JWAAD Personal Development Programme

After you’ve been bellydancing for a few years it’s not unusual to reach a point where you’ve outgrown (or think you’ve outgrown 😉 ) the classes available to you locally. Teachers are not always able to offer advanced classes, either because the demand is not sufficient to make a viable class, or because they themselves haven’t reached an advanced level of dancing. So what do you do next if you want to continue growing as a dancer?

My solution to this problem was to take the money I had been spending on regular classes and spend it on workshops instead. That way I could learn whatever I liked from whoever I liked at a high level. I recommend everyone take as many workshops as they can manage at every stage of their dance career. The only problem with using workshops as your only tuition is that you often don’t get much (or any) feedback on your dancing. 30 dancers in a 2 hour workshop – you do the maths. It can be easy to fall into bad habits, to become lazy and to find that your progress has stalled.

Private lessons can be a good way to give yourself a reality check. They require a certain amount of commitment from a student in terms of time and money so make sure you choose a teacher who will give you what you want and, more importantly, what you need. If all you want is a pat on the head, don’t bother. If you want constructive feedback to help you progress and you are prepared to put the work in between classes then private lessons are a good way to go.

For dancers who find themselves in the situation where you don’t quite know what do to next there is a new programme that might help you: the JWAAD Personal Development Programme. I am one of the National Assessors* and you can read about what I can offer you here. The programme is centred around technique assessments which will be familiar to anyone who has done a JWAAD Foundation or Diploma course. As part of my Diploma course I did three, then did a fourth one afterwards just for fun! I think they are universally acknowledged to be the most scary part of the courses. You dance, the assessor assesses you. I was pretty terrified when I did my first assessment with Jo, but she corrected a problem with my posture that I didn’t even know about and that made a huge improvement to my dancing. At every assessment I was given something new to work on and by the end I was a much, much better dancer. The assessment process has changed a little since then. Most noticeably you are given a description of the levels in advance so you know what kind of thing the assessor will be looking for, which will remove a lot of the fear. It is all centred around principles of movement and it is desirable to have your own style – we’re not trying to create an army of clones!

You don’t have to be enrolled on a JWAAD course to take part in the programme, it is for anyone who wants an appraisal of their dancing and guidance for how to take it to the next level. Get in touch if you’d like to know more.

*(If you’re one of my regular students don’t panic! I’m not going to watch you all and mentally go through my tick sheet, or start making you take assessments before you can move up a level.)

Choosing your music

This post inspired by a suggestion from Jitka. Sorry it took me so long to write it 🙂

Some of the first questions students ask – after “How do you shimmy?” – are about music. What to get and where to get it. Arabic music is so easy to find now. Most of my music has come from Aladdin’s Cave http://www.aladdinscave.com/acatalog/New_arrivals.html , who always have a wide selection and great customer service, but in the past few years more and more has become available to download through sites like iTunes, emusic and Amazon. If you want to listen to a whole song, rather than the snippets available on those sites, there’s a good chance you’ll find someone dancing to it on YouTube. Bellydance downloads http://www.bellydancedownloads.com/ can help you find particular tracks.

I don’t want to be too prescriptive in this post because I think discovering music for yourself is such an enjoyable experience I would hate it to be spoiled with a box ticking mentality. I just want to point you in a direction and let you explore. Everything I write here is just a suggestion 🙂 how much you do is up to you.

With so much choice out there it can be hard to know what to start with. If you’re a beginner, or new to Arabic music, then pop music can be a good way to start training your ear. The rhythms and the structures of pop songs are pretty simple, so all you’ve contend with are some unfamiliar instruments and a language that you probably don’t understand. If you’re feeling very keen you can always look up the lyrics, there are websites out there dedicated to song translations:




Look out for album series like “Now Dance Arabia….” and “Now That’s What I Call Arabia…”. I have a double CD set which is quite out of date now 🙂 but I still like it called “Arabia: The Essential Album”. Find an artist you like, search for more of their songs…

When you’re ready to start moving beyond pop music try looking for compilations. One of my favourites is Bellydance Superstars Volume 1, it has a really varied selection of styles. None of the other albums in the series have had such a good selection, in my opinion. The only downside is that this one was so popular that a lot of the songs have been done to death – please let me never have to hear “Chicky” again! Another album I like is “10 Songs Every Bellydancer Should Know”, which is a good introduction to some of the classics. The “Oriental Fantasy” series is not so widely available now, but you can download them http://www.oriental-fantasy.com/dance-academy-cifuentes-berlin.php . Find a song you like, find out what it is about, look for videos of dancers using it, find out the composer and who originally sang it…

If you’re looking for music with performance in mind, check out the albums produced by dancers who have worked in Cairo. Yasmina, Leila, Outi, Samasem, Nesma…dancer-friendly versions of lots of classic songs. I’ve deliberately avoided mentioning music piracy up until now, because it’s something that everyone knows is bad but does anyway. I’m mentioning it now because producing these CDs is often a labour of love for the dancers, so please try and get yourself an original copy.

Ask questions! When you’re in class or a workshop and you hear something you like – ask what it is. If you have a song you like but you’re not sure what the style is or how to dance to it – ask your teacher. We like questions. Get on the internet and start searching. If you want a checklist of composers and singers then Candi’s website is a fantastic starting point http://www.rakscandi.co.uk/ I often refer to it especially when I’m looking for different versions of a particular song or some background information.

Music is essential for bellydance. It can be difficult at first if you’re not familiar with Arabic music – new rhythms, new instruments, a language you may not understand – so I can understand why people seek refuge in the familiar and end up dancing to western music or Shakira. I think it’s such a shame to limit yourself in this way, more so if you are telling yourself that you are in some way being edgy by doing so. What is transgressive about dancing to the music that has surrounded you all your life? Learning about a whole new genre of music is a challenge but if you want to call yourself a bellydancer it’s one you must embrace. Listen and listen and listen some more and you will soon find you lose yourself in the ethereal beauty of a ney taqasim, or luxuriate in accordion balady, or with a lump in your throat listening to Oum Kalsoum.

You can even learn to love the mizmar. Really.


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.