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The Gilded Serpent presents...
Goddess Power
Comes to Baltimore
by Elaine

"Take my hand, I'm a stranger in Paradise."

In one of those little quirks of "fate," I left Baltimore 45 years ago shortly after performing as a harem dancer in a local performance of "Kismet," (Turkish for fate) only to return again recently to be surrounded by-harem dancers!  All shapes, all sizes, all ages and colors, joyfully clad in hip scarves, leotards, sports bras, a rainbow of tinted veils in hand, eager to join The Daughters of Rhea in their annual BellyPalooza.

I had made a reservation at Days Inn Inner Harbor on for a weekend getaway to Baltimore, my hometown, to munch on crab cakes at the Cross Street Market, take a stroll through funky Fells Point and enjoy the quiet ambience of Mt. Vernon Place.  Shortly thereafter, I came across an announcement for BellyPalooza on the Internet.  Rhea and daughters Piper and Melina would be holding a weekend of dance seminars and a bazaar on the same weekend that I planned my trip!   

Rhea had danced at the Greek Taverna in the early '70s at around the same time that I worked there as a cocktail waitress.  Rhea was always extremely personable and a very exuberant performer.  There were a few really good dancers in North Beach at the time, but Rhea was especially well respected by the owners by virtue of the fact that she could really grab an audience.  She was a true entertainer.  Who could forget her dynamic entrances and bemused countenance, even in the highly competitive atmosphere of Broadway in the era of Bagdad and Casbah, Plaka Taverna and the numerous clubs that dotted the San Francisco Bay Area?  

So, having read of her wonderful adventures since that time-not to mention the impressive credentials of her two beautiful dancer-daughters, Melina and Piper-I made a point of registering for BellyPalooza right away.  BellyPalooza comprised two full days of belly dance seminars over the weekend of August 7th and 8th on the Homewood campus of Johns Hopkins University.  There was also a scheduled performance at the Baltmore Museum of Art the evening of Saturday, August 7th called "Belly Dance Magic, an Evening with the Daughters of Rhea and Friends."

  "Baubles, bangles, hear how they ring, jing-a-ling-a."

Driving down 95 from New York on Saturday, I anticipated what I would buy at the BellyPalooza bazaar.  I had already ordered a fancy pair of zills from Turkish Emporium, but my student veil was over-dyed in an amateur attempt at tie-dying and in pretty sad shape.  I was anxious to buy something special, if only as a memento of the event.   

I was blinded by the array of belly dance paraphernalia displayed, from simple cholis to dazzling costume jewelry and elaborate costumes.  Although I didn't find quite the right veil, I did find a nifty hip scarf in black fringed chiffon with multi-colored sequins that was perfect!  I even tied the scarf over my jeans while I continued to "window shop" the belly-wares, lest anyone else snatch it up.  The vendor, Lisanna, was more gracious than most in not getting the least bit uptight as I wandered the aisles in her hip-scarf.

"Not since Ninevah, not since Tyre."

Lisanna is with Salome's Tent, a belly dance supplier website, and she was kind enough to show me the various types of finger cymbals she sold, even though I explained that I had just purchased a deluxe pair from TurkeyShe held each pair delicately and gently tapped them together demonstrating the different tones they made.  I liked the silver "Tutankhamen" pair, which I eventually ordered from her, along with a hot pink practice veil, a nice medium weight and a very manageable 36" width.   

Afterwards, I was off to my old neighborhood of Fells Point for dinner at Bertha's on South Broadway, all the while wearing my pretty new hip scarf. Baltimoreans are not particularly innovative (John Waters aside) and everyone seemed fairly astounded by my bold accessorizing.  As usual, I eavesdropped on the conversations at neighboring tables, which usually involved a woman asking a man what he thinks of such-and-such.  Very one-sided conversations, these, which often sounded much like TV's Bill O'Reilly espousing his ultra-conservative political point of view. (Probably why I left Baltimore in the first place.)  Is it any wonder that goddess-power had finally taken root?    

"Zubbediya, Zubbediya. Ishkaba-ya. Shabash!"

I then rushed back to my hotel to change. I arrived in plenty of time to observe the local community of belly dancers and students drawn to The Daughters of Rhea performance at Baltimore Museum of Art.  This was no jaded New York audience, but an earnestly admiring group of women (and men) patiently awaiting the star performers in contained but eager anticipation.    

The first half of the two-part show consisted of performances by Melina and Piper in duet and solo performances, by Artemis, a specialist in Turkish dance, and the student ensemble.  Melina and Piper, dancers most of their lives, are exceptional performers.  To me, the main difference in their styles lies in how they use their energy.  Piper demonstrates exquisite control and technique-my feeling was that she somehow gathers up her aura or energy and allows it to flow back to the audience.  Her sensitive performance of Fatamorgana, "a dance of longing for a protected world filled with childhood hopes and dreams" according to the dance program, literally brought tears to my eyes.   

Melina seems to save her energy, revealing it in flourishes of beautiful dancer's line and bold creative choices.  In her performance of Pom Pero Pero she appeared in flamenco regalia, demonstrating the influences of Turkish Rom on belly dance.  It was hard to take my eyes away from her, especially when she danced in golden angel wings in Of Wings and Flame.  The audience was truly amazed at her trapeze performance with circus performer Sacha Pavalata in the second act. A good reason to ration one's energy!  

Rhea closed the first half of the show with a spectacular performance.  She entered like a queen, wearing her years of cabaret experience in gilded layers.  After her usual lively entrance, she awed the audience with her expert floor and sword work, rolling the sharpened saber on her well-muscled belly to the audience's delight.  In closing, accompanied by two drummers, she demonstrated her outstanding showmanship and unique ability to incorporate humor into her performance without belittling her art.

Rhea and daughters opened the second part of the show with two traditional Greek dances, the Hasapiko and the Zembekiko.  Years spent on the taverna scene, both in San Francisco and Athens, were apparent.  The taverna culture is warm and familial, consisting of men drinking and dancing out their joys and frustrations in a work-day world.  Their choice of music was very familiar to me.  How many times had I myself danced to Trio Bel Canto's melodic version of Ta Dilina and Dionisiou's Paliazis, back in the sparkling taverna days of North Beach!  Needless to say, I wished I could be up there with them.  

The aforementioned trapeze act with Sacha Pavlata was the big surprise of the evening.  (The other surprise was the charming Hey Mama danced by expectant mama Valarie, a hip-hop belly dance that the audience really enjoyed.)  Melina also performs with Circus Flora, and the sensuous trapeze act with Sacha was an unexpected treat.   

The program was interspersed with performances by the local Daughters of Rhea dance ensemble, including, flirty gypsy dances and sleek cabaret dances, all demonstrating the fine technique of teacher and choreographer Piper.  Both parts of the show also were marked by Turkish style performances by Artemis, who energetically demonstrated her expert repertoire of Turkish cabaret, gypsy and folk dances.  She is clearly well versed in the art of Turkish dance and her performances contributed greatly to the variety and professionalism of "Belly Dance Magic."  

One of the main things I took away from BellyPalooza was that belly dance was not limited in music, dress, or venue.  This ancient art could successfully incorporate modern styles and music while still getting the same feminine empowering message across.  It is also amazing that they managed to put in two full days of dance classes along with the show.  Beyond that, I was impressed by the fact that these three women, The Daughters of Rhea, in no way limit themselves.  They have successfully combined belly dance and professional academic careers into full and enviable lives, following the inspiration of mother Rhea.  What an inspiration!  

(Italicized excerpts are from "Kismet", a Musical Arabian Nights by Robert Wright & George Forrest)

Photo captions are taken from the program notes

Hasapiko performed by Rhea, Melina, & Piper
Developed over years of practice in smoky Athenian tavernas. Most Greek folkdances are associated with outdoor village life of a bygone era, but the Hasapiko evolved among refugees in city tavernas and Rembtika clubs after the forced exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey that occurred as a result of the failed attempt by Greece to recapture Constantinople in 1919. The Hasapiko is un-choreographed and thus usually performed by small groups of friends who can follow the leader by prearranged signals passed from hand to shoulder.

Zembekiko by Rhea, Melina, & Piper
Like American Blues, Rembetika is the Greek version of the outsider’s music. The Zembekiko is the classic Rembetika dance, an individualist expression of inner turmoil and struggle. Sometimes called the drunken sailor’s dance for its seeming clumsiness, the Zembekiko actually requires a great deal of athletic skill and dexterity.

Ashuk Mashuk, Osman Mouratoglu
, performed by Artemis
In Turkey, this ancient comedic dance is performed by men, often village people who simply twist their shirts into turbans and paint faces on their bellies. Researched and choreographed by Elizabeth Artemis Mourat. Music: Istanbul Havasi from the Gypsy Music of Constantinople CD.

Fatamorgana performed by Piper
A dance of longing for a protected world filled with childhood hopes and dreams. Music: Fatamorgana by Ofra Haza

Reve performed by Melina & Sacha
Romantic trapeze duet choreographed by 5th generation Czech circus artist Alexandre Sacha Pavlata, and embellished with oriental stylings by budding trapeze artist Melina. Music by Ramasutra and Chris Spheeris from the Nirvana Lou
nge CD.

Of Wings and Flame peformed by Melina
Pushing the boundaries of Belly Dance once again, Melina lights up the stage with her wild wings of gold followed by her trademark candle dance, performed to Edith Piaf. Her music choices reflect her linguistic passions and global sensibilities: Greek and French.

Have a comment? Send us a letter!
Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

Ready for More?
more by Elaine
10-17-03 The Greek Scene by Elaine
There were the usual politics at the Taverna, of course, and if management felt that a dancer was holding back on her tips, she rarely made another appearance.

8-25-04 Rhea's Travels to Syria, Part 1, The Delusion is Shattered
It looked like a Middle Eastern attempt at Las Vegas and Disneyland, upscale discotheques where attractive Moldavian that aforementioned familiar tributary, than go on to another one.

7-5-04 Cabaret: Is it a dirty word? by Piper Reid Hunt, PhD
American Cabaret, the original fusion belly dance, is accessible and fun for everyone, regardless of one’s dance education

10-4-04 Folktour's 2nd Annual Music and Dance Camp Photos by Carl Miller, Report by Mark Balahadia
Pennsylvania, May 2004, Dancers and musicians all over the East Coast (and abroad) came to participate in the four-day oriental dance and music camp.

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