The Spell Of Belly Dance -- More Women, In Search Of The Spiritual, Set The Art Form Jangling

They are doctors, managers, mothers and secretaries. At night, they slip on their bead-and-sequin-studded bras and matching skirts and are enveloped by rhythmic clapping as they move to the sounds of the Middle Eastern daf and derbakkeh.

The ancient art of belly dance, booming in the 1970s, is back.

Many class sizes have quadrupled since 1994, sales of locally made instructional videos have increased 20 percent a year over the same period, belly-dance retreats that take Seattle women and others from all over the world to Maui are sold out a year in advance, and national competitions in the Pacific Northwest have more contestants than ever.

Some of the nation's best belly dancers live in Seattle, and they are on a mission: They want their dance to be as revered as ballet, have the draw of flamenco and the cultural appreciation of the hula.

"The resurgence now comes because it casts us into a spell," says an Eastside belly dancer who goes by the professional name Aleili. "Every time I do a hip circle, it is something new I am exploring and discovering. Women come in who are very large, and this gives them a place of acceptance."

Women are being drawn to belly dance because they like the way it makes them feel, she says. Three-hundred-pound women are dancing alongside 8-year-olds, and each can shimmy and bump and turn the way the music tells her.

This weekend, 110 belly dancers of all levels will perform outdoors at Hiawatha Community Center in West Seattle. The annual Mediterranean Fantasy Festival will offer dance stages, food and ethnic-costume booths.

In the evenings, some of these dancers will perform at local restaurants and wedding receptions before crowds clapping in rhythm and sometimes joining the dance on the sidelines. Many will go to Niko's Place in downtown Seattle to watch Zaphara Delmarter, one of Seattle's best-known belly dancers. She is known simply as Zaphara.

Zaphara's Tuesday-night classes at Phinney Ridge Neighborhood Center are at capacity and attract women like Zena Harville.

"I first heard the music when I was a little girl, and I immediately loved it," Harville, a hair stylist, says.

Harville has been studying under Zaphara for two years. Harville, 35, has performed about 30 times at area festivals and nightclubs, and is in Zaphara's dance troupe.

"It takes nine to 10 years of experience to become a really top-notch dancer," Zaphara says.

When Zaphara teaches her advanced class how to move, her hip circles are more refined, her shimmies more intricate.

Zaphara's long, brown hair and dark, expressive eyes are a product of her Greek-immigrant parents. The part-time chocolate-factory manager won't say her age, and it really doesn't matter. The woman still moves with the grace of a 20-year-old, and has been dancing that long. It shows.

She sees the belly-dance trend as "a self-esteem thing. Most (women) are not 21, and carry a few extra pounds. It is addicting, because it makes you feel good. I try to make it fun, as opposed to a chore. Plus, most spouses think it is great."

Another Seattle belly dancer, who goes by the professional name Mish Mish, says the boom is due, in part, to the passion it elicits from women. Her fanaticism for the dance permeates her entire house: downstairs, two closets are full of glittery bras, silky skirts and shiny dresses she intricately sewed herself. The recreation room is a dance floor with a long mirror and a cassette player and she and her dance troupes spend hours practicing there.

While Mish Mish's life revolves around dance, Dr. Anita Ross is both a physician and professional belly dancer. Her white coat and stethoscope are replaced with her famous veils and glittery headbands. The family-practice physician is also Sabura, Miss Bellydancer U.S.A. 1996. She has cut back her office hours so she can spend more time dancing.

At a Lebanese wedding reception, she entertained 400 guests with her precise techniques. She moves her body like a baker kneads dough: Every inch can be shaped the way she wants.

Sabura joined with belly dancers Tina Sargent and Souzan Seshima in founding a local organization to promote this form of Middle Eastern dance. Middle East Arts International's pamphlets recognize that even the term "belly dance" is an Americanism, and refer to it by its true names, danse orientale, raqs araby, raqs sharky or beledi.

When belly dance is done right, it has little to do with sex, dancers say. "It is a lot of other things, too," Sargent, 29, says. "You have happiness, you have serious moments, sexy moments; but most women say they are learning the dance because they are proud to be a woman, and this makes them feel in touch with their inner selves."

Others take the dance and personalize it. Aleili, the Eastside dancer, teaches a class called "Yoga for Belly Dancers." The 49-year-old meshes the two into one art form. Six years ago, she had about three students. Now, her classes have 35 in each, and she is adding five new classes in the fall.

"Belly Metal" is another variation. Habeeb, Miss Bellydancer, People's Choice, USA 1999, performs "belly metal," in which she dances to Arabic music for three minutes, then abruptly changes to heavy metal like Ozzy Osbourne.

For belly dancer Delilah Flynn, the dance takes her on a physical and "spiritual" journey to Hawaii.

Flynn, who has produced 11 videos, has taken hundreds of women to Maui over the years. There, they enter the sea at dawn and belly dance to the live beats of the derbakkeh and twang of the oud. Her 10-day, $1,595 retreats are sold out long in advance, and this year, she added a second one.

"They are doing it for themselves, their sanity," says the 44-year-old. "They are staying in dance troupes longer than their marriages. It gives you power over your body - then you get power over your life."

----------------- Belly-dance facts -----------------

-- Group lessons average $10-$15 a class, and $65-$80 for an eight-week session. Private lessons are usually about $40 an hour.

-- A typical evening at a Seattle restaurant brings a dancer $40 in pay and about half that in tips, often slipped into their costumes.

-- Costumes can be pricey, as much as several thousand dollars.

-- The true origins of the dance are still debated, but most sources think it originated in temple dances of the mother goddess religions in 5500 B.C. and in the folk dances and tribal dances of the Middle East and North Africa.

-- Belly dancing came to America via the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

-- A belly dancer does a more theatrical style of the same basic movements a family would do together in the Middle East at a party or wedding reception. Professionals use tools such as the cane, the finger cymbals and veils that one wouldn't see on an average citizen.

-- Each country differs in its traditions. Egyptian weddings, for example, are more likely to have a belly dancer than ones in Syria. Some Muslim brides and grooms hold two separate receptions for each of the sexes; people are then more likely to dance uninhibited.

------------------------- Places to see belly dance -------------------------

-- Mediterranean Fantasy Festival, tomorrow and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Free. Instructional workshops also available. Hiawatha Community Center, 2700 California Ave. S.W. Festival Web site:

-- Kolbeh Persian Restaurant, Friday and Saturday nights, 1956 1st Ave. S. 206-224-9999

-- Caspian Grill, Friday and Saturday nights, 5517 University Way N.E., Seattle, 206-524-3434

-- Tula's, Thursday nights, 2214 Second Ave., Seattle. Sian, organizer: 206-762-3472

-- Niko's Place, Saturday nights, 315 First Ave. N., Seattle. 206-282-7791

--------------------------- Places to learn belly dance ---------------------------

-- Seattle Source for Bellydance:

-- All-day workshop featuring Janeni Rathor, legendary dancer from Santa Monica, Calif., Aug. 8, Cedar Park Arts Center in Lake City, 3737 N.E. 135th St., Seattle, 425-392-9811, $40.

-- Zaphara (Lake City and Phinney Ridge): 206-632-2416

-- Mish Mish (University District): 206-528-1455

-- Sabura (Phinney Ridge): 206-784-1532 or e-mail

-- Tina Sargent (downtown): 206-632-6584 or e-mail

-- Aleili (Bellevue and Issaquah): 425-392-9811 or e-mail; also sells instructional video;

-- Saida (Bremerton): 360-373-4880 or e-mail

-- Hasani (Gig Harbor) 253-858-2755 or e-mail

-- Alexandra (Redmond) 425-881-6245

-- Delilah 206-632-2353;

-- Habeeb (Capitol Hill) 206-325-5789 or e-mail