe for promoting dance in a way that celebrated all of us. He will be missed and may the Universe guide us and keep his spirit near.

Atlanta Fusion Bellydance’s 10th-anniversary show was a production that embodied the art community of Atlanta. Hosted by one of the newest members of the ATL International Community, Mr. Cortez, it began on time and was VERY organized. The venue was easy to reach by GPS. The Yelp reviews note that there is no parking but there was valet and it was managed by some of the most polite young men with which I ever left my car. Big shout out to Byron on that team.

The community showed up in support of AFBD, lots of families, grandparents and international community members. The dining hall for the dinner that followed was quite lovely and well decorated. There was fruit and cheese for guests and the staff was really nice at the location. The seats were cushioned and comfortable for the most part. Myself and the young man beside me were a bit wider in the waist and therefore the seat, while soft and enjoyable, did pack us in like sardines. I’ll be glad when I’m well and things like that are no longer an issue. Other than that I’d consider having an event there because it was just so well done. Not too informal and not OTT Black Tie, heels only. Locations like these should be the STANDARD for all shows and only go up from there.

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From the front entrance to the flowers on the table, the place was decked with decor.

Check-in was smooth as well. I lost my VIP wristband within minutes of receiving it and the AFBD team were able to get another for me within seconds. While I do not suggest one be as careless and aloof as I was this evening when getting myself through the door, it’s nice to know that they weren’t horrified and I didn’t have to pay another VIP fee to replace it. Thank you, Deonce!

Great Show Open
One of the highlights of the show was the video that was produced (impeccable editing – I should know. I worked at CNN for over a decade and editors are gods and goddesses, you gotta get it right, it’s an art). This video featured the core members of AFBD and a few guests speaking about the beginnings of the company including the former studio prior to their move to the current space. As a long time volunteer with MissBellydance.com, I feel having them so close is another reason MBD is still in Atlanta. They have been a huge inspiration and very encouraging. The video commentary was quite touching and focused primarily on their relationships with each other and the sisterhood they have formed. The entire visual was reminiscent of the early Bellydance Superstars productions with chimed openings and middle east charmer rhythms. I feel it should be a documentary and submitted to the library of congress or at least submitted for a PromaxBDA award. Really great material there!

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Excellent Video!

 

Show Highlights

Fatin and Aziza lead the first performance along with familiar faces that I see at all the shows. The highlight of their performance was the Isis wings whose significance was explained in the video shown prior to this show opener. While Aziza and Fatin were dominant and prominently featured in this piece with amazing stage presence and their famous, pristine raqs presentations, the other dancers presented strong skill. I remember when several of them started dancing and they have grown to be confident and an asset to the community. Well done!

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Heidi was also a wonderful addition to the show. She combined several styles and danced to music that saluted her Cuban ethnicity/heritage/roots. I was happy to see her mother there who is also SUPER supportive and another strong asset to Atlanta’s dance comm. She was like a swan, graceful and beautiful. I could have watched a few more pieces with her as a solo. I kept thinking members of Balkan Beat Box would also appreciate her performance. Very Nice! Que pasa contigo? Usted, habibti! Usted! Oh yeahhhh!

Mina was in the show this evening. She’s been a strong supporter of AFBD for several years. She’s often at their shows and I know she appreciates their work. This set was one of my favourites of the evening. I loved her ensemble, a dazzling body stocking with a matching full panel skirt that swayed with every move. The ambiance hue was violet and lavender. It was gorgeous and she danced well. Really enjoyed this set from her. The music was perfect and fit the essence of the event. This was “well fused” and, again, I enjoyed every bit! More of this!!

I’m known for saying who stole the show and tonight it was Aziza Nawal and her team. I see you, Carole Ann and you look AMAZING dancing to my all time favourite Iranian singer, Moein! Together they danced to a mix of top cultural favorites from the region including Iran. They started off with a nice Saidi piece spinning canes like pros. Then they segued into one of Moein’s most known songs that is often classified as “classic bandari” – yes gawd! Boloooo!! Boloooo! Boloooo Masha’Allah! This was my absolute favourite set of the night (and there were many who nearly took its place but this remained the best set for keeping true to the root of rhythm in the region and doing a segue …as fusion is often presented in the region…a clear segue). Beautiful!! Yani, helowa!!

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This was especially amazing for me because I can remember dancing around with Aziza and Amani at Taverna Plaka during my raqs superfan years. The rare occasion this song came on I’d go nuts on the dance floor spinning and leaping in the air as if it were a wedding. That was 10 years ago and it was a joy to see her carrying that spirit and skill well into the future. She did this song justice and I pray we get to see more and more of her in the coming years doing sets like this with great dancers like that!

*Aziza did a second set this afternoon – a solo – and it was just as powerful as the group piece. She danced to a classic as if it was second nature. Those close to me know I moved to Atlanta for two reasons. My dream job called and I wanted to be in an international community a lot bigger than the tight-knit but tiny (10,000 vs. 100,000) one I was in. I saw one photo of Aziza on the cover of a magazine and I literally packed a bag and waited for an offer. When it came, I moved the same day and threw a stone over my shoulder. I thought being in ATL was going to be even bigger and better and it was for a very long time because of artists like Aziza who kept our culture alive and kept it real. She is a big reason I stayed happy and sane. I owe her!

Next Steps in Presentations

With that said, I feel it’s time we start celebrating our top artists to the fullest. We need singers. That song and many others featured tonight are famous because of the greats who sang along with the dancers. Some of you may know them as the “man in the suit” and Fatme who continued her fame right alongside great raissat like Dina. We gotta get some men in suits on stage singing with these local legends. I guess I better get my abbayah dusted off and the sheet music. Where’s Christy? Let’s. do. this.

Karma Karmelita was also in the show and danced to what I believe was one of Nagwa Karem’s hits. Karma was as powerful as expected and a roaring success with the audience. To not have her featured in a show is equal to risking failure. She is a must!

 

Jenny – my goodness. She is just supreme. I love her style. It’s all JENNY and the nods to various cultures is just the icing on the cake. I ADORE Jenny Nichols! Her husband knows it and heaven bless her mother, I feel her spirit knows it too. I love that lady. I even have a doll that I found in the American Girl Store that I was drawn to because she reminds me of Jenny. It’s sitting in the front room right now in a pretty dress. I might bring her to class but I don’t want Jenny to freak out. There was a running joke that Jenny lived inside one of my Hello Kitty bags and if you opened it Jenny would pop out and dance for you. Well, with my doll, we’re close enough. Okay, enough Jenny fanning…

Her video was excellent and I feel if you’re a true fan of this community you gotta get a copy. I know I want to put a digital version on my website and several other places including celebrating it on MissBellydance.com. Her performance, from costume to choreography along with Haliesha and team was OUT OF THIS WORLD. I LOVED IT. So fusion and so professional! Much like Karma, Jenny is ESSENTIAL FOR SHOWS. She has it all! Nice job! More please…more Jenny and team! Also, I want the jackets they were wearing…like seriously. I need that STAT!

Kalinka was also featured in tonight’s celebration and she brought the house down in a very spiritual way. KALINKA was EVERYTHING! While watching her and enjoying her energy, I was able to see where we lack support for great artists like this. This performance was perfect. The costume, the song, her stage presence…all of it. Yet, we were a little quiet. I know part of it was because we were mesmerized. It was very hard to pick one’s chin off the floor but the music was there to get us up. Had she been performing for an Egyptian or Lebanese audience, jackets would have been thrown on the stage and people would have been up in the aisles. She was THAT good! I had the hardest time watching her because I WAS FORCED TO SIT STILL THROUGH SOMETHING SO MAJESTIC I FORGOT WHERE I WAS!

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I don’t know what venue or place we can have these shows and still have a substantial stage plus the ability to stand up and SUPPORT great dancers in regional fashion (literally and figuratively). I wanted to get up and slap the stage, take off my tie and swirl it around. But if I had I would have been a show within a show. I should have got up and sat next to Nicolas so I could sing and clap culturally. Instead, I was sitting with the new guy from Turkey and neither of us were “ourselves.” Kalinka’s performance was a wake-up call that we need to reevaluate the opportunity to praise a dancer the right way. She deserved a few jackets at her feet and flowers too. TAO BONITA!!! Now THAT right there…that’s raqs sharqi! Muito obrigada, Kalinka! You did that!

The show close was AFBD’s teachers dancing to a great classic that I used to play on raqs cocktail repeat. I found it in the stack of music at my cousin’s market in my teens. I loved it. It was a great way to end the night! Another winner!

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Many thanks to Leena and her girls for wearing MissBellydance.com’s Soraiah Star couture!

Honourable Mentions
Mad Hatter Dance Company’s sword piece was beautiful and showcased the technical artistry of our community.

Maddie was a delight with a full Maghreb tea tray filled with flames. She not only danced but did floor work and intricate isolations showcasing her skill. She’s a great showman! Has been for years! Much appreciated!

Magnolia – her costume was incredible. She wore a bedluh that was embellished with what looked like broken mirrors strategically covering the bra and belt. That costume could have come out and danced on its own and we’d have been amazed. It was super nice!

Lessons Learned:
Always bring cash! In future, when there is valet, we need to know so we can tip them accordingly. I gave him a dollar because that was the only change I had on me. Not cool. They were as wonderful as the performers and deserved to be tipped. So, lesson learned, when at raqs shows, bring cash because there’s usually a cash bar and lots of other things where credit cards are not accepted. This is the first venue I’ve been to without an ATM.

Turn the pre-show music down! There is no reason for pre-show music to be that loud. It was so loud I missed my opportunity to bond with the new Turkish guy and his BFF. We tried to speak but ended up in silence because yelling over each other was just crazy. When having shows with pre-show music, it would be best to have two people come down front and test the volume. If you can’t have a decent conversation without your throat hurting, then it’s too loud.

STELLAR SHOW

It was more than respectful of the occasion and paid homage not just to the work they’ve done but also to the region where raqs sharqi originated. It was not overrun with one style, the performances were inclusive and the whole event was the epitome of what many artists aim to achieve in this town. Big thanks to Faaridah for pushing through. There’s nothing easy about being a show producer. It’s far from cheap, it takes a good solid year to plan and even when you have support one can sometimes feel very alone. Faaridah found a way to bypass those obstacles completely with an incredible team in tow.

When you see AFBD’s name on a production you IMMEDIATELY clear your calendar because you know it’s going to be worth your time. She has given Atlanta’s dance comm (and the southeast’s) something to look forward to for over a decade! We are truly grateful!! I wish AFBD several more decades to come! We’ll be 86 years old making zaghareets in the lobby of the TWELVE and local parades! Insha’Allah!

Another Great Weekend with Suhaila

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I was grateful that I was allowed to sit in on one of the courses and the show during the Suhaila Level 2 weekend hosted by Atlanta Fusion Bellydance last weekend. On Friday, I was able to catch the first class. It was clear that these loyal students had been working out all day, dancing and absorbing all that there is to learn in this certification. I admit, I was there to enjoy their dedication and listen to the zills. Something about hearing skilled sagat players is just comforting. They went right into it too…in time, so in sync. It was beautiful to hear and to watch. They use the larger sagat, not small ones by any means. It produced a rich and wonderful sound. Made it hard to leave. In fact, I sat there long after the class was over just to collect my thoughts and express gratitude to the universe for the opportunity to hear it and be present.

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The show on Sunday night was very touching. Students were expected to dance to a song without any warning or prior knowledge of what that song would be. For several it seemed like second nature and as if they knew the work prior (and for many of us it was familiar music). The first song was that one that Suhad from Philistine often played at the start of her courses when she was teaching in East Cobb. I only know the song as Eshta Ya Amar. The young lady who performed to it did her level best to shift and change according to what the song called for one’s soul to do. I’ve only seen top professionals master it. So, kudos to her for catching all the regional rhythms to which the song gives nods. She gave it her all. Mabrook to her for that!

Our man James came to the stage next. He danced to a song made quite famous by Sergei – a beautiful protégé of the Great Carolina Vargas Dinicu also known as Aunt Rocky. Whenever I hear that song I think of his outstanding piece from a show they did in the 80s. I was too small to attend. I was not there but the video stays in my mind and I can’t help but compare everyone to his work when I hear it. James did do it justice and it was because his feet have the rhythm. If you watch closely, all the energy and grace starts in his feet. I wanted to just hug his soles after watching that performance. He was so lovely. You could feel his spirit just watching the delicate steps he took in time with the rhythm. It was majestic to behold. He’s a fine and fun dancer. I’m glad to see him every time he comes to Atlanta. He has no idea I’m an admirer. I’ll keep a professional distance cause everyone knows I can get completely out of control when it comes to appreciating a good solid raqs set. I have a tendency to faint and I felt myself tearing up watching him. Had to catch myself on a pillow in the back of the studio.

The third dancer was from Peru. I’m gonna say she’s a princess from Peru because she looked like royalty. ABSOLUTELY STUNNING TO BEHOLD and clad in grace with every move. She had long hip length dark hair and slightly tan skin. She told me she’s a designer and I hope that Genaro Rivas will take note of her for future projects in their country. I will be following her work closely. Her dancing is just as delightful as her personality. The piece she danced to was made famous by Amani in her Amani f’il Dunya – Amani Around the World DVD that was released sometime at the turn of this century. It remains embedded in my brain. Again, very hard not to compare this with what the Lebanese legend does. Of course, this was not a replica of it, nor should it have been but her own take on the song – being led, as one’s soul is, by the music. It was only in the end that I realised she didn’t know the piece because everything else was SPOT ON! She owned it!! It was like watching a member of the global troupe that made it famous! I was overwhelmed with her fantastic barrel turns, nailed percussion solos and danced as if she dances to this song quite often. I hope she comes back to Atlanta for more raqs events! So cool to have her here!

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Another memorable performer was Jenny. She was given a song that has a constant refrain in it. I can’t even think of the last time I heard this song or where it was used. It may have been at a wedding entrance. This is not the best piece for a dancer to do a full set. But Jenny, being as skilled as she is, was able to make it work well and not look as if her moves never changed. She kept everything diverse, worked the entire room and most importantly dropped her veil at just the right time. People, I don’t care what you’ve seen in the western world, a veil is not to be used through an entire performance or more than a few seconds traditionally. Take note from Jenny. You enter with it, few glides and drop it to begin your presentation. Watching people use a veil through an entire set (unless it’s for a veil theme), is like watching someone give their loved one a wrapped gift but never letting them see it…they just tease. Jenny, in her darling bedluh, gave us what you expect to see when one hires a professional to entertain and give a solid piece at a gala event. It was nostalgic to watch as it reminded me of some of the best moments in my life watching great raissat from around the world dazzle and delight audiences. Shukran Jazillan Jenny!

*For those that get served a song that is repetitive, grab your tahtib and do a spinning set to break it up. Even add in some zills if you can so that you don’t tire. Songs like that are meant to be showcased in 3 parts. That’s my experience anyway…take it or leave it.

I think my favourite dancer of the night (and I try not to use that word because so many people deserve high honour) was Leena. She took charge of the space and gave a presentation that reminded me of my teenage/early twenties/college years (hasn’t been that long but still). I can remember going to Eid parties in our very traditional community where we still covered every day. During Eid, all the curtains were drawn shut and the doors locked so that no one could go into the big hall. Women would unveil and they’d be clad in the latest ensembles, glittered and glowing with make-up and couture for days. Leena’s presentation brought me to that space immediately. I tried very hard not to cry watching her dance. She really brought a piece of the region to us with her aesthetic and her choice of costume. I was very impressed and thought, “This is what I want at my ceremony!” I could go on and on. My notes read the following:

Leena is sumptuous in this Nigerian Green bedluh She is graceful and
sensual, dancing like somebody’s sister from the community. She is
absolutely stunning. This is what I pay for. This gets me out of bed in the
morning.

As a whole you can definitely see the difference that Suhaila has made in many dancers and in this town. The dancers that truly study under her for a few years are very polished. They have a posture and “jeito” that is so pleasant to watch. It gives them a professional touch that is hard to master for many. The discipline is incredible. I wish I could drop my life and study like that to assist my body, mind and soul in many ways. There are few teachers from which I’d be willing to learn in that “drop everything” and focus manner. Suhaila is definitely one of them. Very honoured to have her in our lives. Truly grateful!

Mersi mamnoonam, Universe!
Thanks for reading!

Essence of Bellydance 2018 – The Year of Simon and Suhaila!

That’s what it was for me…the year of Simon and Suhaila and the few moments I got to enjoy them in that space were so amazing…so much so that if it had been any better I wouldn’t have been able to stand it!

*These are my personal thoughts, independent of any organization with which I’m associated or belong. I write all of the below with the assumption that when someone says they are performing bellydance, they have some idea of where it originated…I expect their teachers to tell the truth and give a little history before sending them out on stage. I know that when I state this people assume I’m about to go off in a rage of “wtf did I just see?” but that’s not the case. I just want others to understand what sort of mindset I have, put yourself in my shoes for a moment, a Nigerian-American kid who still prays 5 times a day, does her prayers in Arabic and Hebrew and subscribes to every regional newspaper under the sun not because I necessarily wanted to but because I still have relatives in the region and I know the world doesn’t end in Florida. When I see “Middle Eastern Dance” or “Bellydance” in a program, I expect to see at least one nod to the region…and Essence did more than that…it literally gave a standing ovation for the globe!

Essence of Bellydance 2018

My review will be brief this year because I didn’t get to participate in the event as much as I would have liked. I bought my tickets online because I was fearful it would sell out and some parts did from what I understand. There was another conference to which I was assigned right across the street from one of the hotels. Anime Weekend Atlanta. I’ve learned that next year, AWA will be in late October. This gives me the chance to attend Essence without interruption because I had a ticket to that too. They were kind to rollover my unused ticket from this year to next year. I’m grateful I can enjoy the two individually because trying to do both proved devastatingly exhausting.

Later this month I’m following this review up with a short montage of some of the footage captured and I will be releasing a book titled, “Loving Suhaila” in 2019 to talk about the change that she brought to this town which was evident at its zenith during this event.

Accommodations

I arrived on Friday at the Hyatt Regency Suites Atlanta Northwest. It is my go-to place for just about anything because of the price and convenience it has offered for so many years. They are going to renovate soon which will be the second renovation in less than 10 years. In fact, it’ll be right at 10 years when they do this. The suites are huge. 600sq feet minimum. They also have an executive suite that is an apartment with all the things you’d want in one minus a stove. Each room has a microwave and fridge. Room service is 24/7 but it’s best to eat at the bar or order it there and pick it up. They have a great staff of internationals from Jamaica to Bosnia. They know and understand our fun culture and even attended Essence this year! They love bellydance!

Transportation

There’s a shuttle that they offer but you need to speak to them in advance about it. They were using it for Anime Weekend Atlanta this year so I didn’t ask for a ride to the Smyrna Community Center. I took Uber which was about $30 each way for a comfortable black car. I think you could also do the Uber Select for $20 each way. I do Uber Black because these are usually companies and legit car services who allow their drivers to pick up extra rides. So, keep that in mind if you’re thinking about safety. I also get the names of these guys so I can talk to them later on about airport pickups and other deals they may have.

The Show

I got there in time to see the first show of the event, which was Friday night. I bought all my tickets on Eventbrite and put them in my phone. I was able to swipe left or right to see them all and they were accepted at the door because they had a list of all the names of the ticket holders. Very convenient, really cool. The Friday show was the competition and we weren’t supposed to take video but I’m rebellious and did it anyway. I know it’s rude and inappropriate. I had to in order to remember all the dancers. Those that stood out to me were:

Shontail from Company Mezza Shontail performed a Flamenco fusion set that was just divine and very creative. It won her third place in one of the categories. Words won’t do her justice, the video speaks volumes.

First place winner was Ciana B. I know all people of colour do not look alike but if she and Amar Gamal were put side by side you might assume they are cousins at least. She doesn’t dance just like her but it was that blue costume and very professional and entertaining stage presence that really made me think, Amar would be super proud.

Shoshanna was great in the fusion category as she did a Fox Trot mixed with Bellydance. I didn’t know it was Foxtrot, someone, an Iranian friend of mine who came along, said it was. I’m glad she was there to help me understand the significance of the dance. It made me appreciate it more. Shoshanna took home one of the grand prizes in her category, earning a thousand dollars. Nice!

Honourable mentions must go to the young lady who was in a dark bedluh and did a number of regional pieces to show that she was familiar with everything. She embraced it authentically and it wasn’t forced or commercialized. Hats off to you, wish there was an award for that. I truly enjoyed it! It’s tough to make khaleegi hair tosses and floor work look great after doing a Debke. Bedluhs and Debke don’t always present well and she was able to execute everything flawlessly.

Other highlights were the MC, Orlando. He was there last year, was great then and he was fun that night as well. He wasn’t your typical Middle Eastern Dane Gala Show Master of Ceremonies. He was a down to earth guy, dressed well, making jokes and keeping us alert and awake…despite the fact that he noted he, himself, was quite tired but made sure he was there for us that night. One of the things I thought was funny was his non-partisan commentary after some of the sets. For example, one lady decided to dance to “Wipe Out”…yes, that retro classic that has nothing to do with raqs sharqi. She wore a cute blue costume and had a veil that separated out to double veils and twirled and spun around to show the effect of the veils. Toward the end she just twirled right off stage and fumbled in doing so by running into one of the curtains. I know people would probably rather I not remember this, especially the dancer herself, but Orlando sort of saved the day with his comment…”She literally wiped out…which was right along with the song.” Let’s just say that dancer did that on purpose and it was part of the set. It worked. And after all that spinning I’d day heck yeah, wipe out, she earned the right to just fumble right off stage. Live and learn. I’ve passed out too honey. Fell right out at Nicola’s one night. I have no idea what came over me. I just hit the ground.

The supreme highlight of the evening was our beloved Lebanese Simon who got up and impromptu danced to one of Hakim’s old songs from a 1998 album…ohmygahh, has it been 20 years? I was in my teens when that song came out and it brought back a ton of great memories. Oh the joy of having a wonderful man like Simon to detail it out on the dance floor. We were elated, arms up and carrying on like kids in the club or a market alleyway where parents could not see us. It was everything! I loved having Kalinka and Samora near me the whole time. My friend Fi from Toronto was on the front row so she got to see all the action. It was just great! The night was so splendid my guests wanted tickets for the next night as well!

Saturday’s Serenade

I arrived a little earlier on Saturday which allowed me to see a bit of Simon’s class. It was quite nice. I waited around til late and watched the show as well. I had purchased the ticket and was eager to see what he was going to do. I’ll tell no lies, I was there for him. He is the reason I skipped a lot of AWA so I wouldn’t miss him. There were a ton of great dancers that night but I missed most of them because I didn’t take a program at the door. I was so busy trying to make sure all my friends had their tickets and got seats. Had I known that there was one I would have stayed for the second half. I only saw the first. Of that half I remember, Simon’s electrifying solo in his very attractive and eye-catching white ensemble was the ultimate dance of the evening. It reminded me of the International Bellydance Conference of Canada 2008, a conference which will forever be what I hold every other conference to and have for the past 10 years. Simon lept up on chairs and shimmied his way to glory and fame among the Atlanta International crowd. He really brought it home so to speak. We were absolutely thrilled and I felt sorry for every single person that came after him because I was still caught up in his energy. So much so, that I left shortly after the set with the lyrical style dancer. Again, I didn’t know there was a second half. So, I missed Saniyah’s students, Razi Raqs…and another set by Simon featuring Sadie. Yes, I said it in that order. I went back to my hotel, had a drink with Fi and planned to head out to AWA the next morning in my attempt to do all the things that weekend. But when I came back the next day, this time at the Strand Theatre to feast my eyes on the Bal Anat show, I learned all the things I missed. I am so super sorry! Sit me back down in my seat next time guys. I saw some footage from the remainder of the night that had me swooning! I feel terrible that I didn’t get to see it live! I just didn’t know…

Sunday Night

I was already feeling the obligatory post conference depression as I drove down the road. Couldn’t we get just one more day of shows? I found a spot in the parking deck, same one I parked in last time  Suhaila was here and blew us out of the water with her touring group’s set that paused me to write a whole book about her influence on this town. I sat down on the bench with crowds of people on either side lined up and eager to get in. It was a sold out show with VIP in the first four to six rows and the rest, first come, first serve. It was well worth the $55 ticket and I’d have paid more because it was hands down one of the best shows I’ve ever seen in my life! It was right up there with the IBCC Gala show of 2008 at the Ryerson Theatre featuring names like Nath Keo, Tito Seif, Aida Nour, Aisha Ali, Ferda Bayazet from Turkiye, that was a blessed and magical night and so was this one. I could barely stay seated in some cases. I was just enamored with the energy of that show. To think THAT has been going on for 50 years? OMG, all hail it! It was sensational.

Without giving away too much detail, the show’s performers are all on stage at the same time. People leave and exit auspiciously with few if any costume changes, the whole scene feels as if all the cultures of the region are present at the same time and the music changes to intro them as they glide to the front after the last set was showered with praise. Each set is spectacular. Again, all regions and genres are represented from Kotchak to Khaleegy. I believe this is what Sol Blume (look him up if you for some wild reason don’t know who he is) actually had in mind even if it did turn into something else that fateful year this dance got its fame on the road in America. I’m still planning to take a trip to Chicago and kiss the ground of the Midway Plaissance.

I have no idea if the native American young woman is a part of every show but if she isn’t she should be. Her presence is breathtaking. I have never seen what it looks like to hold all energies of all aesthetics wrapped into one. She was everything! I wanted to get her name and become friends with her but you all know I stalk dancers I love…so I was like…”self-control, leave her alone, just enjoy her on stage.” And I did! She was in a set alongside Leena and I still can’t get over her face and statuesque appearance. I’m just floored!

They said the show was part fantasy but I’m having a hard time remembering where the fantasy was exactly. I could trace back each of those sets to something that has happened and or a regional piece that has been happening for years. I can name a number of tea tray dancers, the Persian courtesan dance was clear and evident…I mean, help me seriously…what part was fantasy? Even the opening with the “Goddess of Fertility” (is that what she was) has a history and root in ancient culture and literature so I don’t know about Fantasy…it all looked pretty real to me! I’ll go in to an insane amount of detail in the book, “Loving Suhaila” in winter 2019.

I could have watched that show a second time right there and was quite sad when I went back to my car and drove off in search of a replacement for my soul. I felt like part of me died and went with the program. I knew that Monday sitting in an office would not bring me that same kind of joy. It’s not that I hate my work, it’s what I use to promote shows, but there was a sense of loss. It was then that I realised the conference’s only flaw…lack of connection.

The Pros and Cons

What a great segue…let’s talk about what went well and what could use some improvement. For me and others who left after the first act on Saturday, there needed to be some announcement or something that there was a part I and part II…a sort of…here’s tonight’s agenda. I think had we known there was going to be more or the usual, “so and so will be performing twice tonight” I wouldn’t have left. I hate to leave and miss people, especially those artists that we wait so long to see.

Let’s get the other negatives out of the way, good news is always sweeter in the end.

A Show Pass

I noticed there was a pass for all the workshops. But what about all the shows? Can we get a bundle deal where we can pay one price for all the shows vs. buying individual tickets to each one?

Group Dinner

Can we please get someone to organize a group dinner? Book a spot at a restaurant in advance, get a headcount and let’s go have dinner together. If we tell the restaurant in advance they’ll be prepared and we can avoid snafoos like what happened in 2017 when we walked in a group of 35 and they practically had to hault production to accommodate us.

Group Lunches

Why not? Can we all sit together and eat and learn something from each other? Ice breakers and share stories. There’s surely a way to organize this.  I know few want to have their conference compared to those past but I’m looking a things that worked for other events and when you offer a chance for strangers coming in from far and near to sit together with people who love raqs sharqi as much as we do, I think they’ll take you up on a group lunch deal.

One location For Everything

Yes, the Smyrna Community Center is fun and nice. My goodness, how awesome this would have been back when I literally lived across the street from it in the Village for 10 years. However, there isn’t a hotel next to it. It requires travel. One has to bring all their things for the day and camp out there. You can’t go change clothes in your room for the night’s show. There isn’t a cash bar for alcohol. It’s lacking some of the fun things that make a gala show a gala show… I would have much rather driven to the Strand every night for a theatre performance. Granted the Smyrna stage was nice and it was hard to tell it was a gymnasium but it was a gymnasium and thus Essence lacked the luster that has been associated with it for so many years…something that the Twelve did provide. Not to mention Smyrna isn’t next to anything remotely modern and diverse. That’s a sports arena area of town now. Gone is the quaint diaspora corner it once was. We need a spot that caters to our culture and to our party goals. This did not. I don’t know the solution. I know the Twelve’s overnight parking was crazy but we still paid it. Half the people complaining about it are people who don’t go to events anyway, they sit at home whining about anything they can possibly find as an excuse not to show up.

Essence has international guests, people coming from all over the world now plus international community members who are accustomed to paying for parking in Atlanta. It’s not that they can but strike a deal with the hotel or something to get event parking at a discount. Can we work on something? Not saying go back to the Twelve, but maybe even Sandy Springs Hyatt Villa Christina? It’s gorgeous and luxurious with a pool, brand new rooms only a year or two old and perfect for our kind of conference…just something…something to keep us a little more together and in each other’s faces so we can bond and get to know each other. I will not name the conferences where that happened but by darn it worked.

The Pros

There is an appreciation for something beyond tribal at this conference. Tribal and fusion bellydance was for a long time a running theme for Americans. This conference has thankfully found value in actual regional performers and doesn’t choke down our throats a slew of tribal dancers and fusion from artists who are often not in anyway associated with regional “bellydance” and raqs culture. Nothing wrong with well-executed Tribal and Fusion Bellydance. Heck AFBD does a fine job of it and I’ve often referred to them as the BDSS of ATL. But there is a root to it all that some dancers don’t adhere to or even know about…and too man of them are made into super stars of bellydance which seems seriously unfair. A lot of what we saw on Saturday in the middle of the show was “lyrical and modern dance using Middle Eastern beats and tunes.” These are not my words, these are someone else’s, another guest. So, I think we have to be careful not to bring the tribal and fusion on too heavy. Essence is a great mix of both in the best way. While Saturday’s show was a bit too much lyrical and modern dance in the first half, the event as a whole was more focused and presented an incredible salute to regional dances and dancers or those who are associated with the region. This, for me and others I know who are looking for a good “Bellydance” show, is important.

This event highlights professionals. It should stay that way. People don’t pay over $10 to see a recital of students. I don’t care how much they paid to attend or if they participated in all the workshops…If it’s a professional show, it needs to be professionals. Not professionals and their students…just professionals. I’m grateful there were more professionals in these shows than there were people who are still studying. There’s a time and place for that…and Essence gala shows are not it. Thank you to whomever, who is paying close attention to that.

Effort is put into the programming. The partnership with Hello Fresh was brilliant! Dahlal International coming this year speaks volumes. I don’t see them go to just anything. Another plus was that It was still in Atlanta so to speak. We didn’t have to travel too far to attend. People learned something, they had top teachers to study with…not carbon copies, not trendy people with a prop and a prayer, but people who have experience and something to offer. Big difference and a big deal.

Will I attend again?

I’d like to…I saw the line up for next year. There are some very attractive names. I’m a big Mohammed Shahin fan. He’s brilliant on stage, great instructor. I’d like to show him a great time with our crew. He’s been here before, I want him here again, I’m excited about it!

I would love to see it at a different venue, perhaps Dunwoody, Perimeter, someplace with some luxury that Essence of Bellydance is known for…a nice hotel, conference space with all the pluses of dining, bars and bedrooms all in the same building. That’s where the bonding happens. Big applause to all who put this together. There are a lot of moving parts and it’s so hard to do alone. I’m glad Faaridah is open to assistants and help! Kudos to all, let’s party like raqs stars and countdown to the next one and all that is inbetween!

DragonCon 2018

So this was my 9th DragonCon and the 7th year as a volunteer. Boy have I learned a lot. From learning to pack my own food for at least two days because I won’t make it out of the track room or hotel on Friday and Saturday night to being content with staying on my track the whole conference because attempting to get to another track is just out of the question…besides, I like my track. The only reason I started going to DragonCon was for the Silk Road and now I get to help organize it. It’s an honour.

My review will be super short because, again, I didn’t leave the track room. I didn’t even get to see the Silk Road Expo this year. I was looking after the origami class. Not complaining, I just don’t have notes to share on the amazing performers. I heard it was excellent. Kira did her Elvis set with a drum solo and the finale was a Turkish Karsilama from Phoenecia and Lacy Sanchez from Florida…the cool girl that used to perform at TribalCon with those really dynamic groups. They wore MissBellydance’s famous 25 yard skirt “Melih du Chant.” It’s one of their best-selling skirts and I have no idea how much longer that fabric will be available so if you haven’t gotten one you may want to grab it before they are all gone. The team literally travelled the world and bought fabric from various nations. I think they were in China when they bought that in Guongzhou province and then took it back to Turkiye where it was made by their steamstress team. From there it was shipped to the states for distribution to dance communities all over. It’s an incredible costume and huge thanks to all who have purchased one. They are one of a kind.

The Panels
This year I made sure to post a photo of just about everything that was presented. They are inside the “Silk Road Track” at Dragoncon Facebook page. Each panel was very informative and well presented. I must say I enjoyed the Bento presentation including learning that Natakiya’s child has transitioned. That’s lovely! The Korean Fashion demo was great as well. We learned so much about the history of clothing including how to put it on, where to wear it and much more. The tea panel was incredible. Despite Ayla being ill she was able to go over so much including intricate details about tea and the tea ceremonies.
Origami was quite organized this year meaning the people came in and sat down in an orderly fashion, the room filled up and there was still order and peace. It didn’t get out of hand, but the room was full and at times we had to ask the remainder of the line to stay outside. I agree that this is an incredible art form. However, it still baffles me that people line up for over an hour in advance to sit down and learn to fold paper. It’s mindblowing, but thanks to all who do it and wait for it. I read in the DragonCon official group that several were upset that we didn’t host adult origami this year. That panel is very hard to conduct with only 7 volunteers. It’s just chaotic in my opinion. It needs more assistance than what is available at the con.

JFashion panels had a refresh. There was also a comment that people missed the Lolita panels. We did men’s fashion this year and while it was fairly attended, it was new for some. People forget that guys do this fashion as well and so we had Jason from Blackbird Finery lead some discussions and how to on men’s attire and history. If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey and the Victorian Era clothing, you’ll appreciate his presentations. I enjoyed them and learned a lot. But I’m a couture nerd like that. I scan outfits looking for those nuances and details that tell me the person did their research.

Jason Lane was hilarious as always and gave some great presentations on wrestling in Japan. He’s a highlight of our track. You don’t want to miss his material. If you’re into Japanese media from Godzilla to Wrestling, you’ll be following Jason Lane everywhere he goes. He’s got the good stuff. Look him up. Thomas is good too. He has a great end of the road panel every year with prizes and more. You gotta have Thomas send everyone home in the right mind and he does that!

Next year I’d like to see a Fashion Show for the Japanese Street fashion portion of the track. I know people want more of that but we don’t currently have people that are dedicated to presenting it. I can ask the members of Yoyogi Fashion Club to take over and do it but they may not want to…I’ll see. Thoughts are in progress for the event and if we do continue I’ll be taking on a more active role administratively to relieve Kira of the excessive amounts of admin work that must be turned in and completed, sometimes at the last minute because we don’t find out until two days before it’s due. It’s a lot to keep up with and there is a joy in it but there’s a bigger need for support it seems and I’m going to look into that.

Thanks to all who came to the shows, panels and interacted. Remember to leave your feedback on the app if it’s still available and rate everything you attend. The feedback is vital to that panel’s survival! Cheers!

Japan Fest 2018

I woke up really early on Saturday morning with the direct intent of going to Japan Fest. I went to my swim meet at the crack of dawn, got out of the pool in time and rushed over to Satellite Blvd. I arrived at 10am exactly, later than I planned… goal was to be there by 9:30am latest. The parking lot was packed to the gills, the last car was left to wonder around aimlessly in the sea of the stuffed car park.

Driving around to the other side as directed by traffic attendants I couldn’t help but notice the entire arena had a line wrapped around to the other side. I rode right and saw that there were still cars for days and the empty spaces were more toward the street, Sugarloaf Parkway. I drove right on out of there and went back down Satelitte boulevard and went in toward the theatre side. Couldn’t get in that section. I gave up and went home.