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!

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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.

Take Me Back to Toronto!

askmissbellydance

IMG_3733Our raqs archivist returned to Toronto to reconnect with family and the raqs sharqi and Arabic music and dance community there. This trip was quite an investment on all parts of those who travelled and we’re grateful that they used their time there to assist us in connecting with those who appreciate the culture we come from and hold dear no matter where we live in the world.
The highlights of the night were Hany Morgan, Dr. George Sawa, the Arabesque Drummers, a Debke duo, Yasmina Ramzy, the Righteous Rogues of Raqs and Arabesque Dance Company. Enjoy!

Hany Morgan is a genius from Egypt whose skill in music is mind blowing. In addition to teaching and leading several classes over the past two months (and will continue to do so throughout 2018), Mr. Morgan performed multiple times in the show as a tabla player, drummer, zillist and overall support for…

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Essence of Bellydance 2017 – Review

Jaki1
Be sure to like Studio Jaki’s page and buy some of these great photos!

As a Nigerian-American, I feel it is a duty to attend cultural dance events and be present. Thankfully, it’s also a joy! With propaganda on the rise to simply push some people aside and act as though they never existed, I definitely want to support those who appreciate art and music not just from my country but of each nation that has a similar history to my own and prides itself on some of its amazing entertainment and art – people from the very nations that are being excluded and dismissed by propaganda. I am grateful to EOB’s annual productions because it elevates the art and cultural education to a new level, earning the respect of many leaders in the entertainment industry.

Raqs Sharqi is Still Here – It Isn’t Going Anywhere!

If we weren’t so badass, I don’t believe so many mainstream icons and rock stars would mimic what we do in the realm of dance and music. You can see and hear the heavy influence of Raqs Sharqi in so much  of American pop culture – going beyond the movements these days, you see DJs and actual people being requested from the region to mix and mingle in entertainment circles near and far. Let’s keep showcasing our amazing culture in the best light with events like these.

My comments are written from the lens of an immigrant community member who is thrilled to spend a few days being myself with people who can appreciate the culture from which I and my fellow expats were born. Thanks to all who gather at the galas year after year! Thanks to MissBellydance.com – longtime friends of whom do what they can to support the community through couture. They provided the gift bags this year for the competition. Gargantuan hugs to Team Essence for going through with these monumental tasks and providing Atlanta with a safe place to enjoy so much cultural dance!
…and here’s what I thought of it…

Is Essence Worth Attending? YES!

Essence is always exciting. No question. This year was my favourite year of all the EOB events I’ve attended. Having Suhaila Salimpour sitting with us, Jacques al Asmar, Mohammed Shahin and the core raqs community plus a plethora of international guests that flew in from as far as Germany and Northern Asia was the icing on the cake. It’s not that it’s not an international conference to begin with…but it’s hella awesome to see so many from around the world go through the trouble of travelling alllll the way from the far corners of the globe to spend 4 days with us in Atlanta. We’re a cool crowd, I have to give us credit for that. A lot of people WANT to be here and perform in this community. We love art and are obsessed with many of the artists…and it shows!

I arrived on Friday afternoon at 4pm on the dot ready to party. We went straight to the ballroom and the hug fest began. The vendor area was diverse with a ton of great options from which to pick. There were colourful dresses for everyday wear, jewelry and of course lots of costumes. There’s rumour that there may be a virtual vending option in future which is absolutely needed. Imagine being able to walk in, see the latest items by a variety of vendors and shop right there with deals and specials on their latest work and couture! Create a shopping cart and boom it’s at your house a few days after you return from Essence. Yes, please!!

But the Twelve Is Expensive!! Not with the EOB discount, it’s a steal!

Goodbye Twelve Hotel, looking forward to going back for other events and weddings!

This will be the last year that Essence will be at the Twelve Hotel so we have to say goodbye to these immaculate condo style rooms in the heart of Atlanta. But we’ll also be saying goodbye to $30 a night parking too so…no complaints there. Still, our time in Atlantic Station has been outstanding and wonderful. I’ve enjoyed every year. It will be essential to contact the Hyatt Regency Suites Atlanta Northwest (Smyrna/Marietta) which is the suite style hotel within 5 minutes of the immaculate and modern Smyrna Community Center where EOB is to be held in 2018. That hotel is elegant, reasonably priced around $159 per suite and they also have lots of ballrooms and gathering areas for those who like to party all night. It’s also across the street from some pretty cool restaurants with quick access to shopping malls if spending more money is important to you while on holiday in ATL. Still, I love the Twelve and I’m sad that it can’t remain the primary hotel for this conference because it’s just so freakin’ comfy!

Laissez les bon temps rouler!!!! Party at EOB17!

Suhaila and Jacques

Suhaila Salimpour and Jacques Al Asmar attempting to make west coast signs to represent the legacy! 94706 represent! ::zaghareet::

By 7:30pm we were seated and Suhaila Salimpour walks in the door (you all know I’m working feverishly to finish up the book I wrote about her January visit). I nearly began to faint. I just looked at Cairo, a local Angolan-American model and raqs enthusiast that many of you all know. She took time from her busy fashion schedule to hang out with us these few days as well. Cairo is practically waving smelling salts and lavender around my head to keep me from having a Suhaila fan fit. Well, after she walks in, here comes her cool pal Jacques Al Asmar, another legendary icon who now lives in GA. I nearly slumped over in my chair – was sure I was down for the count in a superfan fit. “Oh, my gaaah, they are both here at the same time!” Can we just move everyone here? You all know I’m on a serious crusade to see to it that it happens! Before long, all the awesome familiar faces are surrounding us…Ryanne, Jenny, members of JDC…all here! It’s about to get legit lit up in the Twelve! (I’m working on my slang as many of you know)

The competition opens with stunning performers who are not competitors but talented people who are either professionals or raqs enthusiasts. Of the Friday night dancers, the following were those that left a lasting impression on me. I have many of them on video and trust that I can share these snippets in due time. Also, I will not mince my words…gonna keep it real.

The MC was Orlando, Faaridah’s beau! I appreciated his dedication to the evening, working hard to get the names right and being able to read my carpel tunnel handwriting (I need to go the chiropractor and get this situation taken care of – sorry MCs). Really happy to have him as a fellow dance family member. He’s great!

Nawar returned to the EOB stage from Florida. She wore a stunning royal blue bedluh with silver embellishments. What stands out with Nawar is that she makes it very clear that she knows many dances from the region and showcases them all in a neat package of 2-3 minutes. She knows the region and represents it very well! She won third place that night and I’m very grateful she placed in the top three as she is simply top notch! Love her involvement and presence in our Florida-Georgia raqs exchange!

Northside Tribe also performed that night not as competitors but as a troupe. They did one of my favourite sets in their latest repertoire. I believe I saw it at TribalCon 2017 earlier this year? It’s the set with the fan veils that incorporates Rhumba Flamenco music and a mix of other styles with a Rroma lineage. Many know I have ties in that culture through a grandparent so as soon as I hear the music the tears begin to roll. I held it together and soaked up their awesome performance. The décor and intricate details on their costumes really bring it home. I absolutely loved Lacy’s hair and thought hard how on earth I can pull that off Monday – Friday on the media circuit. I’ll find a way. They were so in sync and really represented their appreciation for the dance and that particular part of the culture so well with this piece. Truly excellent dedication and challenging work glowing from each member! Awesome! More please!

Naima Sultana
Naima just completed her time with Bellydance Evolution, Jilinna’s team. It was an honour to have her here. I tease her and go nuts each time I see her of late with hails of praise and fangirling cause she’s damn good! It’s predominately improv for each set, passionate and exactly what you want to see from a GOOD dancer! I wish North Carolina was closer so we could see her more often. Maybe we can move her here as well? She wore a red and white bedluh that was off the chain! It had enormous rose work on the bust and supported her very well. The skirt was layers of luxurious chiffon and embellishments…like a wedding dress meets a Lebanese gala show. I loved it! That coupled with her awesome skills just made the performance another awesome set in the evening’s outstanding line-up.

Another young lady (the one that was eating a lovely peach on Sunday) performed wearing a bright green bedluh with matching veil. It also had lovely bra and belt set in what looked like an illuminating purple or periwinkle hue. When she came out in that bold costume I looked at Cairo and said, “She better bring it if she’s bold enough to wear those colours on the Essence stage…” and she did! OMG! She’s one of my new favorites. In fact, she was my second favourite performance of the night. She was competitor number 4 and I was enamored with her work. She is worth buying the DVD to see! I was happy she came over and sat with us later that weekend as she ate her peach and I, a salad, while we chatted about costumes and culinary confections. So happy to have met her and to have seen her work.

*I did hear someone come up to her and comment, “I always see you eating?! You’re always eating!” Leave her alone, let her eat! All that performance work and classes…heck, she needs to eat! We all do… no food shaming in this community or you are OUT!

The young lady that followed that performance in the gold bedluh that looked like an angel custom made it and blessed her into it during some out of this world ceremony was unreal! She was very professional in her demeanor and you could tell from her physique that she worked really hard on her health. She looked like a poster child for “If perfection was real it would look like this.” Her dancing was incredible and I’m glad I have a bit of it on video. Let this footage speak for itself!

A dear international community member from Sierra Leone was in the competition as well. She wore what I call a Maghreb and West African henna hafla dancer ensemble and she tore it up out there on that stage. She’s a great dancer but I think the costume really threw some people off and cost her a place in the top three of the competition – otherwise she would have easily placed.

There was a movie back in 1998 that featured a Moroccan wedding and a similar costume was worn but it had feathers instead of the tinsel-ruffles on the edges. If you’re not from the region, this might have gone over some people’s heads. Perhaps she made the costume based on her own desire with no influence at all from that movie or the region. However, I remember that henna party scene at the wedding and a lady came out of nowhere doing a mean set of travelling steps in a peacock blue and brown version that very ensemble. I was thrilled to see it and even more excited about her dance skills. The girl can move!

Raqs Razi gave us a traditionally perfect raqs set in a blue bedluh that was as stunning as that long floor length hair of hers. She really looked like a star up there and I was shocked she didn’t get a spot in the top three, a tie with perhaps the second-place winner? Razi was really good!

Competitor number 8 actually won second place and she deserved it. Let the video speak for itself!

Majda was incredibly graceful and gorgeous! She was probably born that way, standing up in the hospital bed playing finger cymbals while the other little babies cooed and wiggled along. I can totally see that…enjoy that mental image. She didn’t cry when she was born, she made zaghareets. Tonight, her gorgeous white and gold with silver ensemble made her look angelic. That particular piece of music was very healing and surreal, taking us to another dimension, some other place in time. I could have watched it twice and swooned into eternity. She was Cairo’s main reason for even coming to Essence this year. We adore Lady Majda! She, too, is majestic!

Jessenia of whom I was told was from Republica Dominicana put a hurtin’ on that stage. Her performance was EVERYTHING! She spared nothing and gave no f*cks. The girl brought out more than technique, she took a spoonful of ta’arab and spread it alllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll over the floor and and fed it to the judges one by one. You couldn’t deny she was all kinds of perfect with spins and steps that you only see when you’re in the backrooms of someone’s religious ceremony in West African compound. I saw things I haven’t seen since I left the international community in which I first lived! She snatched the win of people’s choice AND judges top pick making her the Queen of Essence for 2017. She overwhelmed us with her outstanding work and I didn’t expect it. She seemed so meek and mild as if she would be a cute, gentle dancer that was up and coming. NO! Jessenia has already come…she’s one of those, “Esh?” with the hair flick kind of good people that sadly too many underestimated that night. Give her all the tiaras! All of them! This video doesn’t do her justice…she really tore it up!

After a night of semi-debauchery (if trying every drink on a menu that includes the word pineapple counts – many know it’s my favourite fruit) we were back at it on Saturday. From 10am to 5:30pm we chatted and hung out with vendors, attendees and ordered cheesecake and more (the cupcakes were in honour of Diva Smith, Curt Smith’s daughter of Tears for Fears – again I skipped the second part of the tour to be with Essence). Sugar literally circling our heads as we walked back to the rooms to change clothes, we were super nervous about what we might see that night at the gala show. Some of the icons would be dancing and that would mean some really impressive soul stirring work that might lay me out on the ground. I wore black sheer lace in case that would be my Essence haunting dress if you know what I mean…there are those performances that can take you out of this world (i.e. Tito of 2010, Nath Keo of 2011 and that theatre performance of Suhaila’s in 2013? I can still feel that one).

Amani Jabril performed a real Iraqi raqs set to Mohamed al Salem’s “Galb Galb” and it was so perfect she “Came up out of her jewelry” as the MC said. This piece was one of the three most important pieces of the raqs presentations of the night. When you visit the region, THAT is the level of energy and emotion that you will see. If you’re expecting to witness rapid head slinging and people looking as if their necks are going to snap from the over the top hair spinning you will be disappointed. That is just simply over the top interpretation of Iraqi dance. There are many dances of Iraq and they do include lot of hair and beautiful movements with the hips and shoulders but few look anything like what’s been going around in the video circles of the many dance boards. If you stick to what Amani presented and those like her from the region, you’re going to grasp a grace that is unique to that specific area and the ethnic groups that inhabit it…and it will be appreciated by locals and original people of the area.

Amani’s suave demeanor and regional hair tosses followed by a variety of footwork and travelling steps were executed perfectly. Of all the dancers I’ve known on the circuit these past 11 years (her career is longer than that), she has always stayed a few steps ahead of the times introducing more than just bedluhs and beladi rhythms to her community, students and followers. She is certainly a force and will remain one as it’s just her nature to work hard at staying true to the region that she also calls home. Amani isn’t someone you call as a filler to a show she is a MUST HAVE when you want to make a statement that your production is committed to greatness! Remember that!

The Salimpour Collective of Georgia-Florida is beginning to look and feel like the Arabesque of the South. For those that follow Yasmina Ramzy and team you’ll know this is a serious act to follow. Tonight, the team mesmerized us with really solid pieces that show their hard work and dedication to the Salimpour School and its legacy. It was nothing shy of stellar and perfect. I’m jealous that I don’t have that discipline and ability to put forth the work it takes to “get it right” in that way. They were totally in sync yet relaxed and having fun with it as if this dance rolls off their bodies naturally. I credit the ladies but also Suhaila who continues to visit and teach them – not to mention their countless trips to the mothership on the West Coast to perfect their work. Impressive is an understatement and I know Suhaila would agree…she too stood up for an ovation after the set. Well deserved!

Awalim’s performance touched the entire room and received a standing ovation. Please watch to understand why… This is their thing…they work hard to get their performances in tip top shape! This one reminded me of one I saw at TribalCon where powerful words were written on the bodies of the performers. This particular piece had trigger words on their costumes and it sparked a real response in the audience making this one of the best performances of the night.

Aziza Nawal – for someone that has danced as long as she has it’s mad crazy how she can continue to bring an electric energy to the stage. Her performances are timeless, yet modern and perfect for any stage. She’s everyone’s dancer if that makes sense. As I watched her I remembered how moved I was just seeing her on the cover an Atlanta magazine in my teens. I remember convincing a house full of people to take tour bus into Atlanta and go look for her. We went all over the city hoping to find this dancer and the restaurant in which she performed. We ended up at a big Chinese restaurant in Decatur on the border of Stone Mountain but the memory of our effort to find Aziza and her community stays with me. We wanted to visit this person and see her live and mesh our international community with the one in which she was living. She was just that outstanding and I still have that same admiration for her each time she gets on stage. None can compare, she is the one and only Aziza Nawal!

Andrus Ramir…
Good heavens…how do you put what he did into words? His Kawliya presentation was all that and then some plus eternity. As you can see in the montage I posted on Facebook, he walks out and it just starts… there was no dramatic pause or unnecessary waiting…he served it immediately in all his glory. When you see his name on performance program, be ready. Take all your vitamins, do your prayers…prepare for his performances. I finished an entire bottle of one-a-day multis and half a bottle of Vitamin C because I knew his appearance alone was going to either leave me feeling some kind of way or take me out for good. Using a popular tune in Kawliya presentations currently circling the scene, Andrus took it to another level with his floral and sparkling galabiya style attire. Doing all the spellbinding movements, turns, head spins and hair tosses, I felt a spirit take over me as he performed and my head and body lost control of themselves. I was flailing, wailing and felt myself near fall in the floor. I could not get enough of this performance…and he was gracious enough to step off the stage and continue serving this raqs goodness to the delight and overwhelming under expected titillating joy of many in the audience. It was clear he hit a nerve with people and they were not ready to “feel that way.” It was a little too good if you know what I mean…left a few wiping their foreheads from sweat. When he raq’d his way over to Dahne, Cairo and I… well…need I say more?

Andrus is a cut above in that he is bold, beautiful and as one person put it, “ballsy” all the same. He doesn’t let anyone deter him from his artistic direction. Pushing the envelope is an understatement because he sets the rules in the glam raqs world – making him a trendsetter who can’t be mimicked, only imitated.

Mohamed Shahin’s performances on Saturday gave me another view of him. I first met him in Las Vegas/Hendersonville when Black Orchid Dance held a festival there. He, Tito (of whom we spent a lot of time with when he was in Atlanta prior) and Aziza of Cairo seemed to stay together most of the time so we really never got a moment to mingle like we Atlanteans are known to do. We weren’t even sure he was that interested in us as fan-friends. Some time after that, a lot of our Atlanta teams were headed up to his festival and gala event in NYC (NYC Cairo). I suggested that MissBellydance.com advertise at his event and help promote his work because it is phenomenal (I’m head over heels for his Tanoura Masri presentations -it’s a religious experience for me – as important as seeing the more religiously centered Dervish of Turkiye). So, this festival is the first time I’ve actually been able to see him super up close and observe in awe…and maaan did I!

Studio Jaki
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On Friday afternoon I see him, all smiles, come into the Twelve Hotel Ballroom. He was glowing like a heavenly being and his energy was pleasant and peaceful. Mohammed Shahin was absolutely stunning to behold and handsome is an understatement – Masha’Allah. I had to turn my head and look away because I was shocked at my reaction. Throughout the weekend he’d pass by all smiles and as beautiful as the day is long. I feared I might have a crush on him. It was confirmed after watching him perform. I was smitten with his Egyptian Classical piece that incorporated what reminded me a lot of Reda Troupe moves along with really strong stances that I’ve seen throughout the Mideast and Europe. It was overwhelming to say the least…and he, like many others this weekend, was wearing white. His performance was so good I could barely stand it!

Then of course there was the tahtib set which for me is like the second-best thing on the planet next to Tanoura. Later that night he presented his signature Tanoura Masri with the colour lights – I’d seen him present this in Vegas and was again just crying like a wailing superfan by the time it was over. Again, that is just a religious moment for me and a full circle moment given I used to sit for hours in my teens reading about what the café guys were doing – thank you distant relatives in the region for all those great entertainment updates that introduced me to this style of whirling. Now, thanks to EOB17, I was able to see it live again – this being a fourth time for me. I just wanted to go backstage and hug him for an hour as if he were a living doll just waiting for a new doll keeper. I could talk about him all day but I’ll stop now or I might end up writing a book about the experience as I’m known to do.

Colleena Shakti – I just…can’t even begin to describe her – she makes me swoon! Each time I see her, she’s just incredible! I seriously don’t know how to express my admiration for her. I wish she had a clone that lived in Atlanta so we could hug on her, look after her or build a shrine in which she could reside – think the Temple in Lilburn…that kind of hero worship. She embodies such grace and serenity that it was literally a healing experience watching her dance. I was hypnotised and put into a place of supreme peace that is hard to detail. You have to experience it for yourself. If you see her name on a workshop invitation or event list, drop everything and register. I’ve said it before…we need that kind of serenity in Atlanta through art. She is just phenomenal to say the least and as I wrote in her description…she is simply majestic and gives 110% of herself to the art. She literally embodies it in every way and we were blessed to experience that again in Atlanta. More please! More, more, more Colleena!

Chudney Raks equals grace for days! I love her approach to raqs sharqi. There was a time when glam bedluhs and really polished choreographies mixed with improv were the new thing to master. She seems to keep this style alive with her immaculate costuming and overall presentation. She’s that untouchable dancer that is just so good you can’t really mimic the style – you are forced to simply admire it and stay in a realm of “absolute awe.” She’s just naturally gorgeous and talented. Really cool having her back in Atlanta!

Mira Betz shocked me with her performance in the most unexpected way. After being floored by her work I went ahead and showed her my fan girl side on Sunday. This led to her giving me two hugs and kiss during which I screamed “It’s happening!!!!!” I wasn’t even able to give her back the same affection because I was just so…”omg, Mira Betz is hugging me!” The gesture came after I explained that I simply wanted to lay on the floor after her performance and just let the spirit take me. She entered foot first…lifted. It then touched the stage and a frail depiction of a Parkinsons sufferer appeared, gently shaking …to the beat mind you. Her movements told the story of a dancer who was once young and how age and time had taken its toll on her body. It was a lesson that you, too, will become older and your body will not be the same. This is interesting in that we have women well into their 70s and 80s in our community to whom we can’t hold a candle because they are just so seasoned in this art it, again, rolls off, like they were born doing this. But we know their fight to remain respected and also push against the evils of time which can just tear into the flesh as was made clear in the depiction of the frail sweet dancer Mira Betz presented. It’s a reminder to us that this could be anyone’s future. Take better care of yourself could have been an underline message but also one to not be so cocky and egotistical.

No matter what the message, the image was powerful, strong and telling…it deserved an award. She was the best of the night for costuming, creativity and messaging. She is more than Tribal Fusion, she is an artist foremost and that’s what she gave us that night…she brought with her something that really should live in the Louvre or a highly esteemed museum. This is what she can do! And though we see her doing mirror/mirroring work and amazing fusion pieces, at the end of the day she brings us, as the MC said, a human story. I was moved beyond tears, I was put into action to further guard not just my body but the human spirit in a very careful and conscious light. I pray that others got the same message so we can continue to be careful how we treat each other…especially ourselves.

That’s my list of those that moved me and left a lasting impression. The entire show was wonderful and you could see the amount of work people put into their costuming and overall presentation. It was certainly filled with polished performers!

That one thing…from an audience view point…
Several people I spoke with brought up this issue and I promised to speak about it… It’s our hair! I’m not sure what is going on with some of us but I do know that we are growing up and for some our hair is thinning. When hair becomes whispy and isn’t as heavy and full as it used to be, for performance sake it’s time to get a hair piece or maybe avoid figure eights on stage. Too many are drawing attention to their hair and not taking care of its jagged edges and really poorly kept ends. This distracts from the art. I saw beautiful presentations but the straw-like hair took away from the presentation because it was flying around and catching static in some cases. Let’s work on getting our hair at its healthiest when we’re going to use it for a presentation. You wouldn’t get on stage with a cold, so why take your hair out if it’s sick? Pin it up and find another way to execute the moves that require a full mane. Whispy dead hair can’t be tossed well and, again, it makes the dancer look like they aren’t well either. This isn’t a shaming session or segment, it’s a call for all of us to start taking some hair vitamins and really look after ourselves. There are just certain things we have to do to stay performance healthy and that includes taking better care of our hair. Way too many gorgeous, polished presentations with sick tresses being put through the stress of being slung about…no. Just no. Help me understand why this is happening.

The Workshops
I didn’t attend any this year and I didn’t even peek inside to see what was going on because I was literally too busy partying. With DragonCon I feel panels make the conference what it is and I often get upset when people do not attend at least one but instead party excessively. Well, I did just that at Essence because I didn’t want to stand in the back and just take notes. I feel if you’re going to walk through those workshop doors then go in there ready to move your body. I’m preparing to do just that…we’ll see. With emphasis on culture and origins…and where they are headed today, I’m happy to physically join in because it’s not about “get me on that stage and make me famous” it’s a highlight on how important it is to celebrate culture…and that’s all I really want to do.

Cons of the Con – What went wrong at Essence of Bellydance
I can’t think of anything on the surface that was unpleasant or poorly handled. I didn’t see it. I was not a volunteer, I simply shared the event with as many people as I could, live blogged and sent invitations and ticket links to people within Atlanta’s international community as well as MBD’s customer base. It’s a joy to promote such amazing work, culture loving people and I’d do it all again in a heartbeat. Essence was the best it’s ever been in my opinion and Cairo and I both sat near tears on Sunday night wishing we had just one more gala show to carry on at for good measure. This Essence of Bellydance had everything I wanted to see!

Pros
The Twelve Hotel is just an outstanding place as is Atlantic Station. I love it here because of the elegant community and cool restaurants. It’s so well-maintained from my experience although I’ve heard these rooms need a refresher. Thankfully, mine did not. It was in tip top shape this year.

The variety and diversity of the teachers plus line-up of the gala shows is spectacular! Nothing looked the same so I didn’t get bored at all. It was simply fantastic and well-thought out it seemed. Things ran smoothly (on the outside looking in). There were very few hiccups…as with all wonderful things, I know there were some but I didn’t see any. Essence was simply flawless.

What’s to come?
The changes that the team mentioned for next year, location, etc. are a little concerning. Cobb county is relatively conservative though diverse. The last time I went to a huge international community event there was for my fellow Nigerians’ son’s birthday party. Miles Copeland and Mary from the Atlanta bellydance community also hosted Ansuya’s workshop there in 2007. It’s an amazing place and I used live across the street from it for many years. However, there aren’t hotels within walking distance to this venue, they are down the street and around the corner. Let me suggest, right now, to Team Essence that calling the Hyatt Regency Suites Atlanta Northwest and booking a space to hang out after hours will be a good thing. Have a hospitality room or something so when the Community Center closes for the day you can still get a sense of group fun with activities and after party like atmosphere…maybe even have food catered so people are comfortable and not running around Cobb County’s early closing restaurants trying to get a meal. We can even have a Christo’s Gyro pizza night with the awesome Greek god himself if needed. But do not let people loose to try to figure out that very sleepy part of Atlanta – there is no Yardhouse late night eating around there… you’ll have to plan this part out and maybe include it in the package.

Wishing all of us the best and the ability to return and party like Raqs Stars again!

Thanks for reading!
P.S. Randa missed out on a wonderful opportunity…too bad for her. Hope she’s going to be okay. Her decision not to attend so late in the game made it all seem suspect. I trust she can recover from what seems like a misstep to many.

masalaama…

Additional videos:

Review – Attack of the Bellydancers Show

After not being able to go to the Attack of the Bellydancer’s show last year I made sure I was in attendance this year. Highlights of the show for me were the following:

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Sig Sawyer the MC – always an excellent choice for a show. He knows how to work with a mixed crowd. In this case, the raqs knowledge pendulum was swinging on every end…from the experts, gurus and enthusiasts who can name every single genre of raqs to those who found some of the sets comical due to their lack of knowledge in the art. Yes, I’m calling someone out. But we’ll get to that later… First, my favourites.

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Majda – her set looked to be a choreography and drum solo combined. Her whole presentation from costume to intricate turns and moves made it a really beautiful piece. As I watched her I thought how awesome it would be to have her at a wedding. That’s the kind of pristine, polished and energetic material you want when you’re aiming for glam!

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Persica was also really beautiful as mentioned on my Facebook wall. What stood out was that dynamic and well thought out entrance. The combination of the gorgeous make-up and beautiful fuchsia bedluh costumes made them stand out in an extraordinary way. It’s been such a long time since we’ve had polished troupes in bedluhs of the same colour. It’s hard to accomplish and honestly, Arabesque of Canada is about the only dance ensemble that still does it well. So, to have a taste of that in Atlanta via a new dance group is truly welcomed! Each troupe member was committed to the piece and you could tell they enjoyed performing for everyone. Loved Jendayi’s expression throughout this set. Can’t wait to see what they do next! *Please note, Jendayi’s JDC is back! They will debut Desert Stories in 2018. Buy tickets now.

Raqs Razi has always been a delight on stage. Tonight, she was extra delightful in every sense of the word… she was “extra” in the most amazing way. I heard something about her dance being a salute to the 70s. I could see that with the cool shades and fur coat that I’ve seen in some 70s movies. I was a toddler in the 80s so all I remember is Boy George, Duran Duran and Tears for Fears. The big furs were not in my childhood aesthetic but the memory of the Kuti Family dancers has never left me and THAT is what I thought of when I saw her in the elaborate garb. Her costume was stunning and the dancing was delightful. It was the old school ethnic North and West African style steps that you still see today at highlife shows. It was tastefully done and quite impressive. I wanted to jump out there and sing “Do Your Best!” Her aesthetic is just toooo cute! Let the pictures speak for themselves.

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Everybody wanted to take a photo with her in that gorgeous outfit! Maiea & Raqs Razi

Equally enjoyable was the Shimmy Collective! This troupe is made up of Hasna, Maiea and Sabia (the show director). I feel like the video can speak for itself. There’s nothing else to say…their set was very strong for so many reasons. Watch it carefully and see how well they timed their movements with the music. This is rare of late. There’s some kind of trend to just catch beats with an element of surprise for the audience. Not with this group, they went all out with a classic and solid set that matched every note in the song. Ahhh, I miss that! They are another group I hope to see more of minus that name. Shimmy Collective? Come on… How about Banat Soleil or Raqs el Hob? Something powerful and strong to match the direction in which they are going. That name isn’t worthy of their strength.

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James was the only male performer of the evening. He did a very classic Egyptian set that was listed as cabaret but far from it (which is debatable because the term cabaret is used in all kinds of ways – see my previous blog post). I adored his raqs work. It was dynamite and also very strong in that he was at total ease as if he does this every single day like a prayer. I was fascinated with his energy, his attire and his background given that he is not a random guy who thought this was cool and decided to just get on stage to be the anomaly. James is straight-up legit raqs. I said at dinner later that night, “that’s money right there…” meaning, “James is the type of dancer I look forward to paying to see.” I could have watched him twice. He got a standing ovation out of me, I was that excited!

Saniyah’s set was also welcomed for reasons that give me goosebumps. First, if you don’t know her background or with whom she has studied, you need to call her and ask. Google Black Orchid Danse and see all the great photos of she, the icons and modern legends hanging out. These greats include, Mohammed Shahin, Tito Seif, Nath Keo, Andrus Ramir, Sal Maktoub, Amani Jabril and of course, Simon Sarkis! These are very strong dancers in our raqs industry. Saniyah has taken courses with all of them, more than once and you can see their influence in her steps and appreciation of the art. When she dances, you know “she knows.” It’s clear that her raqs knowledge is not from a purely westernized, Hollywood trendy DVD or a group of carbon copies. She is carrying the torch here in Atlanta when it comes to honouring the international community and origins of the dance. Her training is pure gold and it shows.

There were other really cute dances and creative pieces that night including that of Ziah and her daughter with their Moana presentation. I believe when this show was first put together, it was a combination of Disney and dance? The theme has moved on but their presentation held on to that aesthetic (which is more along the lines of what I was expecting from everyone) and was very well done.

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The solos by Hasna and Sabia were incredible, both dancers really glowed. I appreciate their use of classic music such as Lamma Badda. Nice work!

Things That Make You Go…hmmmm…

Beatrice… my goodness. That girl worked! She worked hard and has been working hard for a very long time. While it wasn’t the smoothest I’ve , it was clearly steeped in Suhaila goodness and I think Suhaila would have been proud to see her put her mind, body and soul into that set the way she did. The group to which she belongs, The Salimpour Collective, is a major part of a piece of literature I’ve been working on for several months. I am blown away by how Suhaila’s spirit has engulfed so many in this raqs community. It’s impressive to see people master such a unique approach and technique to raqs sharqi. I will definitely talk about this in my publication which turned into a novel in February after realising there was no way in heck I could just post a blog about what I saw and experienced during the AFBD Suhaila 2017 event. More on that at another time and this performance will be mentioned.

More make-up! There were a lot of people that just looked washed out. The lighting was fine in that place, but the lack of make-up on several dancers took away from the beauty of their presentations. This is not to say that make-up is essential and a must at all times. However, on stage it is. I just saw blank faces…almost like ghosts doing beautiful art. It was scary! For those who have very light skin tones, make-up is crucial! Ziah has fair skin but I could see her because she knew how to apply her make-up. I’m not trying to be funny and this is not a political post. This is about being present and visible in your art. From the audience, some faces looked like a blank canvas with hair…and it was distracting. MAC or Prestige (their sister brand that doesn’t cost a fortune) is our friend. Surreal Make-Up who was featured at TribalCon is also our friend. I, too, know I have to wear make-up when my goal is to present to a crowd in this type of art setting. We have several amazing make-up artists from our drag community who can teach us and have taught us how to be “seen” on stage. Let me know if you’d like a lesson. They won’t make you look like the stereotype of drag, you will instead look as good as the mavens of RPDR henny! We’re all in this together! It’s all about the show and it will go on and should go on right! Let’s do this!

The Not So Cool

Sometimes you gotta call out your audience for better or worse. Also, this is not a school play and should not be approached as such. The audience this particular night was very supportive and knowledgeable for the most part. However, there were a few people that really shocked me. I always promote this show to the international community to which I belong. The stories in the news regarding the treatment of “the different,” the “non-English speaking,” and anyone with a tone deeper than most sand can’t be ignored. It’s clear, we’re in the middle of a really hard political situation. So, these shows are a respite from the criticism of being from or a part of a culture that is not high in the esteem of the western world. Yes, we live here in America. Some of us came with our parents who relocated during a time when immigrants and expats were still “okay” and not seen as the resource snatching sows that we’re sometimes portrayed through various propaganda. Many Americans of all walks of life are working hard to find peace and unity for every citizen and resident and I’m daily grateful for it! Thank you!

One of those efforts is done through showcases of cultural dance. We enter these spaces with expectations of inclusivity, appreciation, admiration and love. When someone breeches that by portraying the dance in a negative, stereotypical way or if someone treats our art as a seductive sleaze fest then sparks begin to fly and our purpose is threatened. Same sentiment if someone laughs at portions of the show that are not meant to be comical. I won’t name which dance was thought a comedy show by the young lady on the front row but I will say this.

Dear Fellow International Community member who sat in front of me on the front row,

I was sitting behind you on the second row. I wanted on several occasions to welcome you in your language and give you and your friends tickets to the next event plus discounts at our local international dance clothing shoppes and more. However, something kept stopping me and in hindsight I’m glad it did. You laughed at one of the performers. It was clear you really didn’t even find it funny but continued to giggle loudly though no one else was. Even your friend looked at you with surprise as you jovially wiped your eyes “from laughing so hard.” Thankfully, you were stopped by one of the kind raqs warriors and the presenter didn’t pay you any attention but kept right on dancing. In future, just hold it. Try to have some self-control. Given the history of your nation (a nation for which I spent many years studying as I, too, have relatives there) and the tough times that many have faced there I expected more acceptance and appreciation of all the dances and genders in the room. I think you let us all down as international residents of our community.

There were others in the audience that did some rather interesting things including the parent who couldn’t get her child to stop disrupting certain portions of the show. I’m all for an all-ages show. It’s crucial that children are given the gift of cultural dance and theatre. But we must remember that they are not the only ones for whom this show is created. We must teach our children good etiquette and stellar manners when it comes to art. Respect is not an option in these very sacred spaces.

The After Party

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All I can say is that after party at Jordan’s Lounge was as good as the show if not more. My nights, of late, are filled with Japanese Street Fashion events, Tokyo Fashion Shows complete with Nippon dolls, mascots and tea parties. I forgot how fun it is to go to a club with a good DJ and just shoulder shimmy with every Eastern Music enthusiast in the room. The highlight of that was having Amani (and her gorgeous hair) around, DJ Spin Sultan leading the show along with stellar performances by Karma Karmelita. I also must say that the locals and students in this club were very receptive.

On several occasions, the guys did these really cool line dances to American music (trap music I think it was called) and were very respectful when we got on the dance floor. They didn’t freak out or call us names. That’s always refreshing in these politically charged times. When DJ Spin Sultan played the Gulf, Region tunes we were joined by some of the Kuwaiti, Iranian and Kurdish young ladies who danced next to us wearing their cute plaid shirts and ponytails. We dined on a ton of delicious food from their great menu. (I still have some left and it’s been 4 days!) Annnnd we were joined by Sabia’s mum of whom I thought was a new dancer just hanging out at the start of the show. Wow!! If you haven’t seen her…have a glass of cold water ahead of time. She’s gorgeous and SUPER NICE!!!

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Dancers of ATL

That’s all I’ve got folks! The show was good, the party was super awesome! People put forth the best of themselves that evening and it showed! To the ill-behaved, a raqs show is neither the time or the place for that type of conduct! Don’t make us call security! ☹

Mabrook wa OPA! ::throws a plate on the ground like we used to…::

Review – Ya Leil Ya Leil – Cabaret mn Turkiye

*I’m Nigerian-American. I love lectures and education on new and old trends in art, music, dance. I grew up watching relatives from Philistine, Lebanon and various African nations during holiday haflas, weddings and more. If I show up at an event it’s because something in the promotions and marketing screamed “cultural dance.” I once left a suddenly damaged vehicle (ran over a sink in the road in Canton, Ga in the middle of the night) on the side of the road because I wanted to get to a cultural dance show. I literally left he keys with the tow truck operator and gave him the address of a nearby autoshop, told him to leave it there and I’d take care of it in the morning. I wasn’t going to miss the show! It’s just that crucial. I’m always happy to support raqs art when possible! I write the below after being under the impression that I was headed to a cultural dance show highlighting Turkiye and many of the dance styles and cultural art there.

The Review
I just returned from the Ya Leil Ya Leil – A Night at the Turkish Cabaret programme at AFBD. Tonight’s topic was, again, Turkish Cabaret. All I saw was a photo of Aya on the promo and I knew I had to go. I didn’t even bother to read the rest or note that it said, “Cabaret.” That term can mean anything depending on the dance community one is in. I went expecting a variety of Turkish dances to be presented. It’s important to keep that in mind if you decide to read the rest.
I believe it was hosted by the Salimpour Collective? Following Bellydance Fashion week 2015, I remember distinctly having conversations about doing quarterly lectures at the studio with snacks and drinks. If this is what they had in mind, mabrook!

It’s really nice!
My goal tonight was to support Aya. I’ve loved her and her work for a very long time. I remember years ago when having a serious disagreement with my best friend at the time. I went to the Oojami concert to get away and calm my nerves. It was at the then Club Europe. Man, whatever happened to that place? It was fun, yeah?! So, I see Aya there and I had always wanted to dance with her. I think we as raqs enthusiasts always wish to dance with our favourite raissat. So, this was my turn!! She looks at me and we smile at each other and then we start dancing together as soon to be friends do. Here he comes out of nowhere (how did he know where I was?) and interrupts. I’m like, “Dude, move! I’ve waited 4 years to dance with her. She’s one of my favourite in this town. You’re messing everything up. Y’alla emshee!” Then he tried to dance with her. I moved in and got him out of the way. Thankfully he got the point and skedaddled along. It was blissful shimmying alongside her with one of my favourite bands playing live! So, of course I left swim meet early today to rush home, check the status of my online ticket, scrub off the chlorine and drive at the maximum speed allowed to hear what she had to say at this event. Though 10 mins late, I didn’t miss too much. She was the highlight of the evening!

The Décor
It would be wrong of me not to explain how they transformed the studio. There were large eastern style pillows everywhere and little fanoos lanterns on every table. The lights were dimmed and there was a screen. It was being used to give a presentation. She talked about the history of Turkiye, where she’s from in the nation and really went in depth. I was able to get some of it recorded and I hope to have a place to upload it soon. It’s an audio file vs. video…so, perhaps I’ll create a podcast.

Some of the highlights of her lecture were explaining the true life in the dance realm when it comes to Rrom/Romany/Roman. Notice she used the correct name for this blessed group of people who are strangely still called Gypsy by many – when are we gonna work out the respect in this situation? Gotta stop this in my opinion. I guess it will end when we stop calling most ethnic groups everything but their nationality and proper respectable title – aka when we start treating people like the real humans they are vs. a diminutive term – but I digress. Aya had slides and visuals that spoke about the usage of spoons in dance/spoon dancing/dancing with spoons and how it is done mostly by men. The concept of it being feminine is a western thing. She explained the differences between various men’s dance styles, regional styles and gave us the term Oyun which is used to describe what many of us call raqs sharqi. Oyun is used specifically to describe this style of dance in Turkiye. She also noted that Oyun/Bellydance is a happy dance and not to be used to commemorate sad occasions. It’s always upbeat, cheerful and inclusive. Again, there was so much more and my small paragraph can’t even begin to do it justice. I could have listened to her for an hour. I did expect her to dance and perhaps I missed it?

The Dancers and Additional Presentations
There were two other dancers present. Sadly, I only remember the name of one of them. Karma Karmelita was the final one and before her another lady who presented a style that was to replicate a Turkish dancer or Turkish dance style from several decades ago. The air conditioner was kind of loud so I couldn’t hear what Majda (the MC/lecturer) was saying. So, pardon me if I botch this terribly. I remember there were some clips shown of dances from the region or representative of the region and this particular dancer was to pay homage to what we had seen on screen in the second half of this programme. Things that followed left me with mixed feelings…some too harsh to speak of on a public blog post.

From western dancers, I’ve always been marketed Turkish dance as a girl in pasties, tiny bedluhs that are complimentary to only two physical aesthetics vs. the robust fully clothed cultural dance and group dances that I grew up seeing from Turkish friends and neighbours. This presentation referenced that side of Turkiye including women in just their underwear (one flashing her huhu quickly while dancing). Now, I know this is reality for some and not for all. That was made clear. Some choose or have no choice but to take their dance to this level for a variety of reasons. But it hurt me to see that in that setting because it made me think too much about politics and the role/state of women in the region and the world. How much of it is by choice? What are we really seeing here? That of course made me think about stereotypes and, again, the two aesthetics that the western world promotes that are picked up by other cultures (of all the things to culturally exchange, right?) when they decide to emulate a western form of raqs sharqi with their own regional version of it. This limited aesthetic has pushed a lot of diversity out the window.
The rub occurred just before Karma came on…another known dancer who was lovingly termed as one who “gave no f*cks” was shown on screen. While her dance was nowhere near vulgar and was tastefully done, quite beautiful in fact, Karma’s replica of it felt like a sexier version of what we were presented on screen and I was confused. I think I need to see the other dancer again (the whole video not just a snippet) to better understand Karma’s presentation.

Afterthoughts
The second half of the programme made me ask “But what about the rest of Turkiye?” It made me so sad that we don’t have any male Turkish dancers in this town willing to get up and teach. They’re here but I suppose no one from the Turkish Cultural Centre could make it that night? I don’t know. There’s just so much more to Turkiye and I think I went to this thinking there would be more time for it.
I spoke to someone we all admire and respect after the programme was over. She literally ran over and said, “That to me is what I’ll always see bellydance as…that was the style when I first got into it.” She continued saying that it just exudes sex and being sexy …and that certain people in Turkiye really go for it. Okay, fair enough. It’s liked as much as the other styles, group dances and festive Oyun. However, I was expecting a lot more of the cultural dances to be featured for some reason. Given how far Atlanta has come in its cultural knowledge of many parts of the dance globe, I never thought I’d leave feeling like, “what just happened?” I left, I thought about it, re-read the title and thought…well, it said cabaret…again not cultural dance.

So, I hope in future there will be one that is “Turkish Cultural Dance” or any other region of the world that this community likes to represent in their dance and feature the hard core regional styles that we rarely get to see until someone’s cousin moves here or the (insert cultural dance center) wants to partner and do a big dance night. Maybe it was already featured and I missed it?

Pros: Awesome setting! Incredible ambiance! Majda and Jenny are involved…enough said. Deonce and Faaridah were there…again, enough said. You know when you see these four names at minimum, the event is going to be tight and worth your while. Was happy to see Ziah, Diane and some of the members of the Kawaii Street Fashion group in attendance. Someone was wearing a Ghibli studio jacket featuring Totoro. That was awesome and yes, I bought a Totoro jacket online while there because I was so inspired. There was a lot of ethnic diversity in the audience. One of the loyal Persian couples was there. I believe Turkish coffee was served? Very nice! The team really made the place look great! Very impressed!

Cons: Were there any? Probably not. If anything, it’s on my part as I wasn’t sure what to expect. The term cabaret is so wide. It’s hard to tell what one might see. I took a chance hoping that there’d be Turkish cultural dances. Aya did a great job referencing them at the top of the program. I just wasn’t ready for the second half when the cabaret material was featured. It pushed me into a political frame of mind more than one of art appreciation.

Overall
I was very appreciative of the effort put into the programme. It was spectacular and I do want to go to another if the presentations continue to include those from the region. I appreciate that Aya was included.

When is the next one?
Not sure. I heard it’s going to be about American Vintage Bellydance. Not my thing. I’m ready to continue my focus on regional dances from the Gulf, Iran, the Maghreb and my parents’ region of the world. That’s where I find the most joy and benefits. Still, I may go simply because the set-up is so darn nice and there’s a learning atmosphere. And, as mentioned, if Majda, Jenny, Faaridah, Deonce and team are involved then it’s worth it! I’m a lecture addict when it comes to cultural dance and art. If educated icons like Donna Mejia had their own Raqs Lecture Network I’d be the first to sign up!

Given that there are still new people trickling in, I do hope that future events in our good town will continue to feature diversity and inclusivity in this art. I hope that it will be presented on a cultural level in addition to the commercial side (is cabaret synonymous with commercial?). I find that wholesome and healthy images are so important for newcomers to the dance. We must be conscious of who we worship in this realm. Is it someone who is doing us good or harm? We speak so much about body image and inclusivity but we’re still so quick to exclude certain types of dances, dancers with a non-western aesthetic and sadly quick to cut out the cultural history of the art itself. I’m grateful Majda, Faaridah and team have taken up the torch to guide people in a healthy direction. It’s such a task but who better than this group to do it! G-dspeed!