London-based Bellydance teacher Josephine Wise is world-renowned for her high technical and interpretive skills, performing to audiences throughout the UK, Europe, Egypt and the Middle East. In 2007 she started a new dance company, Johara Dance, currently presenting Hoochie Coochie Girls: Strangers, Tribes and Vagabonds.
We interrupted her training to talk about authenticity, overcoming injuries and Arabic nightclubs.
The word on the street is that this new show is ‘Bellydance as you’ve never seen it before’. Bold claim. Are you sure?
Yeah! The show is divided into four sections in two halves and the first section in each half is purely Egyptian, with a section that takes place in old Cairo, Hollywood style. Then the two fusion sections which is the other half of the show involve a lot of urban dance, and Oriental, hip hop, Bollywood, and Flamenco fusions. Plus the finale has lots of props, including Poi, so that’s pretty unusual.
Tell us a little more about Johara Dance...
Johara Dance has existed for almost four years and this is our second show. Apart from me, they’re part time dancers. They have jobs and/or children so they can’t dance full time. Our dancers are from a wide variety of backgrounds and we span 4 decades! Our youngest are in their twenties and the oldest are in their fifties.
Because I’m originally trained as a contemporary dancer, I’m doing choreographic things that are quite a bit more complex than is usual in the Bellydance world, so it takes a huge amount of concentration and learning different parts, then slotting them together.
We noticed from the site that many of your professional dancers have coped or are coping with injury or illness. Many people would think this couldn’t go together.
People always think that dancers and athletes are the healthiest people in the world. Even dancers that start off healthy end up injured if professional. Some of the members of Johara, have conditions they have developed over the years and some had conditions that meant they became dancers in order to keep their health problems at bay.
Some of our dancers have structural problems, like arthritis, and one member who was injured in a skydiving accident and broke her spine in 7 places - she was told Bellydance might be a good thing to recondition her spine. Another has suffered from breast cancer three times and was undergoing chemotherapy during the rehearsal period. And some of us are fully healthy as well!
Has there been a decline in, or was there ever, a thriving live music scene for Bellydance in London?
Ohhh… yes there was. When I was a Bellydancer during the 1980s I was in on the last ten years of a vibrant Arabic scene. There were, I think, seventeen Arabic nightclubs in London, all with live music, live singers, and live dancers. So that’s where I used to make my living. Now there’s not a single one. There are still some restaurants where you can see dancers perform to a CD, or sometimes to a small band of 2-4 musicians, but in the past it was a full Arabic orchestra of twelve or maybe more. I would sometimes dance at up to four places in one night. But that all went away, I’m afraid.
Do you think there’s any possibility that the scene could re-grow here?
The world has changed. Even in Arabic nightclubs in the Middle East, say in Cairo, there’s a lot more call for pop music. There’s less call for a full orchestra, mainly because they’re expensive, you have to pay every musician. A lot of places don’t have such big bands now. It was a sort of ‘golden age’ and that’ll never come back I’m afraid.
There are still a few of the original musicians living in London, but only a few. One of the most wonderful is an accordionist, Sheikh Taha, along with Gamal el Sarir. There’s Bashir Abdel Aal, a very famous flawtist. Also there’s Elminyawi, Emad Shakir on the org, Joseph for tabla and req… Ali Abdel Salam for vocals and percussion... and Adelkader, our London Rai star.
What prompted you to create an Academy for Bellydance?
The level of dancing in this country wasn’t very high and I was frustrated. I remember teaching regularly in London and teaching workshops around the country. I was a bit shocked by the low level of the dancing. And so I thought, well what’s going to make all these dancers better? And I realised the only thing to do was to raise the level of the teaching. So I decided to start a teacher training course that quite a large number of the best teachers in the country have been through.
What can a beginner expect from one of JWAAD’s London classes?
A beginners class is really just an introduction, I like to think JWAAD teachers make them fun. What you get from a JWAAD teacher is somebody who’s fully trained who will teach without injuring you. They’ll teach the correct technique and styles to go with the music, rather than it being some kind of western fakery.
A beginner will get quite a comparatively gentle workout to start with, but it creeps up on you. Because the movements are quite natural and graceful, and because you can wear your big, dangly earrings and your long skirts and sparkly stuff, you actually feel beautiful while you’re doing it, rather than squeezing yourself into a pair of tights and a t-shirt, and sweating your way in the gym. Not that I’m biased or anything.
And more seasoned dancers, what could they expect?
Authenticity. They can be sure they’re learning the real thing. I say this because years ago, I went to some Flamenco classes and decided to learn Sevillanas, and we were later told we’d learnt the whole thing on the wrong beat. That made me really want JWAAD teachers to teach authentic stuff, so that if you performed it in front of an audience and there were Egyptians or Arabs in the audience they would understand what you were doing. You’re basically learning a foreign language, a dance language. Anyone can teach the moves, but learning how they go with the music s a lot more complex, and that’s a lot of what you’ll get from a JWAAD teacher.
Johara Dance will perform on the 18th June at The Bloomsbury Theatre, tickets £20.