Review Essence of Bellydance 2015 – A Myriad of Memorable Moments

*These opinions are only mine. As a member of several Expat & International Communities, a Nigerian-American with relatives from the Mideast and Asia I feel it important to attend Raqs Festivals, regional dance shows and events. This is our culture and we should be allowed to enjoy it, support it and be proud of it. Very grateful to those behind the scenes who work for free to make sure these events go well. To my fellow volunteers of this event, I salute you for the over-the-top sacrifices you made when no one was looking… I saw a lot this year and I was brought to tears at how much dedication there was not just to the art but to each other. I write this from the viewpoint of a fan and volunteer of the Essence of Bellydance brand. It would be unfair for me to speak on this event from any other viewpoint this year as I was there volunteering from 9am til the evening Thursday through Sunday. So if you’re looking to volunteer or want to know what it’s like to be immersed in the event from a volunteer perspective, this recap may be of some interest.

This was Essence of Bellydance’s 5th year hosting an extravaganza. It took place at the Twelve Hotel Atlantic Station in what some may call ‘West Midtown.’ It is an immaculate facility with tons of restaurants and fun things to do. It’s self-contained in many ways because you really don’t need to go anywhere, everything is already there from food to fashion, movies and more.

My original plan was to get a room and just be on site representing the MissBellydance.com‘s fanship but by mid-summer I was a committed volunteer with the event, helping spread the word about the amazing guests that would be there. I sent out several blog posts, shared digital posters and social media updates. Via FB and tons of other event boards, I talked about how awesome this event is because of all of the classes it offers not to mention shopping opportunities for professionals and students. It’s also a great raqs holiday. Essence of Bellydance has something for everyone!

Amani MC

Amani MC’s at least one show each year and does a fantastic job!

The event, for me, was made up of awesome memories. One being the moment I arrived on Thursday morning at 9:30am and volunteered at registriation for the Soraya Zayed/Sorraiah Zaied class on “Danse Oriental Technique and Combos.” Immediately I was swept away by her presence and her approach. I am a firm believer in love at first sight because of Sorraiah. Within 10 minutes I could see that I was going to adore her. She brings everything you want in Egyptian and International Dance into the classroom. From her background to the iconic steps she teaches and her own appreciation and love for her mentors and industry colleagues, hands down she is one of THE BEST I’ve EVER seen or encountered in the region. There are no words to describe how awesome she is. Beautiful, happy, positive, cooperative and energetic are but mere petty adjectives to describe her personality and physical features. I’ve never wanted to be anyone in my entire life, but if I could I’d like to be Lady Sorraiah for just one day…24 hours tonwalk in her footsteps, in her perfect form with her knowledge. I KNOW that it would equip me with a lifetime of lessons and the ability to be successful. I loved Sorraiah Zaied in that moment, in that class. She was so inclusive and so good with her workshop attendees. She was patient and interactive…I could go on and on. This is a legend that must come back! It would be a real shame and disappointment if she didn’t. All hail Her Majesty Queen Sorraiah! This is what I’ve been missing. Bahebik antee, wala!!!! Bahebik!!!

Sorraiah Zaied In Class

Sorraiah Zaied In Class

Competition Preliminaries
MissBellydance.com was one of the sponsors of the first ever Essence of Bellydance competition. In order to compete in the Oriental track, one had to do one of two things: 1. Learn Petite Jamila’s choreography and perform it at the Thursday evening Fashion Show and Preliminary 2. Perform one’s own work on Saturday night. Points from both would be combined and the person with the highest score would be the winner. Now…some people arrived on Thursday. That was an issue altogether. Not anyone’s fault but you really had to take some time out of your regular life for this competition to be truly prepared for every aspect of it. To be successful, I felt like competitors needed to be really fresh and ready to roll at 9am in the morning for the three hour workshop. Only after that could they go take a nap or maybe attend Luna of Cairo’s sha’abi class at 3pm. THEN, they needed to get ready for the preliminaries. I’m going to be honest and say it looked like entirely too much. Whether they felt it or not, it seemed like a lot for one day. Was this experience to help them know what it is like to live a day in the life of a mega star? I just…I had issues with how it seemed to take its toll on some people. Again, perhaps one should sacrifice taking courses with Luna and instead rest until time for the preliminaries? I don’t know what I would have done. I’m not a fan of competitions as is…so I was certainly having some second thoughts about the structure. But I trust the team, the executive decisions and continued into it nonetheless.

For the Tribal Track, one had to take Jill Parker’s course at 1pm-4pm and then join the others for the preliminaries later that night. However, it looks like only troupes signed up for the Tribal Troupe competition? So Jill graciously permitted all of them to dance with her that night? Correct me if I’m wrong.

Fast forward to that evening, about 10 people competed in the preliminaries and the judges gave very direct and honest feedback…judges made up of icons from both the “Tribal/Fusion” and “Danse Oriental.” While each competitor gave it their all, it was very clear that the young lady from Los Angeles was going to place in the top 3. I predicted this that night as I sat in the hotel room with the actual award sashes and prizes. My guess was: Miami (Andrus Ramir), Los Angeles (Natalie), Atlanta (Nahari) and New York (Monet) would be in the final run. These contestants really pushed through fatigue and the long day to shine bright, all three being the most memorable for me. But again, this was an early prediction. Anything could happen on Saturday.

Preliminaries EOB 2015

Preliminaries EOB 2015

The Fashion show was pretty hot. Even my Periscope audience was enamored with that. MissBellydance.com was a hit with their raqs lifestyle couture and Queen Sorraiah will be the proud recipient of the pink ensemble she loved so dearly. Looking forward to making sure she gets it. Magical Fashions and Johara International were also stellar that night as were many others. Please visit the vendor page and see about purchasing some items for yourself. You will not be disappointed. So much to choose from and really great displays. Big congrats to the models who werrrrked the runway, selling those clothes like pros! Helowa!

Photos by Studio Jaki - outstanding!

Photos by Studio Jaki – outstanding!

Friday
We were in the event hall of the hotel on Friday. I can’t remember what time I got to registration but it was just before 9am. The classes for the day included Luna’s Unique Technique & Combos, Tjarda’s Fusion Fiesta, Leila Farid’s Sha’abi Improv, Kami Liddle’s The Smoother Side of the Dance, Jill Parker’s Spiral to the Core, Petite Jamilla’s Skillz & Layered Drillz, Kami Liddle’s Gooey Pop & Lock and finally at the end of the day Queen Sorraiah’s Iraqi Technique & Combos. From the conversations I had with others, Queen Sorraiah’s class was a top favourite as were Petite Jamilla’s and Luna’s. I was told their energy was amazing, and the content was very useful among a slew of other praise. Very nice to hear that so many got a lot out of their courses. Superfans were drooling after leaving both Luna and Sorraiah’s classes and that is to be expected as they are quite amazing. I heard lots of good things about Lady PJ’s class and that’s always a plus. She is certainly one of my favourite dancers stateside.

Time swept through the day and before long it was time for the first gala of the event featuring all of the stars. They did an amazing intro alongside King of the Tabla, Issam Houshan. In the past, I’d go through each and every dancer detailing audience reactions including my own. However, this show was QUITE long…too long even. As much as I loved so many of the performances, I wonder if it should have been limited to just our guest instructors vs. the plethora of troupes and sololists featured. Of all the performances Queen Sorraiah Zaied’s was indeed the powerhouse. Every. single. movement…. every. single. step, hipdrop, sway and audience interaction was felt from one’s head to the tips of their toes OMG!! I could not stay seated even as she stepped out to the stage. Just remembering her amazing performance gives me chills!!! Wala, I did not keep quiet during her set. As much as her soul glided and delighted, my heart screamed with praise for her work. I was overwhelmed to the point I knew I might pass out. Ta’arab for days filled the entire room, she was master of the movement. Completely mesmerising to no end.

Slowly others joined me on the side of the stage toward the front row. We were beyond enamored. Queen Zaied lost herself in the music allowing her soul to present one of the most touching and gracefully energetic pieces of dance art I’ve ever encountered. I have seen some truly amazing Egyptian and North African artists in their visits to North America and she is certainly right up there with the top three. Only two others have moved me so much and she is now on that list. I covet her ability to move us the way she did. It was only fitting that she close out the first half of the show (although, let’s be real here…many feel she should have closed out the show).
Many others came on in the second half and did an outstanding job, lots of fantastic representation from Atlanta including Fatin, Aziza and Samora. Issam was a gem as always…I could listen to him speak or play tabla all day. I wish he had a clone we could keep in Atlanta, the distance and longing for more of his work is nothing shy of excruciating. Ya Issam, just move to ATL already, na’am ya man?!

Again, great showcase of talent as Queen Sorraiah earned her crown and title that night from Atlanta. She is certainly a hit around here even more than she already was which is saying a lot. People flew in from everywhere to see this Raqs Royal perform and she did not disappoint.

Notable Performances
Jill Parker danced to a song that I first heard when she was with FCBC. It’s on an album from the Jajouka Through the Night series and sounds like regional clapping that gets faster and faster as it goes. It’s a very popular and well-loved piece of music. It’s well-known in the west because of FCBD. However, Jill didn’t perform to it the way we first saw it on Carolena. She didn’t hit each of the pauses the way Carolena did in the “FCBD Live” video and I and others were kind of hoping for that. Still, always nice to hear that particular song. I’ve always admired it not just because it touches my family’s region but because of the joy it brings in others as well.

Chudney was another awesome dancer that evening. Loved every second of her set. Looking forward to her workshops with Kalinka and Maiea next month in Atlanta. She gives you a welcomed energetic spin on raqs sharqi that suits both the west and east. She’s beyond beautiful and I have to admit I was a bit starstruck later that evening when we got to walk with her back to the hotel.

Valerick was another showstopper that I wish had a clone here in Atlanta. You can see more of her with Lebanese Simon out of Houston. Valerick is someone I also can watch for a very long time and not tire. I LIKE her a lot! She ignites a flame within me that I have yet to have been able to put out. Enamored isn’t even the word…completely smitten! The Persicope audience went nuts over her as well.

Valerick Molinary is INCREDIBLE!! FIND HER AND STUDY WITH HER TODAY!

There were a lot of group sets featuring combined teams from Atlanta, Florida and pieces with Shoshanna and some her crew. ALL OF THESE were amazing…the Salimpour Collective was spot on! Also, Rafiah Dance and so many others in large numbers brought their A-game! Truly impressive!! BJ’s I Dream of Jeannie actually had the Major which was absolutely perfect! As mentioned, Samora, Aziza and Fatin did a piece to Issam’s awesome music. So many great pieces.

The only thing that confused me was the show closer. Leila Farid called several people up on stage at the end of her set then she exited the stage. I have no idea what that was about. Did she give up mid-set or was that her trademark ending to a show?? It was…puzzling.

Back to the cool stuff and great individuals, namely the lead host, Lady Faaridah Taylor. One thing I want to note is I realised that Faaridah, the executive producer of the event, is not human. She peformered flawlessly in several sets over the weekend all while running a festival. Ummmm…that’s not human. Her secret is out…she’s a raqs bot. And if not, she wins the “Miss Productive 2015” hands down. Somebody throw her a ticket to Hawaii for a week with daily pedicures and breakfast in bed. Seriously!

So many great performances!

So many great performances!

…and that was just Friday. Yeah…there’s more!

Saturday morning, I’m downstairs at 9am working registration. Today’s classes can be seen on the site but again, same instructors and many with dynamic course work; Petite Jamila Slow & Sensual Choreography, Kami Liddle Layering Tribal Fusion, Luna Oum Kalthoum Choreography, Jill Parker Inspriation not Regurgitation, Issam Houshan & Aziza Nawal Drum Solo Combos & Rhythms, Queen Sorraiah Drum Solo Choroegraphy, Tjarda The Way You Make Me Feel and Leila Farid Oriental Technique and Combos… Again, many strong useful topics and several dynamic instructors.

After my first hour volunteering at registration I went to volunteer at Issam and Aziza’s class. It was a three hour focused solely on the Solo Combos and Rhythms. Aziza is a phenomenal drum soloist and Issam…is well..KING! So what a perfect fit for this course. Issam’s history and how he became a tabla player, his mentors and teachers…all of this was relayed to us by him. It was almost like being at his home, sitting around and listening to cousin Issam talk about his life. He could have gone on for another two hours and I would have never tired. Issam was the first person from which I learned rhythms formally. All these years in an Eastern & African community as a child, hearing this instrument and only in the last ten years as an adult did I take the time to learn. Hearing King Issam speak LIVE reiterated many of the teachings I had printed on my heart from previously studying his work. I’ve purchased some great things in his stack of gold. I always feel good when he’s here. I have photos of us when I was much younger (and smaller). He’s seen me in good times and bad and I love that he knew my name. That’s huge coming from someone who sees 1000s of different people every year, sometimes hundreds a week.

Aziza and Issam
Because it is his intellectual property as well as Aziza’s I won’t give away much about this course. There were lots of drills and practice sessions. Fantastic drumming…then physical dance practice, then new dance step with a new rhythm. It was more than valuable, it was essential knowledge from two creme de la creme skilled industry royals. This course needs to be ongoing and repeated often so that we, too, can strive to be at least a percentage of how great these two artists are. Though I was just a volunteer, I was completely able to feel like I got something out of the course so I know the active attendees did. I was so honoured to be chosen to volunteer for this session. It was nothing shy of a blessing.

Class

After the class ended, I checked to make sure all of the volunteer stations were manned before going upstairs to get ready for the night’s show. I was nervous… this was it! This was the competition. I think it’s pretty clear by now my heart belongs to Andrus. I’ve asked him to marry me about 3 or 4 times. It’s like some kind of long ongoing plea that has reached its zenith. I really have no shame. I wanted him to win. I expected him to win. A LOT of people were expecting the best from him…and HE GAVE IT!! He gave his best and so much more! Omigahh, he delivered! Wearing his gorgeous blue rhinestone ensemble he looked outstanding. Let me add that Samora and I were in matching blue hues as we were #TeamRamir that evening. And clearly there were many others as he turned new viewers into superfans. People lost their minds on both sides of that room during his performance. Of all the competitors and fashion show sets plus other dance teams combined, the crowd’s reaction to Andrus was the loudest and more than understandably so. He killed it. He slaayyyyyeed! I’ll admit that there was buzz that several judges were overwhelmed and astonished by his performance. Even the sound guy was floored and spoke about his performance the next day.

Diane Adams, who had been quiet that night, got up out of her chair and came over to me trembling with appreciation. “That Andrus…he does this to me every time! How does he do it? I can’t wait to study with him again!!” And you know if Diane Adams is eager for more of you, YOU MUST BE somebody.

Monet, Andrus and Nawar - Raqs Stars!

Monet, Andrus and Nawar – Raqs Stars!

Well, the night continued. There was more fashion, there were more competitors and then it was time to announce the winners. The fantastic Oriental troupes 3rd, 2nd and 1st got their prizes including Atlanta’s Awalim who placed 2nd in that category. Then they went on to the Danse Oriental category and Andrus name was called for 3rd place. I was terribly confused…as were several others in the audience. So much so that a small group in the back supposedly walked out? I heard some commotion but I needed to be focused on my task of handing out the gift bags on behalf of MissBellydance.com. So I didn’t see the walkout but was told afterwards that some people left in anger. I gave out the gifts and remained calm. Andrus and the other winners of all the categories were on stage getting their pictures taken, enjoying their wins. The Oriental winner from Los Angeles did a drum solo with Issam.

First place winner with Issam

First place winner with Issam

Others began leaving as it was very late just before the drum solo was completed. I cleaned up my area and headed out after her drum solo was complete. When I got into the hallway there were a lot of questions and commotion. What some seemed to forget was that Thursday’s scores counted toward the overall win. And the young lady from Los Angeles scored high on both nights thus resulting in her first place win. In all fairness she earned it. She was able to execute two great performances on both nights. End of story. #LetsMoveOn

Mabrook to Awalim! You made us very proud. I wanted to cry and throw money. I was so excited! Here’s a video of the performance from Ziah’s YouTube page. Enjoy!

Post Show Pondering – I could not move on…

Permit me to write as a superfan for a moment…
After cleaning up our space, I heard from many of Andrus’ fans. For about 30 minutes I was bombarded with their emotions and mine. Finally, I went upstairs to prepare for the last day of the event. I was thinking too much, thinking too hard, pondering many things. I questioned the need for the preliminaries in the first place. Was that to test who were the well rounded dancers vs. outstanding performers vs. those who can make a choreography their own? I never felt so odd and unstable. Should I even be there? Am I too emotionally invested in his career to be a nonpartisan volunteer let alone volunteering in this capacity? My head hurt. Fact remains, Andrus still won because he placed. I know there’s the running slogan, “he won that competition” and I respect the many opinions and conversations about it. No matter what he’s forever a bada$$ raqs star. We love him, there’s no denying that and he rules the raqs world alongside so many at the top in this industry. I was there when he did his first big event…which happened to also be in Atlanta. Andrus is to Atlanta as the Peach is in every Peachtree Street and road.

Congrats to the first place winner, who we were told was currently on a winning streak of raqs/bellydance competitions. Her victory was no surprise. I wish her the best and I’m sure we’ll see her at future events in the raqs world.

Sunday Morning …
Up at 8am and at the desk by 8:30am to help with registration, I found that someone was already there and I was not necessarily needed. Classes for today included Leila Farid’s Oriental Choreography, Jill Parker’s Endless Continuum, Queen Sorraiah’s Sha’abi Choreography, Tjarda’s Flawless Floorwork and more courses by Luna of Cairo. After being assured that the volunteers were okay, I did some additional packing and cleaning up. Then we were back downstairs and I volunteered at registration until 4pm.

After a quick check in with the real world, I headed over to Nicola’s for the last event of the weekend show. This time, the hard working volunteers danced for the stars.

Dahne

Dahne

Andrus, now turned guest dancer, closed out the night with a ravishing piece that left Queen Sorraiah dropping expletives due to her amazement and joy watching him dance. He, again, ruled the night, ending a very emotional and overwhelming raqs conference that left me a little more mature and aware of myself.

Sor

Nicolas

Closing Thoughts
As much as I love this dance I have come to understand that my thoughts about competitions and being competitive in raqs still stand. It’s not for me. It’s not what I grew up with as there was only family and inclusiveness, no competing within the walls of the immigrant and expat communities. But I understand competition does allow the best to rise to the top and receive praise. I’m grateful that top names such as Sorraiah Zaied and King Issam saw these amazing dancers, their diverse backgrounds and amazing dedication to the art. Sorraiah noted that at the party that evening. I’m glad that Atlanta and all of the visitors to the event got to see them, hear about them and that the dancers were rewarded in a nation and industry that has become saturated with commercialism and too often colonial hangovers. The dancers’ enthusiasm and dedication ignites the flame of excitement in all of us.

Plans for next year are already underway. Executive Producer Faaridah will meet with her team as a good producer does with the goal of making EOB even better than it already is. The praise for the event continued well past Monday morning and on into the weeks that followed…and rightly so, it was an outstanding event.

As a volunteer I have to give a BIG SHOUT OUT to my fellow volunteers who went above and beyond in ways that only we know about. Instead of tooting their horns or asking for praise or even telling anyone what they did, they “took care of business.” They were mega stars that weekend for not allowing one ball to drop or get out of place. Kudos to them.

Looking forward to discussing this with the team and hoping Team Essence and all involved have an amazing rest of the year knowing they put on a memorable event that keeps Atlanta’s name on the map of Excellence for Raqs Events and Cultural Dance shows.

Cheers all! Thanks for reading!
Kudos to Studio Jaki for taking such amazing pictures!

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