Belly belles

Local women are getting hip to Middle Eastern steps

When belly-dance matriarch Elena Lentini arrives in Portland for a rare workshop, she'll find belly dancing flourishing in a town with its fair share of strippers, hippie chicks and yoga girls.

'It's become more acceptable lately,' says Jane Archer, who runs the Circle, a neotribal belly-dance company of six women. 'In the 1960s belly dancing used to be done by a lot of hippies who didn't care what people thought of them.'

In subsequent decades, she says, 'somehow it got twisted into stripping. The moves can be very sensual, you're moving your hips, and people sometimes don't know what to make of that.'

Now older women and housewives are turning up for the lessons Archer leads at a studio just off Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard.

That studio actually belongs to Sharita (real name: Elinor Friedberg), one of the movers and shakers in Portland's belly dance scene. She's bringing Elena, as she's known Ñ this is showbiz, after all Ñ to Portland because she considers the Italian-American grandmother from New York to be the best in the business.

'When she dances, there's abandon, and yet control,' Sharita says of her former teacher. 'It's like watching the statues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art come to life.'

Sharita, who will be opening for Elena at a Saturday evening performance, demonstrates her dance chops in her living room. All tricked out in sparkly bra and skirt, she performs a very balletic version of belly dance, as she interprets a piece of classical music, Liszt's Second Hungarian Rhapsody.

'I'm not the most skilled dancer,' she admits. 'But I try to always be novel.'

Although she performs with a cheerleader smile, Sharita is at pains to point out that her moves are nothing like the Los Angeles style, which is very commercial, 'very Vegas.'

'They all have the jazz walk when they come out,' she says pointedly.

Urban Berbers

The neotribal scene in Portland is rooted in the work of Gypsy Caravan, a modern tribal belly-dance troupe founded in 1991 by artistic director Paulette Rees-Denis. They see themselves as 'urban Berbers,' nomads with a legacy of dance and song. The idea is that belly dance was spread through the Middle East by gypsies originating in India. If you've just moved here from Billings or Sacramento, you, too, can be part of a family.

It's no surprise that Gypsy Caravan will be out of town touring when Elena is here, since there is little love lost between Rees-Denis and those who will perform Saturday night.

Archer danced with Gypsy Caravan but eventually broke away and formed the Circle. She stresses the 'neo' in neotribal to differentiate herself. In Archer's class are two young women with dreadlocks and large tattoos on the small of their backs. The drums pound, women trill like Xena, bash their zills (finger cymbals) and make space for each other in the circle. But there's nothing reminiscent of Oregon Country Fair thrash about the way they move. It is all sensuality and grace.

Archer herself has never been to the Middle East. As she explains it, the neotribal style, which is popular in Portland and Eugene, is a cross between the tribal style that started in San Francisco in the 1960s and the cabaret style. Tribal is quite repetitive and is usually danced in a group.

Cabaret is more glitzy, more for the soloist. To the untrained eye, these differences are not obvious, but they matter to the dancers.

Manly moves

Every Friday at Portland State University, Sharita leads a few dozen beginner students through the basic 'box locks' (hip thrusts) and shimmies, as Georges Lammam's Arabic violin blasts from the speakers in Room 207 of the Stott Center.

'Go slow,' she shouts. 'This does not come from your cell-phone culture!'

Even men are getting in on the act. Sharita has a guy called Mark in her class, a T-shirt-and-shorts dude who looks happy among the belly rings and sarongs. He gamely shunts his square body up and down the room while everyone else walks like an Egyptian pussycat.

At the Circle's rehearsal, Alfredo Gormez, 49, steps in. He's just visiting from Eugene. Gormez has been doing Middle Eastern dance for 23 years and is fluent in all sorts of styles: Cossack kicks, Belorussian struts, you name it.

He puts the dance in perspective, connecting it to folk dances in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, the Caucasus and Iran. A slight figure in black jeans, Gormez has no belly to undulate. 'I see it as more to do with arms and hips,' he says.

Gormez also claims it's not just a way to meet women.

'There's quite a stigma if a man puts on harem pants and a vest, but it's really just social dancing,' he says.

Belly dancing has always been the plus-size equal opportunity option when it comes to picking a hobby. Girls whose hips aren't getting any smaller and whose abs will never look like a rack of lamb find salvation when they wrap a sparkly scarf around their tushes, kick off their shoes and get down. And why not? Pound for pound, it's seductive as hell.

'I saw it, and I thought it was so beautiful,' says Meredith Michaud, 23, one of Archer's students. 'You can use your womanly body; it's not seen as a negative thing. I also enjoy the non-4/4 rhythms, the 7/8s and 10/8s. They're fun, and you never normally get to hear them.'

Picking and choosing from another culture works both ways. Referring to the Janet Jackson moves showing up on Middle Eastern belly dance videos, Sharita says: 'In Egypt, now they're experiencing the 1980s. I've seen them dancing in prom dresses.'

It might sound like high school, but for Sharita, bringing her hero to town is what it's all about: 'A lot of dancers just get fat and fall apart. But Elena's majesty and intensity only become more extreme as she gets older.'