Building Community in Our Dance World
by Shelley Muzzy
posted May 20, 2013
Per my understanding, a hafla, in its most basic sense, is a party. It can be a party centered around family events, a circumcision, birthday, engagement, promotion, whatever, and it is a term that comes from the Arabic speaking world. My first experience of a hafla was at the folk dance center where I took belly dance classes with Nakish. Held in a large, low ceiling hall with a great wooden floor and mirrors along one end, the monthly haflas provided a place for community, and we were included. People of all ages came together to dance and sing and play music. My first tentative performances were at that very hall under the watchful eye of Nakish and my sister dancers. I just loved watching these people come together with this amazing live music. It was the first time I had seen families get up and dance together. The Balkan and Turkish rhythms were familiar to me and watching the gaita, violin and dumbek players stand in the center while lines of dancers moved around them was just fascinating. Parents held babies in their arms, small children clung to their fathers and mothers hands and were encouraged to feel the music and stumble along. Even I joined in and took my first attempts at folk dance, loving the way it fit in with the Middle Eastern dance I had learned from Jamila and now Nakish. There was ample opportunity for beginners to learn as they danced alongside their teachers and more experienced dancers, mixing with the ethnic communities that abounded in the Bay Area.
Somewhere through the years, the hafla became a standard event in the belly dance community. It was a chance for dancers to experience an audience for the first time, a chance for troupes to work on new choreographies, and for professional dancers to work out new routines, experience a friendly, supportive audience and let their hair down and have fun. For small towns or cities with no ethnic restaurant scene, it was an important venue to dance. Haflas were organized by local dance teachers or teachers got together and pooled resources to produce an event.
Haflas weren’t a formal show nor were they designed as venues for professional dancers. They were, in my understanding, intended as informal, supportive places for dancers to have fun and try their wings.
Hafla Northwest, as it came to be called, was really the brainchild of my friend Annette. It was based on the successful, long-running Hasani’s Hafla that took place south of Bellingham, Washington in Gig Harbor. Hasani’s regular haflas featured (and still do!) a class with a well known or up and coming dancer, a call in procedure for dance slots, vending, and a good time for all. Hafla Northwest was lucky to have access to a huge performing space that was part of my daughters’ dance studio. We gave a portion of the profits to her for space rental, and were able to bring in some well-known dancers for an afternoon workshop and evening performance. Since everything was an hour or an hour and a half plus a border away from us, it was a chance for local dancers to experience a semi-professional show. They were a venue for student dancers, student classes, and semi-professional dancers. The public was invited and for a small donation, they had a chance to see different styles, with the understanding that the low entrance fee was to cover costs and not imply a professional show.
With few clubs around to offer regular student nights like the clubs in the Bay Area used to do, the hafla brought dancers from out of town and across the border, strengthening ties and building community.
It ran pretty smoothly. We rented chairs and lights, set up vending tables, offered water, tea, coffee and juice as well as cookies and small snacks. Muzzy, who was the MC as well as oud, saz, and davul player for the Bou-Saada Dance Troupe, announced the show. Volunteers were enlisted to help with setup and dancer herding. There was a dressing room with a large roll of butcher paper taped to the wall with the dancer line-up in large print so everyone knew who was on next. Extra mirrors and lights were provided for makeup, screened spaces for dressing, and we even had a green room where the dancer who was up next could wait and center herself before being announced. The dancers wrote out their own intros on a card, right down to the pronunciation of their names and these were given to the MC right before their performance. After a few years, our reputation was established, and we had dancers from all over the state, Canada and even as far as Montana, come to dance and take the workshops. It was a good scene.
All of that came to an end when we had to sell the studio in 2005. Since that time, our local dance scene has grown and changed and blossomed. There are several teachers teaching a variety of styles. I quit teaching after devoting most of my adult life to the dance. I missed it once in awhile, but I was also relieved.
Fast forward to 2012:
Lots of dancers, active community, no place to dance. Sound familiar? Yup, not unlike the rest of the country. Oh, there are the big festivals: Tribal Fest, Cues and Tattoos, Belly Dancer of the Year, Rakkasah, Cairo Carnivale, etc, etc. Few-to-none restaurants and competition for jobs so acute that many, many, many dancers dance for free or for a meal, but that’s another story for another article. A large part of the belly dance community is dancing for each other now. It’s not always the friendliest or most forgiving audience; although, I have been in audiences where everyone decides in some sort of collective unconscious to rise and rally to support. I know it can go either way.
The petty politics of protecting a venue, a space or a job sometimes gets in the way of that supportive, friendly audience for which so many of us pine.
So my friend Annette and I were not dancing, not taking classes anymore. Occasionally I taught or coached, but because I’m not a competitor, not on the scene flying from show to show and waving my website all over the net, I have been marginalized, forgotten, and dismissed.
…Well, maybe it isn’t that bad, but unless a dancer keeps her ass in gear and stuffs her sagging body into a well constructed bedlah and hauls her aching knees and feet out onto the stage, there often is no place for her in the community to which she has devoted most of her adult life.
After attending a local halfa, and believe me, getting me to a belly dance event is like taking the cat to the vet, I was appalled. It was a decent venue, but I was one of five people who attended. Really? Five of us? I didn’t want to insult anyone, but when I inquired about organization, advertising, etc., the sweet young woman, who is a very good dancer and all around nice person, said she wasn’t really into all that. She just wanted to promote community and have everyone get together and dance. On a Saturday night, with an entrance fee, with no dancer line up, no advertising, she lost her financial butt. Admittedly, she didn’t have a lot into it, but it was a sad and hollow image of what had been with no clue at all of how much fun it could be.
So we stepped in. Annette and I, the Crones, the Aunties, the Old Bags. We hosted a meeting of the local teachers and placed our offer in front of them. We’ll host a hafla and your job is to encourage your students to come. We are not favoring one style over another, or one teacher over another. There will be 10-15 dance slots, an hour and a half demo class before the doors open to the public, and we’ll rotate the opportunity to teach that class among the local teachers so everyone has a chance to get exposure.
We’ll take care of it all, the publicity, the space, the treats, running the music, all of it. They went for it. I think they were relieved.
We wanted to provide an event where everyone was welcome with the emphasis on student and beginner performers. The host teacher in the role of honor, danced last, spots were limited in time to give everyone equal opportunity. Yup, we had some rules, easy rules, but guidelines that made the event run smoothly.
For our first hafla, we were delighted to have Samantha Riggs as the featured teacher. We lucked out when Ruby Beh was in town and asked if she could do a short spot. We rented a small venue for a good price, asked everyone to bring pillows or chairs, provided some cookies and bottled water, did a bit of advertising, and low and behold, it was a success! I guess I was more surprised than anyone. What joy for the local community to have a place to dance, see dancing, and to gather without having to worry about teacher or class politics. Nothing is ever completely apolitical, but I think the community appreciated not having to do anything but show up, and it wasn’t hard to do.
Of course, Hafla Northwest has only taken a tiny, tentative step at revival, but the old girl seems to have some life in her yet. I think it helps that Annette and I aren’t more involved in the community. We are trying not to be too ambitious, to limit the haflas to twice a year to see if the support continues, but with the number of students, and the eagerness of dancers to strut their stuff, I think this sort of thing is just what the belly dance community needs. I like to keep it simple, just like a good dance. We don’t need a lot of bells and whistles, not at first. We just need a good dance floor, a good sound system, a good MC, some cookies and water, some place to sit and some dancers who want to dance. Next time, I hope to have a couple vendors and real chairs, and to persuade some drummers and local musicians to come and join us. I think it’s important to build slowly. The teacher of the night should get a nice stipend, first time dancers have somewhere to practice what they have learned, and everyone has a good time. We had lots of people who weren’t necessarily involved in the dance community who came to the haflas at Pacific Dance Company, and we hope to woo that group back so that dancers are dancing for a broader audience. I am trying to keep the goals simple.
Some of you are probably saying to yourselves, “No big deal. We do that all the time.” Great! I’m glad! but there can be a lot of politics in local dance scenes that prevent students from one teacher from supporting the students of another–politics that make dancers stay away from good, quality workshops and well produced shows. I am hoping that by being one of the older dancers in the community, who is not trawling for students or vying for jobs, I have gained some neutrality. Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a place where we set our differences aside and just dance? I love this dance, in all its forms, and providing an opportunity for younger, newbie dancers to experience the spark of performing, might just be the place where I belong. Yes, I know, lofty ideals! especially at my age, but I’m still a dancer at heart, and that makes me an optimist!
Ready for more?
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