Magic, Mojo and Inspiration
posted August 1, 2011
Flashback: late ‘70s. Chicago.
Two young girls separated by 12 years of age, but joined together in a love for belly dance, their eyes glued to a huge TV tube encased in a varnished wooden contraption with sparkling gold-upholstered speakers.
A four-year old voice squeals toward the kitchen, “Hurry up! Hurry up! She’s on now!” as an older brother emerges with an avocado-green gallon-sized Tupperware full of popcorn. All eyes are transfixed on the screen while this magical woman appeared on our favorite show “That’s Incredible!” She put nine coins on her tummy, and rolled them all – together, one at a time, every other one, then all of them (on our first color TV). I asked my sister, “Can you do that?” She replied with a silent sneer as she sewed sequins on a new bra top.
There was this beautiful, magical Belly dance woman who was bold, confident, and paving a wave of inspiration and independence. Then, followed by an Enjoli perfume commercial, another stunning woman clad in business attire, reaffirming that she could make the big bucks, then, come home (and clean house for you) and still be sexy enough to charm your socks off. “I am woman,” she seemed to say. “I can do it all, and no one can stop me.” What an exciting time!
Flash forward: Early ‘90s. Location: Lynette Harris’s “Snakeskin Studio” in Emeryville, California.
It was break time during one of Lynette’s costume-making workshops, and Lynette was playing some of her favorite dance clips on the VCR. There she was again – Helena Vlahos! I could hardly believe it! Helena was one of my sister’s dance heroines–and mine. I had seen her on “Dynasty”, “Dallas”, “Ripley’s Believe it or Not”, and you name it. Lynette gave not only confirmation to my taste in dance, she opened doors in developing one’s own sense and style of dance. Helena was a super star, and truly, I wanted to be just like her as well as my sword-slinging, snake-taming, goddess-like instructor, Lynette! They both had pure Mojo! Those were exciting times, my “baby dancer” years, soaking in all of it like a sponge!
Flash forward: Modern Times. New Mexico’s “Floralia in TorC”.
My dance partner Nyla Crystal and I were teaching and performing in New Mexico when we ran into Helena Vlahos at the opening night gala, and I had never been so nervous! I’m sure I put my foot in my mouth several times, but she was fun, lively, classy and comedic. She quickly put me at ease and was every bit the star I remembered on our big TV. I hadn’t yet found an interview with Helena online, so I decided to do it myself.
What do you remember most about your journey to the United States from Greece? What things do you remember being the most different about each place?
You must understand that I was only eight years old when I came to the United States and I came from a small island in Greece called “Hydra”. To this day there are no cars because there are no roads big enough to accommodate them. So everything was different for me. We came to New York by ship and went on to Chicago where we were supposed to live. (We wound up in Los Angeles instead.) The tall buildings, the people, the language were all so different. I was scared of all the commotion.
What drew you to Belly dance?
Greeks love to dance, and I am no exception. One of our many dances is Chiftetelli. It is a Belly dance that people do at parties or restaurants and clubs. I do not consider it a professional Belly dance. It is as the Arabs when they Belly dance at parties and restaurants. They do it for fun. It is not professional until the dancer studies and becomes a “Belly dancer”. The Greeks call the professional Belly dance “Oriental”. So I used to love to do the Chiftetelli and those who watched me loved it, so I guess I started that way. One of my relatives, Fofo De Milo was a singer and dancer. She was from the old school of Greek nightclubs. They sang and danced and played finger cymbals or the def on stage. Fofo liked the way I danced and taught me when she opened a Belly dance studio (1963).
What dancers inspired you early in your career?
Was there ever a time you thought about giving up dance? How did you work through it?
I have seen myself on videos that I did not like, and I have wanted to quit. Especially one that was very bad. I got so depressed that I did not want anyone to see me as I saw myself on that video. I did not look at that particular video again until about four years later. I made myself watch it to see if my opinion changed. It was not as painful as the first time but it was not good. It did not make me feel as bad as the first time I saw it. I could live with it now.
I did stop dancing (as my main means of support) because I felt I was getting too old to perform in clubs. I went to school for Hotel Restaurant Management in Los Angeles. I came to Phoenix, AZ to work in a restaurant management position from 1990 until 2004. I only danced occasionally and taught only on Sundays (my only night off).
I finally got tired of working so many hours and no dancing in my life. I quit the restaurant and started teaching. Thanks to so many of my dance friends, I was able to get into it again more easily than I thought.
What advice would you offer to young dancers considering going professional?
Follow your dreams, work hard, don’t talk bad about anyone, appreciate and respect other dancers, and don’t let your head get too big. Remember that there are no rules there are only guidelines (as my student, Linda, worded it).
Have you ever experienced stage fright? What do you do to tame it?
Of course I experience “stage fright” all the time. To tame it, I hold my head up high, I remember that I am a dancer who knows what she is doing, I go on stage, and let the music engulf me. I am a dancer; I must dance!
What inspired you to develop your famous coin routine? How many hours of practice do you think it took to perfect this incredible routine?
I learned to roll and flutter my belly muscles propped up on my elbows because I could not do it standing. I incorporated the rolls and flutters in the floor-work portion of my dance. This became a very big part of my show. In 1968 at the “People Tree” in Calabasas, California, while I was doing this part of my dance, a customer placed a bill right where it caught perfectly in my belly fold, causing the note to flip neatly over. The crowd went wild! I realized that here was something really amazing I could add to my show. I began to practice the act in my spare time. At first I worked only with the bill, but then I thought to try it with coins. After experimenting with various coins, I settled on quarters as working the best for me. Years of persistence finally led me to the mastery of an incredible nine-coin row, a feat that hasn’t been matched since.
You ask how many hours of practice it took to perfect this routine? I say six years.
You’ve performed on many television shows; which one was your most memorable experience?
Some of the television shows had a live audience, which scared me to death! I remember when I was on “The Merv Griffin Show”, I was so scared (not only by the audience) but earlier, we had a rehearsal and Merv Griffin was there watching. I had to come out from behind the curtains, and I could not find the opening. I was fumbling until I found, or someone backstage helped me find, the opening. Needless to say, I felt like a fool in front of Merv Griffin.
I also remember on “That’s Incredible!” my belly muscles were shaking from fright when I was on the floor waiting for Fran Tarkenton to place the quarters on my belly. This made it difficult for me to do the coins. My voice was also trembling when I asked him to bring the quarters and place them on my belly as I was supposed to do.
Of all the celebrity encounters you’ve experienced, who was the most incredible and why?
I was hired to dance for Mohammed Ali‘s private 40th birthday party at his estate in Hancock Park. Muhammad Ali was enough of a thrill, but there was also Cary Grant! I loved him. I always love to watch the old movies and his are among my favorites. When I told Cary Grant how I enjoyed his films, he said, “Good of You”. That was so English and so like Cary Grant in movies. John Travolta was also there. He has the most incredible eyes in person. The whole evening I was all a-tingle with the thought that Cary Grant was there in the flesh, a dream come true!
What are the most significant changes you have seen in Belly dance over your career?
The Internet, which connects us all, the ready-made costumes that are so easy to buy, the Modern Egyptian style of dance, Tribal Belly Dance, Belly dance competitions, Miles Copeland’s Belly Dance Superstars!
Tell us something unique that not many people know about you.
I played finger cymbals in Damon the Gypsy’s album in the late 1960’s “Song of a Gypsy”. I also played for his remastered version of “Song of a Gypsy” CD and his new album “Gypsy Eyes” a couple years ago. I am in a video of Damon’s “Dance Little Gypsy” http://youtu.be/1NxIEI0M8IQ . I am not Belly dancing in it; I am just changing from a hard businesswoman to a free spirit.
What contemporary dancers are you watching these days?
I imagine you mean overseas. Orit, Randa Kamel and any other Middle Eastern dancers I find on YouTube that interest me.
What style of music makes you dance without realizing it?
Any Middle Eastern music. Especially classical Belly dance music.
What was the most difficult decision you have had to make in your dancing career?
Moving away from Los Angeles, 1990. But good news! I am moving back at the end of August! I will miss all my students, troupe members and friends in Phoenix but it is past time for me to move back.
Any tips, tricks, or advice you would like to share with other dancers?
Stay true to the dance. Don’t let it get lost. Experiment with it, fuse it, but don’t lose the Middle Eastern music and flavor of the Belly dance. Make it better–not obscure.
Is there any other style of dance to which you are particularly drawn?
I love Flamenco and Classical Indian dance. I have taken Flamenco in the past to help with my posture and arms. I did not want to devote the time to be a professional Flamenco dancer. I know how much time I would have had to put into it to be good, that is why I decided to stick to my Belly dancing which I love most. I love watching Classical Indian dancing but I have not studied it yet.
Helena Vlahos will be here teaching workshops and performing at this year’s “Carnival of Stars Festival”. I am super-anxious to learn the abdominal dexterity she is famous for and plan to soak up as much of her mojo as I can.
More about Helena at http://www.helenavlahos.com/
Helena rolling coins in February 2011
Helena on Dynasty TV show
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