The End

An update from the airport this time, very tired after a long final day and no sleep!

Our final warm up class was a cute fellaheen choreography. The warm ups have been led by Bedru who has taught us different folklore styles every day (bedouin, Nubian and I forget the others! Sorry Bedru!). Randa then taught us some more technique and finally a classical choreography to a song which her singer Samir had taught us yesterday. It is very important to know what the words mean! We have been told this again and again over the week and it’s true. Knowing what the song is about adds so much to your appreciation of a performance.

Then is was time for the show which included the final of the competition. I was on second so at least I got it over with quickly. I actually enjoyed the performance even though the music wasn’t quite what I had hoped for! But nothing escapes Randa’s eyes and she could tell I am very inexperienced when it comes to working with a band, and in fact she was quite cross with me for not dancing my best 🙂 she loves all her students and wants us to always dance at the level she knows we are capable of. All the others dancers did really well, I enjoyed watching them a lot. We then had performances from a lot of the other dancers on the course (some of them twice!) with the band. Quite a few people chose to perform choreographies that we learned during the week, I was very impressed by their memories. It was lovely to see everyone that I’ve danced alongside this week up on stage.

There was a little surprise in the middle of the show because it was Randa’s birthday! (No I don’t know how old she is and I wouldn’t dream of asking). We all knew this but had kept it a secret from her 🙂 and had had a collection to buy her a birthday present. I think she liked it 🙂 . We finished very late (2:30 I think), the band had worked incredibly hard to keep going for so long, there was just a little time for dancing before saying goodbye and promising to connect on Facebook. I just had time to finish my packing before being taken to the airport.

Obviously it’s disappointing to finish the week on a downer but Randa and I have agreed that tonight’s performance never happened 🙂 and we are concentrating on the good from yesterday. I am so pleased that I got through to the final, because I know that dancers from the UK don’t have a very good reputation and for her to say yes, you are good enough, you have so much feeling and soul that you are like an Egyptian not a British person…..it confirms that my approach to learning and training is right and that it is possible for British dancers to raise their level to meet the rest of the world. So if you’re in my classes watch out, I’m going to expect even more from you from now on!

(Edit: because I realise I’m at risk of sounding a bit egotistical. I plead sleep deprivation. I’m not saying I’m the only British dancer who has feeling. Far from it. I know lots of gorgeous dancers who are full of feeling and it aggravates me that we have a poor reputation. I want to show people that it is undeserved, not just for me but for all the dancers.)

If you’ve enjoyed reading about the course (and I hope you have because I’ve enjoyed sharing it with you) and think you might like to go yourself I’m afraid I have bad news. This was the last one. Randa does plan to do something similar in the future, but will work with other teachers next time. It will still be a course, not a festival, so there should be a similar kind of atmosphere, but I’m glad I got to be part of the original version (twice!).

Checking in from the pool

This morning I woke up to my phone reminding me that  online check in had opened, which means that in 24 hours I’ll be on a plane home and this adventure will have come to an end 🙁

This is where I am right now:

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I’m not a sun worshipper so I haven’t been out here much, and while I’m here I’m sheltering under one of the canopy beds, but since this is my last day I thought I’d catch a little sun before heading back to England. I gather you’ve been having a spot of rain 🙂

If you’ve been following me on Facebook you’ll know already that I had a pretty good night last night. It was the competition and I’m through to the final! I still can’t believe it. I was so nervous when I got on stage and felt disoriented by the lights and though I recovered I didn’t think it would be enough, especially after I watched all the other dancers. I guess Randa was in a generous and forgiving mood 🙂 I haven’t spoken to her yet, she left before the results were announced. Randa hates competitions! It’s really good of her to do it anyway, it’s such a good learning experience. She said afterwards that everyone was good, everyone was a professional and had their own

Tonight is the final, with the band. We all had to give a shortlist of songs and Randa has chosen what we’re going to dance to. I got “Esmaooni” which I’m very happy about. I danced to “Fi Youm Wa Leyla” last night so it’s been an all-Warda competition for me! At the moment I’m not feeling as nervous as I was yesterday, I’m just so happy to have been given this opportunity and tonight I want to enjoy myself. I won’t place but I’ll tell you all about it later. Lots of dancers are going to be dancing with the band as part of the show and I’m really looking forward to watching them.

Keeping busy

A quick lunchtime update. I have completely lost track of what day it is! Two days ago we were learning baladi with a relatively simple choreography so we could really get the feeling of it. We’ve been given translations to all the songs we’re using and it’s good to see how the moves relate to the words. After snatching a few hours of sleep most people headed out to the Tivoli, a cabaret, to see the dancers.These weren’t famous dancers lie the ones who travel and teach, these were ordinary working dancers. There was a little bit of false advertising going on though:

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That’s Asmahan on the poster and I bet she’s never danced there! We saw two dancers and two singers. The dancers were quite reserved, almost shy, but then how would you be if you knew Randa was sitting in your audience? The first dancer invited her up and when Randa got going her face dropped but she rallied and carried on. Randa danced “El Eh Besalowni” and “Inta Omri” for us which was really special. I have video of her brother Fady giving her a money shower which I’ll try and put up when I get back. I learned a thing about money showers, I didn’t realise that they were essentially toy money. You might have a stack of £1000 but really it’s play money that you paid £100 for. Knowing that didn’t detract from the fun of seeing the men toss the bills around.

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This was a really late night and we left just as things were getting going – 4am! Fortunately yesterday was our day off, spent by a swimming pool followed by lunch and a folklore show with endearingly ropey dancers.  There’s always one or two who know the steps and the others are desperately following along. The bellydancer was good though and of course we all had a dance too.

I left early with a small group who were going to another show. We had all of 15 minutes at the hotel to make ourselves presentable then it was off to the Nile Maxim again to see Asmahan. I hadn’t been too sure about going back but when I heard Asmahan was dancing that was it, I HAD to go. I saw her in London last year and loved her but I’ve never seen her dance in Cairo. It wasn’t her full show with boy dancers and a grand entrance but it was still incredible. Asmahan is so powerful and her presence just fills the room, but she has a great sense of humour that goes with it. I think she appreciated two tables of excitable bellydancers, we were certainly the loudest people in the room. She got her band to play “Batwannes Beek” for us which was lovely. I had such a nice time.

Right, better leave it there because I need to head back down to find out when I’m dancing in the competition! Eeek!

First day of the course

As I may have mentioned, once or twice, I’m in Egypt again doing Randa Kamel’s week long course. I arrived late on Tuesday night (well,technically it was early on Wednesday morning) then had a relaxing morning getting to meet some of the new girls and catching up with returning students. I’m not the only one who thinks the course is worth doing again, in fact I think most people here have done it once (or even twice!) before. Randa has that sort of effect on you 🙂 it’s a fantastic atmosphere, it’s like being at a family reunion. We all live so far away but dance has brought us together.

Last night was the opening show at the Nile Maxim. We were met off the coach by a group of saidi dancers. Wow, mizmars are loud! They played and danced and sang for us, of course we danced as well, especially when the pantomime horse came out! I do love a pantomime horse. They were followed by a tannoura set and then finally we were allowed on the boat itself.

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I’m going to have to apologise to you because I took almost no photos of the show! I don’t like watching from behind a camera and I know that out official photographer Tracey Gibbs will have some spectacular pictures so I decided not to bother. It was a FANTASTIC show. Randa danced oriental, saidi, Alexandrian, shaabi and baladi. She is incredible and I think the love and cheers and clapping from all around the room lifted her even higher. Some of us may have had a few tears in our eyes 🙂 when I watch Randa I just think “YES. THIS is what it’s about, this is why I dance!”

I will share one photo, and this one I took especially for Candi to show that all the best people stand on chairs!

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We also had some bamboutiyya and saidi from Bedru, who is teaching our warm ups and folklore this time. I think he was at a bit of a disadvantage coming on after Randa and her band. As a special treat we also had the singer Rico and his band, who had us all up dancing, and finally a fashion show with a rather incongruous soundtrack of 80s cheese! I think some of the Egyptians were slightly baffled by our YMCA conga but they joined in anyway 🙂

It was a brilliant was to start the week but there were some tired faces at breakfast this morning. Randa went easy on us with some gentle technique, looking at ways to get on stage with different rhythms. I learned some new rhythms, which was good, and new ways for thinking about an entrance. We continued this afternoon by thinking about choreography but everything descended into chaos when two delicious cakes arrived for two birthday girls. You can’t keep dancers away from cake for too long.

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One last photo for you:  this is the new poster in the ballroom to inspire us as we dance. Imagine my delight when I realised that not only were there lovely pictures of Randa, but also the silhouette of that dancer! You’ll have to look quite carefully but I promise you that she’s there.

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Looking ahead to 2012

I always enjoy planning the new dance year. I have booked myself onto a weekend with Mohamed El Hosseny in London, 12 hours of intense training which I’m sure will leave my body aching and my brain frazzled, if his workshops at Jewel of Yorkshire are anything to go by. Love it! The dates for Shimmy in the City are already in my diary and I’m anxiously awaiting the email that says booking is open because DINA! If you’re in my classes you’re going to hear a lot about this festival…I’ll be getting more involved with JWAAD (Josephine Wise Academy of Arabic Dance) as chair of the JTA and also as a national assessor once I’ve completed the training.

Closer to  home I’m delighted to be hosting a genuine Cairo star this year – Lorna Gow! I met her on one of my Egypt trips in 2011, then went to her London workshops and just had to bring her to Cambridge in July 2012. Watch this space, or better yet, sign up for my mailing list so you can be first to book.

I’ve received some lovely make up for Christmas this year and I’m feeling inspired to run my “Makeup for Performance” workshop again because I’m sure I’m not the only one with a fab new Strictly Come Dancing tie in set 🙂

As far as performances are concerned I will be dancing at the new look Shisha Lounge in Peterborough in February, and then at Casino Candi in March. This is Candi’s last ever, big farewell, really mean it show and there are only 20 tickets left so book soon if you intend to go.

I daresay you’ll see me at a competition or two as well 🙂

I’m sure there will be  more events to go to, and more plans to be made (student trip to Cairo 2013!) but for now it’s back to planning lessons for my students this term. Beginners will be looking at classical oriental, improvers having fun with drum solos and intermediates learning the steps of the stars…but which stars will they be?

Hot topic: Bellydance competitions part 2

So, you’ve probably guessed already that I didn’t have any notable success in the Shimmy in City Competition – if I’d placed I’d have been shouting it in 48 point capitals! I had an enjoyable day and watched a lot of fabulous dancers. The judging panel consisted of Khaled, Tito and Asmahan, who had heroically stepped in at the last minute after Soraia was denied a visa. I got some really good advice on stagecraft from Asmahan. I was told some things to change and some things to keep. I know what to fix, now to get on and fix it! From a personal development perspective this was a really useful experience.

It was a very long competition. There were around 25 women (a few didn’t turn up so I’m not sure how many actually danced in the end), 5 men and 5 or 6 groups. Then there was a second round for both the women and the men. I’m not sure there needed to be gender segregated competitions. The top men were easily the equals of the top women. I get that as a minority in the bellydance community men can be intimidated, but I think that any man who has the self-confidence to sign up for a competition isn’t going to be put off by having to dance against ladies. It was hard not to feel that there was a certain double standard at work as well. We were told ahead of time that the top three dancers from each competition would dance again in the folklore round and that would determine their placings. In the end four women and four men went through. Work that out as a percentage of the competitors – 80% of the men got another chance to dance! I felt so sorry for the one guy who didn’t get to dance again, that must have hurt. I would much rather see a mixed competition where a certain number of dancers danced again, it would be much fairer to everyone. After all, everyone has such different styles of dance already it really doesn’t matter, right?

Theoretically.

One thing that really stood out to me after this, and the other competitions I’ve watched this year, is that there is a distinct Competition Style developing. It’s oriental, of course, it’s technically perfect in every way but it – and I’m trying to put this diplomatically – doesn’t encourage much personal expression. Which is not to say that the dancers have no expression, far from it, they have beautiful faces and lovely smiles but that’s about it. When I think of all the dancers I enjoy watching they all have very strong personalities on stage and I simply don’t see that in the dancers who win competitions.

Gilded Serpent published a rather timely article last week: http://www.gildedserpent.com/cms/2011/09/27/jillina-lauren-competition-strategies/#axzz1Zp1Aemsd . The costume and makeup sections I can get on board with. The music section? Not so much. The article suggests that your competition music should consist of 60-90 second blocks of music thrown together to create a 5 minute piece. What? For me, part of the art of dancing is choosing a piece of music and creating a dance to express it, not thinking “Now I will show my travelling steps and turns, now I will show my detailed rhythmical expertise”. My music is not wallpaper against which I display myself, it is an integral part of my performance.

So I find myself in a difficult position. If I want to be a successful competition dancer I need to tone down my on stage persona, smooth out my rough edges, butcher the music I love and use it in a totally alien way. Or I can stay true to myself and the dancers who have taught me and accept that I will never win a trophy or title. It’s no choice at all, is it? Of course I’m going to keep doing things my way! I’ll keep competing, as I’ve said previously the feedback really is useful and next year there’s the potential for feedback from DINA. I can’t turn that opportunity down. In fact I’ve even got some music in mind already, it’s totally wrong for a competition but it’s absolutely right for me.

I do more than just go to Egypt, honest…

…I just happen to have gone there a lot recently!

My second trip to Cairo this year was at the end of May. It was also centred around bellydancing, but in a very different way to my last holiday. I went for a week long dancing course given by Randa Kamel, who as all my students know is my greatest inspiration. When it was announce last year that she would be doing this I waited for all of one week before rushing to the bank to put my deposit down and make sure I had a place!

The course took place at the Barcelo Three Pyramids hotel on Haram Street in Giza. This is the main road that leads you to the famous pyramids, and you could get a lovely view of them from the bar at the top of the hotel. Other than that the location is fairly unremarkable, there was a small mall near the hotel and not much else. The nightclubs were all still boarded up. However, the hotel itself was lovely, clean and modern with very helpful staff. Here’s a photo of the pool and shisha bar:

The pool at night

The pool at night

I could happily have spent all day lounging on one of those beds, but I had dance classes to go to!

On our first night everyone on the course went to the Nile Maxim for a special show with Randa. We were met by a folklore group:

Band and dancers

Our escort to the boat

who played and danced for us before leading us to the boat. There was a small band and singers to entertain us as we ate, followed by the tannoura dancer (scroll down for a photo, he did the same set as last time I was there). Then…..Randa! I was far too entranced to take photos, but there are a few video clips on YouTube taken by one of the girls. Randa did two sets as usual, then the other guests left the boat and the course participants had a special extra performance! She did oriental, baladi, saidi, shaabi and for the first time, Alexandrian. It was the best show I have ever seen her do and as you know I’ve been to a fair few 🙂

Our classes started the next day. The timetable had 1 1/2 hours warm up, 1 1/2 hours technique, a break for lunch, then 3 hours choreography. As the week went on the choreography took over the technique class, we had 4 to learn, all between 5 and 8 minutes long so it’s not entirely surprising. It was so good to have the opportunity to train like this. Most workshops I’ve been to, even ones ostensibly for advanced dancers, end up having to cater for a mixed range of abilities and fitness levels. Here there was no dumbing down, no stopping for a 5 minute break which drags out to 10, 15 minutes…no cries of “We’re too tired! We can’t do it!”. Even when faced with a daunting looking combination from a choreography we could be confident that Randa would break it down for us and get us all doing it in the end. It was hard work but oh so worth it. My head is full of new ideas but I need time and practice to process them all, although a few have been creeping into my classes and performances already.

Workshop room

Our workshop room - how's that for inspiration, a giant poster of Randa with the caption "There are no limits to dance"

There were 47 people on the course and the room was big enough for all of us. Randa taught all the classes except the warm ups, although she would sometimes sit in and correct people.

The days were so busy most people were exhausted, but for those who still had energy there was a competition. The heats took two nights and the final was on the last night. It looked like a lot of hard work for everyone who took part, I admire them very much for that, but I’m glad I wasn’t taking part! The final was very exciting, almost all the dancers performed with the band which was a real challenge. Some were clearly more comfortable than others in this situation and the top three were outstanding. I have mixed feelings about competitions which I think I wil write about at another time.

We had a day off in the middle of the week when were taken out for a relaxing day by a pool at a holiday village called El Ezba. Bliss 🙂

The pool

The pool

 

Camel by the pool

You could ride a camel by the pool - and why not?

Five trips to Egypt and I still haven’t ridden a camel…I’ll just have to go back.

I snuck off with a group of die hards one night to catch Dina’s show at the Semiramis. The curfew was still in force from 2:00am until 5:00am, so it was a pretty safe bet we’d still be in the nightclub at 5:00am. The first few of us arrived at midnight to claim our table, and over the next hour the rest of the group arrived. Some had had a full day of classes, an excursion to the Khan El Khalili and were still up for the show! Dina came on at around 3:00am and gave us a good 45-50 minutes. She managed three lighting quick costume changes, I imagine her dressing room is like a formula one pit stop to get her in and out so quickly. I always enjoy watching Dina, and it’s true what everyone says, you don’t really appreciate her until you see her live. We left ever so slightly before curfew and managed to get back to our hotel without being arrested 🙂 I don’t think the curfew was ever taken very seriously.

On the last night of the week there was the final of the competition and also the chance for course participants to dance with the band if they wanted (for a fee of course). I hadn’t known this would be an option so I hadn’t brought a costume with me, but Randa arranged for me to borrow one from her designer Hisham Osman. Initially she’d offered to lend me one of hers (!!!) but hadn’t had the time to send home for it, which was understandable. So after about 6 hours sleep in 48 hours and running on pure adrenaline I danced with Randa’s band and it was the most incredible feeling. You can see the result on my video page if you like.

Me and Randa's band

Dancing with a band in Cairo, it doesn't get better than this!

There are unconfirmed plans to run the course again next year along with a follow up course. I will be there – of course.

A week in Cairo after the revolution

Copied from Facebook.

Wikipedia tells me there are 79 million people in Egypt, so I’d guess there are 79 million opinions on what happened during the revolution and what can and should happen after it. I don’t need to add to that number. However, a fair number of people who have me listed as a friend have an interest in Egypt from a dance tourism perspective and I thought you might like to hear about my recent trip to Cairo.

This wasn’t some kind of intrepid post-revolutionary expedition. It was a dance holiday organised by Kay Taylor of Farida Adventures, arranged almost a year ago for me and a group of my students. We planned a week full of a mixture of sightseeing and dance activities, early mornings and late nights. After January 25th we all anxiously watched the news, swapped emails and discussed the latest developments and possibilities in class. The groups before us had to cancel or postpone their trips, but a week before ours Kay was receiving good reports from her friends in Cairo and most of our group decided to go ahead with the holiday. The FCO changed its travel advice the day before Kay and I flew out!

So what did we find?

As I stepped out of the car outside out hotel in downtown Cairo I was struck by the fact that nothing had apparently changed since I was last there in December. It was 11:00pm and the pavements were crowded with shoppers and stalls, the shops and takeaways blazing with light and noise.

Cairo traffic

Traffic outside the Khal El Khalili at around 7:00pm. It's always rush hour in Cairo!

After some time changes became apparent, the stallholders were doing a roaring trade in patriotic merchandise (flags of all sizes, T-shirts, car stickers) and there were more soldiers and tanks than I remembered. To a westerner such a pronounced military presence can be alarming, but then you notice that most soliders are distinctly at ease (with a cigarette dangling from one hand) and many tanks are being used as props for a photo opportunity. Yes, we did have a photo taken with our “local” tank!

Demonstration

Demonstrators in Tahrir Square

Tourist sites were open. The Pyramids at Giza were almost deserted, the usual hordes of tourists at the foot of the great pyramid replaced by horse and camel owners desperate for business. Entrance to the great pyramid is usually limited to 300 people per day, meaning you have to be quick if you want a ticket, but there was no problem getting tickets and there were only 15 people inside. Likewise the queues at the Egyptian Museum to see the Tutankhamun exhibition, notoriously lengthy, were apparently non-existant. When we chartered a felucca we were practically the only ones on the river. The Khan El Khalili was open but not as bustling as usual, and shops started to shut early because of the midnight curfew. A lot of the jewellery shops had empty windows. The huge drop in the number of tourists is clearly having a devastating effect on the tourism industry in Cairo.

The Great Pyramid at Giza

Note the distinct lack of tourists

The costumiers have been working hard throughout the revolution. How many of us dancers realise quite how many people depend on our lust for costumes to make their living? I bought costumes from Eman Zaki and Sahar Okasha, who both have new collections just waiting to be worn…and as an aside, for goodness sake pay for your costume. I was shocked by some of the stories I heard. There were also visits to Hanan, Pharonics and Aziz.

Lots of costumes all over the place!

Hanan's atelier after we had finished

For anyone wanting to watch some dancing the Nile dinner cruise boats are sailing, the Nile Pharon is apparently sailing every day and was almost full on our cruise- there were three wedding parties there! The Nile Maxim wasn’t quite so busy, but we were treated to Randa’s first show in a month and had the additional bonus of a dance from Asmahan who was in the audience. The clubs on Haram Street are boarded up and charred, a very sad sight. The seedy nightclub near our hotel appeared to be open for business but we didn’t investigate! Dina was not dancing at the Semiramis, maybe she will be back in time for another group to enjoy her show in the near future. As with all Kay’s trips we had a party night graciously hosted by Yasmina with entertainment from her adorable niece, some amazing Nubian dancers and the wonderful Dandesh, who had been coaxed into dancing for us!

Magda in a pink costume

Magda on the Nile Pharon

 

Tannoura

The tannoura dancer on the Nile Maxim

As far as personal safety is concerned I think we all felt safe and welcomed by the people we met. Walking back to the hotel to beat the curfew (which isn’t exactly strictly observed!) felt safer than walking in London. Yes, there are still demonstrations happening on Fridays but these are mostly confined to Tahrir Square which is a very small part of Cairo. It’s advisable to avoid it just because the demonstrations make the traffic even worse!

Sign saying "Egypt Land of Peace"

The young Egyptians we met were very keen to reassure us that we were welcome and safe

If you’re thinking of a holiday in Egypt, do it. Everything is in your favour: flight prices, exchange rate, lack of crowds, plus you will be making a big difference to people who depend on tourism to put food on their table. It’s an amazing country which has a tough road ahead of it. Even better, go on a Farida Adventure! What I’ve written here barely covers half of what we did. This was my third trip with Kay and I hope there will be many more to come, inshallah…

Celebrating Dance

This weekend I went to Celebrating Dance, a bellydance festival held in Torquay and run by Afra Al Kahira. It’s the first time I’ve been, and I was delighted to be one of the guest teachers. I taught two choreography workshops. The first was to an unusual version of the classic “Inta Omri”, played by the rock band Khalas. I usually prefer to dance to classic versions of Oum Kalsoum’s music (see my videos page!) but this one has such power and drama that I just had to do something with it. Anyway, it’s become a firm favourite of mine and I’m glad to be able to share it with other people. I think the choreography was a bit of a shock to the system for some students in the workshop, but they all tried really hard and got through the whole thing in just two hours. Phew!

On Sunday I was using more conventional music – “Zeina”. I think this song is so beautiful and simple that it would be a shame to dance all over it. Not everything has to go at 100 miles an hour and have 5 different layers at all times! We were able to take our time and really listen to what was happening in the music and think about how that could be reflected in out dancing. For anyone who was in that workshop, here is the video of Samia Gamal dancing to “Zeina”:

Samia Gamal

There was a show on Saturday night featuring the guest teachers: Yasmina, Khalida, Artemisia, Vashti, Emma Pyke, Deborah, Covert Bling, Nikki Livermore, Sara Shrapnell and me! I was slightly disconcerted by the number of vampires in the audience 🙂 but they were all very enthusiastic. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the show.

One of the lovely things about the festival was the fact that everything took place in the same venue, you were never more than 5 minutes away from anything. The hotel is part of a sprawling leisure complex with an old-fasioned air of English Riviera grandeur, very close to the sea – not that there was any time for playing on the beach (although I did sneak in a few lengths of the pool inbetween workshops)! Here’s a photo of the room where Yasmina taught some workshops:

The Arlington room

There was really nice food available, served in time to allow us all to get to the evening events. I’ve never been to a bellydance festival where you can have a three course meal with wine before the show! I could get used to this…. if only Torquay wasn’t so far from where I live!