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Gilded Serpent presents...
IBDC- Part 1
A Brand New Idea for Belly Dance:
The Festival Idea in its Formative Years

by Amina Goodyear

In the Beginning...
We tried harder because we wanted to be accepted, and we wanted to be The Best in the West! We wanted to be just as Arabic as the best Arabic dancers overseas. We needed to be accepted here in the West and there in the East. So we tried harder.

Now, it seems that here we are no longer an underground dance form! This Belly dance craze has been around so long in the western world that finally the dance form is accepted and is no longer a craze. We are now mainstream.

Our dance is actually being recognized as a legitimate dance form and is considered the norm (standard) in the dance world. Today we can open up most conventional dance costume catalogs and find hip scarves and cute little “I dream of Genie” costumes tucked in between a ballet tutu and a hip hop outfit.

Arabic dance is probably one of the oldest dance forms in the world – in all of civilization. In the West, our presence in the Arabic dance world does not even span half a century.

To my knowledge, in the United States there were little pockets of Middle Eastern dance clubs sprouting up in the late 1950s in East coast cities such as Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. and in the '60s, in the Midwest’s Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles in the West. We’ve come a long way, Habibi. Lately there is the hint of a Belly dancer and a venue for Belly dance in all the major cities - probably even more so in most small towns and suburbs.

Yes, we try harder; we’ve worked hard to spread the word and we’ve succeeded.

I can only speak from my own personal experiences. When I became interested in this dance form in San Francisco in 1965, I had to hunt for music, teachers, and venues. I remember one music store where I had to “knock three times and tell them Joe sent me” in order to find some Middle Eastern music. (The only one offered was Balkan folk dance music.) Costumes? It was not even an option to shop for costumes. There were no Belly dance festivals with vendors or online Internet stores.  The computer was known as Hal in the movie 2001.  We had to learn to sew, or we didn't get to perform.

In the U.S. at that time, there were only a handful of known dancers and teachers. There were Morocco, Bobby Farrah, and Serena (New York), Adriana (Washington, D.C.), Dahlena (Chicago), Aisha Ali and Marta Schill (Los Angeles), as well as Jamila Salimpour and Bert Balladine (San Francisco). Take your pick. Pick your city and study. "How-to" Belly Dance books? They had not yet been written. Instructional videos? Videos were not accessible to the general public yet. Movies? Hardly ever. When shown, if we were lucky, maybe we’d see a 3-minute clip. Sometimes there would be a big event with a Middle Eastern singing star. Sometimes a dancer would accompany the show.

In San Francisco in 1974, my friend Hoda and I dreamed of having an all-inclusive Belly dance festival that would bring our warring local dance community together. We hoped to have workshops, informational seminars, a few vendors and a dance showcase. We hoped people would enjoy it. We didn’t have many resources; so, we called upon our local university, San Francisco State University, to help us. With a lot of time and energy, and countless hours spent schmoozing, and talking on the phone, we were able finally to realize our dreams. After more than a year of planning and bulk mailing (no Internet at that time) early in 1976, we presented Isis, The First Belly Dance Festival. It featured discussions, workshops, shopping and star-studded but mostly local dance performers and musicians playing music live. It cost us a lot of money. We were so happy to realize that we just about broke even, and didn’t lose too much money!

One of the local teachers, Jamila Salimpour, would occasionally sponsor known dancers for workshops. Sometimes they would be famous U.S. dancers such as Bobby Farrah, Morocco, and Dahlena. Other times they would have a dancer from the Middle East such as one of the dancers who was touring with a star Middle Eastern singer. Usually, that was just what we got… a workshop – no show – no vending. However, we were very lucky that she did this service for us dancers. I will be forever grateful for those workshops. They were memorable…more memorable than the workshops today because there weren’t too many of them.

In the early 1980s, Jamila started a short-lived Belly dance festival called The Great Eastern Faire -and it was great! It included a dancers’ showcase, vending, and guest workshop teachers from other areas. These annual festivals took place in a San Francisco hotel (the Belleview). Also, about the same time, Shukriya started the Rakkasah festival in a little community center in San Pablo, California. Soon, others - such as Mary Ellen Donald- were also sponsoring Belly dance festivals. About the same time, Sula started her Belly dance pageant. These, too, were mostly local; they began small and eventually would also have included a workshop teacher. All of these festivals had much in common. They were small, manageable, local, and included local musicians. However there were always visiting guest artists, usually including some sort of “open stage” dancing.

From these small and humble beginnings in the West, began the Belly dance craze and the beginning of the Belly dance festivals, conferences, seminars, conventions or whatever you would like to call them.

As you all know, Rakkasah has endured. From its small, humble beginnings it has become the ideal of the dance festival, but in some ways, it has created monsters, including itself. Now there is Rakkasah West and Rakkasah East. Who knows when there will be a Rakkasah North and South?

Festivals Expand
I remember that more than 10 years ago, Raqia Hassan was in the San Francisco Bay Area and attended Rakkasah.

I remember her telling me that Rakkasah belonged in Egypt – the mother country, and I remember her telling me that she was going to make a festival to top all festivals in the land where this dance was born – in Egypt.

ad on GS last year

A few years later, her dream came true! She welcomed foreign dancers to her Egyptian turf with the Ahlan wa Sahlan Festival. If you had gone to her first festival, you might remember that it was considerably smaller, and maybe not as organized, as it is now.

Just as restaurants and night clubs traditionally hold their “grand openings” much after the fact -and just as some movies are “sneak-previewed”, -and some plays have a Thursday night show to shake all the bugs out-, it would be wise for larger dance festivals to have trial runs. In this case, I am specifically speaking of one particular festival: The Las Vegas International Belly Dance Convention, a.k.a. IBDC.

I’m speaking of a festival and its promoters that promised more than they were able to deliver.

They wanted a festival to top all festivals! They wanted to make history, and, this, they did. However it was not the history they intended. This festival did not start small and grow into something wonderful. According to the pre-festival DVD teaser that was targeted to the vendor market, there were promises of hundreds of vendors alongside "open stage" dancers including international coverage provided by a 5 star marketing company. This was to be a trade show to beat all trade shows.

photo by Esma

photo by Esma

On March 1, 2007, the producers, Dolores Wadesworth and Alex Hererra of Gold Star Productions held a pre-festival publicity party at the Southpoint Hotel in Las Vegas. Among the guests who were wined and dined were vendors and top name U.S. Belly dance greats such as Fahtiem, Angelika Nemeth, Delilah and Middle Eastern dance stars Amani from Lebanon and Lucy from Egypt.

The guests were treated to a full show by solo dancer, Aradia, of Las Vegas, and troupe shows by Layla and the Lotus Dancers, She’enedra, and Ah Ya Helu. All the troupes were from Los Angeles. If this show were indicative of what the producers were aspiring to promote for their big event in July, I would have to say that it was a disappointing choice for upholding the reputation of the American Belly dancer. Perhaps I have too many personal expectations.

The solo dancer, Aradia, opened the show, carried on a litter by men dressed in ancient Egyptian “slave” costumes very much like the spectacles seen at Ahlan wa Sahlan or in the film Cleopatra. Her dance was a typical Oriental dance opening with flying veils and good technique. Her second piece, Lessa Faker, was nice and slick, but I missed the intimate interpretation that could have made the piece memorable. In a large ballroom stage, it is especially difficult to grab audiences’ emotions when the dancer is more focused on technique than on the sentiment of the music.

The troupe numbers all seemed to try to impress one -ala Las Vegas style. It would have been nice, and even better, if the dancers had remained true to our dance form. Instead, it seemed as though they were trying to reinvent a new Middle Eastern dance style. Would it be called fusion? I’m not sure I would even call it that.

Layla and the Lotus Dancers seemed to be Hollywood dancers who gave the impression that lots of skin, false eyelashes, and high heels were more important than traditional Middle Eastern dance and music. The dancers had good technique, were well rehearsed, and professional, but was it Middle Eastern technique? I’m not sure. I don't think so.

It seemed more like these women were "pick-up" dancers (dance extras able to pick up any type of dance at a moment’s notice) able to execute the movements but not internalize the feelings. I’ve seen it done in the ballet when the dancers try to emulate a cultural style they do not know and in which they are not comfortable. They end up looking more like that cultural style through the costuming rather than by the dancing.

I wish I could say that the Lotus Dancers performed Brazilian-inspired Middle Eastern dance. However I believe it was just plain Brazilian. This group did a candle dance and a drum solo with good technique, but there was so much fusion thrown in that it was impossible to define what type of fusion it was. Their Isis-wing dance required the same strength and coordination as the flagmen at the airport’s runways and they could not disguise the fact that it was a gimmick with expensive props. I wondered why they chose to perform these flashy almost generic “Las Vegas” showgirl type dances rather than the more traditional Middle Eastern dances.

The other two troupes seemed to be doing classroom choreographies. They were static and emotionless and showed their good technique but not their good dancing. She’enedra was sort of a fusion tribal cabaret group that would have left a better impression if they had sported the more unique look of some of the new and popular Tribal dancer groups. Instead they chose to dress “safe”. Ah Ya Helu was not interesting at all. Although they were very well rehearsed, I kept wishing they would “mess up” so they’d look more real or alive.

It was hard to not compare this show with Miles Copeland’s Bellydance SuperStars. The SuperStars truly have a slick personality driven show and they could hold their own in any Las Vegas revue. The dancers in this show seemed to be more like Las Vegas wannabes. This, in itself, is all right. However it is not all right when the producers claim the show is more fantastic than it really is. I was told that Alex, the Egyptian impresario and owner of Gold Star productions had personally chosen the acts that were to be performed. It appeared that he wanted to present an international dance show in order to impress his Egyptian friends with the versatility of American belly dance talent. Well, I think it backfired on him. Maybe I’m too much of a traditionalist, but I personally felt offended that he was offering scantily clad dancers as representative of the best of American belly dance. I can only wonder what his Egyptian friends thought. To me, it seemed like another typical case of poor judgment on his part. When Miles began presenting his SuperStars, we experienced some of that bravado and cutting edge experimentation, but we also felt he was a bit humble and was open to and asked for suggestions. This does not come across with the overconfident attitude of Gold Star Productions.

The producers distributed about 500 DVDs of their pre-festival activities in order to publicize their July event. There had to be either big money (or something we don’t know about) to back up all these events because it was obviously quite costly to produce. In addition to the show, the DVD also introduced some of the major players by way of interviews. Amira of Las Vegas and Shereen (the Arabic-speaking interviewer) did an excellent job of interviewing some of the hopeful vendors, dancers, and teachers. They managed to get every single one of them to say that they were excited and happy about the upcoming convention and that Las Vegas was the only place that could support it. The people interviewed managed to use their time wisely by doing quite a bit of blatant self-promotion while talking about the convention. Only Angelika Nemeth and Lucy stand out in my mind as having the self-confidence and class to not do this. Lucy gave a bit of advice: a dancer needs to have a decent body and be able to hear the music.

a photo from last year's website of the business members
supporting the event
The promotional DVD ended with a little human-interest angle of behind-the-scenes vignettes. Yes, we do like the dancers. They are nice people, hard working, and eager to make the publicity show successful. I began to think that I was too hard on them and the producers. But, wait! This preview was meant to promote the biggest and best Belly dance convention of all time. If that is true, I wondered,"will there really be hundreds of vendors and 10,000 dancers and countless Middle Eastern dance instructors?" I am impressed! I had personally co-sponsored Egyptian dancers for workshops and remembered the hassles, the almost two year’s worth of publicity and preparations, including visa problems. These were visa problems pre 9/11.  Yes, I was impressed, but I also wondered why there wasn’t more of a buzz about this convention in my San Francisco community. Yes, we knew of the convention, but some of us learned about it too late to make plans to go. The local talk was that a businessman was in charge of the event and didn’t know much about Belly dance or Belly dancers. Based on this, we didn’t believe that we would get all that was promised. Who were these people, these producers who promised so much? It didn’t seem that there was enough credibility to seduce hundreds of vendors and 10,000 dancers...

This convention reminded me of many Middle Eastern night clubs in my area that opened and folded because it was a “secret.” When they looked for their customers, they realized that they forgot a few minute details such as: knowing how to cook, run a club, or let people know they had finally opened.

End of part I
While the writer did not attend IBDC, extensive interviews (more than 25 hours) were conducted with 17 vendors, star performers, competition entrants and workshop participants in order to understand what did and did not to work well at the convention. In addition, IBDC’s promotional and organizational materials were carefully studied. For the next installments of this article, GS looks forward to conversing with the workshop organizers to incorporate their additional and important perspective.
Part II will be reporting on the actual event in July 2007 and will be posted hopefully before the new year.

Part 2 here

Have a comment? Send us a letter!
Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

Ready for more?
9-17-07 Changes: Egyptian Dance - Has it crossed the line? by Amina Goodyear
Both festivals, held in Giza were isolated and insulated from the people and the Cairo that I know and love.

8-15-07 Amina's North Beach Memories Chapter 6: Bert, by Amina Goodyear
On my first Monday at the Casa Madrid, Bert came to support the place and me. Well, what he saw was equivalent to a San Francisco earthquake.

12-12-00 Producing a Middle Eastern Dance Festival by Ellen Cruz
"It is necessary to combine your organizational and public relations skills with your creativity.

1-30-06The Magnificent Fundraiser by Najia
That included the Belly dance, which he confided in me (later) that he had hated, because it had been introduced to Greece during the time that Greece was under the suppression and control of the Turks.

11-28-07 The International Belly Dance Congress told by Salwa of Belgium and the winner of the contest professional category
September 28-30, 2007, in Bogner Regis, England Gala photos provided by Josephine Wise, others by author.
Not being able to prepare my planned choreography properly for the Oum Kalthoum song, which is not easy to interpret to begin with, I quickly turned to emotions in order to fill up the space.

11-16-07 Nonprofits for Middle Eastern Belly Dancers, Is a 501c3 Right for You? by Dawn Devine
By understanding the nature of non-profits, how they are organized and run, you can see their potential for developing successful arts organization, performance space, dance company or troupe.

7-16-07 Music Copyright Law for Belly Dancers (or for any Performing Artist) by Yasmin
From Hollywood blockbuster movies down to clips on YouTube the law is the same and it applies to anyone who uses someone else’s music for their own purposes.

10-17-07 A Report on the First International Bellydance Conference of Canada Part 2 - Saturday Gala Performance Photos by Denise Marino & Sussi Dorrell.
Held at the Ryerson Theatre in Toronto Canada on April 21, 2007. Featuring international stars including Amir Thaleb and Randa Kama

10-3-07 Revisiting BellyPalooza: the Daughters of Rhea Belly Dance Festival by Elaine, Most photos by Allen J Becker
August 4, 2007, Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Maryland. The weekend of dance workshops and performances took place once again in Baltimore on the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus, one of the most elegant venues imaginable for such an event.

7-30-07 Belly Dancer of the Year Pageant 2007 Sunday Photos, Photos by Michael Baxter, Photo Prep by Michelle Joyce, May 27, 2007 Danville, California,
Event produced by Leea. The competition for the Finalists.


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