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Gilded Serpent presents...
The Fantasia Festival
‘A New Direction’
by Josephine Wise

The Fantasia Festival has been hugely successful for the past 8 years but I have decided that the time has come to change direction and give it a new meaning. Times have changed and so has the dance scene. I love nothing more than a new challenge, so I have spent my spring break redesigning it with this in mind. With everyone (including me) now thinking internationally I think there is now more of a need to think locally and support local dance communities.

I created the Fantasia Festival in 2000 with a specific idea in mind. I had been teaching and performing at festivals abroad, particularly in German cities, and believed that the United Kingdom needed something similar.

The original idea for the festival was firstly to promote UK teachers. In my travels teaching workshops all around the UK I found good teachers who were only known in their immediate areas. I thought that if dancers came to the festival from a wide range of areas, and tried workshops with a similarly wide range of teachers, that the logical outcome was that a teacher from Scotland could find herself invited to teach workshops in Cornwall or vice versa. I had a vision of the whole dance scene becoming one and being aware of one another.

Secondly I was aware that it was difficult for students of Middle Eastern dance to find teachers, and when they did, to find out whether they were being taught an authentic and good quality version of the dance. I realised that if someone learning in a church hall in Wales came to a festival with the best teachers in the country, she would have an automatic guide as to the standard of what she was being taught. Similarly teachers could come and learn a wide variety of styles and material to take back and teach their students.

At this point I had already been running the JWAAD (Josephine Wise Academy of Arabic Dance) Teacher Training Diploma Course with Maggie Caffrey since 1992. This was my original bid to raise standards of the dance in the UK by raising the standard of teaching. When I heard accusations that I may be using just JWAAD teachers at the Fantasia, I put the letters JWAAD after the names of teachers with the diploma so that it could be plainly seen who was and was not a JWAAD teacher, and that a large proportion of the teachers were not JWAAD trained. These days it is usually about half and half.

To start with I resisted calls to bring in star teachers from abroad. This was because I was interested in promoting UK teachers to UK students. I thought that this country had some very talented dancers who were struggling to make a living and support the dance, and that they deserved to be the stars of the show. However, eventually the inevitable happened and I started to bring in star teachers from Egypt. This was very successful, although I was afraid of the ‘horse’s mouth’ syndrome, which can develop, in which students believe that only an Egyptian teacher can teach the real thing. In my opinion teaching is highly skilled and not dependent on geography, although it was now possible for anyone who couldn’t necessarily go to Cairo, to again compare what was being taught with her own weekly class.

Tine Valois teaching a workshop at Fantasia in 2007. Amongst the students in the front row is
Clair McGregor, winner of the International Bellydance Congress amateur dancer Cleopatra Award in 2007

After the Fantasia had been running for a few years several new local festivals sprang up around the country. I should say that Majma already existed and was a very successful event in Glastonbury. However, the new glut of festivals caused the same thing to happen that I had seen in Germany several years earlier.

This was that instead of having 2 or 3 big festivals with dancers from all over the country, there were so many festivals that everyone stayed at home and just went to their local one. This meant that there was a less varied mix of students of the dance at each individual festival, and the dance scene was once again localised.

In 2006/7 I developed, with Edwin Wood, the idea of the International Bellydance Congress. This was conceived as a truly huge event that had a mind-boggling cast of star teachers and performers from around the world. It was an enormous success and surpassed our wildest dreams. We had some trouble with the venue (!) and afterwards Edwin very sensibly retired from the fray of organising such an unwieldy event.

I have now found some new partners and a great new venue for 2009 – unfortunately the re-arrangement has meant that 2008 was impossible.

The reason that I mention the Congress is that this is now a new event designed for dancers from all over the UK. Actually it is designed for dancers from many other countries as well, and they came last time from all over the world. This means that there is again an event that brings together dancers from different worlds to see each other’s work and gain inspiration to take home with them. But what does this mean for the Fantasia? I am too prolific with my events, it seems! I took this spring off to develop some other dance work and to go to the States and enjoy myself! I have been thinking about the Fantasia and what it is for, and have realised that it is still needed, but as London’s ‘local’ festival. To this end I have been redesigning it for its new purpose.

I have decided to concentrate mainly on teachers and students from London and the South. This doesn’t mean we won’t have visiting teachers from elsewhere, just that the design will all be with them in mind. I have expanded the idea of the evening show to include more teachers and student groups, using the Studio Theatre, which is a more relaxed performance space. This means that the Performance Platform, the show and the dancing afterwards will merge into one longer celebration of dance. This will provide an opportunity for students to get performing experience alongside their teachers.

Hebbina Dance Company featuring Trish Rapley-Giles in the foreground,
performing a folkloric pot dance at Fantasia in 2006.

The next Fantasia Festival will be held on 12th, 13th &14th December 2008 and I am now inviting all teachers to contact me if they want to teach and perform, and particularly if they want to bring their students to perform as well. I think we can all learn by seeing what other dancers are up to, and I want to bring people together so they feel more part of a community. I know my success has made some people think that I am just in it for the money, but believe me, if money were my prime concern I wouldn’t be a dancer! I am always interested in what makes the dance scene tick, and what will help it to develop and grow. We have come so far since I started studying Arabic Dance – in those days there were 3 teachers in the whole country! I learned for 4 years before I first went to Egypt in 1985 and discovered that the dance there was very different to the dance I had been learning. I also had to bring back badly recorded cassette tapes bought in the souks and try to decipher what the music was. Now we can buy all the music on the Internet and go to famous Egyptian teachers in our home towns. I think that’s quite an achievement for all of us!

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