The Celtic Goddess Brigid Celebrates Middle
In Wales, you can see the Celtic goddess Brigid celebrate Middle Eastern dance, popularly known as bellydancing, thanks to the growing community that has embraced this culture. Although, adding a Celtic element to this art-form may seem a clash in cultures, there is no better tribute that a dancer can give to Middle Eastern dance than using its movements to express something personal. This dance has a long history with as many interpretations as there are women who dance it. Middle Eastern dance is internalized physically and emotionally by the dancer and is designed to bring out each woman’s unique passion and beauty.
The Middle Eastern dancers in Wales are proof that this dance form is a universal language for all women. In this article, we interviewed a few movers and shakers throughout Wales who maintain and strengthen their Middle Eastern Dance community.
One of the forerunners for this community is Hannah Corr from Cardiff, South Wales. Hannah Corr and DJ Andy Roberts host Arabesq, a website with Middle Eastern dance news and events as well as an open night for dance and music.
Hannah Corr said, “Bellydancing in Wales has been around for over ten years but on a small scale with a few dedicated dance teachers. In South Wales, there are many classes and new ones are springing up all the time. Most classes are informal evening ones. About four years ago, a friend and I set up an open night called Arabesq for people to come along and perform, try some freestyle dancing or just enjoy the music.
It was really successful and was supported by all the local teachers and their students.
We set up the Arabesq website detailing all the classes in the area as well as workshops, haflas and events. This was the catalyst for other teachers and dancers to get involved and organize their own events. The community in South Wales really grew from this.”
In 2004, Hannah Corr choreographed twenty-nine dancers into ten performances that made the production of Ahlam; a large undertaking for a dance community of any size.
“Ahlam had been brewing for a long time and took about twelve months to physically put together,” Hannah Corr said, “I chose to portray goddesses from around the world such as Kali, the Indian Goddess of chaos and destruction and Baubo, the Greek Goddess of bawdy humour because I do believe MED (Middle Eastern Dance) is universal to all women. I chose the Goddess Brigid because she's close to home and the piece wouldn't feel complete without an ancient Celt.”
Such a performance would not have been possible without a strong community of Middle Eastern dance enthusiasts behind her.
Hannah Corr said, “When I started learning in Wales 5 years ago there were very few resources and teachers in the area. I learned through my teacher, by traveling to workshops throughout the UK and watching videos and DVDs. Discovering the Raqs Sharqi style of Suraya Hilal, now a resident in London, has also been a turning point. It's a way of moving that feels more in tune with the body's natural movement. It is very different now; there are over ten teachers in South Wales covering many aspects of the dance.”
And the Middle East is not as far away from Wales as one would think. Hannah Corr said, “Many of our teachers have links to Turkey and will visit regularly. Also, Egypt is very easy to get to and draws a lot of dancers every year to see the sights, go shopping and watch the dancing. In terms of the dance, some teachers focus on the fitness and fun element of the dance, others focus on the modern techniques coming from Cairo and Turkey and then there are those like myself who want to capture the essence of the original dance, so we cover all bases.”
However, Hannah Corr added, “Even though we have a huge Middle Eastern population in Wales, bellydancing is pretty much contained to Welsh dancers and a Welsh audience. It is not seen as a reputable profession and many of our Arab communities see what we do as vulgar (or strange!). This is a shame as the origins of the dance are not about sleaze. There are a few dancers out there who give the dance a poor name but luckily they are few and far between and the dance community in Wales is vibrant, supportive and growing every day.”
Hannah Corr began learning Middle Eastern dance in Dublin. “However, my favourite moment has to be right now. After six years of learning and trying to find my way I've never felt more happy and content.”
Sophie Smith, a performer and teacher, confirmed that it wasn’t long ago that most people interested in MED in Wales traveled abroad to experience it.
“I first learned to bellydance in Edinburgh, Scotland,” Sophie Smith said. “There are several very knowledgeable teachers in that area and I found being able to go to different teachers helped me develop both technique and style. I also worked for a while as a dancer in Middle Eastern restaurants, which pushed me even more and helped immensely for me to discover my own style.
Hannah Corr said, “I tend to learn more from teachers who are less tied up with technique and place more emphasis on dancing from the heart such as Serena Ramzy who possesses tremendous grace and ease and Liza Wedgwood who brings simplicity and freedom to the dance, teaching us not to complicate things. On the performance front, you can't beat Samia Gamal for her smile, her fire and her ability to draw the viewer in. I'd also have to say seeing excerpts of Arabesque Dance Company shows in Toronto inspired me to create a show using MED.”
“Personally, I find it essential to study the dance abroad,” added Sophie Smith. “Although, there are very experienced teachers who hold workshops in Wales and in England and London once you reach a certain level, only going to Egypt and/or other parts of the Middle East is what can push you further.”
Dancer Leeza Lazeeza added, “If you are willing to travel and keep in touch with other groups in Wales - there is always a workshop to attend or hafla to dance in!”
All the women in this article agree that this dance is a source of physical and emotional empowerment and happiness. Both westernized and traditional forms of Middle Eastern dance are explored in the Wales community, including classical Egyptian, baladi and sha’abi. Their practice of Middle Eastern dance ranges from cultural, recreational, performance art to feminist art-form. They also celebrate the cabaret styles so long as it doesn’t de-evolve to the striptease act.
Sophie Smith said, “Currently, the dance classes tend to concentrate on the physical side of bellydance, on its liberating influence and how it promotes general wellbeing. I try to include little cultural details in my class but as far as I am aware there is no class that deals in-depth with the history (which is problematic anyway) or culture of Arabic dance.”
According to Liltinde Sindarin Elvish’s experience with the surrounding Middle Eastern dance communities, “Very little bellydancing in the UK is absolutely authentic and I would be the first to say that I dance and teach a westernized style of bellydancing that mostly uses Egyptian style moves. Our community focuses mainly on the physical aspects of this dance.”
Leeza Lazeeza, “Belly dancing came into focus for me around 1998. I was desperately looking for something to do for exercise that I could stick to and enjoy. It's a great from of exercise - it's able to be gentle enough for the physically restricted and energetic enough for the aerobic nut! We have a local group that’s taught by a lady who’s 85 and her group ranges from 20-85 years and some of its members have learning difficulties. Love a good cabaret show! Egyptian style and not American! I like a bit of oomph but no vulgarity and I prefer technique to gimmick!”
Leeza Lazeeza and Liltinde Sindarin Elvish are members of a dance troupe called, Hizz Ya Wizz, an all sizes, all ages dance group. Liltinde Sindarin Elvish is also part of a dance trio called Teese Kabera. Leeza Lazeeza is also a founding member of the Habibi Dance Group, a large community based in Pontardawe. They are both based around the Swansea area in Wales.
Hannah Corr’s dance performance celebrates women and the movements of Middle Eastern dance by letting her dancers embody the stories of goddesses around the world. When, in the average woman’s life, will she find an opportunity to portray a goddess? And how can she refuse when given such an appropriate medium to do so?
“I picked seven goddesses in total and chose them for their varying aspects. I also wanted to cover goddesses from all over the world and have a mixture of well known and less well known ones. The different goddesses convey different characteristics such as love, beauty, change, chaos, inspiration, strength, humour - aspects that we have in all of us. Ahlam had 2 purposes, the first was to inspire the audience to be more like the goddesses they were seeing (for example playful or destructive) and wake up the parts of themselves that have been denied, hidden or laid dormant. The second was to show how expressive MED can be. I grew so weary and saddened by the 'tits and tassels' mentality that so many dancers and audiences have that I wanted to show a different side. MED has it all; it's such a rich and deep dance form. It helps us to convey the wrath of Kali (by using American Tribal Style and its very strong and angular movements), the bawdiness and freedom of Baubo (using Algerian Rai which celebrates the body) and the earthiness and strength of Gaia (through Egyptian folk which is flat footed and solid). Dance for me is about expressing emotions and feeling all parts of ourselves. MED enables dancers and audiences to experience the whole range.”
Despite the many intolerable differences humans find in each other these days, our little cultural arts and recreations such as dance, music and food repeatedly teach us that we all appreciate the same language. Asia remains united by the love of noodles and the spring roll, every country shares a tradition of drums, music united black and white America way before any civil rights movement and women from all walks of life are united through the movement of Middle Eastern dance.
The movements themselves are a language of their own that writers such as I can only best express in words. It’s this dance’s physical celebration of women and its historical struggles with gender and sexual stereotyping that makes it so personal for all women.