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.
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!
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.
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!
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…
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?
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.
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.
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!