Halloween Hafla

Americans are really into Halloween. There is a distressing* amount of plastic spider-based decoration, everything is pumpkin flavoured and my gym even has a special reduced schedule for the 31st so instructors can spend time with their families (OK, maybe that last one is for Dia de Muertos?). So I was excited to be able to go to a Halloween hafla to see how American bellydancers do it!

The answer is: with style :) I went to Thia’s Halloween Bash, which was held at the most amazing venue, a banqueting hall with a Wurlitzer Theatre Pipe Organ. Not only does the organ still work, we were treated to silent moves with an organ accompaniment while we ate before the dancing started.

You can see some of the decoration there, try as I might I just couldn’t capture it in one photo, but here are a few details from our table decorations. Imagine a 200 person hall all decorated like this! As we walked in it was a riot of orange and black, with great attention to detail.

(Plastic rats don’t bother me. It’s just the spiders.)

The performances were most definitely non-traditional :) in fact I think I only heard two or three pieces of Arabic music the whole night, but I think that’s one thing Halloween haflas are about wherever you go – throwing the rule book out of the door and having fun. There were some really creative costumes from dancers (and audience members!), there were pirates, witches, a circus freak show, mermaids and – my personal favourite – a tree with a snake in it. Clearly everyone had had a lot of fun coming up with ideas and that came across in their dancing as well.

I’m sure there will be a lot of Halloween haflas coming up and I hope everyone going has just as much fun :)

* i.e. non-zero

Hafla!

“Hafla” is the Arabic word for party. Within the bellydance community it usually refers to a party mainly attended by bellydancers and including performances as well as social dancing.

Beyond that haflas vary wildly…

Haflas take place in studios, leisure centres, pub function rooms, theatres, social clubs, front rooms and restaurants. I think I’m still the only person who holds haflas in a church :)  I’m lucky to live in a progressive town with a church looked after by people who don’t believe it should sit empty and unused outside of Sunday mornings.

The number of people attending a hafla might be 20, might be 200, might be even more!

The venue and the number of guests determine the catering: just bar snacks, pot luck, hot catered buffet, full restaurant meal. I’d be disappointed if I went to a hafla with no food or drink at all – that’s not a party!

Music could be courtesy of a DJ, a band, a laptop playlist or whatever CDs everyone happens to have brought. You’re more likely to hear pop and shaabi than the classics, tunes that get everyone up and dancing – even non-bellydancers! Maybe the odd bit of Western pop as well. You’ll see people doing simple dances they’ve learned in class, ATS dancers improvising together but mostly people just dancing away however they like.

Of course there will be dancing, but often there will be shopping as well. Mobile bazaars can sell you hipscarves, music, costumes and accessories and you can try them out straight away :)

You’ll find all ages attending, and how many parties is that true of outside of family events? Most people who come are dancers, the rest tend to be their friends and family who have come along to support them as they perform, or just to see exactly what it is that they get up to on a Tuesday night! I think friends and family often aren’t sure what to expect, and every year I have to reassure my new students “Yes, you can bring men, yes you can bring children” although I’m sure some haflas limit themselves to bellydancers only. You rarely find anyone there who isn’t part of the bellydance community, even if they are on the periphery as a long-suffering partner :), haflas aren’t shows we put on for the general public, they are a time for us to have fun together.

This is also reflected in the performances at haflas. Some haflas verge on shows, with line ups exclusively made up of teachers and professionals, but most of the ones I’ve been to (and organised) have welcomed dancers of all levels of experience. For new dancers it’s a chance to show off what they’ve learned, for aspiring professionals the hafla is a valuable training ground. You can learn and practice your performance skills in front of a supportive audience before thinking about venturing out in front of the general public. In fact plenty of dancers only ever perform at haflas and that’s just fine – it’s nice to dance for people who really understand and appreciate what you’re doing. I think it’s fantastic that bellydancers have created a space in which they can all share and enjoy each other’s creative efforts. There are all kinds of projects and schemes and grants to get people to participate in the arts and we’re just getting on and doing it.

With so many possible variations it can be difficult to discuss what we mean by a hafla. One person’s “hafla” might be another person’s “performance platform” or “show”. Every community can shape its hafla to suit the people who go, after all, a party is nothing without guests!

What are your haflas like?

Performances

My students have a lot of performances coming up, and they are all on the same weekend! Next Saturday I’m taking a group to a hafla in Huntingdon (hosted by Caroline with special guest star Kay Taylor) where we’ll be dancing a drum solo. It’s a dance I first taught a few years ago and the group seemed to like it, so we performed it quite a lot. When new people joined the class I taught it again, and again, and tried to resist the temptation to tweak it along the way :) I think I will have to choreograph a new drum solo for us so I can use all my new ideas! As well as the group dance three of my students will be performing solos. I love watching my students blossom and develop their own dances, although I turn into a Stage Mother, excited and nervous for them in equal parts. Far more so than for my own performances!

On Sunday a bigger group will be taking part in the Big Weekend on Parker’s Piece in Cambridge. This is a celebration of world music and dance and is a wonderful family day out. I love going to it and was delighted to be asked to be in it. This will be the third year my group has taken part. We’ve spent this term preparing enough dances for a 30 minute set, which is a lot of work. I like to have plenty of variety for such a long performance, and if you come to watch you’ll see modern Egyptian, saidi, pop, classical and a magency which includes oriental, baladi, saidi, khaleegy as well as different props – you see why this is such hard work! Everyone has pulled together to make the group dances really exciting. I’ll be doing some solos to give them a break and then we’ll all teach the audience some moves and get them up and dancing. Then it will be time for a well earned ice cream (or possibly beer) before heading off to enjoy the rest of the day. Look out for sparkly ladies in red, they’ll be the ones dancing right at the front :)

Music

In Egypt the norm is for dancers to perform to live music. Their orchestras can range from the equivalent of a fancy surround sound speaker system to a battered old CD player that skips if you look at it the wrong way, but the music is still live. In the UK CDs are the norm. Some parts of the country are lucky enough to have thriving communities of Arabic musicians, such as the Nile Band in Manchester, so dancers there have the opportunity to enjoy social dancing and performance with live music.

Cambridge is not one of those areas! If anyone knows differently I’d love to hear from you… *dreams of own orchestra*…back to reality. I’ve been bringing artists to Cambridge for the past three years to share the joy and magic of dancing with a band, we’ve had Brothers of the Baladi here twice and I’ve just arranged for the Arab Quarter to make a return visit (put 26th March in your diary now and check back in the New Year for tickets!). Last week I went to Caroline’s hafla in Huntingdon where Sheikh Taha, Tim Garside and Dave Murray entertained us with their music. As part of the show a few dancers performed (improvised!) with them and I was delighted to be one of them. With that musical line up there was no way I was doing anything other than some lovely, lovely baladi, so I asked for “Aminti Billah”.  There’s just nothing like dancing to live music, the excitement of not knowing quite what will happen and where the music will take you, the fact that the musicians respond to your dancing so your performance becomes a true collaboration, the wonderful moments when you’re all perfectly in synch in mind and body. Of course it’s different again if you’re a dancer in Egypt and can sack your band if they play a wrong note!