Update (March 13th, 2020): The Oriental Dance Festival Eilat took place just two weeks ago. Since then, the corona epidemic hit hard in Israel and elsewhere. This extraordinary event would not have taken place if it was scehduled for today.
I feel supremely blessed to have been able to attend that uplifting event, and hope the readers can enjoy a glimpse into the joy, the color and the bounty that were there. Let’s pray that art and beauty reign supreme in our world, and that the planet and everybody on it heals, so we can all enjoy the blessings that in various forms are to be found everywhere.
International Oriental Dance Festival Eilat 2020
Note: If you are not interested in my “getting there” story, skip right on to the parts describing the festival – Learning, Off-Time, Watching and Healing (links below)
(Best viewed on desktop / tablet)
Grace and elegance – Aziza; Boundless energy – Akosua Amoakua; The gypsy touch – Sharon Tourel; Male energy and mass enamoration – Adrian Santana; Secrets of Tarab – Orit Maftsir; Something from India – Orit Succary;
Back to the cold
This is a personal blog, describing personal experiences. For that reason I am also including my impressions driving south to the Oriental Dance Festival Eilat, as well as some information that I find interesting about the city itself. The intention is to show a bit of the historical and geographical background and perspective of the city which hosted this glitzy event. Nothing can be taken for granted.
Anybody not interested in this background is welcome to skip and move right along to the sections named: Learning, Off-Time, Watching and Healing that describe the actual festival. Shotcuts are available in the contents section above.
Getting There - Route 90 and Morning Magic
Dawn over Jordan, driving Rt. 90 south.
Driving south, looking east
Wednesday brought huge storms in the east and the south, bringing devastating flash floods and road closures to both routes leading to Eilat – the 90 along the Dead Sea, and the 40 through Mitzpe Ramon. I was probably one of the few women to drive. Most of the ladies who paid for the hotel accomodation flew in. The newly constructed Ramon Airport, several kilometers north of Eilat, has recently replaced the old city strip. As I describe below, I was not in a position to pay for a hotel room and, instead, enjoyed the hospitality of a local friend. As to the road, the famous-infamous Rt. 90 – despite its dangers, I just plain love driving it.
On Tuesday, I investigated various hotlines and websites to figure out if I could drive Wednesday after work. It seemed that I’d do beter to stay put until Thursday. Missing the half-day on Wednesday was no disaster, but not wishing to miss more I set my alarm for an esoteric hour.
Waking up at 4am on Thursday, I was smart enough to call one of these hotlines to make sure. A sleepy representative informed me that contrary to my expectations the 40 was actually closed, while the 90 was open.
As I drove down the slope toward the Dead Sea, a beautiful dawn emerged beyond the mountains and the valley (see pic above). The sun came up evenually above the Jordanian mountains and reflected in the waters.
Dawn on Judean hills and sunrise over Dead Sea
No, it never snows here
Further on, I passed by the surreal magnesium white hills of the controversial Dead Sea Plants in Ein Bokek. Looking like snow from a distance, these salts are highly requested in agriculture and industry around the world. The salt is driven on trucks to the Eilat port and shipped out to China, Brazil and other markets. The sea, meanwhile, dries out.
As to snow – never. This is one of the hottest and driest places on Earth. Even rain is a rarity, and when it rains, it floods.
Dead Sea plants – magnesium extraction
When cruising my way through the Arava, I got emotional passing by “my” old place up on the hill. Kibbutz Grofit hosted me for 5 full wonderful years, when I was working as a researcher on various algae projects.
Kibbutz Grofit on top of the hill, Arava
Hey Eilat, Hey Eilat
Eilat has always fascinated me. I lived in the marine biological lab on its southern edge, took various university courses there, worked on my thesis on a boat in the Red Sea, did my diving course, one of the first in the country, and spent a lot of time by, on and under the water, watching the marvellous reefs.
But the city landscape has changed tremendously over the years.
I have recently found an old photo album that friends assembled for my late father as a gift, memento from an enjoyable group trip. The album is dated for the Hebrew year spanning from September 1946 to September 1947, a year before Independence. My father and a group of teacher colleagues made an adventurous jeep and hiking trip to the Negev, Eilat and the Sinai.
Following are two photos from this album, as well as a postcard from 1964 and an Internet pic of Eilat’s North Beach from 2019:
Eilat North Beach, 1946-7 (family album)
Eilat and north beach, 1964 (postcard)
You can read more about Eilat’s astonishing development in this Wikipedia article. To make long short – for good or for bad – it is almost unrecognizable.
Our festival took place at the Yisrotel Sports Club Hotel in the other hotel cluster more to the south.
Pleasant Voices Make Easy
Flexing the rules
My ceiling is 500 Israeli shekels (~$140) per festival, but I usually pay 300 to 400 for 3-5 day events – opportunities to shake myself away from the four walls and the daily routine. I perch my tent at a communal camping, bring some food, and buy vegetarian shwarma, smoothies and chai on site. I often take riders to share the driving costs.
This time, however, the festival, being international and glamorous, took place in a proper 5-star hotel. No camping was available. It would have cost me NIS 2400 or € 650 with room sharing, or €830 for a private suite “all Inclusive Extra – Full board, meals, free drinks and free alchohol & snacks all day and night! “
Luckily for me, my Eilati friend was willing to let me stay at her house. Several years back, when I was living in Eilat, Limor, a wonderful local teacher, taught a small group of us basics of bellydance in this lady’s living room…
Bellydancers are flexible…
I called the management, asking if I could cut the costs and register for the festival by itself without the room and board. The pleasant voice on the other side of the line said she did not think it was possible. I would have to pay the full price. She heard me, though, and would look into options.
Several days later, Yael Moav, one of the organizers, called me in person to say it had been approved. I and several other women were permitted to pay the minimal sum of NIS 1000 for the festival alone, if we took care of our food and accomodation ourselves. Even so, we could still enjoy the free bar and participate in all the events.
And I thought – great opporunity to lose some weight…
A bag and a smile
When I finally arrived at the Yisrotel Sport Club Hotel, the voices at the reception were just as pleasant. We were given festival bags, had the bracelets tied on our wrists, and given a genuine smile. The lady was surprised when I asked whether it was OK to come late to Aziza’s workshop. Everything was open and free.
Double blessing in the nick of time
The Oriental Dance Festival Eilat took place a week before flights were almost brought to a halt to and from Israel due to the Corona virus scare. Lucky us!!! At the time, though, most of the foreign guests have flown in and performed. A mixed crowd of locals and foreigners, who came to Israel especially for this event, participated in the workshops given by master teachers from the USA, Spain, and even Cuba.
I would like to thank organizers Yael Moav and Orit Maftsir for the superb, flawless organization and implementation, done in a spirit of heartfulness and love.
Grace and Elegance - Aziza
The name is enough to arouse the imagination, and indeed, the workshop was up to all expectations. Graceful and professional, Aziza made the best of the limited time alloted in a festival workshop to give us a taste of her magnificent, polished and heartful dance style.
Boundless Energy - Akosua Amoakua
The Gypsy Touch - Sharon Tourel
Male Energy and a Case of Mass Enamoration - Adrian Santana
Imagine several hundred women of all ages and colors, and one super-sexy guy giving a flamenco workshop – if it sounds like a sure recipe for a case of mass enamoration, it’s because it was! Unfortunately it is not possible to replicate the model and provide a copy for each of the festival atendees…
The Secrets of Tarab - Orit Maftsir
Orit Maftsir gave us a true gift with this workshop called Tarab. In an explanatory introduction, she described the virtue of slowness and sensuality in Arab music and dance, a tradition that in her words i still holding strong. Even today, Fareed Al-Atrash and Um Kul Tum are held in reverence throughout the Arab world. She told us a PhD thesis was written about how Um Kul Tum sighed in her singing…
The workshop attempted to give us a taste for this depth, slowness and sensuality.
And Something From India - Orit Succary
I knew Orit Succary and was acquainted with her broad repertoire of ethnic and folk dance styles. Her classes are based in many traditions, which she teaches separately or as a fusion, with a special emphasis on dances from along the Silk Road. She gives workshops regularly at the Sufi and Zorba festivals at the Desert Ashram in Shittim.
Her workshop took place on the last day of the festival outside on the grass patch by the pool. This time she taught a mix of Indian Rajasthani, gypsy and bellydance. The gypsy element renders the Indian dance, which is genearlly highly formal and precise, a bit more accessible for the general public.
Moving on Our Own
A Taste of Luxury
Bathing in luxury
Dancing all day is a great opportunity for building up stamina, improving skills and even losing weight, but still it is tiring.
However, there were numerous opportunities for all of us, including those who did not pay for the hotel’s room and board, to enjoy some of the luxuries the hotel offered, rest by the pool and socialize.
Pool, sauna and Jacuzzi at the Yisrotel Sport Club Hotel, Eilat
I braved the elements and swam in the freezing pool, but the sauna and jacuzzi in the spa conpensated for that later. After all that dancing, I needed the simple overall workout that swimming provided, as well as the immersion.
Resting in the hotel lobby when (almost) everybody else was at the dining room was an opportunity to socialize. I held interesting conversations about everything from family stories to Kabbalah and the meaning of Life.
For food, I mostly ate the sandwiches I prepared in the morning in the car and apples… In the evening, I had a light dinner at my friend’s house.
Braving the Outside World
Outside the hotel, dancers were still walking freely in costumes. A few even posed in front of the hotel:
Posing in front of the Yisrotel Sports Club Hotel. Oriental dance Festival Eilat
I got into the atmosphere and asked the security guy to take my pic as well:
Myself in Uzbeki folk dance costume in front of the Yisrotel Sports Club Hotel. Oriental dance Festival Eilat
In these pictures I am dressed in an Uzbeki ethnic dress I bought from my illustrous American bellydance teacher, Travis Jarrell, to whom I owe my love for oriental and ethnic dance. Travis had traveled to various Central Asian countries along the Silk Road and brought back authentic costumes and new, different contributions to our dancing repertoire. She also designs and sews original costumes and creates and performs her own unique innovative choreography.
It is difficult to do justice to the performances in the framework of this blog. I took many videos of the extraordinary performances, but from where I was sitting in the crowd, and with my cellphone’s limited capabilities, the results are fairly compromised.
Much better filmatography of the event can be found at the festival’s official Facebook site. You are all invited to watch the wonderful colorful celebration there.
Nonetheless, I am posting here a few short samples to whet your appetite and showcase the variety, creativity, color and talent displayed in the so-called WOW theater. The performances were held over two nights at another Yisrotel-affiliated hotel – the Royal Garden – in a large auditorium, about five minutes walk from the main festival venue.
Tamar Bar Gil Troupe
Yahalom and Nano
And From the Barrio - Nano in His Element
Nicholas Arrivas in Power Performance of Indigenous Spirit
A Fast track to Solving the Middle East Conflict? Saleh Shami and Group
Only Arab group performing
Saleh Shami‘s troupe performed at the WOW Theatre Friday night along with many other artists, generating a lot of applause. They were the only Arab artists performing.
More Israeli than the Israelis…
I found it curious that in many ways their performance was the most “Israeli-like” of all the shows, both in terms of style and in terms of dress. At the same time, the Israeli performers were all dressed in extravagant Arabic bellydance attire and danced the high Arabic style…
Shami’s group held a debka dance workshop Saturday on the grass patch by the pool. This was the last event of the festival and it ignited great excitement among the participants.
Israeli folk dancing draws a lot from traditional Arab village dances. “There are many debka-type Israeli folk dances; the debka is originally an Arabic folk dance form of the Middle East”(Wikipedia, Israeli folk dancing.)
The troupe members, both boys and girls, joined in the circle with the rest of us, and everybody was in this together. Saleh himself, dressed in bright orange, was in the center, twirling a large heavy stick, as did his young son. At one point, we all stopped in our tracks when a good-looking guy entered the arena walking on stilts. He then performed magnificent jumps and springs, arresting everybody’s attention.
I was tired at that point in the day, having done three other workshops. When I noticed I was mixing my left leg with my right, I understood I’d better dedicate my time to photographing the event rather than participating in it.
Here are some of the results:
A Few Extra Words
I do not know the ins and outs of the political and cultural reasons why we did not have authentic Egyptian dancers in this oriental dance festival (the cold peace again?), but that seems to model the international bellydance scene at large. I personally learned oriental dance in America from white ladies who were blessed teachers and performers. Even in Israel I did not find an opportunity to study with an Arab instructor.
Nonetheless, the oriental dance scene that took off in the west has generated a lot of interest among women, and created a positive atsmophere enabling the emergence of genuine talent. Furthermore, western performers allow themselves the freedom to merge, fuse, improvise and create new forms within the genre.
Back to the Cold
From Spring to Winter in Four and a Half Hours
Up to the last minute
Before leaving for home, I dipped one more time in the freezing pool, doing ten laps in all, then plunged shortly into the jacuzzi, dried and relaxed for a few minutes in the sauna, and headed back to the road.
The Shabbat food problem
Getting hungry after all this activity, I was having in mind the wonderful Gamaliya Restaurant in the central Arava, complete with low tables, Beduoin carpets and “desert food”, but they were closed for a party. The other decent place – a falafel and hummus joint in Ein Yahav – kept kosher, so was closed on Shabbat. Famished and irritable, I walked into the option available – the McDonalds. It was packed. By now, they have a digital system through which you order prior to standing in line, and the food gets ready for you in the meantime. Or at least it is supposed to. When this ordeal, which lasted for about half an hour, was over and I finally got my tortilla with corn sticks and French fries from the over-worked Arab employees, the sun was already starting to set.
Luckily for me, a young, sweet-looking guy was trying to hitchhike by the roadside as I got out of the parking lot. We spent about three hours together in the car, talking and chatting. He grew up in a West Bank settlement, a son of Russian immigrants who turned religious. His mother was a convert. At a certain point in life he had a faith crisis and decided to leave the fold. Now he was driving with me on Shabbat. The youth was highly intelligent and a joy to talk to.
A different climate zone
When I left Eilat, I was dressed in short sleeves and Welcro-zipped airy knee pants, but from experience I made sure to change into jeans and a long-sleeved shirt before the steep climb to Jerusalem. When I finally landed in the Holy City at about 8 pm, a cold rainstorm was brewing. Even the warmer clothes were still not sufficient to ward off the piercing cold…
Oh, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, always there to take me back into her complicated intensity. Thank you Eilat for being there to dilute the holiness and bring me back to spaciousness and aliveness.
In this context you can check out my poem: Jerusalem’s Alternative. It was written about Tel Aviv, of course, but Eilat and the Arava are also there to fulfil the same function when I get desperate.
And until next year’s festival – ciao, adios, bye, dasvidaña, lehitraot.