Eager for Another Exciting Dance Extravaganza With Essence of Bellydance!

*These are my opinions. My thoughts are just one point of view. All observations and comments are based on my own experience with Middle Eastern, African and Asian dances as a Nigerian-American living in the International Community.

Since I can remember, I’ve been attending and volunteering at global festivals because that’s what you did as a kid in my culture. “Festival-ing” was a past time. Weddings were quarterly events. For each one you brought your best self, your best clothes…it wasn’t a joke. I noticed that the same care is brought to the bellydance circuit.Essence of Bellydance attendees, staff, performers and guests upheld that tradition in the 2016 edition of EOB. Everyone brought their best and that made for a beautiful family atmosphere that so many noted on the Essence of Bellydance event board immediately following the 4 day extravaganza

YOU GOT A ROOM?
Yes, yes I did. I went ahead and booked a suite because I wanted to be on site and really soak up all that the festival action offered. Since I was going to stay there I promised MissBellydance.com that I’d watch their table. I paid a total of $489 and that included 2 days of parking with the valet, in-room dining once and a check out at 12pm. It was worth it. You all know I’m a hotel hobbit and practically lived in several for many years because of volunteer travel. While the EOB stay wasn’t “cheap” it was a steal because of the Essence discount. I suggest booking accommodations at the Twelve for this conference if EOB is there again. Split the cost with someone and enjoy every minute of it. It makes a difference when you’re staying on site vs. running back and forth in busy, event-laden Atlanta traffic.

The Workshops
There were a lot and they were PHENOMENAL!!!!! The content covered left a lot of people panting with joy. I saw attendees leave workshops clutching their hearts and looking as if they really felt something. Essence provided a great line up and opportunity to learn from those directly from/living on the soil vs. someone profiting after having “been there” on a short two week holiday. Selfies w/a bowl of koshari before class during a short trip to Egypt for an intro to Raqs Sharqi means you’re still a student. Opening up shop after one’s six week beginner bellydance class followed by “one week f’il Msr” does not make one a professional. One who does that is, more often than not, an enthusiast who wishes to share the experience and love of the art. Most seasoned dancers who go to study in the region understand it takes years, a life within the culture or diaspora as a first gen, life as a neighbour or long study of the art with a good chunk of weekly learning to impart good skills and techniques in the way that Sorraiah and Madame Raqia do. Those who attended Essence got a good deal. Essence just saved you over $3,500 by having them both here plus a ton of others who are skilled and well-informed. Few others offer that much in a compact, easy to access, luxury facility that doesn’t require you to go from one part of town to the other in order to attend classes and gala shows. I’ve been to far too many events where accommodations were sub par and you had to pretty much get a car service to get to classes and related events. Expecting your guests to drive around town in order to attend all of the festival events is unacceptable. Not trying to be rude, just keepin’ it real.

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Koshari Masri

The only thing that left me exhausted as a bystander was the following: It seemed as soon as one workshop ended there was another rushing in. Perhaps if we weren’t social animals that liked to talk after class then the courses would have ended right on time. That way the next class would have each little bellybot shimmy in. Well, praise be that we are not bellybots! We’re social animals and people linger and chat. People want to meet their idols. I mean, Sorraiah Saied ANNNNNND Raqia Hassan…please. No way in Hades I wouldn’t have hung around for that. So, there will need to be some after class time built in for chit chat. Maybe it was. Sadly, it just didn’t feel like it.

For years, at many dance festivals I’ve attended, it seems like 15 minutes to wipe off the class excitement, get in line with others who are getting their picture, get your hug and tell your love story and life of worshipping the raqs stars’ work and then ‘go to the ladies,’ plus fill up your water bottle for the next class that is already starting.” Ummmmno… We need a full 30 minutes between each class so that everyone has a chance to smooch on the teacher, tell of their everlasting love, how they wake up each morning and play the music the icon used at that big gala show in 1999. I mean, am I the only one with superfanitis here? Fans need time. This happens at a lot of dance conferences and business events. Producers, show hosts, etc…let’s change that pattern. Stop cramming.

DID I ACTIVELY PARTICIPATE IN ANYTHING OTHER THAN THE SHOWS?
Of course! I attended the Chat and Chew with Ranya Renee and found it very useful for the following reasons:
-opportunity to sit and have lunch with one of our favourite raissat
-learned her perspective on how modern technology is benefitting raqs
-understood how technology isn’t enough, you still need to physically be in a class
-got to revisit some pieces of work I saw from her in Toronto
-learned about the choreography presented in the preliminaries
-got a better understanding of how breathing and positioning one’s mouth benefit the presentation

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Ranya enjoying what she calls my cosplay seaweed cookies. I love  her. I could just kiss on her all day. Cute as a button!

FOR SOMEONE WITH SO MUCH TO SAY YOU DON’T TAKE CLASSES AT THESE EVENTS. WHY?

I am more about keeping up with the trends, news and what is going on with the communities on all levels, not just dance. These cultures and dances have been with me my whole life by way of birth certificate and immediate and extended family. I’ve already seen a lot of what is being offered. So, at this point I prefer the lecture side of things. That’s what works for me. Some just want to learn to dance, I need more than that.  I like sitting with the stars and gazing at them as they speak. I am a superfan of their work more than one who aspires to walk in their shoes or perform at galas. We do things a little different in the core international community. My “performances” are at my relatives’ weddings, henna parties, random tea afternoons and new years events. My dance education began and continues by watching the stars for hours then getting up and dancing along with them at an event or private parties. What we do in those specific ethnic circles (and private moments with stars) is nothing that is currently being offered in Atlanta or festivals in most of North America. Honestly, the only place I see it offered/presented on the festival circuit regularly is in New York, Miami, Washington D.C., Toronto, Ybor City/Tampa Florida and Nashville.

Few teach Moroccan dance here  regularly let alone focusing on Nigerian Highlife and true Maghreb social dances of the people despite it being asked for by curious culture loving dance community members. How many times do I see/get asked, “Can you send me to anyone that teaches (insert ethnic dance that is not heshibeshek/bellydance)?” My answer is often, “Well, not in the metro ATL area. You have to go to Alpharetta where many of our International families are living.” Sadly it’s too far. This has meant those ethnic dance studios and classes only pop up/happen every blue moon. It’s a missed opportunity educationally and economically not to feature more than just bellydance at conferences and large events. Many have seen a lot of this already. Besides, a lot of these stars know more than just “bellydance” and would probably be happy to teach it if the producers would ask.

WELL WHAT SHOULD WE BE FEATURING? WHAT ELSE DO PEOPLE WANT TO SEE?

Overall, the region has changed. New dances are on the horizon on top of the continuation of national and nation specific dances. From Maghreb Raqs to Debke, there’s more to the region than technique based choreographies. What is being overlooked are things like that which is shown in these two videos.

Even sha’abi has changed (and has thankfully been re-introduced and performed at World Bellydance Alliance events and more recently at Essence by a trio of women from Egypt, Japan and Puerto Rico). Atlanta and other cities are falling behind by holding on to bellydance as if the next level is “competition style” (aka technically fluent but often lacking ta’arab). It’s not. People are seeking, crawling and begging for classes that are true salutes to the WHOLE culture. It’s groups like Tribu Chekchouka au Paris and even Tarabiya in Duluth that are taking MUSIC and DANCE that was once only seen in houses and local festivals to the bigger stage. People are now reaching out to actual Saudi women located in the states to teach and guide them. Teachers like Samba Diallo (Cote d’Ivoire) are here in Atlanta as is Suhad (Philistine). They offer classes in both music, drumming, dance for fitness as well as have a wealth of knowledge on trends in the region. If any show producer is looking to save airfare cash, reach out to your international community, international community centers (Atlanta has 12!!) and ask them to come and teach. These instructors have their own audiences as well. It would be good to merge the two communities.

Sadly the “bellydance” festival circuit is often missing the bigger picture. Too many only offer  just “bellydance” because they are not connecting with the culture enough to see that there’s more. Adding a tribal or fusion group is great but also consider the region specific dances too. Conferences that offer history, culture, food and dance are moving in the right direction. This is why the IBCC was so successful. Heck, partner with Yasmina Ramzy and get her perspective. Those who are simply trying hard to find out who will bring the most money are going to fizzle out. These festivals are nothing without updated content that reflects all parts of the international dance community. Not everyone aspires to be a Bellydance Superstar, not everyone has the western commercial aesthetic that is often (in some cases superficially) required for a touristy restaurant. There are people who genuinely want to steep themselves in a cultured environment and work the festival circuit. These ethnic dance circuits (Greek Fest and other ethnic festivals) are where you find the troupes that pay true salute to the region and get asked to come back again. Why aren’t people paying attention to that audience? Their money is just as good…but sadly ignored because producers forget about the root.

This classic raqs sharqi is the heart of the dance. It is not going anywhere. It has withstood the test of time. It’s long overdue that we couple this at festivals with the entire picture and not just offer endless variations of bellydance technique no matter how good it looks or how famous the instructor. We need ask our idols/teachers to teach us something else they think we’d like/something very specific to their country. Be inspired by this video which features amazing images and think twice as you plan for 2017 and beyond. Give your communities and potential fans more than the standard fare. It’s the smart thing to do.

Now, Back to Essence: The Shows
First there was a mini-fashion show Friday night at Atlanta Fusion Bellydance. Saniyah Raqs was one of the volunteers and also a model in the fashion show wearing MissBellydance.com’s Isis coordinate costume. I thought she looked great. That night Andrus Ramir opened the show with an incredible number that left me in a puddle of OMG to the point Robyn had to go bring her fan and cool me down. Nothing like an anxiety attack from being so darn excited. Superfanitis is real…as is the struggle.

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Andrus Ramir is the epitome of fashion and a phenomenon in Raqs

The rest of the evening was devoted to the preliminaries for the Miss/Mister Essence of Bellydance 2016 Competition. All of the dancers were really good. Contestants came in from all over (i.e. New York, Puerto Rico…) to compete and they worked really hard and did a stellar job. I was captivated by many of the performances and again, this was just the preliminaries.

Friday Night Gala at the Twelve Hotel Ballroom
This night was a mix of the competition plus elegant guests who floored us with their stellar work. There’s really nothing more I can say about the guests because I’m still pretty speechless after experiencing what they presented. Raven was the MC and she had a tough job. Though visually stimulating, these shows were super long. Even Raven joked that we had 7,000 performances to get through. But she was energetic the entire time and kept us alert and attentive. Judges were there and included the awesome and legendary Raqia Hassan.

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Highlights of Both Nights (In No Particular Order)
Certainly the great couture featured in the fashion show was amazing. I want to give a special thanks to those who featured MissBellydance.com. They wore it very well and looked amazing. Thank you for putting so much energy into that. The team behind the brand has a very tedious job that involves a lot of research and reaching out to customers to find a great fit for the clothes. Every single person that represented the brand that night did a phenomenal job and the team back at the HQ, as well as those who made the clothes in Turkiye, would be ultra proud. I’d post the video but sadly it contains copyright music and we can’t get it uploaded without creating a YouTube violation. I think in the future the music needs to be Middle Eastern tunes by artists we know so we can feature the work on various platforms and further promote all of the vendors’ clothes who help make the event possible. This is very important.

It was also a very diverse fashion show featuring the couture of a new audience that has taken over Atlanta, the Japanese Street Fashionistas. This kawaii style of clothing originated in Harajuku Japan. While Essence is about Middle Eastern culture, this Japanese style is also prominent in Kuwait, Lebanon, many nations in Africa and is spreading. It’s no coincidence that several in this fashion community are also students of Raqs Sharqi and attend classes in Atlanta as well. RainbowsNGold’s presence spoke volumes and shows the movement of the culture to be open and loving to creativity and expression.

Other vendors and designers included: Originals by Faye, Moonlight Diva, Beladi Boutique and a lovely display featuring hair sticks/chopsticks/elegant accessories. RainbowsNgold captured the view of the preparations as well as the vendors’ fashions that were featured that night and for sale. It was literally a shoppable runway which is trending right now.

Dazzling Dancers
The competition was sponsored by Essence of Bellydance as well as MissBellydance.com who supplied the gift bags for those who placed that night. The grand prize winners were Karma Karmelita for raqs sharqi and Sabeeya for tribal fusion. It’s funny, these two are both known for making their own costumes. It’s like they put their whole heart and soul into this and well…they won! Well deserved. They received $1,000 each and again, it was well deserved!

*At this point I’m going to intro the magnificent work of Studio Jaki of whom everyone should consult for great photos. For several years in a row this great entrepreneur has floored us with amazing pictures, capturing not just an image but the emotion of every spectacular moment in this community and beyond. We would be nothing without her. She is the best at dance and performance photography!

Another amazing winner was Diane Adams who placed third in the raqs division and I’m going to be the bold one and say I’m surprised she didn’t place 1st because she killed it! Diane left it all on the stage…all of it. She BLEW the competition away from costume, to skill to presentation. She gave it everything she had and then some. This was one of her best performances yet and you already know Diane has nearly given us heart attacks with her amazing work in the past. THIS ONE WAS UNREAL! And yes, I cried. I just lost my mind. It was so good.

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During intermission both nights it was absolutely impossible not to admire our VIPs. Everyone looked amazing. People were well dressed and looking quite cute…especially Andrus Ramir and Sal Maktoub…good grief. I’ll leave it at that or else this blog entry will escape the PG category. Those two are so fine it’s almost too much for this superfan. On Friday night, Sal closed the show with Tanoura Masri. This video of course does not do it justice (pardon me, it’s listed under my Tears for Fears profile).

I would hope by now that anyone who has studied Middle Eastern Dance has an appreciation for Tanoura. I’ve talked about it quite a bit in the Raqs Atlanta Yahoo Group and you can also go to Sal’s site and get more details. Sal is one of a long line of amazing presenters of this art and right now he is my top favourite. I think this might partly be because I watched his progression into this and I’ve seen how Sal has made something so sacred so much a part of him. Sal seems like a different person than the young man I met so many years ago at another big conference featuring top stars. He was once a fan in the audience, an enthusiast and look at him now. He is an incredible success story and our love for him grows every year. I can barely look at him and without getting emotional. It’s just that serious. He is a crucial part of Raqs history as it continues to weave its tapestry in the world of Global Dance. Sal is not just someone of which to be proud he is an essential part of a good conference and I pray he is featured again in the very near future. He brings not only excitement but the Essence of Egypt and cultural authenticity in a profound way.

Another amazing performer this weekend was one who danced to Cheb Khaled’s music. I could barely sit still through her entire performance. This was a wonderful and refreshing treat for any international community member in that audience. This is the type of music and performance that brings in dignitaries and their families. She represented the international community extremely well. I pray she is local and comes again.

A sizzlin’ hot performance was Issam playing the tabla at various intervals in the night. At one point I saw him with Global Dance on a fusion set. It added a lot to their work and I’m so glad he was there. Another scorching hot piece was an Egyptian set w/spinning assayah. I was absolutely thrilled to see it. I think they said the dancer’s name was Zahri. She was amazing! Loved it!

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Lotus Seeds – a group from the Tribal Bellydance Center of Atlanta (which includes a branch of SEEDs) was one of my top 3 favourites of the ENTIRE two nights. They presented a set so accurate to the region I had flashbacks of being with legendary groups like Tinariwen. I look forward to seeing their progress in the art. Job well done and thank you Ziah for making sure that style was included. It’s for presentations like this that I come to shows and happily invite others in the community to do the same. I was especially proud of this young lady of whom I learned is Hasna’s daughter Sienna. She was overwhelmingly perfect. The entire team should take pride in their presentation.

I literally gasped when I saw them enter. My chin begin to drop to the floor. I thought…”oh  my gaaahd…somebody got it right.” As soon as they began to dance and show their skill with the tahtib tears just began to drop. I thought about being a little girl again and how my parents were so concerned about me having pride in my culture. I remembered how, almost forcefully, they told me my tribe/ethnic group’s name and kept saying, “You be proud of this!” I didn’t understand why it was so important until years later…maybe not even until high school where at my fairly international school my tribe’s name came up in a world history book and we got to discuss it. For years my fellow “kids of foreigners” friends sort of hid under the three boxes of “black, white, other” that were on all the forms you have to fill out over the course of schooling and working in the west. I soon realised that this country had a whole other mindset. It seemed to erase everything but your colour. You became a colour. It was later on, as I was pushed to get into an acgtual troupe with other young international community adults, that I began to see we really had a lot of which to be proud. Not only is Nigeria diverse but so is the whole continent and Mideast region. No one citizen is the same. We come from some truly intricate backgrounds with so  much history. This young lady represents so much of what we are. It is rare to see such a majestic image on a big stage. It’s usually reserved for those who don’t have a political agenda. To put her front and center spoke volumes about the organisation and her teacher. This was a historic moment not just in Atlanta but in the world. We need more Siennas, more of SEEDs’ mentality not only in the realm of Raqs Sharqi and dance but also world stages and leadership. This is what you call strength and dignity. Again, the whole set was everythiinnnng! Shukran jazillan!! Dalu, merci!
*If you don’t know about the SEEDs program which originated out of Pomegranate Studios years ago you can explore their site to get more info. From what I remember this group was founded by Myra Klein (who visited ATL not too long ago if I’m not mistaken). It is an extraordinary program. I certainly recommend it and I’m truly grateful for it. I’m going to look into this further because this set was more than successful. It spoke volumes. One of the best representations of the region.

Ebony was incredible as expected. I hope someone is able to see the video. I don’t even know where to start with her performance. It was just sooo good. Please see the video when it’s available. Issam was featured again on Saturday. He led the crowd through a very exciting set followed by Aziza Nawal joining him on stage. Those two are among my top favourites so I was extremely excited to see them together. Very nice.

Ranya Renee was stellar as expected and by this time I was just wishing that more international community members were in the audience to soak up what she was showering us with…it was gorgeous! From costume, to expression and dance moves it was stellar!

Silvia Salemanca – Her performances were overwhelming and had a lot of personal history in them. One of them I don’t want to try and sum up because words aren’t worthy of her presentation. I liked it and I appreciate her showing us her soul, it was clearly a very personal piece. She had another set that featured swords and floorwork equal to the skill I’ve seen with Queen Harish. It was realllllly beautiful, energetic and presented with perfection.

Andrus…sigh. I can’t. I can’t even talk about it. You have to see the video for yourself. That doll of a dancer has taken this art to a whole other level and stamped his name on it with fire and lingering flames. I am overwhelmed by his work to the point when he comes near me I tremble. Nothing compares to his presentations. He is the only one bringing it to the stage “like that” and he can’t be replicated or copied. He is one of a kind and so outstanding I was sick for a week after the conference. I was angry that he doesn’t live here. There are a handful of stars in the world that make me long for them and he is one of them. I literally had to purge that performance from my mind because it was that fucking good! I was a mess…sick even.  After he left the stage I wanted to flip tables. Audiences can rarely get enough of him and he brings about crazy excitement every where he goes. A show really isn’t a show without him. You need that energy. It’s crucial! Andrus is a show essential…no questions asked. He is a must have!

Several other stars came to the stage following him but several people left shortly after, one saying, “I just wanted to see Andrus, that’s all I needed. I got exactly what I wanted while watching him. Goodnight.” I couldn’t blame them. The sad thing is they missed Sorraiah’s incredible set. She did two. One was more sensual and the other very energetic. I just wanted to get a money machine and throw currency and roses at her feet the entire time. I’d have probably died doing so because her performances are so good they leave me on the floor screaming. I was holding on to a chair by the time she finished and then I went upstairs to lie down because I couldn’t handle much more. She just…leaves me spellbound, tied up and twisted with emotion. I’m in love with her and her work. I can’t get enough of her. I feel she, much like Andrus and Sal, should be Essence of Bellydance staples. They really BRING IT in a way that makes you pray their names are on the line-up and you literally sit anxious throughout the year craving the next time you see them. I was more than impressed and they were worth the entire conference for me.

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My weekend began to wind down after that. After hugs and kisses galore with as many as I could I found myself in a post-conference depression. I didn’t unpack my suitcase for two weeks and I felt rather sick as I tried to pull the memory of such amazing work out of my soul so that I wouldn’t die of longing for more of it. I thank Studio Jaki for taking these great photos that I’ve been staring at for days. I don’t know which one I want to buy and get blown up poster size. I seriously love her work. We are nothing without her visual archives!

I have not recovered from the shows and it’ll be a month Saturday. That on top of monitoring Tears for Fears fan travel and blogging about their shows in the following days left me rethinking life in general. Again, I feel like superfanitis is real. Loving great talent can take your soul on an emotional rollercoaster of love and joy so intense you don’t know what in the world is really happening. Essence of Bellydance provided that for us this year and I’m so grateful for it! I realised I need Essence of Bellydance as much as I need my next glass of water. It is truly essential and worth every penny I spent. The experience was priceless!

Thanks for reading!
-AA

P.S. Loved hanging out with RainbowsNGold & Andrus! 😉

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Bienvenue, Welcome, Ahlan!

Valizan (Canada), Andye (Nigeria-USA), Ziah Ali (USA) hanging out at Mosaic, 16+years of Global Raqs Magic

Valizan (Canada), Andye (Nigeria-USA), Ziah Ali (USA) hanging out at Mosaic, 16+years of Global Raqs Magic

Ahlan waSahlan! Salaam wa Merhaba, Marhaba, Salut, Bienvenue et Shukran Jazillan for visiting Raqs Atlanta. We enjoyed 15 years as a private group of international concert, conference and show attendees. We are now ready to go public and share our dedication to the global arts community. Here we will post information about upcoming shows, music programs, visiting celebs and meet & greets. It’s all about having a really good time enjoying our culture, language and being ourselves with no apologies. Our motto remains the same, “All things international like me!”

Moderator and Contributors:

Nagwa, Andye, The Diasporic Team, Atlanta African Asian Business and Cultural Exchange, MissBellydance.com and our partners in dance.