“Scandalous!” the Chicago newspapers proclaimed in reports from the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. American impresario Sol Bloom purportedly shocked Victorian America--in order to boost ticket sales, of course--with his star attraction, a dancer called Little Egypt. And to make sure audiences lined up to be scandalized, he dubbed her undulating performance “belly dance.”
Since then, belly dancing has been described as a dance of power, a dance of energy, a dance of dignity. It has been misconstrued, mocked and, in some instances, maligned.
Fast-forward a century to Tonya and Atlantis, a mother-daughter belly-dancing duo trying to resurrect the form one class and one performance at a time. This weekend, they’ll take their efforts public at their 12th annual Belly Dancer of the Universe Competition in Long Beach. The two-day festival offers everything the belly dancer needs--workshops and competitions, videos and costumes for sale (“one size fits most”)--and culminates in a gala show on Sunday night.
On a recent chilly Saturday morning in a stark Santa Monica College classroom, mama Tonya teaches about 40 women to isolate their torsos, shimmy seductively and flutter their hips in the ancient dance that was once performed by Middle Eastern women at family celebrations and that originated as a means of strengthening and controlling abdominal muscles to prepare for childbirth.
As the sounds of an oud, the North African instrument akin to a lute, pour from a portable stereo, Atlantis, herself a performer and teacher, joins the group. The multitude of hip scarves, adorned with fringe, lace and coins, create their own sound collage; the many colored veils--pale pink, saffron, deep blue--seem to float over the quivering bodies.
Weaving Patterns and Staying Fit
You don’t want to stick your breasts out, instructs Tonya, whose offstage name is Antonia Chianis. “You’re elongating the body. The dance serves us as we serve the dance,” she continues. Her hands weaving intricate patterns, her head bobbing from side to side, she never misses a beat.
It’s beautiful and hypnotic, but for a lot of these students, also a great way to stay fit. And, 31-year-old Kim Walters, an advertising executive taking the class, said, “It’s spiritually uplifting. It’s everything that’s good about being a woman.”
That sentiment could be Chianis’ philosophy. Born in upstate New York, the raven-haired teacher moved to Long Beach in the 1960s, where she studied acting and dance, becoming by the ‘70s a fixture at the now-defunct Sunset Boulevard hotspot Club Fez. Throughout the ‘80s, she landed gigs in various harem reviews at Las Vegas’ Aladdin Hotel, but the glory days of belly dancing were on the wane.
Wanting to help revive the art form, Chianis and daughter Antonia, who calls herself Atlantis, organized a competition. The year was 1991. They studied the rules of competitions in other areas and set the parameters for the Belly Dancer of the Universe.
“We keep it broader as far as costuming, playing finger cymbals and overall appeal. We have different categories, and we have judges from the top fields of dance,” Chianis said. Categories include Egyptian, which Chianis describes as an “internalized” style of dance, wherein the steps might be uniform but interpretation is different. The Universal category is a combination of Turkish, Persian and Old Arabic styles and is more improvisational. Finally, there is the category known as Divine, for which dancers must have 20 years or more of experience. All the finalists dance to live music.
New this year, Chianis says, are the drumming competition and “belly rolling” (the pushing in and out of the diaphragm to create a series of gyrations). For those who prefer for their bellies to remain more stationary, there will be performances by their troupe, Tonya and Atlantis With Veils and Incense, and by Essence of Veils, their student company.
It’s About Family, not Exploitation
Despite all that 19th century scandal, the event is a family-friendly affair. The mother-daughter team points that up, and clarinetist Andreas Tsianis underscores it: He is Tonya’s husband and Atlantis’ father. Yet as the women strive to bring belly dancing back into vogue, they find themselves fighting myths: that belly dancing is exploitative, that it was invented to arouse men, that it’s essentially a striptease.
Tonya and Atlantis think otherwise. Their competition features two categories for children (ages 5 to 9 and 10 to 17), which Chianis says are very popular. “It’s family-oriented. When they danced in the old countries, it was for picnics and parties. Mothers [here] fix their kids’ costumes and it’s really cute.”
A lingering association--however misguided--with sex and strip shows has kept belly dancing off-limits for many scholars, said Anthony Shay, founder of Iranian folk dance company Avaz International Dance Theatre. A book he recently co-edited with Barbara Sellers-Young, “Belly Dance: Representation, Orientalism and Harem Fantasy,” counters the myths and is the first serious treatise on the subject. It’s to be published by Wesleyan University Press.
“They haven’t looked at it seriously as a trans-global project in which over a million women in the U.S. in the ‘80s were participating, as a hobby and a profession,” he said. “It was attached to the women’s liberation movement, in which women felt empowered to use their bodies in a way that had not been possible before.”
This dance form, which the French still call the danse du venture--the dance of adventure--has changed Chianis’ life. She is vice president of the Eastern Culture and Dance Assn. beach cities chapter, of which her daughter is president, and also spreads the praise of belly dancing at Cerritos College and Golden West College.
“It’s been absolutely wonderful. I love sharing it. It can be a woman’s best friend, and it’s a tremendously healing experience because it offers total escapism. It makes you believe in yourself.”
“And,” she adds with a laugh, “it beats going to the gym.”
Twelfth annual Belly Dancer of the Universe Competition and Open Dance Festival, Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-11:30 p.m., Grand Willow Street Center, 4101 E. Willow St., Long Beach. $10-$30. (562) 433-6615.