A world-renowned belly dancer who has performed for royalty will have to stomach a costly defeat in her battle with the tax authorities after a tribunal ruled that the private tuition that she gives her clients is ‘recreational’, not ‘educational’, and thus subject to VAT.
Audrey Cheruvier, boss of the London-based Fleur Estelle Belly Dance School, has dedicated her life to perfecting the Middle Eastern art. However, that cut no ice with officers of HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) who decided that she had for several years wrongly failed to register for VAT and hit her with a retrospective VAT demand for more than £52,000.
She flexed every muscle in an attempt to overturn that decision, arguing that her private classes were exempt from VAT by virtue of Schedule 9 of the VAT Act 1994 in that they covered a subject ‘ordinarily taught in a school or university’. However, whilst not doubting her skill and dedication, the First-tier Tribunal noted that belly dancing had not yet made it onto any mainstream curriculum.
Miss Cheruvier had appeared on UK television and was so highly regarded that she had given private performances to the royal families of a number of Middle Eastern states. She had chosen her unusual career path after winning a psychology degree from London University and underwent years of rigorous training in Britain, France and Egypt.
She insisted that belly dancing is a ‘serious and systematic course of study’ and that she should be given the same exemption as private tutors in subjects like maths or English. The Tribunal described her as an ‘entirely credible witness’, but agreed with HMRC that belly dancing tuition is not exempt from VAT.
The Tribunal acknowledged that belly dancing is ‘highly technical’ and viewed as an art form in the Middle East, where it is ‘held in high cultural esteem and does not have the association with overly sensual entertainment commonly found in Western popular perception’. There was no question as to the seriousness with which Miss Cheruvier pursued her chosen field and taught it to others.
However, noting that there was no external examining board to prescribe standards, or a syllabus, for belly dancing, the Tribunal stated, “Our conclusion is that Miss Cheruvier is engaged in providing recreation, rather than education, to those who attend the courses she runs.
“Most forms of dance – ballroom dancing, Morris dancing, belly dancing to identify three at random – are inherently recreational, that is, for the enjoyment and satisfaction of the participants…rather than for their intellectual development in terms of expanding or deepening their knowledge.
“A form of dance may move from the recreational to the educational where it is studied in the context of its history, cultural background and relevance, artistic aspirations and achievements, and critical appraisal, but we have no evidence that the courses provided by Miss Cheruvier covered such matters.”
The Tribunal concluded, “The courses are practical in nature – teaching individuals to belly dance. They are not courses in the study of belly dance in an educational sense. This is not a case where a tutor is teaching privately a subject which his or her student might otherwise be taught at school or at university…it follows that Miss Cheruvier should have registered for VAT on June 1 2009.”