The International Bellydance Congress took place twice in the UK. The first edition was held in Butlin in Bognor Regis in 2007 and the second one in 2009, in Frimley, Surrey, in the Lakeside Complex. The Congress was a weekend full of belly dance workshops, shows, competitions and stalls selling belly dance items. It used to start on a Friday afternoon and it lasted until Sunday night. The great thing about this event, was that the you paid a fee which included all the dance workshops you could manage to do over the weekend, plus three shows (one on every night of the weekend) and entertainment after the show (i.e. live concert or belly dance disco with DJ). This made it such great value for money and a great event. The Congress was organised by Jo Wise and her sister Sophie, Charlotte Desorger and Kay Taylor. They did a great job both times; however, they decided to discontinue the organisation of these festivals as they were very labour intensive for them. It was a shame for the belly dance community in the UK, but, to be fair, one cannot continue with something if it is not sustainable. Below I wrote a diary of my experiences and the workshops I attended in each edition of the congress.
During the first Belly Dance Congress, I had the opportunity to attend workshops with some of the most famous belly dancers from around the world.
The first workshop I attended on Saturday morning was two hours with Randa Kamel, on Randa’s style and technique. The workshop with Randa Kamel was jammed packed, as Randa is an internationally well known and appreciated belly dancer from Egypt. Fortunately, Randa managed very well with the lack of space, by splitting the dancers into groups and dancing in different parts of the room, so everybody could see and follow her.
The workshop with Randa Kamel was the most energetic workshop I attended during the International Belly Dance Congress. It was fun, physically demanding and it was great to have an insight into the style of this energetic belly dancer. Randa Kamel is a lovely teacher, very approachable and the workshop was even nicer because a drummer was playing live music for us. Randa Kamel performed on Sunday night at the Belly Dance Congress. Her performance was great; I loved her style, and so did the rest of the audience, who cheered at her enthusiastically. Since then I attended more workshops with Randa, once in the second UK Congress and once in Leicester at Bellydance Mania, an event run by belly dancer Maria D’Silva, which run for a couple of years and then was also sadly discontinued. I also saw Randa dance live again on the Nile Maxim Cruise boat in Cairo, where she usually performs. Every time I saw Randa and I learnt from her I found her more and more amazing.
Soon after the belly dance workshop with Randa Kamel, I attended a three hour workshop with Tunisian/French belly dancer Leila Haddad. The workshop with Leila Haddad was very interesting and challenging, as her teaching style was completely new to me. There is a lot to be learnt from this extremely experienced artist, who has fought a lot for the rehabilitation of raqs el sharqi, an art form that has been often misunderstood and underestimated. Personality wise, Leila struck me for her strong character and witty sense of humour.
After Leila Haddad’s workshop, a short break and a much needed chocolate muffin, I headed towards another workshop. This time the workshop was one hour technique with German belly dancer Beata Cifuentes, who is based in Berlin. On Sunday morning I also attended another one hour workshop with Beata. Altogether I liked Beata’s teaching technique, which is very clear. Also, I liked her sense of humour and the funny names she gives to different moves, and which make the movements easier to remember: I will never forget Micky Mouse number 1, 2 and 3.
Heather Burby was an English bellydancer based in Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire (I have heard, since I wrote this article, that sadly she passed away in 2012, a great loss for the belly dance community). Before the 2007 Congress I had never heard about her, but as I was told that she was a great teacher I decided to attend one of her belly dance workshops. The workshop was about dancers’ footwork and patterning and it lasted two hours. I absolutely loved Heather’s workshop. Not only because I found the content very useful (it is always good, even for a belly dancer, to have some knowledge of basic steps common to many types of dance). I really liked Heather Burby’s teaching style and clarity and I was very impressed by her energy and great sense of humour. I think it was attending her workshop so many year ago, that made me feel like wanting to train in other types of dance as well, in order to increase my range of steps and movements and apply them to belly dance.
On Sunday morning I started the day with a highly energetic Caribbean/African bellydance workshop, run by Shafeek Ibrahim. The workshop was basic in terms of technique and choreography, but it was great fun. I really liked the music and Shafeek’s attitude was of somebody who was having a great fun himself teaching, which made us all feel positive.
The workshop I had been looking forward the most, was the workshop with legendary Egyptian teacher and belly dancer Raqia Hassan. Raqia Hassan has taught many belly dancers in her life, including some of the biggest belly dance stars, such as Randa Kamel, Dandash, Dina and Soraya. Raqia Hassan also organises the Ahlan wa Sahlan Fesitval in Cairo, Egypt, which is famous worldwide.
I had heard so much about Raqia Hassan and I wanted to see by myself. Normally, in order to learn from Raqia Hassan, you would have to travel to Egypt, so the International Belly Dance Congress was a unique opportunity to learn from this great teacher, while staying in the UK.
Raqia Hassan’s teaching style was exactly as I expected. You can tell that Raqia owns belly dance; she knows everything, every step and move, from the inside and has a complete understanding of Egyptian dance. Raqia Hassan manages to communicate all this very well, and to explain all the moves and the spirit of belly dance with extreme clarity.
On Sunday afternoon, after two days dancing, I was too tired and I needed to sit down a little. So I opted for Chas Whittaker’s workshop on Middle Eastern rhythms. I have to say that I enjoyed Chas’ workshop very much. Chas Whittaker’s workshop gave me an opportunity to improve my understanding of Arabic Rhythms, by trying to play drums myself. I think it is very important for a dancer to understand the music she dances to, and the deeper the understanding the better. I really enjoyed playing some rhythms together with the other people attending the class; playing as in an orchestra gave me a sense of satisfaction that I did not expect.
The congress included three nights of shows that started ad 8pm and finished at 11pm. These put on display some big talents in the belly dance scene, which reached the top with Randa Kamel’s performance on Sunday night. Randa was great, her shimmies were like earthquakes, and her energetic dance style impressed everybody (that was the first time I ever saw Randa perform).
I was impressed also with the male belly dancers, Jim Boz and Khaled Mahmoud in particular. People usually think that belly dancers are only women and the majority are. However, there is a minority of male belly dancers and some of them are great.
On Saturday night the belly dance performances were followed by live Arabic music played by a traditional band; while on Sunday night we listened to Natacha Atlas and her band in concert. After the performances, it was great having the opportunity to boogie to belly dance music, something which very rarely happens otherwise. The International Belly Dance Congress had its own theatre and night club, which were precluded to all the people in resort who were not attending the belly dance congress.
Holding the event in Butlins was a very good idea on the organisers’ part. I chose the half board silver option, which was very good value at £134.00 per person, which included three nights’ accommodation and six meals (three breakfasts and three evening meals).
The food as well was quite good, as long as you did not expect five stars Michelin quality. There was plenty of choice, with healthy options available and very good desserts (of which hungry belly dancers, including myself, devoured two portions a night after a full day of dancing).
In Butlins not everything was perfect, of course. Some people complained, with reason, about the noise at night. Out of season the resort hosts several stag and hens parties, with people getting drunk and being noisy at night. Also, the dance studios were not great. Some were too small, or had carpet on the floor, which is not ideal for dancing, or were a bit grubby.
In 2009 I also enjoyed the event very much. In terms of venue I preferred Butlins in 2007 rather than Lakeside, as the value for money was better and the food was included. However, other people preferred Lakeside as it was quieter.
In terms of workshops I attended more workshops with Randa, which could not be missed. I also went to two workshops with Khaled Mahmoud, whose workshops I had not been able to attend in 2007. They were about veil work and about shaabi and they were both very good. The star of this edition though, was Fifi Abdo, an icon of Egyptian belly dancing, who is very loved in her own country and who was in several movies in the 1970s and 1980s.
Also, I attended a workshop with American dancer Sadie, who is technically excellent. I have one of her DVDs, which are good for drills and muscle conditioning. Even though I do not want to imitate her style, I think that you can never go wrong with drilling movements and making your brain get used to layering different movements, as this will make it easier to perform any style of dance. Also, I attended a workshop with Italian dancer Paola Ziliotto Boudress from Turin, in Italy. She has been dancing for many many years and she is very knowledgeable about oriental dance. I have only mentioned so far mainly oriental style performers, as I was interested in this style and, therefore, theirs are the workshops I can talk about. However, in both congresses many different types of belly dance were represented, including tribal and fusion. Talking about which, in 2009 I particularly liked the performances by Les Soeurs Tribales, from Milan, Italy, and Anasma from the USA.