A Big Scoop of Emirati Culture

Qasr Al Hosn Festival

A nosy camel at Qasr Al Hosn Festival ;)

A curious camel who almost ate my phone 😉

I love living in the Emirates, but the thing in Dubai is that you really don’t experience a lot of local culture. Actually, you don’t even see that many locals around here. Your best shot at learning something about the Emirati culture is to attend the events by Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, which I highly recommend, but I have not found much more besides that.

So, when I found out about the Qasr Al Hosn Festival, an annual event celebrating Emirati heritage in Abu Dhabi, I just had to see it. I must admit, when I first checked the amazing photos and videos they had posted on their Instagram, I was a bit skeptical. I mean, nowadays, anyone can come up with a clever marketing campaign, but it does not always mean quality content. But let me tell you, the Festival was exactly as awesome as shown in their social media!

The thing that first impressed me was the amount of Emirati families attending the Festival! I would say the locals made up 95% of the visitors, which shows how proud they are of their heritage. I think it is nice that despite of the crazy development the region has been through over the last 60 years, they still appreciate where they come from.

A desert scene a the Qasr Al Hosn Festival

A desert scene

You can imagine how powerful the visual of masses of local men in kanduras and local women in abayas is. But can you imagine masses of little boys in white kanduras and girls in colourful khaleegi thobes running around!? (For cuteness, check the end of the post!) It was not just a regular outing to them, it was a celebration. And, there were a lot of ways to celebrate! Like rolling themselves off the piles of sand, or digging holes the size of themselves! Kids will be kids, they don’t need much to be entertained 😀

But actually, there is so much more to the Qasr Al Hosn Festival than the sandpits! The festival grounds cover all aspects of traditional life – the desert, the oasis, the villages at the coast. They even have their own school and a police force!

Beautiful ladies at Qasr Al Hosn Festival

Beautiful ladies

You can try climbing up a palm, watch a saluki (a desert hound) do tricks, decorate your hands with henna, attempt to weave a straw mat, learn how to dye fabrics with natural components, smell different types of bukhoor (inscence), take a camel ride, attend an archaeology workshop, eat chebabs (Emirati pancakes), browse through a souk (and try to resist buying yet another khaleegi-thobe 😉 ), hug a baby goat, listen to poetry recitations, take an Emirati cooking class, and so much more! And for kids, there is a special crafts’ centre where they can do all sorts of crafts ranging from ceramics and doll-making to building toy cars!

Niqab-maker at the Qasr Al Hosn Festival

Niqab-maker

And if you get tired of walking around, you can just grab a cup of karak tea (sweet milk tea), sit down and just observe people around you. The Festival also seems a place where young locals come and check each other out 😉 All in all, there is so much to see and do that we spent almost three hours there without even noticing the time passing!

And, of course, to my great joy, there was a lot of music and dance! During my visit I was lucky to see two of the traditional dances. Al-yawlah is where the men show their skill by spinning and throwing a rifle, and dancing at the same time. They are good at what they do, but I am still glad dummy guns are used mostly 🙂 Check out the video below, and pay attention to how good some of the boys are!

The other dance I saw is Al-Ardah, which is basically a battle dance. The men form two lines, and dance with cans and swords. They also chant, being accompanied by drums and tambourines.

And I left the sweetest dance video to the last. Just watch this and tell me it isn’t the cutest thing ever!?

 

“They don’t train their bodies, they train their souls!”*

“They don’t train their bodies, they train their souls!”*

Zumba, vol 2

Zumba perfectly balances oriental dance in my life. While bellydance is full of different emotions, different levels of energy and very much dependent on one’s mood, surroundings etc., Zumba is pre-formatted, crazy, intense and 100% fun.

It had been almost a year since my last Zumba training in Delhi, so I signed up for Zumba Basic 2 in Dubai, taught by Zumba Education Specialist Steve Boedt. The training itself consists of six basic rhythms (belly dance, flamenco, tango, samba, soca and quebradita), plus there is a lot of instructor-centred discussion on topics such passion, burnout and self-confidence.

Now, if you are fluent in any of the above-mentioned dance styles, and have taken a Zumba-class, you know that we are talking of completely different planets there. To be fair, they do not try to claim that what they do is authentic, but inspired. Nevertheless, some of the stuff what gets presented as bellydance in Zumba, made me chuckle (think of tomb-painting arms, for example ;))

What also made me laugh was Steve going round and apologizing multiple times for what the format has done to bellydance! I guess he does it at every training, but being in UAE where bellydance is quite visible, he had to put an extra effort into it. Actually, we even got down to disussing where the term hagallah comes from!

It wasn’t just laughs and (sweaty!) dance sessions though. I love how the Zumba trainings also focus on the instructor – how too much passion can lead to burnout, and how to deal with it; what characteristics are important for an instructor; and how to overcome self-doubts in class. I found the latter topic very interesting – we often address that issue when coaching people to perform, but I haven’t seen much discussion when it comes to teaching classes. The moral that I took from the training was that you should never make up stories in your head. It is always better to get the facts.

And if you ever get the dance to take a Zumba class with Steve, grab the chance. He’ll make you laugh, he’ll make you sweat, and he’ll probably make sure there are parts of you hurting the next day!!!

* Steve’s impression of the first time he saw Zumba. However, I’d say it would also apply for oriental dance! 🙂  

City Break in Dubai

Safran at Dubai Creek

Having fun with the artwork at the Dubai Creek 🙂

City Break in Dubai

Let’s be honest, India can get pretty overwhelming sometimes… And with a dozen flights between Delhi and Dubai each day, it only makes sense to take little breaks in the Emirates!

I love the UAE because it makes both sides of my split personality happy. 😉 The dancer/traveller in me enjoys the Oriental feeling – the Emirates is a true melange of Arabic and Asian cultures, involving everything between Morocco and Vietnam. And at the same time the Northerner/Excel-table side of me is very satisfied with how clean, organised and safe it is there.

Sculpture in Al Bastakiya

From a gallery in Al Bastakiya

During my most recent trip I was a true tourist – I spent most of my time exploring the galleries and cafes at the Bastakiya Heritage Village, had my meals at the restaurants by the Creek, and even went to see the fountain show at the Dubai Mall!

And what would a trip to Dubai be without bellydancers? On my last night there we had a  truly global reunion with Sabriye, Athena, Selina and Kamillah.  And what do bellydancers do for fun? Of course we went to Sewar, a Lebanese restaurant, to enjoy live Arabic music and see a bellydancer perform!!! 😀 It was a beautiful end to my little trip, but I know I won’t stay away from the Emirates for too long! 😉

Safran, Selina, Athena, Sabriye and Kamillah at Sewar

The bellydancers’ reunion: Safran, Selina, Athena, Sabriye and Kamillah at Sewar.

Being Safe in India (part 2)

Being Safe in India (part 2)

Ever since I arrived to India, people keep asking me about the safety of women/dancers here. A while back I wrote about work-related safety issues. This time I am looking at more general aspects.

Let’s start with the grossest threat – the food! Indian food is notorious for causing troubles, and there is a selection of different forms of food poisoning to choose from 😉 On a more serious note, it can get as bad as needing an IV. The good news is, you will learn which foods to avoid (like salads at the weddings), how to cope with when it happens to you (hint: Immodium, Norflox and peppermint oil), and even how to work throughout the whole thing (not while being hooked to an IV though 😉 ).

It is world wide knowledge that most accidents happen at home, and in India it seems to be true. Especially when it comes to bathrooms. I’ve lived in a flat where switching on the light in the bathroom was always a bit of a roulette – you never knew if you would get an electric shock or not. In another apartment I witnessed how the heater tank exploded – it was extremely lucky that no-one was in the bathroom at the same time.

But the biggest threat lies in the drivers. We spend a lot of time in cars – sometimes the drive to a show can be up to 8 hours. And the drivers are terribly overworked. Once, a driver fell asleep behind the wheel while we were driving through a tunnel. Another time we had to take a roadside break in the middle of the night, so that the driver could have a little nap to recuperate. We’ve also had problems with drunk people sitting behind the wheel. Often I choose not to sleep in the car during our drive back from the show just to keep an eye on the driver… it is better to be dead tired than dead.

I know that when I am asked about the safety here people actually want to know about the everyday life. Judging from what is published in the foreign and also Indian media, India is definitely not a safe place for a woman. However, my experience has not been bad… I live in a decent neighbourhood, travel in the “women only” cart on the metro, and don’t hang out too much after dark. I avoid talking to strangers (or actually, turning any attention to them at all), and when I have to take a taxi, I ask my boss to book it for me, to make sure it is a reliable company, and he has the contact of the driver. So far I can say that India has been treating me properly in that sense!

Bellydancers are boring!

Bellydancers are boring!

To be honest, this post is not about bellydancers at all, I just lured you here with a provocative title 😉 . Because even though the market for bellydance is enormous here in India, it is only a small part of the entertainment industry. And that industry is unlike in any other country. Let me give you a few examples of acts that are currently popular here, and which are mostly staffed by foreigners.

Leela dancing Martini at Zerxura restaurant, New Delhi.

Leela dancing Martini at Zerzura restaurant, New Delhi.

A Girl in the Martini Glass

Imagine an oversized martini glass filled with water. And now imagine a girl dancing in it. And even though it might seem silly at first, it is really a very tough act: the dancers who ace at martini must be athletic, flexible, not afraid of heights or of getting bruises all over your legs.

Strolling Tables

Sometimes it is jokingly called as working as a doughnut 🙂 Basically it means that the girl wears a doughnut-shaped plastic table around her waist/hips, which is either supported by kind of suspenders or she just holds it with her hands. And, her job is to walk around the event and serve drinks from it.

fountain

Lika as a Lotus Fountain at an event

The Human Fountain

Have you ever seen those human statues in the pedestrian areas of European cities? A human fountain is a bit like that, except that there is water coming out of the hands and headdress of the girl. Usually placed near the entrance of a wedding venue it provides a lot of fun for kids – they keep staring and wondering if the fountain will move or not.

International Band

This seems to be the most recent and increasingly popular addition to the entertainment scene. There’s a group of beautiful girls in flowing white dresses on stage. Each one of them has an instrument – a violin, a saxophone etc., and you can hear music playing. However, the girls are only imitating playing their instruments, and all the music is coming from a CD.

Like I said, these are just a few examples of the colourful entertainment indurstry in India. There is a number of different acts and costumes, and there is constant innovation going on. And the crazier it is, the better!

Zumba!

This past weekend, I spent two days at the Zumba Basic 1 Instructor training, and now I am an official Zumba® instructor!

I love the essence of Zumba®. Even though it is crazy fun, it is really a very systematized format – you can fit the basics into an Excel-table 😀 And, in addition to fitness, it can give you some very special coordination drills: just try to layer a 7-count arm combination over a 6-count step pattern!

Our instructor, Sucheta Pal, was a ball of fire, really. She was enthusiastic and full of energy. And when she told us a story of how she quit a “grown-up” job to dance, I knew we had something in common. And when she discussed her concerns for the integrity of Zumba®, I felt like I could tell the same story about oriental dance.

What I loved most about Sucheta’s training were the very practical teaching tips, starting from how one should enter the class to how to take care of newcomers without making them feel too self-conscious. I mean, in a standardized format you can learn steps and choreographies from almost anyone, but this kind of knowledge comes from years of practice.

As an oriental dancer, I was pleasantly surprised how much emphasis is put on musicality. We learned to identify the main rhythms, and even made graphs to break down songs. And I really enjoyed the exercise where Sucheta divided us into groups, assigned each group a part of a song and a movement, and then played the music so that we could recognise and react to it. I never expected that from a fitness training.

All in all, it was a great weekend. I learned new things, got my behind kicked, and made some new contacts in the Indian and Nepalese dance world. And now you will probably start hearing Zumba® news from me! 😉

The Dressing Room Scavenger Hunt

The Dressing Room Scavenger Hunt

India is a very different environment from every other place I have danced in, so little (and sometimes not so little) culture shocks surface frequently. To cope with this, one has to take things with humour, and consider it all like a game… For example, when it comes to the dressing rooms, it is often like a scavenger hunt 🙂 When I dance at clubs or restaurants, having a decent dressing room (or green room, as it is called here) is usually not a problem. However, events are a completely different story…

Step 1: find a green room.

People keep being surprised when I tell them that no, I will not do four costume changes in a public bathroom. Or, in the room in front of the public bathroom.

Step 2: find a green room with walls.

Sometimes the dressing rooms are more conceptual than actual. Flimsy fabric carelessly drawn around a metal scaffolding, flapping around in the wind (with an outdoor event). Once the green room did have walls, but no windows nor doors. However, it did have an opening in the wall facing directly the audience. 🙂

Step 3: find the loopholes.

My first instinct when entering a dressing room is to scan for security cameras. Most of the time the green rooms are open from the top, so there is also the risk of a wandering drone camera peeking in. Second scan is for peepholes. You would not believe how many times there are random men just standing outside the dressing room hoping to catch a “special show”. A colleague of mine even had a case when someone was trying to film her while she was changing

Step 4: secure your territory.

Sometimes the green room assigned is unisex, so you have to clear out the guys before each costume change… this can be quite an undertaking. If I am sharing it only with female dancers, their managers/coordinators/whoever tend to pop in without warning. And, of course, there are the random men running “accidentally” into your green room, even when it is yours alone. You can try to make sure the accompanying manager is keeping watch outside (a successful strategy depending on the attention span of the manager), or just make a big scandal every time it happens (the phrase “I will pack up and stop dancing” usually works wonders), or…

Step 5: … just learn to change your costumes in a way you are never uncovered 🙂

Being safe in India

Being Safe in India

It is well-known that India is a land of great diversity. So, of course, it also applies to the safety of dancers. Sometimes the security at work is organised to the level of being almost funny, but every now and then going out on stage can be downright dangerous.

In the Indian context I am a relatively tall person. However, there are people taller than me, and it seems that most of them are employed as bouncers at clubs and restaurants. 🙂 Usually they are doing a very good job making the dancer feel safe – when I spent two weeks dancing at a restaurant in Punjab, there was always a bouncer (or two on busier nights) following me during my show. It felt a bit like a game, really… I was just dancing away, and the guy was doing his best keeping up with me between the tables.

Sometimes the security is so tight that the dancer literally dances in a circle of bouncers. It feels very exclusive, but remeber, these guys are tall… so I am not sure how much dancing the audience actually sees. Sometimes there is a photographer inside the circle with me, so I guess they can just check the photos on Facebook later 😉

Safran and security team

With my security team in Ludhiana, Punjab

But things are not always so well organised. I’ve danced at shows, some of them even in five-star hotels, where no security whatsoever is present. When one drunk guy climbs on stage, an experienced dancer can handle it (especially it happens during a saidi ;). But sometimes it is a mass of drunken men, and then it gets scary.

Random guys veering into backstage, and popping into changing rooms is unfortunately a common thing here. Sometimes they are just harmless creeps, but sometimes they are drunk and feel they have all the rights in the world. Once, the party organisers had to build a barrier out of crates of stage equipment just to keep the drunk guests out of backstage. And, of course there were guys trying to dismantle it!

Another thing, which I fortunately haven’t experienced so far, is people throwing things at the dancer. And I am not talking about children tossing rose petals (this has happened to me 🙂 ). But my colleagues have been showered with water or alcohol while they are dancing. Sometimes glasses have been broken at their feet, or just hurled at their general direction.

How such incidents are handled, also varies. Sometimes the client or manager offers a half-hearted apology and insists on continuing with performances.  Sometimes security measurers are improvised – like creating a human wall of stage workers. And sometimes we just pack up and leave as quickly as possible.

And this whole thing only concerned the on-site aspect of dancers’s security. I hope to write more about general safety issues soon.

Not a Russian Dance, not a Russian Dancer

Not a Russian Dance, not a Russian Dancer

India is a huge market for bellydance… although sometimes I really wonder why it is such a popular form of entertainment here, as the majority of audiences (and even people in the entertainment industry) are not quite sure of what oriental dance is. Here it is a common misconception that bellydance is essentially a Russian dance. It is probably because a few years back, when the popularity of the dance began, most of the performers were Russian. And even now, the majority of bellydancers here are Russian speakers, either from Russia, Ukraine or Belarus.

To give you an example of what people think, here is a dialogue I witnessed backstage between a Bollywood dancer and Amira, a dancer from Argentina:

Dancing at Zerzura, a restaurant in Delhi where they actually know the origins of oriental dance ;)

Dancing at Zerzura, a restaurant in Delhi where they actually know the origins of oriental dance 😉

-“Where are you from?”
– “Argentina.”
– “I did not ask what your name is, I asked where are you from?”
– “I’m from Argentina.”
– “Oh, so you travelled to Russia to learn bellydance before you came to work here?”
– “No.”
– “Oh, so you came here to learn bellydance?”

As I come from an even more obscure country than Argentina, my struggles with the event anchors who want to announce me as a Russian dancer performing a Russian dance, are greater. I tell stories about Egypt, and draw maps of Northern Europe on napkins. Sometimes however it still remains confusing – by the end of one show the poor anchor was convinced that Estonia is located right in the middle of the Arab world. 🙂

It is not just the bellydancers who go through this. It is also the Egyptian tannouras who sometimes have to explain that they did not learn their art in India, because the sufi traditions also exist elsewhere.

But we don’t give up… we go from show to show, correcting, explaining, discussing… and as my French colleague Leela says – every time we do it, it is like a drop of water… and one day, we will make it into an ocean.