If you love travelling and you like Northern African and Middle Eastern dances, Funoon Dance Camp is a great holiday to try. I have just been to one of these holidays and I absolutely loved it and cannot recommend it highly enough. Funoon in Arabic means art, hence Funoon Dance Camp is about the art of dance. These trips take place in Morocco every year in a different city, such as Agadir in 2013 and Fez (also can be written as Fes) in 2014 (the one I went to). The organiser is Nawarra, a dancer, dance teacher, event organiser and choreographer from Fes in Morocco, who currently lives in Leeds, UK. Nawarra has an MBA in arts and drama from the University of Casablanca and is a certified tourist guide in Morocco.
Morocco has a rich and varied dance and music culture, ranging from traditional Berber music, to different types of trance dance to modern shaabi and more. In addition to this, it is a great country to discover with beautiful ancient architecture and lovely food. There are a couple of things that make Funoon Dance Camps different from an ordinary holiday in Morocco. First of all, this type of holiday caters specifically to those who love dance and want to try different types of dance. People who are not afraid to dance all day and who are interested in the culture of a place, wanting to experiment as authentic dance as possible. The second element is the organiser. Nawarra is very knowledgeable about many types of Northern African and Middle Eastern dance, having danced all her life.
She is a great performer and very energetic teacher, and also a very warm and attentive host who will make you feel at home in her home country. I was recommended Nawarra’s trips by a friend and fellow dancer, Ann Hall from the UK, who said that I should absolutely experience these trips. So, as soon as I had money and time, off I went. In addition to dance camp holidays, Nawarra also organises less dance intensive trips to Morocco, but being the dance fanatic that I am, this was the one I absolutely had to try.
As stated above, Funoon Dance Camp holidays are all about dance. We had about six hours of dance workshops almost every day, except for Wednesday in the middle of the week, which we used for rest and sightseeing and on the last day when we had the afternoon free. Of course you do not have to go to every class if you do not want to, but you might as well since it is a unique opportunity to try different types of dance, even some that you might have not come across before in your home country.
In Fes we tried: Moroccan shaabi, Moroccan trance dances (Gnaoua, Issaoua and Guedra), Tunisian dance, Algerian rai, Andalousian court scarf dance from Algeria, double veils, Egyptian Gawazee, Turkish Romani dance, Nayli dance of Ouled Nayl, Amazigh (Berber) dance, Persian classical and Iraqui Quawaly. We also took a drumming lesson from a local drummer, which made us appreciate how skillful a good drummer is and how hard it is to play! Of course you will not become an expert in these types of dance just trying once, but attending these workshops can give you a feeling for different dances which is then up to you to continue practising once at home.
Every year the dance programme is different and so are the teachers. This year’s (2014) teachers were Nawarra of course, who is extremely knowledgeable in a variety of dances; Amel Tafsout who is an internationally recognised authority in traditional Algerian dances and an ambassador for her home culture worldwide; Shirley Griffiths and Beverley Smith two lovely guest teachers from the UK, who also have many years experience in their field.
What I liked about these classes, was not only that the teaching style was clear and instructions easy to follow, but also that teachers gave us interesting information on each type of dance and its cultural background. Also, the venue in which the classes took place was big and bright with a nice wooden floor. It was a conference/party room in the hotel where we were staying and it was reserved to the Funoon guests for the whole of our stay. There was an air conditioning unit in the room, but still it could get pretty hot, especially since we were dancing. We were there in the first week of September and it was still hot in Morocco (between 36 and 40 Celsius); I was happy as I love the heat but be prepared to sweat a lot, therefore make sure to drink plenty of water!
Of course, as the lot of us were a dance crazy bunch, dancing was not just limited to classes but we also danced socially almost every evening. Four out of seven evenings Nawarra organised for professional local musicians to come to the hotel and play for us. Three evenings we had musicians playing traditional folkloric and shaabi Moroccan music with drums and brass instruments. We all got up and danced together with the musicians, who were pretty good at making sure that everybody felt included and had a great time. It was always hard getting up to dance after a day of hard work in the classes but, after starting to dance, we did not feel tired anymore and went on for hours. It was definitely worth the effort.
On Friday night, we had a band of musicians who played live Arabic music, including Egyptian and Moroccan tunes. We had the opportunity to perform to live music in front of the other trip participants and we then danced all together once the performances were over. The performances were organised in a very informal way, without any pressure on anyone to perform. Those who wanted to dance decided on the last day and most dances were pretty much improvised. This was good as it made the experience feel authentic and fun, rather than rehearsed and stressful. I was not supposed to dance until the last minute, when I ended up improvising and I had a lot of fun. Dancing to live music is definitely an experience that any dancer should seize as soon as there is the opportunity, as the energy and the vibe that you feel is much greater than with any recorded sound.
On the three nights when there was no organised entertainment we still ended up dancing, as in Morocco music seemed to be everywhere. On one of the nights we went to a beautiful 5 star hotel (I think it was Les Meridienes) on top of a hill overlooking the Medina, with a large terrace and a great view, where locals as well as tourists go in the evenings to have a drink and cool down. There was live music, we danced to it of course and the musicians seemed happy that we really appreciated their music. In the hotel we were staying at, there was a deejay playing Arabic music by the outdoor pool and we spent more than one evening staying up late and having a dance or two. Some of us also danced in a restaurant in the Medina, which was recommended by Sabina, a Swedish lady who goes to Fez very often. I missed that one but I heard that those who went had great fun!
On the last night of our stay, we went to see a free concert in the Palace Bab Makina, part of the 10th Festival de Fes de la Culture Amazighe’. This is a festival held every year in Fez to celebrate and promote Berber (Amazighe) culture which lasts a couple of days and which includes concerts, talks and stalls selling traditional items. On that night we saw Rabah Mariwari and Rachida Talal in concert. They are two famous singers whose songs are traditional but with a modern twist at the same time. We did not dance, but there was a guy who must have been in his seventies who often got up and danced in front of the stage, whose enthusiasm was contagious and whose love of the music really shined through.
Funoon Dance Camp was not only about dance, but also about other things, such as the amazing company and sense of camaraderie we experienced. We were a group of ladies mainly from the UK, some from America, one from Sweden, one Algerian (Amel) one Italian from Sicily (me) and of course one Moroccan (Nawarra). It was a great mix of cultures and personalities and we got on amazingly. It was interesting to talk to all of the ladies and learn about their backgrounds and experiences.
As well as dancing hard there were also opportunity to relax, with two pools in the hotel and a spa. Also, some of the ladies went to the hammam (traditional Moroccan sauna) and some went to the Moulay Yacoub Thermal Station a spa with natural hot sulphurous springs. Like the majority of people, I opted on that day for a cultural guided tour of the Medina instead, so I cannot comment on Moulay Yacoub. However, the ladies who went there said they enjoyed it and they definitely looked like the most relaxed of all of us and ther skin looked radiant, that evening. On the last day we had a professional henna painter for us to have some henna designs painted on the skin.
Being about dance and music, the trip was already all about culture, but we also had time to experience some more culture by walking around the Medina (the old part of Fes). On Wednesday, we had a guided tour with Saida, an amazing local tour guide, who seemed to know absolutely everything about Fez and who was incredibly patient, spending eight hours with a group of ladies who would stop every few minutes in the shops in the Medina (which were very tempting I have to say). With Saida we saw the square of the Royal Palace of Fez with its famous golden doors; the Borj Sud, a fortress built in the 16th century to protect the city, overlooking the Medina; the Mellah (the Jewish quarter) and the Abden Danan Synagogue; the Attarin Medersa, a beautiful and quiet place in the heart of the Medina; the Fontaine Nejjrine (which is near some lovely antiques shops and a shop that sells only musical instruments) and the tanneries. We also walked a lot around the Medina and we saw so much that we would have not been able to without Saida’s help, since the Medina is like a maze, with so many narrow streets, which are very hard to navigate if you are not used to the place.
We also had time for a coffee/tea break in a café, which had a lovely roof top terrace with great views of the Medina, and for lunch at Restaurant Nejjarine. In this restaurant the food is ok and a bit overpriced for Morocco. However, it is worth going there just to see the interior, which is stunning. It used to be a private house of a wealthy family and the decorations are wonderful, absolutely worth seeing.
Another cultural element in these trips is the traditional Moroccan wedding demonstration. On one of the nights, four of us were dressed by professional local bride dressers in traditional Moroccan wedding gear. Moroccan brides change into more than one outfit during the wedding festivities and dresses are different according to the area of Morocco they are from. I got to try on the most traditional and ancient outfit that brides from Fes wear. I have to say that it looked very rich and sumptuous but the headpiece and the whole costume was very heavy and painful to wear. I managed to resist only 15 minutes before I asked for the dress to be taken off me (I needed help as the outfit is too rich for the bride to be able to dress or undress on her own). Moroccan brides usually wear this traditional outfit for about an hour before getting changed and to me they are heroes, very strong minded women, if they are able to resist the weight and the heat and the pain caused by the headpiece being so tight (which it has to be in order to stay firmly in place). It was though an interesting experience. The other three ladies wore more modern and lighter outfits, but still very beautiful.
Apart from the stops at the monuments we also shopped a lot and Fez, especially the Medina, is a place where you could spend your life shopping, especially if you like jewellery (silver or gold), antiques, caftans, fabrics, leather objects and much more. We did not shop in the new part of town, which surely does not have the same character but I would have been curious to see how it compares to the Medina, considering that many locals probably shop there.
We had a chance though to see a modern supermarket, which was just across the street from our hotel. It was a Marjane supermarket and we all went there almost daily to buy a lot of water and food souvenirs such as sweets and specialty teabags, as well as every day groceries to use during our stay. Many of us agreed on the fact that we love going to supermarkets when we travel because, even if modern supermarkets may seem the same everywhere, in reality they are not. A visit to a supermarket is a very cultural experience because, in spite of what we may think is a global tendency for homogeneity, this is far from the truth, as every supermarket stores many local products which really reflect the culture of the place.
We were staying at the Zalagh Parc Palace, a 5 start hotel just 20 minutes by car from the Medina. It was not very central but it was still good as it was a nice retreat where we had our own dance room, which we also used for entertainment in the evenings, facing a private pool, very nice and quiet. If you wanted a more lively place, there was also another pool that was open to non guests with music playing all day and night. There was a also a disco in the hotel but we did not get a chance to go.
Rooms were nice and spacious and very clean with very big and comfortable beds (shame they did not have safes) and the lobby was very beautiful with amazing carved doors, marbles, patterned tiles and colourful carpets. Many people say that the hotel was not really a 5 star because of the service and general feel. I have to agree, but rooms were good, interior design in the lobby stunning and staff in the restaurant and the cleaners in the rooms very good.
As for the food, we had breakfast and dinner included in the package. This was great as this way we did not have to worry about finding somewhere to eat in the evenings, after a long day dancing. The variety and taste of the food was not great, but it was ok and there were at least a lot of vegetables. I went to Morocco a couple of years ago (to Kenitra) and I stayed with friends who cooked lovely couscous and tagines at home, which were to die for. Hence, I was spoilt and I was expecting to taste the same lovely Moroccan food but homemade food is usually better than restaurant or hotel food. The next time I go I should try some small local restaurants. Some of the ladies went to a small place in the Medina recommended by a semi-local (the same place where they got to dance) and they were very happy with it. I missed that, but I will have to be more adventurous the next time!
Sofitel Fès Palais Jamaï
Bab Guissa, 30000.
The Sofitel in Fes is close the Medina and is a classy hotel, which caters for international visitors, sits in a great location and offers a range of cuisines.
Avenue Des Almohades.
A little more affordable than the Sofitel, this is another excellent option and one which tends to be popular with belly dancers and other international visitors.
8 Bis Derb El Guebbas
My own personal favourite and a place I have stayed in once before. The facilities and the food I found outstanding and I found this to be the most Moroccan of the hotels listed above.
All in all it was a great trip and I hope to be able to go again in the future. If you want to see the trips that Nawarra organises you can find her on Facebook. Alternatively, you can email her on nawarradancer(at)yahoo.co.uk or you can contact worldbellydance and we will make sure to pass the enquiry to her.