All the right moves

With belly chains jingling across the waists of gyrating dancers, and vendors selling exotic jewelry, music and clothing from the far corners of the Mideast, belly dance aficionados didn’t have to travel far to indulge in their passions — they found it all in Glendale.

“Raqs L.A.” returned for the third year this weekend to the Glendale Civic Auditorium for the two-day celebration and festival of belly dance, modern fusion, Bollywood and more.

Raqs, which means “dance” in Arabic, showcased an explosion of culture in the form of Persian cuisine, international belly dance star Mesmera, books on the art of playing finger cymbals and bustiers made out of fine fabrics and copper coins.

Glendale has been the perfect locale over the years, said organizer Marta Schill Kouzouyan, who has conducted similar events in other locations.

“It was like a dream come true; it was so much better than before,” she said, citing the auditorium’s great facilities and the city’s huge Middle Eastern and Armenian population.

Belly dance instructor Marla Martin, also known as Leela, echoed her sentiments.

“We have a phenomenal Middle Eastern population, an incredible Armenian population, an amazing Persian population and Lebanese population,” said Martin, of La Crescenta who teaches belly dancing for the city of Glendale’s Community Services & Parks Department and in eight other locations.

The festival, celebrating one of the oldest forms of dance, attracted a mix of enthusiasts not only from Middle Eastern backgrounds, but also Asian, Latino and American women. Kouzouyan appreciates this diverse interest, especially after a Whittier-area venue asked her to take a similar event elsewhere after Sept. 11, 2001, she said.

“I was thinking there would be a backlash, but I have seen such a growth and interest, and I love that because I think it proves that the people here can separate art from politics,” she said.

Glendale resident Elizabeth Corona, a dance enthusiast, said she has been coming to the festival for two years.

“I love the dancing here. I’m taking a class at Luna Dance on Colorado Street and I love it,” she said.

Liliana Sanchez, editor in chief of “Belly Dance, A Raqs Sharqi Magazine” based in Burbank, said Glendale was a good fit not only because of its central location and population, but because it allowed her to discover belly dancing.

“Ten years ago, I began taking classes with Kristen Cunningham at Glendale Community College, and I knew right away that I wanted to start performing,” she said. “Glendale gave me that opportunity.”

The vendors that sold bejeweled costumes and headdresses are what Adelina Arutyunyan of Glendale came to see. The workshops, which included Bollywood choreography and “Belly Hoop Dance,” a blend of belly dancing and hula hoops, also drew her to the festival.

“They have really great teachers,” she said. “I come whenever they’re in town. There’s also a great variety of costumes, and I come to get knowledge of the culture.”

Many, including Dhyanis, a 35-year dance veteran and clothing designer who goes by one name, cited the feminine connection to belly dancing as a reason for the vast interest.

“This is our lineage of ancient feminine dance that we are just rediscovering,” she said.

“It’s the dance for a woman’s life, for teens to claim their body and sexuality so they don’t look for love in all the wrong places, and it’s also great for getting ready for childbirth and even for menopause.”

Martin, who shares a love of belly dancing with her dance-instructing daughter Valentina, called belly dance the dance of the woman.

“It’s pre-installed in the female body, and this art form is a clear representation of the female experience,” Martin said. “It doesn’t matter what year it is, this is never going to go out of style as women become more in touch with themselves, their own power and lives.”


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