Behind the Scenes at Essence of Bellydance 2013!

Review: Essence of Bellydance Gala and Fashion Show
(As always this is just my perspective as an international community member who has been involved in Raqs Art for 15+ years. My views are my own.)

Update: Please see the pictures of the event created by Studio Jaki:
(she does make photos available for purchase, please contact her directly to inquire)

*All of my pictures are from a side stage view. While I would have preferred to be on the front row because I was so fearful I’d be the worst MC ever, I was very happy to be even closer, able to see fine details on costumes and expressions. Because that was once me out on stage with Debke and Eastern line dances, I quickly regained that energy and appreciation for what it takes to get out there and present one’s passion, and in my case culture close to home, to fans and friends.

For about 3 years the very poised and gorgeous Faaridah asked me to be the Master of Ceremonies for her event. I had no idea I’d be paired with the stunning and talented Amani Jabril of whom I’ve come to lean on many times in personal meltdowns (i.e. 2005-2006). The idea of once again being front and center seemed fun but I was rarely in town around that time or was just getting back from the Tears for Fears Tours. So I could never commit to Faaridah’s event. Also, the last time I tried to MC a show I wasn’t pleased with the outcome. I’m a low talker and no microphone can change that. So, I declined Essence of Bellydance for fear I wasn’t cut out as a good show host. This year Faaridah was having none of that. She said, “you’re the MC.” I figured, okay, fine. I’ll do it. She’s a lovely person and I enjoy her work so the least I can do to repay her is to get on stage and announce these hard working dancers.

Again, in order not to spoil the DVDs and publications that will follow for a fee I will not give extreme detailed an accounts of every act and will be fairly short in response (at least that’s the goal) to the pieces. Most important, I do want to say that there wasn’t one bad performance that night.
It was absolutely stunning from start to finish. Each performer (as well as audience members, loved everyone’s outfit and so much all around, Tamar picked a very cute tribal fusion set) was well dressed, polished, well-rehearsed and did an outstanding job on that stage. I can’t stress that enough. It was all as close to perfect as perfect can get.

Technical issues:
A few dancers decided to dance twice because they said they couldn’t hear their music during their initial performance. I was sitting next to the sound board so it looked and sounded great from my area. I have no idea what happened out in the audience but everyone was attentive and full of praise at the end of each set.

The Audience:
Several performers mentioned to me that they felt the crowd wasn’t as responsive as they had expected. Again, I disagree, at least on my end I heard lots of supportive cheers along side my zaghareets. I am very sad that any performer would feel dejected or disappointed from lack of audience reaction as again, I heard lots of it. The pieces were so absolutely amazing, one did expect continuous roars of applause. I’m not sure how to change that other than making sure the audience knows they have the right to go nuts if they want to in the middle of a set. It is tradition to go with friends to a show and sit on the front row and just go crazy… and perhaps the American audiences are just too shy to do that in a cultural show featuring dances that are very different to them. In America, one sits quietly through a performance and then waits until the end to applaude and show appreciation. That has certainly changed as the dance culture evolved but that habit still remains…you wait until the end. So, we have to really get our audiences prepped for this. That may have been our job as Masters of Ceremonies and we just didn’t remind people enough? Again, I heard applause and reactions throughout the night except the few times the performances were so serene that people were literally watching with ther chins dropped and heads leaning to one side in amazement.

I also think there should be an audience cheer section at big shows like these where we have a mixed audience. Have about 5 people on each side who are responsible for leading the praise and love for the dancers. We all know when one group gets up and goes nuts, it’s contagious.

Dances of the Night

sidestage view -Rafiah Dance Company and AFBD

sidestage view -Rafiah Dance Company and AFBD

Rafiah Dance and AFBD were stunning in their costumes. Their choice of transitions and raqs formations were absolutely beautiful. I loved this! It was a truly aesthetically pleasing piece of dance art. This style is of course done by Bellydance Superstars and other professional troupes. It’s what is entertaining and gives the crowd an idea of what “modern bellydance” looks like in it’s professional form.

Their ensembles were gorgeous! Layers of ethnic clothing, it was lovely.

Their ensembles were gorgeous! Layers of ethnic clothing, it was lovely.

Ziah and Banat Almeh look dif…in an extremely positive and beautiful way. They literally looked like a group of international community women in their element. There’s one lady (from Iran if I’m not mistaken) who kept a very genuine and happy face the entire time she was on stage. You could just see she was thrilled to be up there. To her I say, keep it up. You have certainly found something that works for you and we support you in this decision. Glad that your family was on the front row to partake in your joy!

Mina, spinning cane... #AlMsr

Mina, spinning cane… #AlMsr

Mina did a hardcore Masri piece complete with spinning cane. Loved it! Love when she does that routine. I feel she really brings forth the expressions and energy of the region and it’s always a crowd pleaser. I wish more Egyptians were there to enjoy it. We really need to work on that. I have some ideas and we’ll go over those as we plan for 2014.

Jahara Phoenix stayed true to that for which they are known. Heidi was so stunning and so hot even her hipscarf couldn’t take the heat and slipped off. It was a very serene set that led into some very strong spins and formations that JP is known to do perfectly. Again, beautiful as always!

JP in action

JP in action

Samora, stunning stunning stunning…I mean she looked amazing in those gorgeous colours. She did that for which she is known best as well. Stellar entrance and a professional presentation filled with ta’arab in just the right places. It’s no wonder that she has had so many years in Atlanta’s dance scene with high praise from many. Mabrook!

Wayward Tribal

Wayward Tribal

Wayward Tribal looked diverse in their tribal and costumes. That’s what stood out to me. It was unique and creative.

Talita and Kalinka were gorgeous in their white and red costumes doing a more classic duet with an Egyptian and Lebanese feel. Their beauty really shined in this presentation and is perhaps what we will remember most, how absolutely fantastic and picture perfect they looked on stage in addition to their routine which was in sync. Very nice example of what we have in Atlanta…in the future I think they should both just go wild up there and make the audience go crazy with their talented moves and ability to cross cultures in this field. They are too cool! 🙂

Talita and Kalinka

Talita and Kalinka

Amoorat -again, this group is just stunning and pristine. Loved it from start to finish. It’s the way in which they present the dance, the transformations, their ability to dance in sync and the professional approach. It’s just gorgeous. I’d like to see them do a short tour along the east coast, showcasing their talent in New York, DC and Miami… a fan can dream.

Joy Pinchback -just beautiful. Very nice choice of moves and a gorgeous presentation with large veil fans. It was aesthetically pleasing…just really beautiful.

Mira betz -Beautiful presentation. Unique choice of costuming. It worked!! Meshed into something so bold and phenonmenal. We knew it would be good, but we didn’t see THAT coming. I wondered if the presentation was her history of dance as she went through a number of styles in just a few short minutes. Completely modern with a brilliant costume switch in the magical “quick change” format. She wins!! If you missed it, I’m Sorry!! That was one of those “break the plate moments” because the suspense and way she held that audience are one of a kind dance sets that you can only hope you’ll get to see again.
She then moved into her stunning signature material. What she’s known for…sensual modern raqs with classic elements. Brilliant!

Amar Gamal – in my eyes she can do no wrong, so my thoughts are completely biased. I simply stared in awe, wishing I was getting married so I could have a reason to pay her to dance for my friends and relatives. I’ve been following her since 1999 and have blogged my story about my admiration for her time and time again. I finally met her in Nashville (for her surprise birthday party at the Iranian Chaihanna) with her friend Monica and we had a blast! I can still feel myself whirling in a bandari spin and the happy look on her face. This time I was much more subdued and distant… I was thrilled to know she was coming and I simply kept my distance out of resepct for those who may have yet to have enjoyed such a professional and helpful global raqs star.

"Nawar Bellydance" and Amar Gamal, two impressive entities. We love Amar Gamal 15 years and counting!

“Nawar Bellydance” and Amar Gamal, two impressive entities. We love Amar Gamal 15 years and counting!

I hope the audience truly understood how fortunate they were to see her on that stage. I was overjoyed with the awestruck faces and the interest that so many had as she kept their gaze from the time she walked out to the sharp pose at the end. She owned that stage with an impeccable routine filled with hafla raqs and joyous crowd interactions while wearing a stunning blue bedluh. If you missed it I feel sorry for ya…everyone needs Amar Gamal in their lives. Glad Atlanta got to see her in all her glory. Mabrook wa Masha’Allah.

Beautiful BJ wearing one of MissBellydance's 2013 performance ensembles.

Beautiful BJ wearing one of MissBellydance’s 2013 performance ensembles.

Between the two acts was the ever popular Raqs Fashion show. This is the moment that major designers, wholesalers and raqs sharqi stores show their latest and greatest ensembles for dancers to wear on and off stage. There were some truly beautiful pieces of clothing from, Moonlight Diva, Magical Fashions and many others. I beg of you to get a program and support these vendors because they too help make these events possible.

What I loved was seeing all of the cool outfits on many dancers in the audience. The awesome part about being immersed in this art is that you can wear a lot of what is onstage as everyday wear. So much of it has been modified to work for hanging out with friends and attending shows. It’s intricate, elegant, some full of evening lace and others studded with rhinestones and pearls; you name it, the culture has it and it’s raqin’ to wear. Makes one want to do a zaghareet as your decked out friends walk into the ballroom.

At this point I was even more entrenched backstage and unable to take a lot of pictures of the outfits so we’ll have to wait for Studio Jaki to enjoy some of the perfect prints.

Act II

Jenday Dance Company (JDC) did an urban fusion set to start the second half of the evening. They wore pinstriped bottoms with suspenders, neat black hats an white shirts. It was a crowd pleasing choreography and very stylish. It’s great to have such diversity in shows, it’s essential and adds so much.

Zeina Dance Company led by Diane Adams, followed with what was one of the most authentically accurate troupe sets of the night. Wearing stunning beladi dresses and matching headwear, these ladies showed the crowd what Sha’abi Masri is all about. I loved the part where they framed themselves and then wagged their finger to the audience as in “you can look but you can not touch!” It was sizzlin’ and I didn’t hesistate to make a zaghareet from behind the curtain. Awesome performance!



Jenny’s raqs fusion set was hot…times infinity. I was sweating…seriously. It was just so good and so…so Jenny! From her intricate fusion outfit, to those hair tosses, loops and silver embelishments in the form of ringchain fringe…she had me that night when she walked in the door. From the costume to the improv, I repeat, improv (not choreo) she was was good! She really needs her own music video. I see collaboration calling. Let’s take this lady to the next level!

Now, here’s where the show began to blur a little for me. I simply remember seeing a myriad of Tribal Fusion from Mirabai, Zivah Saphirah and Satya…all 3 different dancers/groups showed their approach to raqs fusion in their own unique ways. What stood out were the costumes and their choices of music. Please be sure to check out any video available to savour those sets.

my terrible picture of such amazing dancers, sorry friends! :(

my terrible picture of such amazing dancers, sorry friends! 😦

Umniyah was unique in that it was very clear what they were fusing. There was the earthy feel of Appalachain arts, modern dance, headdresses that looked to be a mix of styles from Indigenous Americans or “Indians” as this blessed people have been named. The skirts were beautiful terracotta, brown, sunset, gold and sky dusk. Their choreography went well with the music…they thought about this piece, it wasn’t just thrown together. It had elements of “their region” and their homeland. I thought they were from Knoxville or Gatilnburg as the way they presented the piece was very much like the modern dance and modern raqs groups from those cities. After re-reading the program I see there was certainly a root of those areas’ cultures. What a great treat for those who appreciate that area’s dedication to regional art. Nice job, send that to the Knoxville Dogwood Arts Festival. They’ll appreciate that.

Nawar was stunning as usual, wrapped up in her element and presenting the art in the way she does best. Her lovely costume was professional and she looked very pretty and polished, like a dancing doll. She’s a great soloist in that she truly lets go and just gives you a piece of her soul as if the stage were twice as large and the city three times as big as it already is with a packed house. Nawar is a true artist and she exudes that with every step.

Les Raissat -Chebba Raqs Sharqi

Les Raissat -Chebba Raqs Sharqi

Les Raissat did a street style Sha’abi duo…this was a style you might see from two good friends or sisters at an Egyptian wedding. It reminds me of my youth (yes, here I go, let’s go back in time)…it’s Autumn 1999 and I’m at a henna hafla for a friend who is getting married. It’s a double henna with one Philistiniya and another is from Pakistan. The venue is packed with women curled up in lavish fabric, all different colours, hair is down and flowing around. There’s no henna on anyone just yet. We’re still opening gifts and eating halwa. Then I pull out a Cd. Everyone knows what time it is…I get up, my cousin gets up and we get down…I’m talking hard core sha’abi (before it was put on the mainstream circuit). Abaya is off, I’m in a fitted tunic and dance pants, barefoot and loaded with bangles. We have a blast…then two others get up in a routine they’ve been practicing for weeks in order to be ready for the event. This is what we did, this is how it was done…these are things people never see. There was no harem of women, no man waiting around in the wings for his many loves…instead a room full of good friends just having a great time.

This is what Les Raissat – Chebba Raqs Sharqi represent…a picture of the East, a moment in time…a culture of raqs and art enjoyed by the people, created for the people and also for oneself. They personified that in this set with a bit of a serene and controlled theatrical feel. I trust the other international community members in the audience understood it and hopefully enjoyed it as much as I did.

Sophistique was a real treat for the audience. They truly did an incredible job of mixing a mosaic of dance including Caribbean, African, bachata, jazz, salsa and more in a passionate piece that just has to be seen. There are no words to describe it. It was just dynamite… I hope others were able to easily recognise the various styles and amount of hard work put into that presentation. From the name, to the ensembles, their chosen aesthetic and more, everything made sense. It was gorgeous!

Jill Parker and Sadie closed out the show with separate pieces that were signature to their fame and glory. I was enraptured watching Jill and intriqued watching Sadie. I can remember watching Jill Parker on FCBD videos (the early years) with relatives from Philistine stopping by and sitting with me on the couch watching for hours as we tried to make heads or tails of American Tribal Style. I was one of few who said, I recognise bits and pieces of the things on their costumes and look, so and so has “raqs/raissa” as a tattoo…surely they know the culture! I’m gonna find them and ask. Oh how we longed to connect to communities all over the globe who loved our culture and art. It was a life’s goal that I’m happy has been realised. It was a full circle moment to see them in person again. Thank you team Essence for making that possible.

The evening concluded with an all call to the stage for both models and dancers. Amani and I were thanked and I have to send a double dose of love to her for that wonderful intro she did of me…very sweet and thoughtful! I want to thank everyone from the International Community who came and certainly the families and friends of dancers. The attendance was great and I saw very few empty seats.

I did miss being on the front row but I have to say that as an “emcee/MC” I got a persepctive that I never thought I’d see again, one from behind the scenes…reminding me of the endless amounts of work that go into making people’s dreams come true. Team Essence is to be commended for their efforts. This was more than professional, it was one of those legendary shows that will be etched in Raqs History. Mabrook!

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