Review: Bellydance Evolution – The Wizard of Oz in Atlanta

*Had to take all my jewelry off to write this one… and here’s the disclaimer – I’m a member of the international community of Atlanta. We are real. We exist. I was born and raised in several international communities where raqs sharqi was the first thing you did for any occasion. Many of my relatives are not American – my extended family and people I grew up with are Arabs and other Africans. I’m first generation (Nigerian-Am) and moved here to Atlanta over a decade ago to be more involved in our international community efforts and raqs sharqi scene. We are really a sort of NYC of the South. Atlanta Raqs Comms are spoiled in many ways – we have amazing events and most people are coming to see us vs. the other way around. Currently, I write reviews of professional shows and events as a way of keeping a record and proof that this city is diverse beyond stereotypes…and again, we, as internationals in the diaspora keep our culture(s) alive and well. Any show producer, professional teacher or troupe that puts on shows is held to a standard in my opinion. They are expected to have researched and know, like a international studies professor, what they are presenting and how it should look. It is from this expectation and point of view that I write my reviews. * Featured photo is Selena, award winning dancer in Atlanta who was a part of the show opener.

 

The Promotion of the Show
I feel we did as best we could as a dance community to really get the show noticed. Last time Jillina was here with BDE, it was on the local news. This time felt a little quiet. I feel like part of it was apathy and this notion of, we already know who is going be here. But I feel for events like these, we need to hire a marketing team (pitch in and hire a marketing agency plus everyone bring a friend, sell one ticket/buy two tickets and bring someone with you) to get the event noticed and packed. It was a great turnout, but I feel several people who would have really appreciated seeing this were not there.

The Venue
South Cobb Highschool’s Performing Arts Center is immaculate. It’s an upscale blank canvas that you can turn into anything. I was highly impressed with the parking, ease of entry, moderness and cleanliness. It’s a gem!

The Audience
Was there an audience? All those people in the seats, that amazing music but I’m the only one chair dancing? Does everything need to be in a hotel with a bar so we can loosen up? For shame!

Thankfully and by the Grace of the Universe, I heard our beloved cousin Nicola. I saw Ziah and her daughter, other supportive legends like Samora and some of the greats from her troupe with their children in arms. I saw members of Global Dance and one dancer’s whole family come to watch her in the 5 min set she danced in but those are the only ones I ‘saw and heard.’ What I wish I hadn’t seen was the hate, confused faces in the lobby by a few non dance community members, people who looked like someone forced them to show up. It was so strong that upon entry, I almost turned around and left with one of those “not today Satan” feelings. Again, I feel the additional people who could appreciate our culture were not there.

But I want to focus on the good things and with that say a big Shukran Jazillan to all the aforementioned (ESPECIALLY NICOLA AYOUB!) for being present as well as their families, people’s husbands and children. Huge thanks to Dahne, another international community member, who drove all the way from well beyond the airport WITH HER FAMILY to come alllllll the way to Austell for this event. I’m super grateful for the dance community support and thank you for opening your mouths, clapping your hands and representing the raqs fandom. As for the others who were disturbed, bag clutching at the site of certain people, and making it clear you didn’t want to be there, your time is dwindling and that’s why you reacted that way. Long live diversity and international cultures having the right to live in America just like theirs did when they arrived but I digress.

The Show
Orlando was our Master of Ceremonies in one of his sparkling suits that he joked still had the tags on it and would be returned, then purchased after income tax day. He did a fair and lovely job announcing the dancers and their history. I was also especially happy to see him recognise Nicola Ayoub, our ambassador to culture in Atlanta. It’ll be a good show if Nicola is there. That is guaranteed.

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There was a Pre-Show and that included a few student troupes, some of the teachers of AFBD, the Salimpour Collective of GA and one piece in which Saniyah and Aseelah were in spinning poi veils. The opening of that pre-show featured Fatin, Leena and Jenny – all of whom teach at AFBD. In Bellydance Superstars style, they wore amazing blue bedluhs and put on a trio style set to traditional regional music – track one of one of Issam’s amazing works if I’m not mistaken – it’s one of my favourites. That, Troupe Mumtaz and the set featuring Saniyah, Aseelah with those very dedicated AFBD dancers were my absolute faves for this portion of the show.  You could see that they took this presentation seriously, making sure they really gave it their all. I also got some video of Saniyah’s troupe and appreciated having a very authentic salute to the region represented tonight. We always need the root to be represented. It’s crucial lest we vanish completely. (my pictures aren’t great, please see Studio Jaki for professional ones)

 

The Wizard of Oz
Jillina’s work is phenomenal. The artistic direction of the entire show was jaw dropping. From the costumes to the music, everything made sense and was worthy of the standing ovation. However, for some reason, this show didn’t have the same effect as Alice in Wonderland (her earlier production AFBD hosted at the Rialto Arts Center downtown a few years ago). In fact, as I type, comments are coming in saying, “It was good, but Oz was no Alice. Bellydance Evolution’s Alice was Broadway, Oz was a spectacular play.” But may I add that Dorothy was immaculate in every way? Sure, it wasn’t Alice and it wasn’t the Rialto but it was GOOD! I’d happily go to that venue again and I trust with additional marketing we can get some of the East Atlanta, Decatur crew to come out as well.

Without giving too much away, because those who have tickets for other cities may not want spoilers, the “Atlanta” show begins with the primary stars in what some call Atlanta-wood (spoof on Hollywood as we are now #1 in film production in the states). The name “Atlanta” is in the background and as the characters come to life, they begin snapping pictures, taking selfies, miming/doing their art (Faaridah was a Mime) all wearing cute modern outfits in black and white. Then the winds pick up – the winds are represented by a diverse cast of dancers all wearing either black or grey. Some had small strobe lights that flickered like lightening and the choreography was DIVINE!!!! Ohhh, this was probably the best part of the ENTIRE production! The way they represented wind and nature’s chaos was spot on! They could have ended the show and won an award with that alone!

The rest of the story went by kind of fast and you really had to have watched The Wizard of Oz multiple times to automatically know what scene was next or what everything represented. Munchkin Land was identifiable and looked to include the Lollipop Guild as well as other iconic moments from the movie. I did, however, keep looking for Toto…I didn’t see the dog or anything that represented him. As trivial as it may be, his absence was felt. But we did hear his barks in a few scenes. Nice touch! Dorothy was played by Georgette Carvajal and she was INCREDIBLE! First of all, to be able to stay on stage that long and remember ALL that choreography is insane. I can barely remember the four simple steps to Debke let alone the choreography needed to excel in a production like this. Everyone I spoke to was just FLOORED in regards to this principal dancer. I try to keep superficial things like someone’s “looks” or features out of reviews of late, but I can’t help but say, Dorothy was adorable! I mean, she embodied this role like an original. She was everything you expect in “cute!” That plus her impeccable dance presentation makes her the MVP! She did that!

We had so much pride in seeing Aziza Nawal play the role of The Scarecrow. She was perfect and also another one who is incredible for being able to remember all that choreography. She was in 85% of the show! She deserves a standing ovation every time you see her. She’s another reason why I moved to Atlanta. I’m still mad they didn’t clear the table that one night at Taverna Plaka (2003 July) and had her doing a choochoo shimmy way too close to a glass plate of taramosalata. If she had slid off the edge…omg. I wanted to pick her up off the table and say, “nobody puts Aziza Nawal in the yogurt.” Anyway, she’s royalty in my opinion and does no wrong. She deserves all the awards and accolades for her role in this production.

Omega’s performance as the Tinman was another award winner. I’ve always felt she is best in theatrical pieces when it comes to this art and she did not disappoint one bit. This is my favourite performance I’ve seen her present since she came on the scene. Her costume was spectacular! Be sure to check out the pictures. I think Studio Jaki may have a few. Bravo and Brava, Omega!

Our very own Faaridah played the role of the Wizard! She glowed and glittered for every scene she was in and we’re super proud. She even had a great solo. The costume complimented her and the green was bright enough to give her a complimenting glisten so kudos to the costume designer for making sure she gleamed like the glamourous lady she is! So gorgeous all the time! #Goals!

Shoutout to Hannan Sultan, always great to see her in Atlanta. She was animated and lively as a cast member and one of my favourites to watch this evening. Hope she’ll be featured in even more events and programmes as they arise.

Bit of Confusion in the Crowd
The lion was played by a dancer named Siri, the Wicked Witch was Claudia Barquero and Glenda the Good Witch was played by a dancer named Nadia. Now, other than the lion and the aforementioned, I had no clear indication which characters we were looking at any given time. I kept noticing people grabbing their programs trying to figure out where we were at in the scenes of the production. It was only during solos, the siesta in the poppy fields and journey to Emerald City that I figured out which one was the Wicked Witch. Glenda, who was always in an iridescent-white ballgown in the film was wearing a crimson red bedluh during this production so I was totally confused. Though  Dorothy was obvious and always in gingham, she could have been in some ruby red dance slippers instead of the silver ones she had on…maybe they were not available? Maybe they would have been distracting? Toto and the red slippers are huge iconic pieces of this classic and I was rather eager to see how they would incorporate them.

Cultural Nod or?
The music for the entire program was beautiful! Every scene had an amazing accompaniment with a cultural nod to the region. For example, there’s a part in the original movie where Dorothy and her pals fall asleep in a field of poppies. In this production, you suddenly see some dancers appear wearing what looked to be a poppy flower on their dress panels. The dresses themselves looked like a few ensembles I had seen in fashion of Kazakhstan, Afghanistan and a print on a Classical Iranian dress from a historical performance many years ago. I’m not sure why this part of the region’s music and dress were worn during this scene other than the fact we know that poppies are grown there and, according to research, having its origins in the region. I wasn’t offended but it was noted and I thought…mmkay. I get it. I see the nod and correlation.

But there was one scene that made several I spoke to after the show very quite puzzled. Let me start by saying, it’s rare to find non-Africans, non-MEs actually give The Continent any credit in its influence and inclusion in the art of Raqs Sharqi and its history. Some still want to see Egypt as solely an Arab country and act like it doesn’t sit smack in the center of both Asia and Africa. I grew up knowing and seeing Arabs in Africa and part of the vast number of ethnic groups and people(s) that were in certain nations within the continent, including Arabs that live in one of my parent’s countries. But I learned that others don’t always know this. Kudos to Jillina’s earlier work with BDE Alice in Wonderland as it did not let one influence in the world of raqs sharqi/eastern dance go unknown. It was INCREDIBLE! I loved how every single region, nation and city from Iran to Ibiza was featured and given the most respectful cultural nods – I mean Sharon Kihara took us on a direct flight home with her scene featuring amazing Qawliya and other regional moves that were still fairly unknown at the time to the western “bellydance” world. It was just after this production that you began seeing workshops and classes in not just “bellydance” but other regional past times being studied and performed. Jillina’s work gave it a precedence and a standard! It was stunning and gorgeous.

This year, the African music accompanied what looked to be the “bad guys” (aka the Wicked Witch in her den). I could go in hard and be really political here but I do not believe associating bad and darkness with Africa was the intention of the scene. In fact, this review has been edited to note that I and others did have a discussion about what we saw and the questions that came to me after the show. We learned that those were not monkeys in the scene in Atlanta. Those were the henchmen dancing with the Wicked Witch. The questions and texts I received after the show let me know others were rather confused as well. I thought, of all the places they could have used the African music…this was their choice? Why is Africa always associated with something dark and sinister? However, other icons in the raqs world noted that they were a part of the production in other cities and enjoyed being a part of it – and gave it their all. Very grateful for the clarification. BDE productions are always really enjoyable and I would hate for a misunderstanding or confusion to spoil it.

Here’s a photo of what the scene was portraying. Many thanks to the Atlanta BDE host, Faaridah Raqs for helping us understand this very important part of the show.

The “all dance” at the end was lovely and the venue was comfortable. The show wasn’t super long to the point we were squirming (though I can watch GOOD raqs sharqi show all night, have and will continue to do so). The scenery and the way in which things were represented was a bit different but not too hard to put together. Again, it was no Alice but it was a great way to incorporate the art of raqs into a classic tale and I hope Bellydance Evolution will continue to put on these amazing theatrical works of art! Mabrook wa Shukran! Huge thanks to all involved, especially Faaridah and AFBD for hosting. That is A LOT!

Bellydance Evolution – The Biggest Game Changer in the Raqs World

Alice in Wonderland Cast

Alice in Wonderland Cast

Bellydance Evolution’s Alice in Wonderland was a major game changer in the Raqs World. This was the perfect marriage of a storyline and Middle Eastern art. What made this stand out as a pillar of perfection was this team’s ability to mesh classic Mideast art and music in the context of a timeless classic tale. It. Was. Everything!!!

My usual reviews detail from start to finish the highlights of the programs, the costumes, the presentation, any shared backstories where applicable and so much more. But I understand that not every city has had the chance to see it yet and spoilers are not popular. While I always love to know in advance what I’m going to view I respect others’ wishes to walk in fresh and unassuming. However, I am going to express my grand emotion and excitement regarding several cultural aspects of the show from an Alice in Wonderland superfanatic (I love the White Rabbit & Alice as is known by all linked to my social media accounts) and my appreciation for Raqs Sharqi began long before I was born being one from a Nigerian family with Middle Eastern extended relatives. So, as always, these comments are from my cultural perspective and are my opinion – not representing any of the media organisations, businesses and associations with which I am affiliated. I celebrate 16 years as a fan of this art having travelled to numerous cities just to see top Raqs Stars. I live for this! This is ‘what I do.’

The show began with an incredible opener featuring what, at first, were unfamiliar faces to me. It wasn’t until about 2 minutes into the piece that I realised these incredibly skilled raissat were actually Heidi of Jahara Phoenix, Samora, Aziza Nawal, Nawar and a slew of others. This immediate change and transformation from award winning dancers, popular international community raqs artists and teachers to exquisite, top notch professionals on a level I had not ever seen before made it VERY clear this show was a game changer. We were immediately warned with every move that we’d need to hold on, the industry as we knew it…was no more. ‘Bellydance in the USA’ 24 hours ago, is gone. Jillina’s vision is the new now!

The costuming, the moves, the physical presentation from their eye shadow to their hair was an indication that thought had not only gone into this but also blood, sweat, tears and CULTURAL RESEARCH (and maybe a little soul-selling because some of those moves and intricacies are not revealed outside the deepest parts of the region). These were not the women we knew before, they underwent a re-birth like nothing I’ve ever seen. Compare it to butterflies taking flight after a long process in the cocoon aka rehearsal and refinement. That Jillina is a genius. I have no idea what she did to them but she has got to be the plastic surgeon of Mideast dance skills. I can not stress this enough. She is also very culturally conscious beyond the surface. Some choreographers, show producers and artistic directors are keen to change their cast into one aesthetic. If Jillina is the sole person responsible for the way those ladies looked then she deserves an award for ‘Cultural Excellence’ and perhaps recognition from specific groups that award the preservation of beauty for people of colour. I’m the child of non-Americans and ethnic minorities. I have lived in the west and know the pressures many are put under to change oneself to one particular aesthetic. I’ve seen this hurt our art. But this is no more, this stage was void of all stereotypes and cookie-cutter images or imagery. THIS WAS INCREDIBLY REFRESHING. Going forward, no one will EVER be able to get away with hiding ethnicity in dance in exchange for pleasing the beast of western commercialization. This is the new now…be real, be you. Jillina allowed the dancers to shine and represent the true ‘Raqs World’ as we African, Arabs and Eastern ex-pats and families know it. For me, I feel we have regained a sense of pride and respect in that we can be allowed to love ourselves again without prejudice and conforming to a mere percentage of our natural selves. THIS is a historic moment not just in our industry but in the grand scheme of the way beauty is marketed. Lay down the gauntlet of ethnic shaming and the tyranny of colonialism in modern day. This show has paved a new path, alhumdulillah!

So many scenes included incredible costuming!

So many scenes included incredible costuming!

Alice in Wonderland: The Show
You didn’t have to be familiar with the story to understand it but it sure helped. Otherwise it may have been this incredibly fashioned kaleidescope of absolute wonder. For those of us who read this story once a year at annual Japanese Tea Parties, well…haha, you can imagine we were all over this production like a little child in a doll store.

Fast Learners: I have no idea how these dancers managed to learn so much so fast. This was a crock pot of cultural dance that was polished and presented beyond perfection. I love the interaction between Alice and that Bunny. OMG, the Alice in Wonderland superfan in me came bursting into zaghareets and screams. They way in which the symbols of the tale, the key, the “drink me” and “eat me” sign were all so well-presented it turned us into 3 year olds. We were ecstatic!

Issam as a tabla playing chef: Issam’s appearance drove us to bits. He is such an extraordinary musician whose talent and kindness are leaps and bounds above a plethora of celebrated artists. It was a brilliant idea to have him alongside, playing the chef of all things, he turns the tabla upside down, it becomes a cooking pot…see, it’s things like this woven into the show that make it so incredible and enjoyable for all who love this tale.

Other outstanding elements are the inclusion of every. single. cultural dance in the region. From the new(er) sha’abi (think of Yael Zarca’s version) to the Tanoura Masri featuring spinning and “derviche tournement” (think Sal Maktoob Vanegas and Mohamed Shahin); it was there! And borrowing a phrase from Issam’s earlier work, “Let me show you…”

The marvelous moves of the Caterpillar were a highlight  for Atlanta's Internationals

The marvelous moves of the Caterpillar were a highlight for Atlanta’s Internationals

For one thing, signature regional moves and level changes (think Tito Seif mn Al Msr) were brought forward in solos. Tweedle Dee and Tweetle Dum, complete with spinning propeller hats danced around with a traditional tahtib scene. I’m not talking some little walking around with canes in pretty dresses, this was well-thought out, regionally researched and again, here’s that term…another example of “perfecting perfection.” Then, there was the beautiful green caterpillar played by the ever-loved Sharon Kihara who we in Atlanta met in person several times before, and up-close and personal at BOD 2011. This caterpillar exquisitely segued into a khaleegi routine that meshed into Iranian Bandari with a bit of bedouin dance as well. Now, let me tell you how fierce this was…she went beyond hair tosses. She had several Iraqi Bedouin dances down to a science…the very intricate moves that are extremely hard to teach in that you don’t just learn to move your head a certain way, the spirit has to take over for that to be executed correctly. She was steeped in ta’arab grandeur if that makes any sense. This was my favourite part of the whole performance. She then went into a very vibrant set of hair tosses with her team using modern fusion style costumes incorporated with ethnic cuts from the region. Those of us who see this daily will know what I mean, from the hair stylings to the garments, this was all so intricate that not only would I have invited my baba and mum, I’d have asked for several tourism boards in the region to please come and see this. It was unreal. I failed to keep quiet, my zaghareets rang out so loud, people near me began to do their own versions, so soon it was a myriad of cultural calls coming not only from the 19th row where I was sitting but also from the 20th and back. Even kids were bursting from emotion. We just lost it…there was so much cultural pride at that moment I could barely stand it. I was certain if it got any more intense I’d be escorted out. Again, had I been on the front row I may have been disruptive so I suppose it was a blessing that I was in the back.

The scene with the parasols meshes and morphes into the Cheshire Cat...you gotta see it...it puts the T in Talent!

The scene with the parasols meshes and morphes into the Cheshire Cat…you gotta see it…it puts the T in Talent!

The Spinning Mushrooms & the Cheshire Cat: At this point, my soul has floated away and is in a type of midst in the theatre. All I had left was a little bit of my voice and my eyes. Enter the stage, several women with parasols and EurAsian attire. Very serene, very beautiful and culturally accurate costuming. Remember the part in the book where the Cheshire cat appears and disappears…well, let me tell you how these perfectionists perfectly executed this piece. They form an incredible circle and the parasols are lowered, coming together to form the face of the cat. Petite Jamila, the spinning kitty, who spun a minimum of 6 veils, catching several from Alice, appears and reappears as the face/parasols float on the stage. It was majestic and supernatural even. I was just as afraid and exhilarated as I was reading the book and seeing the movie. My heart is weak so I have to be careful getting too emotional but I was seriously covered in goosebumps, my skin and hair were bristling, I got cold chills watching this play out. And if that wasn’t enough, here come these textured masses on either side of the stage. They have covered tops and as they begin to spin I see them form mushrooms. These are the Tanoura Masri mushrooms, faces covered! Just like you see on several presenters from Egypt. They were completely blinded in this set from start to finish, spinning in brown and beige textured Tanoura suits with the mushroom tops floating up, forming actual human Tanoura Masri mushrooms. This was one of those ‘mic drop’ moments…but not just mic drop on the stage with a hard thud. This was mic drop into a swimming pool…complete with electric shock and sparks flying all over the place. I was done at this point, this show was now the greatest raqs show on earth. THE GREATEST!! It had surpassed every wedding I’d ever been to, it was on par with the IBCC, BOD and all that inbetween. Nothing…nothing compares.

Lamma Bada: The next scene is very important to ATL’s community. Many know of the band Allah Yustur who revived the importance of this song in our town. To see it included last night with such finesse; the white garments, the Spanish style and Flamenco movements to start and then to burst into the Rroma material which is the other half of that great Rrom lineage was incredible. What was also nice was to hear the beginings of the song and the low hum in the audience of people singing along (at least in my section). Now that proves this town “gets it.” Atlanta has once again allowed its cultural side to manifest and perch. Kudos ATL!!! Mabrook, be you!! Thank you BDE for bringing it out of us.

Other notable scenes that meshed cultural dance with great significance were the ‘Queen of Hearts’ scenes and the tea party…where I have to say Louchia and Heidi shined beyond comparison. The way in which the skirt became a table and watching Alice run between characters to try and get her place at the table…I mean, good heavens, this was incredible! You have to see it. From the Mad Hatter to the court and croquet, all of this show was everything. It was again, perfection perfected complete with an international cast dotted with ex-pats and first generationers like myself (i.e. Heidi, Constance). It redefined raqs theatre and reminded us of what we should be doing in this industry. THIS is real fusion, it’s identifiable, it’s real, it’s relative…it’s raqs!

The tango of the Mad Hatter and the Hare ( #DanieloTheBestBunnyEver ) is fantastic!

The tango of the Mad Hatter and the Hare ( #DanieloTheBestBunnyEver ) is fantastic!

Too Soon?: Surely something was wrong, nothing is perfect! Well, in this case it was. BDE’s AIW was perfect! I think the only thing that worried me was the “off with their head” scene. Given the news of the day, beheadings of western journalists with the executors’ “supposed” ties to the region and earlier this week, an aid worker given the same fate (?), this scene was a little bit of a trigger for me. Fortunately, the humour brought into the scene, which included Heidi’s dad coincidentally being brought to the stage with Jillina removed the memories of what we’re dealing with in the real world. It was so well put together, including the hair colour of the little cut heads matching the garments of each principal character that I didn’t think of the incidents for long. I have no idea how in the world the team could have rearranged the piece this late in the game with respect to the news. But, at the end of the day, the tales’ gruesome section was somehow made gorgeous and perhaps no one even thought about it from any other perspective.

I can’t think of any other theatre production in this industry that has been as moving and grand. I’m overwhelmed and I can’t wait to see what they do next! Even if it doesn’t make it to Atlanta I’d like to travel and see it. At this point, I’m simply speechless and steeped in gratitude for the intense work and over the top effort put into the entire show.

Hugs & Hallway Tears
After the show, I had to go sit down because I was so overwhelmed with emotion. I first spoke to the members of Turkish MissBellydance.com to get their reaction. They were speechless much like I was. I really couldn’t talk for about 30 minutes. It was so intense that when Aziza came over to say hello I couldn’t get any words out. I just started crying. I’m fighting back tears writing this.

Wrapping Up EOB 2014: -Back at the Twelve- Issam has just come in and again, emotions are high. One thing I’ve managed to do is leave the stars alone. I haven’t taken any photos, no pictures, nothing with anyone. I didn’t dress up in my cultural attire, I simply took a back seat and have kept quiet. I’ll let my fingers and social posts speak for me. I thank Danielo for sending a friend request, happy to be friends with Issam already. Seeing him in person is very difficult. I really want to get up and go sit next to him right now but I know I’d throw my arms around him and hug him as long as he let me. #TeeHee

Big thanks to Faaridah for going through with this massive endeavor. This was too much in every aspect. It’s just too much work for one person but again it somehow turned into this incredibly beautiful event that has left the entire city and surrounding communities speechless and in awe. I’d write more, but I’m verklempt, talk amongst yourselves. I’ll give you a topic, -incredible dance communities with a passion to keep the countless cultural connections alive and well in creative ways… discuss!

Thanks for reading!
-Andye
*Full Weekend review coming to Raqs Atlanta inclusive of Friday’s show featuring the Amazing Amani Jabril, Aziza Nawal and Jenny Nichols (who stole that show hands down)! Enjoy!

*Pictures are from Google images and public files as we weren’t allowed to take any photos or videos of the performance – if there are any issues with the above usage contact me at @andyeisthenews