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Asked how the Sydney Middle Eastern Dance Festival came about, Leonie puts the blame on the Veils of Baghdad.
"When I did the first Bellydance-a-thon," Leonie says, "I never dreamed it would turn into an annual festival. But at the end of the last day, when the Canberra girls were leaving, they yelled out "See you next year!". So that was it."
In 1990, when Leonie was the proprietor of Amera's Palace, (Amera was pursuing her international career), Leonie was approached by Marylin Smith (below), a "Motherhood Quest" entrant who was looking for assistance with her charity fundraising activities in aid of the Royal Society for Deaf and Blind Children. Leonie suggested a Bellydance-a-thon and the idea was enthusiastically accepted.
Marylin had considerable marketing and publicity skills, and as a result of her efforts the Bellydance-a-thon idea received national publicity. Before long, Leonie started taking calls from interstate dancers wanting to find out how they could take part. With an interstate contingent on the way, Leonie decided she had better get a few additional activities in train, and so she offered Bellydance-a-thon participants a couple of free workshops the day before. At the end of the weekend, the Veils made the fateful comment above, and the Festival was born.
Above, from left (click to enlarge): Quest entrant Marylin Smith 1990, Terezka conducting a workshop with live musicians 1991 (and that's Leonie seated at left), Workshop participants 1990 or 1991, Belyssa and Jasmine (Perth) 1991, Veils of Baghdad (Canberra) 1991.
Q: Tell us what you remember about the Festival?
A: I remember that I thought I was dying of a heart attack while in Sydney. Why? My heart was racing out of my body every night. I was sure I was having a heart attack. As I tried to sleep and not worry and calm down, I realized that Leonie's sweet assistants had been plying me with cappucinos all week long. Six or seven cups a day was typical. Sure enough, as soon as I stopped with the heavy duty Australian cappuccinos, the heart palpitations stopped! I have fond memories of all the dancers, the cool nights, the Aussie accent, the typical tourist love affair with your koala bears (how boring I was...I had to have every memento and souvenir depicting a koala bear in every kitschy store).
Q: Any thoughts about differences or similarities between the Australian
and US belly dance "scenes" at the time?
A: The difference I noticed at the time between our countries was that Australian dancers were more lovable! Their ideas about dance was still in a sort of sweet, delightful fun mode. I had just started noticing the American scene becoming more competitive and sharper around the edges.
Q: Can we claim to have influenced your decision to start your Shake & Bake Festival?
A: Yes. Your festival helped me decide to do something similar and promote my own city.
The early Festivals consisted of a Thursday night cocktail party, workshops on Friday, Saturday and Monday, and evening entertainment - a Friday night dinner in 1991 and 1992, Saturday night concerts in 1991, 1992 and 1993. On Sunday nights in 1991 and 1993 Terezka Drnzik hosted an evening with live musicians at her former city studio (in Liverpool St - sadly it was ultimately destroyed by fire). Sunday Bellydance-a-thons benefited the Autistic Society (1991), Special Olympics (1992) and New Era (1993).
Leonie advertised the early Festivals in the Amera's Palace newsletter, which was sent to subscribers and
sold in the shop. Participant numbers grew every year, and by 1993 a special "Festival edition" of the newletter
was produced (at top left).
From its inception, the Festival attracted bellydancers from interstate and New Zealand as well as locals, which came as a surprise to Leonie. Dancers relished what was, in most cases, their first opportunity to learn from different teachers and to mingle with like-minded people. It was also an opportunity to discuss issues of mutual interest. Belyssa (Perth) hosted a forum on Bellydance in Australia in 1991, and in 1993 Bairbre Ashton (Sydney) chaired a seminar on "Image and the Media - where do we go from here?" (a question we are still asking!).
The opening cocktail party, an event that disappeared from the program when the festival outgrew such intimate gatherings, was "to welcome interstate guests and the media". No-one is able to recall any media actually turning up to a cocktail party, although television crews have dropped in on various events over the years.
Teachers at the earliest Festivals included Sue Bracewell (Melbourne), Elenie (Gold Coast), Maria Masselos and Sue Buntine (Brisbane), along with Sydney-siders Leonie, Terezka, Ruth Brent, Leonie's teacher Judy Lees and Desiree Sheldrake. The Festival's first overseas guest was Amaya from the USA in 1993 (see box, right), who taught workshops on Technique and Sword.
In 1991, workshops were conducted at The Edge Theatre in Newtown (still exists) and The Sheik's Tent, a Lebanese restuarant that was at the time a great venue for dancers (it has long since gone). After this, Leonie moved into her (former) large studio at 12 Enmore Rd, Newtown, and Festival workshops were held there in 1992 and 1993.
Concerts were held at Petersham Town Hall in 1991 and at Leichhardt Town Hall in 1992 and 1993. Leonie recalls them all as being "very long" and says that after these she "learned the importance of time limits"!
The first ever concert in 1991 was opened by Canberra's Veils of Baghdad, who also performed in 1992 and 1993 and in every concert since then. Other performers included Ruth Brent's Arabesque troupe, Turkish Black Sea dancers, soloists Yasmini and Elenie from Queensland and a stick duet from Belyssa and Jasmine of Perth.
1992 solo performers included Keti (Perth), Marjolein (Adelaide), Melanie (Melbourne) and a contingent of NZ dancers including Aziza, and troupes included the Veils, Leonie's Turkish Delights and Brisbane's Bedouin Balady Dancers.
The highlight of the 1993 concert was an electric performance by the fabulous Amaya (USA), who danced with the El Bardounney band featuring drummer Ghassan. Throughout the history of the Festival, Ghassan has delivered our dancers some memorable musician moments (for example see 1994, 1999, and 2003). In a commanding achievement that few have equalled since, Amaya demonstrated exactly how to get Ghassan's attention - and keep it - right up to the final Turkish Drop and belly flutter!
Viewing the videos of these early concerts, one thing is clear - we have all come a long way since then!
Above, from left (click to enlarge): 1992: Sue Bracewell (Melbourne), Bedouin Balady Dancers (Brisbane). 1993: Amaya (USA), Desiree Sheldrake (NSW), Judy Lees (Sydney), Leonie and band at the 1993 cocktail party. Any evidence of sticky tape visible on these images is a legacy of one of Leonie's cut-and-paste jobs.
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