A Dancer’s Guide to London

By Vashti

You have just spent the day wandering through the Egyptian collection at the British Museum, and have had your picture taken while sitting in the lap of the Sphinx beside the River Thames. Now the question is, where to go for the evening to see some oriental dance? Perhaps on the weekend you would like to take in a dance workshop. And before you go home you would like to shop for costume supplies and music. This article is intended to help the visitor to England tune into the London Oriental dance scene. Music, classes, workshops, and nightclubs are all here, but they are not always easy for the visitor to find.

Zarina. Photo: Vashti

A number of good teachers regularly offer classes and weekend workshops in London. Stop by any news stand and pick up a copy of the weekly magazine guide to what is going on in London called “Time Out.” There are other guides, but “Time Out” is the most comprehensive in its listing of dance events.

A word about terminology may be helpful for the foreigner who is trying to sort out the various offerings. As there is little agreement on nomenclature, classes are listed under various titles: Arabic dance, Egyptian dance, belly dance, Turkish dance, Bedouin dance, and Raks Sharqi. But what is taught is not always what you might expect from the name of the class. The encompassing term “Middle Eastern dance” and the more precise term “classical oriental dance” or “oriental dance,” both commonly used in the United States, are rarely used here. The debate over the use of the term “belly dance” rages in England as it long has in the U.S. If you introduce yourself as a belly dancer, you may receive a cold reception from some teachers.

Regular oriental dance classes are offered at most major dance studios and through many adult education programs sponsored by the various London boroughs. Most teachers will be happy to let you visit and pay on a one-time basis.

“Workshop” has a different meaning in Britain from in the United States. In London it generally means a full day or a two-day weekend class offered by a particular teacher. It does not include a show, vendors, or a guest teacher. Some teachers offer only periodic workshops rather than regular classes, and several also offer full week-long residential courses in a pleasant country setting, usually during the summer.

Look for a workshop by Hossam Ramzy, the Egyptian musician, and his wife, Kate Fenwick. Their workshops include drumming by Hossam and sometimes other musicians as well. Melek, who will shortly be moving to Cypress, teaches occasional workshops in Turkish style. I attended a workshop co-taught by Melek and Vashti, one of London’s best professional dancers, and it was excellent. Wendy Buonaventura, author of Serpent of the Nile, lives in Bristol on England’s west coast, but teaches occasional workshops in London. ZaZa Hassan, at one time a member of the Reda dance company in Egypt, comes in from Paris every few months to teach workshops. During his last visit, he held a special class in cane for men. Amel Ben Hassine-Miller does workshops in Bedouin and North African styles. Other local teachers offering regular classes and workshops include Josephine Wise, whose classes I particularly enjoyed, Kay Cullen, who has recently returned to her native New Zealand, Jaqueline Chapman, and Tina Hobin.

Suraya Hilal is a Yemeni woman who now lives in England but claims Egypt as her dance home. (Some readers may remember Suraya by the name Selwa Raja from when she lived in St. Louis and Minneapolis). Suraya is a skilled dancer, and she is the only oriental dancer in London who has arts council funding, and who presents stage concerts on a professional level. Her concerts are major events on the oriental dance calendar. Her technique is good, and although she does not teach regular classes, two of her proteges, Ann Ashcroft and Lisa Petrou, are good and teach under her auspices.

In England if you hear talk of or see advertisements for the “School of Raqs Sharqi,” it is not a place. As we know, “Raqs Sharqi” means eastern or oriental dance, and is used in Arab countries to refer to the solo women’s performance dance. In England, however, the “School of Raqs Sharqi” is a name used by Suraya and her students to identify the particular style of dance which she performs and teaches, and which she feels is true to pure “Raqs Sharqi.” Suraya eschews the glamour and glitz of oriental dance, and avoids two-piece oriental costumes, jewels, beads, and fringe. When I saw her in concert, she and her dancers wore their hair in tight ballet dancer buns, rather than the more common free flowing hair. Although I detected traces of Martha Graham and Ibrahim Farrah in Suraya’s dance, she tends to be critical of American dancers as not true to Raqs Sharqi, the true dance of Egypt.

If you want to see some professional dancers while in London, there are several places to try. Call ahead to book a table and to make sure that there is a dancer on that night. The heyday of several dancers each night, six nights a week, is over, a victim of the recession. The shows usually start about 10:30 on week nights, 11:30 on weekends. Some places to try that have live music are: Efes II on Great Portland Street (Lebanese); Omar Kahyam on Duke Street (Arabic); Cleopatra Taverna on Notting Hill Gate (Greek); Maroush II on Edgeware Road (Lebanese and expensive); Apollonia and Elysee on Percy Street; Rendezvous on Bayswater Road (Iranian-owned, mixed cuisine and music), Psistaria on Wilton Road, and Cavotoro on Upper Green East in Mitcham. Many other places have weekend or occasional dancers with taped music, but you have to find them by word of mouth or by stumbling across them.

Menus at most clubs and restaurants are a la carte, and some places add a cover and a service charge to the bill. The best deal, when it is offered, is the complete meze for a minimum of two persons. It begins with all of the usual treats, and some that are unusual: cold hors d’ouvres including hummos, taramasalata, olives, pita bread, several pickles and salads, cold smoked fish, beans, etc. When you are close to being full, the hot meze arrives, consisting of grilled shish kebab, several kinds of chicken, stewed lamb, perhaps fish, falefal, spicy sausages, hot ful medanes, and more bread. At some places “pudding” (the British term for desert) and coffee are included. The prices for the complete meze range from twelve to fifteen pounds (approximately $20-27) per person. Good value for money, as the Brits would say.

There are perhaps a dozen professional dancers dancing on a regular basis in the clubs and restaurants of London. I was lucky to see four of them, Vashti, Laura, Zarha, and Zarina, perform at the show which I staged with enormous help from members of the Middle Eastern Dance Association (MEDA) of the United Kingdom to showcase Cassandra from Minneapolis during her visit to London in 1992. I have seen Jalila dance on two separate occasions. Others who I have not seen, but who are reputed to be quite good, include Liza Lazizah (Iranian) and Mardi (Italian-English).

Vendors as we know them in the States do not exist in Great Britain, and dance workshops are not occasions for shopping frenzies. Teachers vend a few wares to their students, and dancers returning from trips to Egypt, Turkey, or Morocco may turn up at workshops with a few things to sell. On the other hand, the large ethnic communities in London mean that there is an abundance of jewelry, scarves, fancy fabrics, saris, harem pants, caftans, and what-nots to tempt any dancer. Street markets are the best places to look for bargains. Try the market at Shepherd’s Bush during the week or the Sunday market at Petticoat Lane. Fabrics stores line Berwick Street in central London, and you can find a number of sari stores near the Whitechapel tube station in the East End. There is an excellent bead shop called Elles and Farrier located on Beak Street which stocks every size, shape, and color of bead and sequin. Be forewarned, however, that in part because of the weakness of the dollar, everything, including beads, tends to be more expensive here than in the United States.

The major record store chains (Tower Records, HMV, and Virgin) all carry a selection of good dance music in their “World Music” sections. Not all locations carry a full selection, however. Try the Tower Record store on Piccadilly Circus, the Virgin store on Oxford Street near Tottenham Court Road, and the HMV store on Oxford Street by the Bond Street tube station. All of them carry Hossam Ramzy’s tapes and CD’s which are excellent quality. More adventurous shoppers (or those who can read Arabic) may want to try one or two of the Arab shops on Edgeware Road just up from Marble Arch. I found a shop there with hundreds of tapes from Lebanon, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa. The proprietor enthusiastically popped tapes in and out of the tape player to give me twenty-second samples of everything I wanted to hear. His personal taste ran more toward modern Rap music with rhythm machines and synthesizers, but once he understood what I was looking for he was very helpful.

For those whose tastes and pocketbook run more “upmarket,” other treasures beckon. For centuries London has been the center of the oriental rug trade in the West. Regardless of whether you intend to buy anything, the oriental carpet department of the famous Liberty Store is truly worth a visit, and look at their ethnic jewelry collection and the fabulous fabric department, too, while you are there. Orientalist art is the specialty of the Mathaf Gallery, and a shop called Harold T. Storey on Cecil Court, the bookstall street in Central London, sells original David Roberts’ lithographs of Egypt. Everyone is welcome to browse and to bid at the great auction houses like Christies and Southbys. They periodically have sales of oriental art, costumes, and textiles, and it is great sport to follow the bidding as it moves towards the stratosphere.

Bidding you a smashing good time in London.

Vashti of Vashon (Mary Lynn Buss) is an American dancer who has recently returned to the USA after living in London for a year. She currently lives and teaches dance on Vashon Island in Washington. She is co-director of the Oasis Dance Camps in the USA and former director of the Habibi Dancers in Michigan. email:

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