New Zealand / Australia Diary
Sunday 15 April 2012

View over Dunedin

Today was to be the first of my workshop days so I'd set my alarm clock for an early start. Apart from feeling a bit woozy at times I seemed to have come through my huge time zone change relatively unscathed and was worried that it would suddenly catch up with me. No such problems arose, I did wake at 6 but it was fairly easy to fall back asleep and be roused at 7:30 by the gentle tune of my alarm. After a light breakfast I waved my housemates away for their first workshops and did my final set of preparations and writing of lists. With what felt like a workable programme (and a long list of alternatives & other options) I packed up my iPod and water bottle and set out for the venue.

Due to the number of bookings for my workshop I'd been bumped up from the relative obscurity of the drum studio to the glamour of one of the primary dance spaces. In reality they were both just classrooms in the local primary school but it was nice to feel I was in demand. I arrived early (of course) and while waiting outside the studio I was joined by several of the participants who said how much they were looking forward to the workshop, which set me up nicely. Once in the room I found a familiar and excellent quality sound system, big whiteboards and markers, and enough space for my circle of dancers. My promised 'Angel' assistant/gopher wasn't in evidence but Catherine took on the role and doffed the tinsel halo that went with it - a very practical way of making Angels easy to find by both presenters & participants. The floor was carpeted but I could live with that.

The workshop was entitled Dancing to a Different Beat and was intended to give an experience of dancing to unusual and uneven rhythms. I chose a selection of easy(-ish) dances with different rhythms and over the next two hours I led my 17 students on a voyage of discovery through these strange and exotic beats.

It was a very unusual group for me - the students were all dancers and familiar with the sounds of Balkan & Middle-Eastern music but they were used to dancing solo (or at least without joining hands) and to regular, 'divide by four' rhythms. There were some definite wobbles as we encountered our first 'lumpy' rhythm (a Lesnoto in 7/8) but people soon got the hang of it and over the course of the session we got to know all sorts of strange patterns - 3/4 (not a waltz!), 11/8, 17/8 and 18/8. The workshop went really well, people had fun and got a real experience of dancing to these Different Beats and there were lots of smiles, thanks and very appreciative words by the end. I tidied up with a real sense of a job well done.

Lunch was a very acceptable vegiburger at the Wandering Snail café, after which I returned to my chalet to write up dance lists and notes on the music I used. In theory these were to go up on my website along with this blog and some emails that I'd written but after an hour's playing around trying to get the campsite's Wi-Fi working I had to admit defeat.

The evenings entertainment was a Hafla, a (relatively) informal setting for some of the teachers & participants from the Festival to perform. Sited in the assembly hall of the school there was a theatrical stage area at one end but this was only used by a group of musicians, the dance performers all stayed at floor level with the seating laid out in curves to leave a semicircular performance space. As we got our hands stamped in exchange for the tickets and nabbed good seats at the front we were surrounded by women in costumes that ranged from the exotic to the very exotic. This included Catherine and Jo from our little household who would be performing a dance together and who had been practicing and preening (very successfully) up until we'd set out.

It soon became apparent that the event's organisation was not going to be an example of shining efficiency. Under glaring fluorescent light and with decidedly non-Middle Eastern music coming through the PA system the start time came and went with no sign of anything about to begin. At one point one of the organisers made an unamplified announcement that seemed to produce excitement & applause but it was totally inaudible from where I was sitting. After about half an hour of waiting we were told that the buffet dinner, which was due to be served during an intermission in the programme, was now available so we got up and munched our way through that. Eventually things seemed to come together and a different (although also unamplified) compere announced the first couple of performers.

The show (it developed into a general dance party later on but I'd left by then) was a succession of single, double, triple and larger collections of performers - all women and of all shapes & sizes. I'm no expert in the styles and subdivisions of the belly dancing world so the subtleties were sadly lost on me but I was royally entertained by the dances on show, which ranged from a sensual solo piece through to a massed group of sixteen (or maybe more) women who spun & wheeled in synchrony while providing a chorus line for smaller groups to show off their individual displays. The performances were very polished & professional but the most impressive things for me was seeing these women glorying in the shape & movement of their bodies, proudly resplendent in themselves regardless of whether they fitted the conventional image of attractiveness or not. And having a great time while they were doing it.

I was being educated in the divisions & differentiations of belly dance culture by my companions and was starting to identify the different styles & groupings. In most cases I could recognise aspects of Middle Eastern dance I'd seen in different places & contexts but there was one group who were totally new to me - the Tribal dancers. With black the predominant colour and 'distressed' netting tops matched with full skirts they were like Goths dressed as flamenco dancers or Morticia Adams going to a hoe down. Pale, ashen makeup with (presumably) tribal markings on the face - most commonly a vertical line down the chin - completed the look. It was certainly an arresting image (especially when lots of them danced together) but the combination of sullen 90s teenager with sensual Middle Eastern dancer was one that I'd never have anticipated in my wildest dreams. You never know what you might find in this strange world of ours.

I'd done pretty well in coping with my jet lag but long evenings were still a bit much for me. Before the performances ended I found my eyelids growing heavy so I made my excuses and retired to my bed

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