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SPOTLIGHT ON: Harlem Hafla

Updated: Jun 9, 2023

with Brandy Hayward

1. Tell us all about Harlem Hafla!

Harlem Hafla is a one-day dance festival in Harlem, New York with two workshops during the day and a gala show at night featuring multiple dancers. Since 2017, we've had dancers, vendors and a recommended hotel just like any other dance festival or event. The main difference is that we were created because Black workshop instructors and performers don't get the same amount of work as their/our colleagues, so I invite them to come headline, take classes and perform with us. We also get requests to dance by email and social media. Everyone is welcome to take classes, vend, and to see or be in the show (look at our website/past events) but the primary focus is to uplift Black teachers and dancers and to level the playing field in a community that looks like them. We have also had Black, Afro-Latina, Latina, Arab and White dancers in our shows as I also want the Harlem demographic represented. Regarding venues, we shoot for Black owned, and we hire an eclectic crew that is also mostly Black.

2. How did this idea come about?

I travelled the country to go to dance events and take workshops for a decade, but I saw little or no equal representation onstage or even as part of the crew. There were also teachers and restaurants who simply preferred my lighter counterparts and let that be known. This went on for many years. We were diligent students but hardly onstage, acting as crew or running a production. I was also in a show where the dancers hadn't gotten our video performances, so we were discussing that, five years later. Out of nowhere, I said, "We just need to do this ourselves. Why are we waiting on something for five years when we should be five years better?" It was just time to create our own, hire our own and put it in our own neighborhoods. When it was time for the idea to harden into fact and for work to be done, I was pretty much on my own. I decided to just use what I had and put it right here in Harlem as we have plenty of beautiful theaters and New York is a bit of a hub for travel. Also, bellydance is a beautiful artform to put in this community, alongside Harlem's traditions of ballet, modern, tap, Hip Hop and West African dances.

3. You are grant funded. What was the process of that like and what do you recommend for others looking for funding?

(Laughs)! It wasn't always thus! I type my way to getting funded each year, knowing that next year is not guaranteed. The first four years, Harlem Hafla was Brandy funded! I paid for everything on a teacher's salary and put myself in court with the landlord a couple of times, but this had to be done in the bellydance world. I was applying for grants from the very first year, 2017, but received nothing. Imagine literal years of dozens of applications and getting nothing! I just tripled the number of applications each year as I felt something would break through eventually. In late 2020, I received an email from Lower Manhattan Cultural Council that I'd finally qualified for 2021 funds---it may have been a longevity factor, or I just got better at writing applications. Perhaps a combination! I read that email twice in case it was an error, but it wasn't! I made a promise to myself to put it in the budget that if we got grant money for headliners, deejay, venue rental, etc. that all of the dancers would also be paid a cash stipend. We've been getting grant funding every year since from LMCC and just a few other places like West Harlem Development Corporation and New York Council for the Arts.

Starbucks and 4Imprint have also blessed us with dancer refreshments or shirts to vend. My advice for dancers wanting grant money is to really get it together in terms of having a website, registering your business or organization with the city or state or both and keeping your taxes updated. Get a business registration number or an EIN for your non-profit as most applications ask for these. It sounds overwhelming but this is not a race! Take your time getting official in the aforementioned ways as you'll qualify for more grants. Next, be a good writer! Start the application early. Another piece of advice for the grants themselves is to fill out many applications as possible. Focus on applying for local grants. They have been the most supportive. If you can, try to attend an event of theirs. It can be heart wrenching to not get grants that you've put your heart into but persist. Try next season or next year and keep looking for more. Some grantors offer feedback on your grant application whether you got money or not. Bring your pen and paper and attend that meeting---not to defend yourself but to gain information. I promise that Humble Pie has no calories! Do understand, however, that these applications can take days or weeks to complete. Then you will likely have to do interim and final reports, budgeting and Thank You letters. All of these take time and it will take time away from your dancing so just be aware of that. Thanking people by email and snail mail are also important after you've gotten the grants because usually, a file is kept on you if you win. It is typically an expectation like a Thank You after a job interview, so I highly recommend that. At times, I wonder where my dancing would have been if I weren't chasing grant opportunities or applications for Harlem Hafla so often, but I'm committed to making the dance world a more equal place for all so that's my major contribution rather than just dancing well for myself.

4. What are your biggest goals as a community and as an organization?

I want my community to prosper and be accepted. I'd like to see more women come out and give this dance a try. I'd like to see more Black dancers and dancers of color be part of the bellydance mainstream. Most people don't think it's a problem or they say that all dancers have problems gaining acceptance but if you throw race in there, you really see how people react. There are still too many people saying that we don't belong or that our skin is too dark. How can you be too dark to dance? I have heard too many of these stories and I have been to several restaurants and gyms that simply would not accept me or hire me or my Black colleagues but a lighter dancer would often get the job, regardless of skill level. That's why I find it important to hire Black cast and crew wherever possible because we are so often on the bottom rung in so many areas of life, including in this dance. We have had other races work with us, of course, but I seek to advance or revive people's careers with beautiful venues, money, gift bags and respectful treatment. My biggest goals as an organization are to win more and bigger grants and audience (of course) and to expand into a two-day event. I want to see the audience grow and I want to see a greater acceptance of this dance in general. 5. What would you like to see in the future of bellydance?

See? I want to see more dancers encouraged to just be themselves onstage and have that be accepted by audiences and promoters. I love to see various skin tones, sizes, ages and natural hair onstage whenever possible. I'd like to see folkloric dances gain more acceptance in these shows. A Thai friend of mine loved attending Harlem Hafla in 2021 and she told me that she'd love to see the Asian version, so I said, "Why not"? I would certainly attend. I wrote many Asian dancers that I knew, offering support or to be hands-off (at their choice) as I'd love to see that come to fruition. I know that there are vintage themed shows and there was once a Plus Sized live show. I would love to see and support shows that highlight the beauty of who are considered niche groups. Regarding the mainstream in bellydance, I'd like to see more mature dancers, plus sized dancers and dancers of color gain acceptance. I'd also like to see us all be more willing to work together better. A little kindness and appreciation go a long way.

6. Who inspires you?

I'll assume that's a dance question because if you mean in life, there would be a long list of Civil Rights activists and some relatives that would cause me to take this conversation off topic! If you mean in the dance world, I love the work of Somra El Nubia, Shalimar, Lotus Niraja, Leila Haddad, Aida Nour, Akosua Amoakoa, Aziza, Rachid Alexander, Jillina, Pierre Haddad, David Calderon, Alajaweed Dabke and Akira Armstrong. I'll let folks Google them if they're interested but when I see them dance, they make me want to dance. 7. Where do you see Harlem Hafla going? What's in the future?

It's a year-by-year effort to keep it going. Now that we're grant funded, I don't want to go backwards financially so again, I constantly look for new granting sources more than I even get to dance so that is an ongoing dilemma for me.. I don't crowd fund or use sponsor money for this organization so it becomes more important to do my best to find and allocate every dollar. I wish that I could tell you where it's going but we've been here since 2017 so that's pretty good news! What I see in the future would be hiring more international acts. It was exciting to have Leila Haddad come last year from France. There are some others I've got my eye on but in 2023, Ahava will be our headliner, which is also awesome. Again, I'd like to see us grow into a two day event and just have more people know our name. I don't know why this is coming to mind right now but if you think of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, they are known as THE circus but I have literally only seen two Black acts in all of the years that I had gone. Next, The Big Apple Circus was a more local event but still a big deal. I saw one Black act in it so you know where this is going... The UniverSoul Circus came along with a majority of Black acts (though not exclusively) that people had never heard of nor seen but folks really loved it! It took place in Black neighborhoods and travelled the country to great acclaim for years. While Black people attended all of them, it was a special moment to see them represented and their own neighborhoods benefitting, financially. I don't compare bellydance to a circus but I am likening the dynamic of creating something for us, by us, with us and in our own neighborhoods for the sake of fair representation. I would prefer that Harlem Hafla not be a traveling show but I do want folks to know what we're about and to come see us. 8. Tell us your favorite moments from the shows!

From 2017, just putting on the first Harlem Hafla, even with its mishaps regarding the venue, timing and dancers was a miracle. Seeing that many Black dancers onstage one after the

other rather than as tokens was just breathtaking! The standout performers in my mind were Niamah who headlined for us the next year (she did a beautiful drum solo in a costume she made), Khuzama who literally ran onstage and danced a beautiful Sha'abi, Reyna Guerra who danced Bomba and Donna Mejia, who was one of our headliners, danced a Fusion number. In 2018, we danced in The National Black Theater which was a boon in and of itself. Sisters in Sharqui, Inc. received a Proclamation from Manhattan Borough President, Gale Brewer and it was given to me onstage. The dancers who stand out in my mind are Yasser Darwish who did a breathtaking double Tahtib dance and Camila Karam from Washington D.C., did an energetic zill number. 2019 found us back at National Black Theatre which I cannot wait to reopen! My favorite performances came from our headliner, Amar Garcia who personified elegance and grace, I got to dance to a live violinist and drummer (both Black) and Yasser Darwish, who did a beautiful Tanoura dance. Much of the audience had never seen Tanoura so I was glad to bring it to Harlem. In 2020, everything was closed down from the COVID-19 Pandemic so 2021 was almost a revelation to get together again. We held the event at The Dwyer Center and sold out. My favorite performances from that night came from Khuzama who burst onto the stage, opening the show. Ciana Boetius who came up from Florida gave a great performance in these high heels that you'd typically see on a Samba dancer. She handled them very well, however. Somra El Nubia gave a fantastic zill performance and her seventy sixth birthday was the next day. One of our headliners, Angelique Hanesworth gave a beautiful performance that opened with a quiet but powerful Taksim and Zenaide gave a strong performance in silver everything (dress, veil, shoes) that the audience just loved. We ended the show with Yasser, Nam and I doing an Egyptian Horse dance that was a surprise to the audience as I didn't put it in the program. The Egyptian Horse closed the show with dance, misbehavior and kissing the ladies on the way out. Every one left laughing with smiles on their faces. People were outside, still talking about the show after we left. This last show that we did in 2022 was at Riverbank State Park. We needed a bigger space than The Dwyer, though we enjoyed them. My favorite performances that night were Naimah's, who opened to a Fusion number, Omonike Akinyemi danced a Flamenco number with castanets, Khuzama again---who gave an extremely heartfelt performance that was an education in and of itself. There was Jackeline Palacios dancing for us a second time, giving a breathtaking Garifuna performance (that dance is called Punta). Erica Naima came in from Texas to perform a graceful an Om Kalthoum number and Leila Haddad came all the way from France to teach and close the show. She also gave a very powerful performance to Om Kalthoum (Alf Leila Wa Leila) that again, showed the audience how professionals dance to Om Kalthoum love songs---just beautiful. All of these clips may be found on YouTube under Harlem Hafla 2017, Harlem 2018, etc. If you have a different or the same favorite(s), I'd love to know! Ready to see a show? Purchase Early Bird tickets until December 31st at

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Somra El Nubia
Somra El Nubia
Dec 16, 2022

Great Article,Loved The Performances And All The Dancers,Well Put Together

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