What happens when internationally-renowned dance star Nawarra - born in Morocco and based in Leeds - joins forces with top bellydance choreographer and costumier Beverley Smith and both of them discover a shared passion for the folkloric music and dances of the Middle East and North Africa? The answer is Funoon - an ongoing project to translate the traditional arts of Arabia and beyond to the theatre stage.
Bellydance and the other dance forms of the Middle East first began to be seriously taught in the UK in the 1970s. Since then the UK has gone on to produce some of the most passionate, articulate, and devoted teachers, students, and performers of Arabic dance, with a small but growing number whose names and talents are known to the worldwide dance community. And yet, despite the presence of these dancers for more than half a century, bellydance has yet to make any real mark on the national conscience either as pure art or as popular entertainment.
In the 1970s bellydance offered British dancers an entrance to the sometimes lucrative world of scantily-clad sexy night-spots here and abroad; in the 80s and 90s the dance became almost exclusively feminine, an expression of female artistry, individuality, solidarity, and spirituality. Just over 10 years ago a touring American dance company, the Bellydance Superstars, introduced dancers worldwide to concept marketing and mass merchandising, and in so doing, they changed the dance forever.
Today bellydance UK seems equally divided into two camps. The first belongs to the beautiful cabaret dancers, whether they be established queens of the stage or just about to release their inner princess. The second belongs to tribal dance, a curious and empowered fusion of the disenfranchised - the dark, alien, strange, Gothic, exquisite and sinister rebels who somehow go hand-in-hand with the girls who just wanna have fun, whatever the dates on their passports and whatever their inches on the tape measure. Troubles in the Middle East, the heartlands of the dance, mean that both past stars and those in their ascendant look to the international festival circuit to find those who will love and rightly praise their artistry, and so they hone their lifetime's learning into brief, trick-filled episodes designed for Western impatience.
In all of this vibrant bellydance life there is much to be admired, and much to be praised and enjoyed, but there is something missing too. It's so very often overlooked, but it's perhaps why this dance, in whatever form it takes, first took hold of you.
Bellydance is a dance drawn from the cultures of many peoples - but it is also a dance of the people. It's time to acknowledge the gift.
Her passion and skills have taken her to dance festivals all round the world, but Nawarra admits that interviews always make her nervous. Although she knows she's speaking only to the small local dance community whose kind invitation has brought her to whichever city in whatever country, there's always a strange compulsion to try and come up with new answers to the same questions. One question is always present - it's always there, even if never asked: "What do Arabs think of non-Arabs learning their dances?"
Nawarra says there is only one answer to this question. "They are proud." There can never and should never be any doubt about it. "They are proud. Anyone who loves their culture, their history, the arts of their people, and respects the centuries of artists who have gone before can only feel a pure love and admiration for anyone - whoever they are - who has even for a moment seen the same beauty and felt the same emotion." There is only one answer, but year after year the same question is asked and the answer is met with the same disbelief. It should not be so. There should be a meeting place, and an understanding.
There is, at the heart of it, a nonsense too. For every single one of these performers, teachers, and students of the dances of the Middle East and North Africa and beyond has received their learning and their abilities directly from someone born in the lands of the dance. After all these years this learning might be second, third, even fourth or fifth-hand, but that is how teaching works - it creates an unbroken line.
This question, she says, breaks my heart. Or it would break my heart if it were not already broken by seeing what so many of my Arabs are themselves doing to our beloved arts and traditions. We are living through times of austerity: politics, war, and poverty mean that ordinary men and women have no time and no patience with art. When life is cheap, everything is cheap and without value. When everyone from the rest of the world to your own leaders spit on you, there is nothing in your heart but dust, and you spit on everything around you. There was a time when we had love in our hearts, and pride. If you have love you want to give it away. Love is generosity and understanding. With love you can sustain anything, and make it grow. I want my Arabs to feel love again, for themselves and for their art before they have forgotten everything about it and broken the most precious thing they have.
When she first began teaching dance in Leeds, Yorkshire, and later when working with her performance groups Banat Eshorouk and Atlas Banat, Nawarra taught folkloric styles alongside the more widely appreciated bellydance. It was something designed to give her dancers their own style, and also something to help them understand where movements originated. It was always her dream, she said, to bring folkloric dance to the forefront of whatever she did, and after returning from one more dance festival, and from one more interview to yet more tragic headlines from the Middle East she found that a dream had become determination.
It was crazy, she says. I suddenly realised that here I was in England surrounded by women - and men - whose hearts were filled with love and passion for the arts of the Middle East, and they were just as much the true descendants of our beloved traditions as we Arabs because in whatever fashion and however strangely, however dilluted, they had learned them in an unbroken line. I could realise my dream. I could show my Arabs what love could do
Beverley Smith has always loved colours, costumes, and the stage, but never once thought whilst growing up that this would be how she made a living. "I naturally assumed my place was and would always be in the audience. I didn't think I was the sort of person who could stand on a stage - but a flamenco theatre show changed all that. I loved the passion, flowers, and fringes of the Spanish dancers, but they suddenly brought out an Arabic dancer to demonstrate flamenco’s ancient history. I don't know who she was, but she grabbed and held onto my heart. I’d never seen anyone move like that: so powerful, so beautiful, so soft, and strong, and feminine. I had to know more and couldn’t rest until I found someone to teach me."
Beverley was very lucky to find Betty Thompson living nearby and teaching on a small scale mostly at home. Betty had lived in the Middle East for 40 years - she had learned the dance from the women she met there and accidentally fallen in love with it. Her newest student arrived just at the right time – there was enough interest in Arabic Dance in Yorkshire for Betty to join forces with two other local teachers - Margaret Reddyhoff and Wendy Marshall - and co-found Leeds Arabic Dance. "Within two years I was out performing with Betty’s troupe Arabesque and helping her organise events and workshops. Betty became one of my dearest friends and, although now retired and very frail, she remains a constant inspiration: she’s tall, refined and graceful, so elegant, and she could make you cry when she danced".
The nascent Leeds Arabic dance scene splintered in the 1990s as each of the founder-teachers followed their own passions. Margaret followed the new ideas and teachers coming out of Cairo; Wendy chose to follow a more spiritual path with dances of self-expression inspired by the mystical Middle East; and Betty with her strong sense of self-discipline adhered to the back-to-basics principles laid down by Suraya Hilal and the Raqs Sharqi Society. At the time it left Yorkshire beset with dance politics, but a decade or so later this chance split has to be recognised as one of the core reasons for Leeds becoming such an important city in the story of UK Bellydance: students trained by these three inspirational women went on to become teachers in their own right and when none of the politics mattered any more the different schools came together to make magic.
In 2006, Beverley, by now teaching and performing and making her living as a dancewear designer, joined forces with a fellow student of Betty Thompson, the Raqs Sharqi-trained Jan Hudson, and with dance storyteller Jo Hirons to form Qamar14, who like to think that they've helped make much of that magic happen, and who in their programme of workshops and theatre shows have championed the rightful inclusion of Turkish, Persian, Kurdish, and Romani dance in the family of Middle Eastern dance.
In 2012, though, with the recession reducing class numbers, and with both Betty and Jan retired from dancing and teaching, Beverley feared that there no longer seemed to be any desire for folkloric Arabic dance. Students hard-pressed for funds wanted only the popular and easily accessible fusion and cabaret styles: they didn't have time for deep study.
And that was when Nawarra came home from her festival with the dream that had become an idea, and began looking for dancers who shared her passion...
This page: Aimee Louise Taberer, David Ferguson, Jo Hirons
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