When the Oxford Middle Eastern Dance Society (OMEDS) invited the OxStu to their Spring Hafla, I knew nothing of what to expect, save that ‘hafla’ in Arabic means ‘party’.
As we took our seats there was a tangible sense of anticipation, which was not surprising since some of the performers had travelled from as far afield as Israel and Japan. The performers largely comprised of a range of local dance troupes from in and around Oxford, including the University’s own group.
Our compere for the evening, herself adorned in a shimmering blue ensemble, reeled off the obligatory health and safety regulations (a slightly ridiculous image, as you can imagine) to an audience largely comprised of men, be it husbands, uncles, brothers or anonymous admirers.
The show kicked off with a “cheeky Egyptian choreography” performed by Aimee, one of the OMEDS’ teachers. We were immediately enamoured by the mischievous glances she cast to the audience and her palatable sense of enjoyment. A variety of solo and group performances followed, with the dances ranging in styles and traditions, all with an ornate array of costumes. A particular favourite was a traditional Armenian folk dance blended with Greek-Turkish belly dance. The performers themselves ranged in ages (and sizes), with a number of the dances energetically performed by ladies the same age as my grandma, making the whole situation somewhat surreal.
With the first half over, it was time to sample the complimentary spread of baklava and browse the souk. The interval also gave me the chance to catch up with some of the performers. Zous, from St. Cross, commented, “people tend to think of the belly dancer as the artist, but I like to think she is the canvas, with each movement like a brushstroke.”
The second half was equally, if not more enjoyable (by this time I was thoroughly warmed to the occasion with my hands inadvertently clapping along with the rest of the audience). A definite highlight was a Gothic fusion belly dance, performed aggressively to a heavy synth beat, by the self-styled ‘Brutal Bellydancer.’ Amusing pseudonyms were the order of the night, with Xania (real name Hannah Newton) and ‘Rebellyon’ being among the most memorable. We were also treated to two instances of daredevil skill. Rachel, the OMEDS president, left the audience in awe as she dexterously balanced a sword on her head. A following performer showed off the traditional skill of dancing on glasses, teetering dangerously as she managed to rotate 360 degrees. The night drew to a close with the audience’s chance for cheeky shimmy at the post show ‘social dance.’
While the O’Reilly theatre seemed too serious a venue for the sequins, swords and souk, once we had acclimatised to the bizarre atmosphere of the show, it turned out to be an entertaining and unexpectedly hilarious evening. OMEDS certainly succeeded in bringing a taste of the Middle East to the heart of Oxford.