Performing arts This week's festival is expected to draw more than 2,000 people from all over the region.
Best foot forward at the Dubai Dance Festival
"No!" shouts Dorsai, 27, an events and exhibitions organiser from Iran. "This is where Richard is. You are standing in Richard's place. You are here, Ahmed, Richard is there." Ahmed, a Somalian salsa instructor, looks flummoxed. "When I go there Richard is here? No, then me and him will clash because we'll both be in the same place."
In the gym on the third floor of Dubai's Crowne Plaza hotel, there was only one question which was bugging me: Who is Richard? Richard, it turns out, is late. Half an hour into the rehearsal, in he strides - and everything becomes clear. "No, no, no!" shouts the tall Colombian in the direction of Ahmed and his dance partner, Olesya, a Ukranian. "It's like this: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven!" On the "seven", Richard twirls Lamya, a blonde Moroccan, with the type of neat gusto usually reserved for flamenco dancers.
Soon the music is pumping and they are away. The atmosphere is exhilarating. The six dancers are preparing their Latin steps for their part in the Dubai Dance Festival, a two-day dance extravaganza taking place this week. "This is the first time some of the people here have performed in front of an audience," says Ahmed, the festival's 31-year-old organiser and producer. It will see different styles of performance dance presented together for the first time in the UAE.
While Richard, 26, runs a dance school in Dubai, and Ahmed is also a professional dance teacher, the others all have day jobs unrelated to their hobby. Olesya, 24, is in product development; Lamya, 21, works for a fashion company, while Nabil, a 25-year-old Emirati, works in immigration at Dubai International Airport. "This is about bringing the entire dance community in Dubai together," says Ahmed.
Ahmed is known locally as "Ahmed Salsa", although his real name is Abdulla. Ahmed has been the Dubai salsa champion for three years out of the past eight. He is also the producer of the bi-annual Dubai International Latin and Salsa Festival. Last year's inaugural event attracted over 3,000 people; next year Ahmed hopes to attract at least double that. "Because that festival was so successful, we're following it up with this one," he said. "And next year, we're hoping to get dance groups from all over the region to come and join us."
Although the Dubai dance scene is now well developed, Ahmed argues that, like the rest of the city, it is both disparate and disconnected. "You have all the tango people doing their events and the salsa people doing their events, but this is two nights when everybody will come together. Dance is about working together to promote friendship and harmony, and this festival is also an opportunity for people to network and to cross over to other communities to see what the other talents are and what they are all about."
This week's event will begin with a mixed musical performance at the Dubai Community Theatre and Art Centre in the Mall of the Emirates on Thursday. More than 60 dancers from dance schools and classes from throughout the country will take part in a musical called The Agency, a show similar to Mel Brooks' The Producers, in which the routine day-to-day running of an entertainment agency is brought to life by hip-hop, salsa, tango, tap dancing, contemporary dance, African rumba, Reggaeton and belly dancing. African rumba, also known as soukous, lingala or congo, is a form of music and dance which originated in Congo in the 1930s. Reggaetton is a form of dance music which blends reggae and dance hall music with Latin American genres and hip-hop.
The event is expected to draw more than 2,000 people from all over the region. "All these different types of dancers will narrate the story," Ahmed said. "You will get a real sense of all the thrills and excitement and activity and all of that - the sheer buzz of what happens inside an entertainment agency." As well as using local talent, Ahmed has flown in actors, singers and choreographers from abroad. The musical has been written by Hilda Highaghi, a British scriptwriter of Iranian descent. Eric Lalta from Holland is the technical director. Lalta runs the hugely successful Amsterdam-based Salsa Dance Squad, which tours all over the world.
Friday will be given over to a whole day of free dance workshops in the Ibis Hotel. From 11am until 6pm, there will be classes for beginners and intermediates in tap dancing, African dancing, tango, belly dancing and hip-hop, with instructors from Germany, Colombia, Holland and Brazil. The African dancing workshop will be taught by a Colombian dance group called Piso Caliente. Led by Liris Mosquera, they also perform ballet, afro jazz, contemporary and several types of Latin dance.
"We want everybody to come and join in with the workshops," Ahmed said. "Sometimes dancing can be competitive, but we're trying to eliminate that. In this festival there will be no competitions, just exhibitions, workshops and parties." Although he is promoting dance generally, salsa, a fusion of informal styles of dance from the Caribbean, Latin and North America, is clearly Ahmed's driving passion. "Salsa is life at its most sensational moment," he said. "It doesn't matter where you are from or how old you are, how short or tall you are, it's a kind of dance which unites people. Salsa changed my life. It gave me the ability to get along with people from all over the world. My relationships improved and it and made me fit. It's amazing, and it's contagious."
Despite Dubai's reputation for glamour and nightlife, dance isn't something outsiders would expect to see flourishing in the UAE, a country governed by relatively strict social codes. Yet Ahmed, who teaches dance at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, disagrees. "Salsa is huge here. My classes are full of locals and this year we have a lot of local schools involved in the festival. I show people how dance is a very clean activity. You cannot drink and dance. It's a type of sport, helping to keep them fit, it helps people to deal with the stress of work and it helps them to look good. Dance isn't just about learning the moves, it's about feeling good. Because if people feel good, they look good."
Other Dubai-based dance groups performing at the festival include Salsa Master, the Savage Garden Dancers, James Castro and Alex de Smet. Popular salsa nights in Dubai include Breeze Salsa Night at Zinc at the Crowne Plaza, with DJ Saif and bongo player Mr Hush, Savage Garden (not to be confused with the now defunct Australian pop band) at the Capitol Hotel, Sevilles at Wafi and Trader Vics at the Madinat Jumeirah. Rocking the dance floor at the Apartment Club at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel alongside Ahmed are Mo, a Pakistani property developer who teaches and performs with his group Salsa and the Tribal Jam, and DJ Udia, a Somalian DJ living in Dubai specialising in Latin and hip-hop.
Savage Garden is the venue for Thursday night's after show party, which, Ahmed says, "anyone can come to". "It's going to be a great party," he says. "It will be a great opportunity for all the performers to relax and for people to meet them. We will also be giving some awards and recognising all the top dance venues in Dubai and all the hard work that goes on there throughout the year." Thursday night's party will be followed by an even bigger one on Friday night: The Hawaiian Party at the PM Bar in the Ibis Hotel. According to Ahmed, the dress code is simply "colourful". "There will be dancing and a whole mix of music - salsa, hip-hop, tango, everything - it is open to all."
Tickets for the Dubai Dance Festival are available online through www.itp.net and www.boxofficeme.com. Tickets to The Agency musical on Thursday cost Dh175. A workshop and party pass costs Dh85. For more information visit www.dancefestivaldubai.com.