The best in belly dancing

Bellydance Superstars make return appearance in Portland
Moria Chappell of Olympia, Wash., is one of the elite 15 who perform as the Bellydance Superstars.

While performing, Moria Chappell doesn’t think of belly dancing as sexy or erotic. Or at least, she isn’t trying to be sexy or erotic. “It’s very sensual — the body moving well is a beautiful thing to watch,” says Chappell, an Olympia resident and longtime member of the Bellydance Superstars, who perform in Portland at the Aladdin Theater on Oct. 8. “In different societies, it’s interpreted differently. We’re not trying to seduce anyone. “We’re thinking and focusing on contraction ‘sharp’ and undulation ‘smooth.’ ” As with anything, the best at something make the act look very easy. But belly dancing isn’t easy. It’s about muscles contracting and muscle memory and rhythm and endurance. And, over the years, belly dancing has evolved from its Middle Eastern roots to incorporate forms of dance from all over the world. Chappell, 30, got her start in the living room with her mother, who always had friends over at the family house simply to dance for fun and fitness. It was a “bohemian artist” family, and she lived in several places — South Carolina, Tennessee, Atlanta, Orange County, Calif. She recently moved to Olympia, Wash., from Pittsburgh, to live with a sister and be close to belly dance friends in Port Townsend. But, her home is really on the road. At first, she didn’t like belly dancing, but started taking it seriously in college. Since joining Bellydance Superstars, a 15-member troupe, she has performed and taught lessons in about 12 countries — and she paid off her student loans, after getting a degree in English from UC-Irvine, in two years. There are basic forms of belly dancing: traditional, most often accompanied with capes and veils, and tribal, where performers don tattoos and dreadlocks. Another form, tribal fusion, which Chappell does, takes off from there, with ornate costumes and makeup and evolving choreography. “Her style, both feminine and fierce, commands an intensity and precision that epitomizes tribal fusion isolation and individualism,” reads her Bellydance Superstars biography. Certain forms of belly dancing are accepted in certain countries. The Bellydance Superstars have not performed in Egypt, for example, because “there’s tension politically,” Chappell says. “It’s their dance, they like it that way. We are all Americans, and hopefully they’ll open their minds and arms and allow us to come in and show what we do. I’ve performed only in Morocco (in the Middle East), the reaction was great, and we’re going back there at the end of November; we were there in spring 2008. “It was exciting. ‘They’re doing our dance.’ But, other times, it was ‘wait a minute, that’s our dance.’ ” Indeed, belly dancing can be interpreted differently, depending on geography. Chappell says American audiences love the gimmicks — lights flashing, big props, drops and kicks. She remembers performing in Taiwan, and 30 seconds into the show and during a complicated layering section, “the crowd went wild, freaking out, and they didn’t react at all to the gimmicks but reacted to the technical aspects of the movement.” In England, she adds, people sat quietly until the end of the show. Chappell says tribal fusion dancers push the limits of belly dancing. “It’s a really smart word for a big dance grouping,” says Chappell, adding that the form of dance got its start in 1960s California and evolved with dress, makeup, dreadlocks, piercings and tattoos. “It’s almost an art form in its infancy. Where it grows to, who knows? “It became more fantasy art, with textiles, jewelry and the sense of beauty, more avant garde. Artistic, edgy. Then, they mixed in things like hip-hop, modern music, and it exploded into anything goes. That’s why it’s difficult to define.” Although there are different forms, belly dancing is all about the abdomen. “It’s very different than ballet — that takes strength and flexibility but is more skeletal,” Chappell says. “Ballet dancers can balance on their toes, extend their leg and keep their core solid. “For belly dancers, it’s the reverse. You have the main structure of the upper back, but you keep your hips and belly loose so you can manipulate those. You have to base yourself totally different. You’re using the muscles psoas, lower and upper belly. You can teach someone and say, ‘OK, contract your belly,’ but there are three areas. … Once you’re contracting one muscle, others have to extend so the shape can happen. If you’re over and out on one side, you’re contracting and pulling on another. … Another element is layering, where certain muscle groups are doing one action and another doing another — like patting the belly and rubbing the head. You have vertical movement on top of horizontal and maybe at different tempos. It’s a great cerebral exercise.” Chappell believes, then, that belly dancing can be an activity for a lifetime, that it’s low-impact. But, again, it’s about choreographed movement and muscle-memory. “If you’re wanting to pick it up, it definitely takes a while,” she says. “It’s intense, and you have to train for it, but you can do it until you’re 60.” The Bellydance Superstars is an extremely hard entertainment troupe to crack. Leaders have auditions all over the world, and only 15 make it. Once on tour, the women perform virtually every night. Chappell says the travel and performing can be a grind, but once the outfit, makeup and accessories are in place and the lights go on, it’s all about show biz. “You ride the wave,” she says. “On stage dancing is the easy part.” The Bellydance Superstars have been to Portland in the past. Typically, the audience at shows is made up of mostly women, Chappell says. “Men are usually dragged there by a woman and end up enjoying the show,” she says. “It’s a cross between sensuality and strength and colors and music, it’s a beautiful thing to watch. “It’s healthy, because it changes the perception of what is sexy. It’s a different way than Americans use dance, like you see on TV; this is more like here’s the show and you’re invited to watch.”