As we have seen in the past few days the belly dancing community is quite the passionate one, taking to phone lines and the Interwebs to defend and promote its art and culture. But even more impressive and impactful than on message boards and social media sites, was the passion I saw firsthand yesterday in the art form of actual dance.
Yaa Halla Y'all's 11th belly dancing convention opened its doors yesterday, and I can honestly say I was taken aback with a sort of harmonious collision of multiple cultures and styles of the dance.
With the belly dancing misnomer aside (the dance is actually known for being incredibly demanding of all regions of the body, not just the belly), there is also a certain sexualized perception often associated with the art form. Isis, owner of Isis Belly Dance Studio and Boutique and founder of Yaa Halla Y'all, offered insight that experiencing the dance will break down preconceived notions. "That misconception continues, up until the moment they come and see it," she said.
Though belly dancing is often viewed as seductive and perhaps decadent, at yesterday's portion of the festival, I saw a culture that was nowhere near the sort.
Sultry I can admit -- and it is entrancing for sure -- but the connection the dancers have with every aspect of the art supersedes any sleaze factor tagged on outside of a performance. Perhaps the focus on the beauty of the dancer rather than the dance adds to the problem, but then, neither can be denied.
For me, a photojournalist, the entire spectrum of production, from movement to costume design to music, added up to a very interesting, educational and photo-worthy experience.
I popped in on three classes held Thursday, before the shows started at night. The first was a lesson in Arabic music, with regard to rhythm, melody and, of course, dance. It was a very friendly environment for dancers of all levels to learn, take notes, and enjoy the special teachings of Egyptian composer (and DJ!) Karim Nagi. Incidentally, Nagi is also the founder of Aribiqa, an effort to educate on Arabic culture through the arts -- "percussion not politics" so to speak.
In a class which involved men and women of all ages, The Belly Twins, as they are collectively known, taught a class featuring Bollywood music and dance. Though not as commonly known in the States, belly dancing is also practiced by children and men.
The third class I saw was a veil class taught by Belly Dancer of the year 2010, Mia Sha'uri. But I had merely a peek at what the convention had to offer -- classes, seminars and workshops are held throughout the day today and for the rest of the weekend.
Outside of the main stage there was a bazaar that was as visually stimulating as it was perplexing. For me, that is.
Custom costumes from around the world were for sale, as well as handmade jewelry, zills and drums. The hand man craftsmanship does come with a hefty price tag, at least to the novice dancer I consider myself. That said, the passion the community of artists has for the dancing itself is matched in the costume making, and intricacies of the instruments. Every detail was adorned and ornamented with impressive precision.
Although the seminars, costumes and catering by Byblos should have been, or be, enough to make anyone come out, the real treat was and is the performances.
With three shows on Thursday pulling a near-capacity crowd, I was shocked by claims of it being the "slowest night" of Yaa Halla.
The first performance was actually a solo competition followed by a duet/trio competition of non-professional dancers that I hesitate to call amateur. I may have an untrained eye but they were anything but. The second was an alternative/tribal solo professional performance which included everything from tradition Arabic, Egyptian and Turkish music all the way to dub step interludes.
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The last show was comprised solely of highly acclaimed professional dancers and, even with a few snags in the audio department, ended with a dance I can only describe as mesmerizing. Like a snake being charmed, or a patient in trance therapy, the audience was stunned into silence. All this, on the "slowest night" of the convention.
Isis Studio is enjoying its 34th year and notoriety as one of the biggest studios in the nation. Once called "Disney dancers" as a stab at the family friendliness of the studio, Isis fully embraced the nickname, as did the entire Texas belly dancing scene and the Yaa Halla convention.
The Yaa Halla Y'all convention is indeed family friendly, but also welcoming of any skill level -- and that includes no belly dancing skill (ahem). The convention continues through the weekend at the Grapevine Convention Center. Ticket prices for shows only begin at $18. For a complete list of seminars, workshops and performances click here.