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The Best of British!

The South of England Belly Dance Scene

Map of Southern England

by Sara Shrapnell
posted September 12, 2014

I recently had the opportunity to return to the United Kingdom as part of my book tour.  Having been away for three years,  I was interested in looking at the UK belly dance scene as an outsider for the first time.  I met some stunning new dancers and enjoyed catching up with old friends; it was all the same and yet different.  Like every area, the UK has seen an ebb and flow in the popularity of belly dance, the economic impact and the rise in popularity of fusions styles has changed the dance from when I first started twenty years ago. 

Yet I see a strong, healthy and supporting scene posed to expand when disposable income in the general population increases.

While Thomas Cook, the travel agent, may have been taking tourists to Egypt from the 1870’s, travelling there didn’t come within reach of the majority of the UK’s middle class until the post war tourist boom of the 1950’s.  While not in the same price bracket as holiday packages to Spain or France, trips to Turkey and Egypt were aspirational for the well off or adventurous.  For those with a smaller budget, Middle Eastern themed restaurants and clubs were beginning to appear up and down the country, where patrons could enjoy the food, music, dance and meet people from all around the world. 


Rebekah is a teacher, performer and event host based on the Isle of Wight:

“I had always been fascinated with Egypt.  I saved (money) for 3 years to go. To stand in places I’d only read about was unbelievable.  I got to dance down the Nile and in the desert under the stars.  It was unbelievable. I even called my son Nile.  He loves learning about the country and the culture, he is even grasping the language. I can’t wait to take him.”

This easy access to Egypt, Turkey and people who grew up there continues to influence the UK belly dance scene today.  Many of my students over the years would come to class because they fell in love with the dance while on holiday, or because they had fallen in love with someone from the Middle East.  It was not unusual to start a new term or semester with a “suitcase party”, where a trader who had made a trip over the break would bring back treasure to share: coin belts and galabaya, CDs and finger cymbals.  With easy access to the market places of Egypt and Turkey, professional dancers could find costumes to suit their style of dancing, and student dancers could find belts in all shapes and colors.  This in turn paid for those traders to make another trip.

Emma Chapman

Emma Chapman is a teacher and performer who recently moved from the UK to live in Salt Lake City:

“We’ve had so many amazing dancers (from Egypt) here to teach, including regular visits from our own Cairo stars Yasmina and Lorna, and for a long time it was easy for us to visit in return for dance adventures (and cheap costumes!).”

Shams of Wiltshire

Shams is a performer, teacher and event host based in Wiltshire:

“As Emma points out, proximity to Egypt and the Middle East helps in our learning choices. We celebrate diversity in this country and we like our different styles. We like new things, we like fun things and we like fusing things. Here you will see every style, every prop, stories being told, fantasy dances interwoven with mystery. On the other side of the coin I think the proximity to Egypt and Turkey gives us a very healthy respect of the cultures and in interpreting the music correctly and we are especially fond of Egyptian Bellydance.  I would say that the UK belly dance scene is as diverse as our UK population,and really quite accepting.”

With costumes and music arriving from far and wide and people from the cultures willing to share their knowledge the UK belly dance scene has long had a reputation for embracing many styles.  It is not uncommon to be able to take workshops in a huge variety of styles all in one weekend.

This in turn has led to the UK dancers expecting to see a wide variety of styles performed at even the most local hafla, with dancers returning from their studies with beautiful traditional dances, or by adding their new skills to form their own styles of fusion.  To help educate the dancers and general public it is usual to see a detailed programme available on each seat with not only the name of the dancer and their music, but also a few words about the style of dance and perhaps the costuming.

Sacha of Bristol

Sacha is a teacher, performer and event host based in and around Bristol:

“Variety of the show is important for me, especially as we are lucky to have such a unique and eclectic mix of styles in Bristol. Too much of the same style is just boring I’m afraid. A mix of a number of dancers as well works best for me because you get interesting stage formations and it’s something different. solos and troupes and duets – different styles, some dances with props. I always like it when a programme is provided with details of the dancers, the style and music. When you’re starting out that can really help and it can also help you add to your music collection!”

It seems to be becoming more common to see a halfa include a mini workshop, just a ten minute taster, which also acts as a wonderful way to get even the most shy beginner dancer on to the floor.  Audiences in the UK like their performances short and snappy, just four or five minutes of one performer, and then four or five minutes of something completely different.  This reflects the lack of opportunities for a long restaurant style set.  UK dancers need to highlight their range of skills, maybe a prop, or a drum solo, all within their five minute time limit.  Performers seem to like this style too, being able to highlight the best of a style of dance without having to prepare a long number with months of preparation.  It is also more accessible for beginners, who can transfer a class choreography, or their own work to a stage setting. 


The group shot is Katie Holland teaching a veil workshop in Oxford hosted by Hannah Newton.
Standing up from l-r is Layla Smith, Lesley Newton, Sheila Tofts,Elizabeth Wyatt, Kim Anderson.
Kneeling down from l-r is Lesley Turner, Hannah Newton, Katie Holland Karen Hancox and Janet Proudman

Originally from Leicester, Katie Holland has taught and performed in India for the last eight years:

“I remember very well what it was like to be a newbie (new belly dance student) and I always remind myself of that. If I see someone looking lost I will go out of my way to talk to them or try and help settle last minute nerves. I often wish I had that look of wonder again of seeing the bling and glitz of a hafla for the first time when a whole new world was opening up before me! I love the haflas when anyone can dance and seeing student groups performing. I find it really exciting and I’m always finding new inspirations.”

Jesse Stanbridge

Jesse Stanbridge is a New York native who lived in the UK for 7 years.  She now teaches and performs in the San Francisco Bay area :

“British haflas are always the best.  I liked that there was always drink and people brought food to share and there was a scheduled free dance, so everyone could dance together”

Beginner dancers get a lot of support from the established dance scene and are encouraged to attend workshops, appear in group numbers and join the community.  The average hafla organizer sets aside time at the end of the evening for free dancing, and most teachers prepare their students to be ready to get up and dance with everyone else.

Hannah is a teacher and event host based in Kidlington :

“With regards to social dancing I love that element after a hafla, especially when inspired by the guest star, you just want to get up again. It’s so enjoyable and the sense of inspired freedom is exhilarating. The pressure of ‘performing’ is off and you can simply dance in its purist form and get caught up in the music. Now to ensure that my ladies feel comfortable with it, I try to include a general bopping session (free dancing for fun) in a few of our rehearsals interspersing western and Arabic pop and getting them as familiar and at ease dancing socially to both kinds.”

Hannah of Kidlington

The feeling of community starts with the sharing of food and drink and expands to a willingness to promote each others events.  It is usual to see a “flyers table” at even the smallest of workshops and teachers collect these up at the end of the night to take back to their classes. 

Sasha added:

“I love the free dance element and I remember how disappointed myself and my students were when we went to a big event with a live band which promised free dancing at the end of the show only to run out of time! We’d been so inspired by all the great music and dancing of the evening that it was such a shame not to let loose on the dance floor afterwards – I think we decided to shimmy and sashay to the train station in the centre of Bath instead!”

The biggest problem that seems to be affecting the UK scene at the moment is an abundance of events and clashes of dates, where organizers find it difficult to plan their events on an empty weekend, or new events are appearing that clash with the established.  However this is good for the consumer, offering them a huge choice in how to spend their money and who to learn from.

Shams agrees:

“There are many more haflas that can be attended, ranging in style and level. Some are more commercial than others; some are used to raise money for charities.  There is competition to try and find space in the busy calendar for running events and these events compete for our attendance, but for the consumer this means value for money and choice. All in all, and for the most part, the UK scene is quite supportive of its dancers and teachers and most people get on with what they want to do with a healthy respect for each other. This means for most people learning belly dance now in the UK is that whatever their level or style preference or budget, there is something to suit everyone.”

Katie notices the difference between the number of events in the UK and India:

“When I’m in the UK it’s a never ending jump and a shimmy across the country to events, having several to choose from in one night, whereas in India haflas are a new experience often attracting high media attention from the TV and newspapers because it’s such a unique idea and women are just starting to find out about belly dance and all it has to offer!  I think most people will agree that there has been an overload of events in the last few years and no proper system of checking clashing dates. Then there are larger events which dwarf any local events if there is no communication or belly-love between the organizers. It’s a shame because so many events have to be cancelled and many dancers who only like traveling locally miss out.”

Uk dancers are known for their interest, passion and hard work.  Students are very attentive, often taking notes, asking great questions and being happy to run through things “one more time”.  However they also like to get dressed up, party and perform for each other.  The dress code for an evening hafla may have no limits, from comfy workout clothes to tiaras and glamorous evening gowns, anything goes.  Ever ready to make new friends, share food and learn from each other, weekend residentials are becoming more and more popular with the UK dancers.

Artemisia of Belgium

Artemisia is a very popular UK workshop teacher who lives in Belgium:

“I love the residential – holiday and dance classes in one – a lot of UK organizers offer. You don’t get that so much elsewhere. I also like the attitude of the students I encounter at festivals. They stick with it! They ask for my patience when something is new or tough… but they don’t give up easily. I like the delegate shows at events and how even beginners show and share all their creativity. I love the shamelessness of British women let loose for the weekend, but although they come to have a good time after class, they will be there and work hard in class as well. “

It was a delight to visit the UK, to dance, teach and chat and I am confident that the UK belly dance scene is set to continue to grow, evolve and support the talented dancers who make their home in the UK.

Shams commented:

“What I like best about the UK dance scene is that it isn’t just for budding professionals. It’s enjoyed, celebrated and performed by all kinds of women, size, shape and age really doesn’t matter to us Brits, in fact we champion people who will get up and have a go.”

Hafla in Southhampton

Author dancing at a Hafla in Southampton.

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