BWW Interview: 'A Harlem Hafla' Creator Brandy Heyward
On August 12, 2017 A Harlem Hafla will take place at the Harlem School of the Arts featuring workshops by renowned North African folk dancers Donna Mejia and Somra El Nubia followed by a showcase featuring performers of color from across the U.S. I caught up with the organizer of A Harlem Hafla, Brandy Heyward, to learn more about this unique event and the inspiration behind it.
BWW: What is A Harlem Hafla?
Brandy: When North African people get together recreationally, a hafla is usually a celebration of some sort. Dancers get together, drum, clap and eat until nightfall. In the states, it can be casual or a staged production. It can take place in a person's home, a restaurant, etc.
A Harlem Hafla brings together some very talented dancers who are rarely seen in a production like this. After I perform, people often come up to me and tell me that they've never seen a Black belly dancer before. I hear this from all kinds of people.
I'm hoping that once A Harlem Hafla takes root, and people see the incredible talent and professionalism of the dancers, they will also consider hiring us for their workshops, weddings, videos or family functions. Most of us are also teachers so I want to encourage people to study and gain the many benefits of our classes.
The dancers vary in style and music choices so the audience will come away with a better, rounded perspective of just what this is. People are genuinely enriched by the arts and I want to increase public's interest in all kinds of dance performances.
BWW: I saw some very interesting workshops listed. Can you tell me more about those and the types of performances we'll see?
Brandy: The workshops will be taught by renowned instructors who are much sought after for their respective styles. Somra El Nubia is from St. Louis, Missouri and she travels often to teach and perform. She is an encyclopedia of dazzling steps and combos. Whether you want to learn pure Egyptian cabaret or a vast array of West African tribal steps, she is the go-to teacher. When Somra is here, she will teach a special focus workshop of North and West African Shimmies.
Donna Mejia is a professor, based in Colorado, and she is a very popular dancer as well. Like Somra, her calendar fills up quickly with teaching and performing engagements. Donna teaches modern dance, Afro Caribbean, American Tribal Belly Dance, Hip Hop, Funk and Fusion. Her workshop, "Le Funk Arabi" will focus on the North African versions of Hip Hop, club and street dance. These funky, modern steps are hypnotic to watch and do. Donna has a lot of unique combinations to stretch the mind and body to new dimensions. She encourages creativity and her workshops make you ask of yourself, "How else can I kick my dancing up a notch?"
I worked hard to curate strong dance artists in a variety of styles. The show line-up will include styles such as Classical Egyptian, Modern Egyptian, Fusion, West African, Funk, Afro Latinx and Urban Tribal. The common thread running through all of these is the exciting and intricate hip work which is undeniably African in their roots.
I can honestly say that were l not in the lineup myself, l would be glad to be in the audience to see these dancers. I have seen them or performed with them individually and each of them brings a lot to the table. For most, there was difficulty choosing which style to perform or which creative direction to go in for this show but their skills were impressive nonetheless.
The few minutes that you'll see each perform represents just a fraction of what they bring to the table so l hope you'll be encouraged to check them out even more once the show is over.
I also want to say a bit about our vendors, if l may. Most have unique, handmade items that you won't typically find at dance festivals. Since most dancers already have veils and hip scarves galore, l found vendors whose items and services would enhance our lives and dancing after the event is over. There will definitely be some beautiful attire and costumes for sale but also food, personal care items, counselors, artisans and more. l hope people will check out what they have to offer!
BWW: What inspired you to create this event?
Brandy: Most of the belly dancers of color that l know are extremely talented but rarely perform. The chosen few are usually in other people's productions, hardly ever our own. We are loyal consumers and participants in all things related to our dance but our presence and participation needs to increase on the business and production end of things, like in many industries.
I was speaking with some dancers l was in a production with six years ago. We hadn't done much performing since. Outside of dancing in other people's productions, the opportunities seemed to be drying up for most of us. There are so many unsung heroines and heroes of color in this dance that neither the dance world nor the public has even heard of. I was wishing it were different but then I realized that we had to make it different.
Some of the cast had stopped performing until l reached out to them and these were dancers who should have NEVER gone off of the radar. The investment, lessons, workload, risk and disappointments have been considerable but some of that is to be expected. There has also been great networking and fellowship. The dancers and the public deserve to have an experience like this.
BWW: What is your ultimate goal for this event?
Brandy: I want the audience to enjoy themselves, first and foremost. This is about them as much as it is about the dancers. Also, it was important to me to showcase this collection of dancers, especially for a Harlem audience, and enrich the Harlem community at the same time.
I did business with a lot of local merchants and vendors to bring this into fruition. I had also suggested the idea of A Harlem Hafla to Harlem theaters in the past but promoters rejected the idea right away. Both dancers and Harlemites often travel for shows so l'm hosting the show in the community for a change of pace.