Don’t laugh,but the Belly Dancer of the Universe Competition in Long Beach was abs-olutely mesmerizing and humbling
A belly dancing competition is not a place to find a date.
Unfortunately, this was not one of my first thoughts when I walked into the Seaside Ballroom at the Long Beach Convention Center during the first day of the 26th annual Belly Dancer of the Universe Competition last Saturday.
I didn’t know what to expect.
Having traveled to Morocco a couple of years ago and walking through the low-hanging, canopy-covered market streets lined with brightly-colored bras and skirts, wondering what these sensual costumes were used for, I was instantly fixed on Luna, a belly dancer from California who was called onto stage as I entered the small ballroom.
With her long, brown, wavy hair, turquoise-bedazzled bra and joyful, yet captivating glances toward the five judges and the half-filled audience seats, she floated to the center of the stage, awaiting the drum-induced music.
I don’t think I blinked once.
Belly dancing originated in the Middle East, and is one the oldest remaining dance. The term “belly dances” is directly derived from the French phrase “danse du ventre.”
This year’s global competition brought dancers from more than 15 countries including France, Trinidad and Tobago, Russia and Turkey.
For Jasirah, a Polish dancer who competed in Luna’s Egyptian Primary category, this was her first United States visit and competition.
Over two days, the competition included various components of belly dancing, from the costumes to the music. Workshops were offered for people looking to learn more about the art form as well as a meet- and-greet with some of the elite dancers.
Atlantis Long, a celebrated member of the belly dancing world with over 20 years of professional experience, produced the Belly Dancer of the Universe Competition with her mother to bring culture and awareness to Long Beach.
Her mother Tonya Chianis, a religious practitioner who taught and performed with Long, is a decorated belly dancer, having won numerous awards, including a seat in the Middle Eastern Culture and Dance Association Hall of Fame. Twice.
“This is an event of Olympic caliber and that the same pure study and work that goes into it, just like any other art form, whether it be ballet, jazz, gymnastics, and that’s what we are trying to bring to the public,” Long said.
Long and Chianis didn’t outsource for competitors. They didn’t have to. Their grown reputation in the belly dancing community does not require them to “go out and solicit people,” Long said.
The dancers come to them.
“My mother is revered all over the globe,” Long said. “Your reputation has a lot to do with it, and with that comes people who want to help you, that want to be connected to you,” she added.
Ingrid Rushing, a first-time competitor and California-native who has been belly dancing for six years, believes that belly dancing, aside from its sexualized scrutiny, is a strong source for female empowerment.
“It brings such joy,” Rushing said. “I think for me, being a classic Egyptian-style dancer, it’s the culture of the dance. For me it feels really natural. It’s a great way for women to liberate. It’s good if it’s done with class. It’s just gorgeous to watch.”
Gorgeous. Mesmerizing. Humbling.
“[The competition is] trying to change the mindset of the art,” Long said. “And it happened in Long Beach because we both live here, and Long Beach actually was the ‘international city,’ and still is.”
The energy hovering from the dressing room was more than intense. It was life-or-death. Makeup ran down faces of dancers as they slowly descended the stairs of the stage after their dances. These women are able to be sexy yet graceful while exhibiting strength and passion, and are able to remove the Hollywood-laid stigma of what belly dancing is.
It is anything but a sex show.