(Founder and Artistic Director: Susie White)

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

The Tournament, Conwy, posted by Noor

Even though it’s been five years since a knee injury forced me to give up dancing with them, I still like to keep an eye on what the Ya Raqs girls are up to (mainly eating cake, so far as I can tell), and go to watch them dance when I can. So when Meroe asked if I’d like to come and tent-sit for them at The Tournament, a two-day medieval fair in Conwy, North Wales, I didn’t take much persuading.

In the event, it turned into more than just tent-sitting.

Meroe, Yasna and I arrived early on the Saturday morning and found a spot to pitch our tent (well, gazebo) on the quayside, next to a large marquee which was the venue for various fighting displays during the day and a banquet on Saturday night. We were also perfectly placed to watch the procession which opened the event.

The procession

The smooth, flat area was perfect for dancing, although I did have to act as a one-woman cordon to keep passing members of the public a safe distance away when Meroe and Yasna performed their stick dance.

Yasna and Meroe's stick dance

It was purely coincidence (honestly) that we set up camp not far from Popty Conwy (Conwy Bakery), which sold the most wonderful cakes. Suffice to say that the staff got to know us quite well over the two days!

Popty Conwy - cake heaven

Yasna and Meroe do some sampling

The original plan was for Meroe and Yasna to dance in the town while I tent-sat. However Conwy is a beautiful medieval town on the edge of Snowdonia, and its streets are mostly steep, cobbled, and not really suitable for dancing. It was easier to dance by the tent, which was how I found myself joining in with some of the impromptu dances. And then Meroe asked if I could remember a couple of the choreographies. And amazingly, I could. So our sets from then on were a mixture of Meroe and Yasna performing duets, and me joining in on other dances.

Dancing in front of the tent

With the castle as a backdrop

Sunday started grey and wet; so after we’d set up camp again, it was off to the Popty Conwy for a warming bacon roll. (Yes, we had checked on Saturday that they would be open the next day – we always get our priorities right!) Fortunately the weather brightened up, and we were able to dance. During a break Yasna and I went into town to see the Wool Market and some of the stalls. There was a whole medieval village set up in the park on the outskirts of the town, and jousting beside the castle, but we were just too busy with dancing and henna to visit either of these.

Sunday morning - it had almost stopped raining

One event which wasn’t listed but seemed to draw quite a crowd was, "Watch Yasna and Noor eat lemon buns". Admittedly these were huge cakes (and very tasty), but we were a bit surprised by the level of interest which our synchronised cake-eating caused!

Yasna tackles a lemon bun!

By the end of the day the sun had come out, and Conwy castle was looking magnificent against a blue sky.

The castle

The Tournament was staged as part of Wales' "Year of Legends", and had been months in planning. It was so large, and so well-organised, that it was hard to believe that this was the first time it had been held. A big thank you to Mark Olly for inviting us, and a big thank you to Meroe for inviting me. "Once a Ya Raqs girl, always a Ya Raqs girl", she often says, and I think she may be right – and I had a fabulous time!

Yasna, Noor and Meroe

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Eboracum: our weekend in the Roman camp, posted by Yasna

I followed Meroe and Kebi a little hesitantly as they entered the camp.  We had arrived at the walls of Eboracum (York) as the day was drawing to a close. The cloud-filled sky had cleared; the threatening rain departing without falling, but the change in the weather did nothing to ease my trepidation as a tall man in a tunic opened the gates of the camp, then closed them again behind us, locking us inside.

Tents were scattered across the field, which was surrounded by a palisade.  Outside the nearest, a group of men wearing woollen tunics and varied scraps of leather and metal armour were gathered.  Two were seated; the rest stood around them, talking and laughing.

Romans setting up camp

One of the two seated men was sharpening a short sword.  The sound was unpleasant as the whetstone moved along the length of the blade, which already looked quite sharp enough to me.  He glanced up briefly as my shadow passed close to him, and I quickly turned my eyes away.  As Meroe greeted the men I tried to keep behind Kebi, but then I noticed what the second seated man was doing.  With a heavy needle, a length of tough thread, an awl and a block of wood against which to brace, he was stitching two pieces of leather together.  I took an unconscious step forward, out from Kebi’s shadow, fascinated and slightly homesick at the sight.  The man looked up at me as he drew his needle and thread through a fine hole he had just made, and smiled. His face was rough with beard, but kind, and I found myself smiling shyly back.

Soldiers from the XX v.v. who came from Deva for the march in Eboracum

Meroe persuaded the soldiers to help raise our tent, and in no time at all our shelter for the weekend was up and we were decorating it with colourful wall hangings.  The soldiers disappeared about their duties and there was little else for Kebi, Meroe and I to do but walk into the city centre and find a tavern...

Yasna and Kebi outside our main tent

The next day dawned bright, the scattered clouds clearing to leave the sky hot and blue as we erected a pavilion opposite our tent and strewed the floor with cushions.  There was more activity in the camp this morning, with several groups of soldiers breaking their fast and checking their weapons and armour.  Women prepared food at the cook-tent, and across the field I could hear the distant clack of a weaving loom.  The commanders, already fully armed and armoured, greeted each other with clasped forearms and quiet words.  As the heat of the sun forced me to pull my palla over my head, the soldiers began to move with more purpose, heading to one end of the field and forming up into a long column.  The vexillari (standard-bearers) stood at the front, their vexilla on tall wooden poles which for now rested their lower ends on the ground.

Part of the Roman camp

A man I recognised immediately arrived at the top of the column.  Dressed in a purple tunic, billowing purple gilt-edged trabea and with a fresh green laurel wreath on his head, the emperor Hadrian would have been instantly recognisable even if I hadn’t seen him once before – within the damp walls of Deva one darkened night in midwinter.  He carried his sceptre in one hand, and was speaking quietly with one of the commanders.

Is that Caesar I see before me?

A trumpet blew, and the column moved off.  The standard-bearers went first, preceded only by the camp attendants who ran ahead, clearing the onlookers from the soldiers’ path.  Behind the standard-bearers walked the emperor, not in stride with the column but moving at his own stately pace.  Meroe, Kebi and I fell in behind him, and as we left the camp the regular tread of the soldiers’ feet and the jingle of their armour was a constant reminder of the presence of the warriors behind me.

Ready for the Roman procession - Yasna, Kebi and Meroe

We walked through the narrow streets of Eboracum, watched by the people that we passed.  In a small square the column halted so that the emperor could address the gathered crowd.  He was not a tall man, but his voice immediately commanded the attention of everyone present, and he seemed to grow visibly larger as he instructed the multitude.

As noon approached we returned to the camp, and gratefully sought the shade of our tent.  Kebi made mint tea to go with our lunch, and we changed into our black galabeyas and red sashes ready to entertain the many visitors who had flooded the field in our absence.  The Deva soldiers, in the tent next to ours, were busily recruiting children to join their number, and they marched across the camp to the training field with hearty cries of “Sin, sin, sin, dex, sin.”  The boys and girls valiantly wielded their swords, brandished their shields, and charged down the enemy, leaving them rolling on the ground in defeat.  Then it was time to get to work.  We danced in front of our tent with the sun beating down, and the crowds looking on appreciatively.

Kebi and Meroe preparing the awning for lots of dancing

When we returned to the shade Meroe got out her henna basket and invited passers-by to stop and sit with her whilst she decorated their hands with intricate patterns.  After some cold water had restored us, Kebi and I danced again as the crowds gradually lessened, and finally the camp attendants chased the last stragglers from the field so that the soldiers could take their evening meal.

Meroe at work with her henna basket

We went into the city again, and after eating were lured by the scent of pastry on the air to a baker’s shop which was still open despite the late hour.  Tempted by the pastries and sweetmeats, we ordered a selection to be packaged up for us, and made our way back to our temporary home.

Kebi, Meroe and Yasna, sampling some of the delights from Betty's tearoom!

The next morning the camp was quiet.  The soldiers gathered in silence when the order to muster was given, and as we had the day before, we set off in a column to parade through the city.  It was bright and warm, but fortunately not nearly as hot as the previous day.

After the parade, Meroe and I walked back into town in search of food.  We found the baker’s shop we had visited the previous evening, and went inside to express our appreciation for the previous night’s fare, and to purchase more provisions.  We didn’t see the proprietress, but I hope that our thanks were passed on to Mistress Betty. We returned to the camp to eat with Kebi in the shelter of our tent.  Passers-by stopped to admire the colourful wall-hangings, and the fine tea-pot which stood proudly on the tray between us.

Always time for a tea break!

In the afternoon we danced again for the crowds. The Deva legion watched with mouths agape as our necklaces jingled with the moves of Folk Tunis, and Kebi borrowed a stick from one of the soldiers so that she and Meroe could perform a stick dance.  Then Meroe got her henna basket out again for a while, before we danced once again, encouraging some of the children to join us.

As the afternoon drew to a close, the commanders officially dismissed the legions.  The soldiers began to dismantle their tents, and we lowered ours too, rolling it into a tight bundle.  There were the first touches of rain in the air as we finished, but then the sky cleared again, and we set off towards home under a blue sky with three boxes of Mistress Betty’s finest pastries securely wrapped in our bundles.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Not a night, but a day at the museum, posted by Myriam

Mid April and we were back to one of our favourite venues, but this time on a weekday, rather than at a weekend, which made a nice change for us.
Meroe, Kebi, Myriam and Yasna ready for the Day at the Museum
Right from the first set we were surround by enthusiastic crowds of visitors and lots of potential mini-me dancers.  We performed four sets through the course of the day starting with our Tunisian costumes and routines from North Africa through to our Egyptian finery – we took visitors on a historic and cultural journey of the dance.
Yasna and Kebi with a Tunisian inspired routine then...

... on to Egypt next with Kebi, Meroe, Myriam and Yasna
After each performance set we were joined by children and their parents who were all keen to take part in a mini-me dance workshops.  The children got to wear coin belts, hip scarves and hats, and were given our special “keepsake” certificates. 
Scarves flying in one of our "dance for all" workshops
At one of our workshops we were joined by a very enthusiastic school party which meant, for the first time ever, we ran out of hip scarves.  Everyone had a great time and the museum staff logged no less than 1751 visitors watching our performances!  So at least this time we could use the impressive visitor numbers to justify the, now traditional, Ya Raqs cake-fest at the end of the day!
Pure improvisation with Meroe and Myriam
On a personal note, I had an extra “adventure” – my very own “Night at the Museum” although during the day! Between workshops, costume changes and dancing I managed to get lost behind the scenes trying to find my way back to the performance space.  Thankfully I was rescued by a member of staff.  It was quite spooky but I don’t think I managed to wake up any mummies or dinosaurs! 
Myriam wowing the crown with her cane solo.
Our thanks to all those at the museum who, as ever, looked after us so well -  especially Adam – but also to all the lovely people we met, who danced with us.  Always such a pleasure.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

The coming of the light, posted by Yasna

Meroe, Yasna, Phoenece, Myriam and Kebi
It was a dark and damp night when we parked our chariots below the castle, just inside the tall stone walls of Deva (Chester).   Having secured the chariots, Myriam, Meroe, Kebi, Phoenece and I made our way through the damp paved streets to the home of the XX Valeria Victrix legion.  It was almost the shortest day of the year – the winter solstice – and we were glad of our thick woollen cloaks.  As we approached the legion’s headquarters I saw by the light of their torches a group of rough-looking soldiers checking over each other’s equipment. Heavy curved shields, each nearly the height of a man, rested on the ground by each soldier. Polished short swords and tapering, guttering torches were passed from hand to hand as the men prepared for inspection by the legion Legatus – the commander.

It was starting to rain, and the laughter of the soldiers was becoming louder and more raucous when a sudden bustle of activity announced the arrival of the Emperor.  The Legatus emerged from the shelter of his war-room and ordered the men into position, berating those who were slovenly or slow to follow the orders.  The Emperor barely seemed to notice them, moving with stately pace to the head of the column, apparently oblivious to the gradually-increasing rain.

Suddenly we moved off.  I found myself walking beside Myriam as the Legatus shouted orders at the men behind us.  Just behind Myriam and I a soldier walked leading by his bound hands an old man dressed in long robes.  We crossed Bridgegate road and passed out through the walls at one of the new gates. For a few seconds I saw on our right the huge amphitheatre for which Deva Victrix is famous, and which marked the city out as being intended for Rome’s capital of Britannia province.
Saturn ready to go (thanks to Charlene for the photograph)
We turned towards the centre of the city, and began to pass more people. Peasants and nobility alike stopped to watch us pass, and I saw them talking to each other and pointing as we turned onto Eastgate to re-enter the walls of the city.

We came to a sudden halt. There was muttered conversation in front of us, and I peered around the people in front of me to see what was happening.  Someone had closed the Eastgate against the Emperor!  Undeterred, the Emperor walked forward to the gate and called out in a loud voice that it should be opened. There was laughter from the other side.  He turned towards the Legatus, and made a small motion with one hand.

“Testudo!” shouted the Legatus.  Abruptly the legion soldiers drew into a tight phalanx, their shields raised above them and to the sides, and they charged the gates which gave way before them.  With no change in his expression to indicate his minor victory, the Emperor led the column on into the city, and proceeded to address the gathered crowds before solemnly lighting torches to the four points of the compass.  Taking some lights ourselves, Myriam, Meroe, Kebi, Phoenece and I shared light with the people who had stopped to watch.

Then we were moving again, turning up Northgate, and followed by crowds of people with lights in their raised hands.  When we next halted, I saw the old man with the bound hands being led forward. Someone announced that this bearded old man was Saturn!  There was so much consternation in the crowd that I didn’t hear what was said next, but suddenly the old man’s hands were free, and he ripped off his long robe and white beard and leaped forward towards the watching crowd.  The Lord of Misrule was released!

Procession with the Lord of Misrule - all in red (thank you to Jonathan for the photograph)
Dressed all in red, he danced around like an imp and led us on through the city. Behind us a merry parade of revellers followed, playing music, dancing, and performing tricks.  We circled through the city again, ignoring our increasingly damp robes as the rain continued to fall, until the Lord of Misrule released the revellers, and the Legatus ordered the legion back to their camp.  Myriam and I were nervous about whether the soldiers would behave after all the excitement in the city, but Meroe said that we could trust them, and so we followed her, Kebi and Phoenece into the tavern alongside the legion’s camp, where the servers brought wine and mead, and good food for all of us.  By the time we made our way back to our chariots, the night seemed neither so dark nor so cold as it had when we arrived.

Phoenece, Myriam, Meroe and Kebi - enjoying the local mead!
Perhaps, after all, soldiers aren’t so bad.  I might not mind running into the legion again one day...   

Io Saturnalia!

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Swords, Fire, Mead and Dance, posted by Myriam

Having always been interested in history Folklore and mythology I was excited to join my fellow Troupe members to a Viking & Medieval event. Although it was only my second gig with the girls and I didn't quite know what to expect.
On arrival Phoenece and I treated ourselves to breakfast – we need to keep our strength up for dancing – so that was two ye olde worlde sausage sandwiches and  two cups of Viking tea! We'd managed to persuade Noor to come out of retirement and join us for the event.  She acted as our "tent sitter" while we were off fraternising with the vikings!  It also gave her an opportunity to show off her gorgeous Persian costume.
Myriam, Noor and Phoenece in our tent.
Everyone was in costume, putting up tents and setting up stalls. I was amazed by the unique creative and quirky items and trinkets that were for sale.  I have to confess to even buying some Viking horns later in the day!
Soon the place began to fill up with people and we started to attract attention from children, mums and dads.
Kebi and Naima handed out coin hip belts hats and headdresses for the children to try out and even got some of the mums and dads dressed up too. 
Phoenece, Kebi and Naima.
It wasn’t long before the knights were putting on an amazing sword battle re-enactment and had children up to participate, which looked quite fun and I secretly wished I could take part. Next up was a fantastic fire dance performance which was quite hypnotic and enjoyable to watch.
Then it was our turn to perform our routines and deliver a fun dance workshop. The crowd where very supportive, cheering us on and getting up to participate. The children really loved it and each of them left with one of our Ya Raqs certificates.
Myriam, Phoenece, Naima and Kebi performing.
As the day was drawing to an end I got the chance to wander round the market mingling and chatting to people whilst looking for things to buy. On my journey through the market I was greeted by Viking men and women; a very large raven and a tarot card reader, until I eventually stumbled into the mead tent and was treated to a sample of Loki's Mead which tasted like Crimbo pudding...Yum!
Naima, Myriam, Phoenece and Kebi with two Vikings.
All too soon we had to pack up our tent and say our goodbyes. A enjoyable day was had by all and thanks to the Viking gods, the rained stayed off and we were blessed with an abundance of cake and the cake stall match our costumes, so it was meant to be!
The cake stall in our corporate colours!

Saturday, 10 September 2016

“Bring your cloak” said Kebi, posted by Yasna

It was my first outdoor event with Ya Raqs, and I thought we would probably be the focus of a fair bit of staring as we arrived in Warrington on a gloomy Saturday morning with the forecast of heavy rain to come.  With our striped ghawazee coats, matching red and gold hip scarves, dark eyeliner and thick hooded black wool cloaks, I expected that we would rather stand out.
Naima, Phoenece, Yasna and Meroe
Cloaks, however, turned out to be all the rage in Warrington. Black was popular, but there were also red, green and purple. There were headdresses and chain-mail, corsets and kilts. And our kohl-lined eyes only made us fit in better. The Vikings welcomed us with open arms, and I was surprised and put at ease by the warm and friendly greetings we received.

The rain arrived shortly after we did, and we were very grateful that Meroe had managed to arrange for us to use a waterproof gazebo. Our regular tent evidently isn’t particularly waterproof, and some of our things don’t do too well in the rain…

Naima, Phoenece, Yasna and Meroe in our "new" home.
After decorating our tent to suit us, we distracted the early-bird shoppers in town from the arrival of the rain with a few dances. Our neighbours – busy selling broadband to passers-by from underneath large umbrellas – certainly seemed to enjoy it, and even joined in from time to time. I’m not sure how much use the Vikings had for broadband – but then again it might have only been the weather which kept the crowds from inundating our neighbours, who turned out to be the ones who looked out of place with their unlined eyes and smart clothes.  They were clearly intrigued by our dancing, and I think we might have managed to keep their thoughts off the weather.
Our super Warrington audience braving the elements.
Throughout the day there were three constants – the music, the ever-present rain, and the Ya Raqs girls’ anticipation of cake. We welcomed lots of people into our gazebo, where we made new friends and re-acquainted ourselves with old ones whilst they sheltered from the rain. Even the cave troll dropped by to say hello, fortunately for us deciding not to knock down our little shelter. And from time to time we slipped out to see what else was happening around the market… and to sample the local cake, of course! Kebi even helped out on one of the stalls. I was very grateful for my lovely black cloak, which kept the rain off me nicely whilst I bargained for trinkets at the jewellery stalls.
Phoenece and the troll!
We had some dancers join us during the day – special mention has to be made of four year old Eliza, who visited us in the afternoon, Helen and Chapman the bear (another first, apparently – Meroe said she’d never danced with a bear before!), and the amazing James, who took time from his stag do to join us for an energetic “Malfuf”, and did a very creditable job of it!
Mini-me dancers
Helen and Chapman with Yasna and Meroe.
As the day – and the rain – wound down, we shared a plate of chocolate churros in our gazebo before wringing the water from our sodden blankets, wall-hangings… shoes… and heading home.
Naima, Yasna and Kebi tucking in to well-earned churros!
I can’t wait for the next event where I can dance with Ya Raqs, and look forward to meeting my new Viking friends again soon!

P.S.  Don't tell Meroe but I managed to sneak in a slice of chocolate cake too!

Sneaky chocolate cake!

Monday, 5 September 2016

Let there be cake - and there was, posted by Meroe

After such a wonderful day on Saturday, and a wonderful write up from Noor, how could we top it?  Well sorry Noor, but Day Two was great too, AND there was cake!  The crowds were definitely smaller on Sunday, and we didn’t have all the Brownies to keep us on our toes with the workshop. Having said that we had another super day. 

This was the first event with our new Ya Raqs line up, as we were joined by Yasna and Myriam – two beautiful new dancers. 
Fabulous new line up - Meroe, Kebi, Naima, Myriam, Yasna and Phoenece.
They certainly got into the swing of things very quickly and were soon tucking in to a large slice of cake each during our lunchtime break!  So sorry Noor, but on Day 2 there WAS cake and we ate it!
Introducing Myriam - and cake!.

Introducing Yasna - and another piece of cake!
The routines on Day 2 pretty much mirrored those that we did on Day 1, with a few minor changes.  The Nubian and Saidi sets went down really well, as did the workshops.  Myriam, in particular, was a natural with our Mini-me dancers.

Naima, Kebi and Meroe performing one of our Nubian routines.
We finished off the day with another glam set and were pleased to hear that we topped 1100 visitors – a record for us – so thank you to everyone who came to support us and dance with us.  We also cannot let this event go without giving a special mention to Steve from the World Museum – he always looks after us so well and is great during the workshops helping us to encourage our little Mini-me dancers.
Our Hero - Steve!
So thank you Steve – the weekend just wouldn’t have been the same without you.