By Sophia Furber
Which city would you visit if you wanted to learn all about the art of bellydance? Cairo (obviously), Alexandria, Istanbul, Dubai and Beirut are the ones that would spring to mind. But London?
Although many miles from the Middle East, London is a base for some of the world’s most celebrated bellydancers, who can be found performing in swanky venues such as Maroush (a famous Lebanese restaurant on the Edgware Road), at Arab and Turkish weddings, and at haflas – the more intimate dance parties where members of the bellydance community get together to show off their skills and let their hair down.
There is also a thriving community of amateur dancers who learn to bellydance to get fit, boost their confidence, socialise and learn about one of the Middle East’s least-understood art forms.
Bellydancers at a hafla in London (image: Dunya Bellydance)
Sadly, bellydance is all too often associated in the Western imagination with stripping and burlesque, a perception that partly stems from early Hollywood movies that often portrayed bellydancers as exotic temptresses.
The reality is that bellydance is an intricate dance form that requires a high level of musicality on the part of the dancer, and draws on a range of folkloric, cabaret and theatrical traditions from the Middle East.
The bellydance scene can also be a great way to learn about the incredible music, food and culture of London’s Middle Eastern and Turkish communities.
While the mention of bellydance may raise a few eyebrows, there is a devoted and very friendly bellydance community in London. Whether you want to experience a bellydance performance that will have you on the edge of your seat, or have a go at mastering shimmies and undulations yourself, London is a wonderful place to start.
(Image: Jalya Bellydance)
Where to watch
There are numerous Middle Eastern restaurants in London that feature bellydancers, but if you want a really in-depth introduction to bellydance and the chance to see a range of different performances, join the aficionados for a hafla.
Rouh Arabi, a bellydance night taking place on the last Thursday of each month, only started up in January this year but already has a devoted following. Held at Dar Marrakesh, a Moroccan restaurant on Edgeware Road, Rouh Arabi features around 10 performances from professional dancers (and students) from London and around the globe. Recent highlights have been a flying visit from Zara, a British-Egyptian dancer who is currently taking Cairo by storm.
The Arab Quarterly is a truly unique experience. Held four times a year at Hoxton Hall, the Arab Quarterly features improvised dance performances with music provided by a live band.
A special mention goes to Company of Dreams, a dance company fusing classical Middle Eastern and contemporary dance styles. Company of Dreams was the first company to bring bellydance to the world-famous Sadlers’ Wells in 2016 with a production of Scheherezade (for those who aren’t in the know, Sadlers’ Wells is one of the U.K.’s foremost venues for contemporary dance and ballet). They’re working on some exciting new material (yours truly got to have a sneak peek at them in rehearsal just a few weeks ago) and are preparing for a U.K.-wide tour. Founder and artistic director Charlotte Desorgher has trained extensively in both Cairo and the U.K., and is passionate about busting misconceptions about bellydance and promoting cross-cultural understanding.
Bellydancer Jalya performs in London
Where to learn
The Fleur Estelle Dance School is London’s largest bellydance school, and has classes on every day of the week, from absolute beginner right through to professional level. You can sign up for 10-week courses, some of which have the option to perform in the school’s end-of-term shows, or attend one of the Saturday afternoon drop-in classes in Covent Garden. The school has a strong ethos of promoting body positivity and self-confidence in all of its students (oh, and you don’t have to show your belly if you don’t want to!)
Countless students of every age, shape and size have taken their first steps in bellydance with Hipsinc. Drop-in classes take place in locations including Forest Hill, Croydon and Dorking, and have a loyal following.
If you’re a real purist and want to learn classical or ‘golden era’ bellydance, then you need to make a visit to one of Asmahan’s classes at Pineapple Dance Studios. American-born Asmahan has danced professionally in Egypt and has learned from some of the biggest stars in the bellydance world. Her foundation classes are suitable for absolute beginners.
A class at Hasina Bellydance School
Where to buy
If you’ve truly been bitten by the bellydance bug and want to buy some colourful hip scarves or even a full professional costume, you don’t have to go all the way to Cairo.
Zara’s Zouk (run by professional dancer Zara and her mum, Sandra) is based in London and has everything you need from skirts to costume jewellery. If you need some friendly advice on what to wear (and how to wear it correctly) it is always worth dropping Zara’s Zouk a line.
A bellydance performance at Imperial College London
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Cover image: Hasina Bellydance