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The pale, antiseptic lobby of the Union Square Holiday Inn makes the hotel seem an unlikely place for a celebration of Oriental dance. Luckily, a small, electronic billboard and a gaggle of German tourists in ugly but practical shoes doing clumsy hip wiggles confirm the whereabouts of the 14th annual Mr. and Miss America of the Belly Dance Contest. In the second-floor foyer, suited men and well-coiffed women peruse tables offering colorful kaftans, veils, harem pants, and jewelry -- all the accessories necessary for creating a full-blown Arabian fantasy, including instructional tapes on the seductive art of belly dancing. In one corner, a 24-year-old girl with that elaborately casual Friends hairdo allows a henna artist to adorn her palms in intricate rust-colored vines. Her companions, also elaborately casual, watch in mild amusement while nibbling on dolmas from the Middle Eastern buffet. The majority of the other women in the crowd are belly dancers, some of them from as far as Connecticut, many of them former students of Magana Baptiste, the Belly Dancing Hall of Fame honoree who runs both the San Francisco Royal Academy of Dance and the International Belly Dance Festival.
Francis Hass is not a belly dancer. He is a heavyset admirer of belly dancers who has decked himself out in flowing animal-print pants and an embroidered shirt. Earlier in the evening, he became smitten by the startling beauty of Cuba's Amar, winner of last year's Miss America and Ms. World of the Belly Dance titles. He is mad about her, and briefly considers consulting the on-call fortuneteller, but opts for a glass of wine instead. "Like I need a fortuneteller to say, 'In your dreams, Hass.' " (Hass has attended the Renaissance Pleasure Faire 13 times and the International Bel-ly Dance Festival twice.)
In the darkened ballroom, Nazir Latouf, an unbelievably jolly vocalist clad in traditional Middle Eastern gear, stomps his way through a rousing number while his band, led by percussionist Reda Darwish, grins at him from behind. Crystal chandeliers glow dimly overhead, reflecting in the mirrored wall. The crowd smiles back and claps along politely as tuxedoed waiters clear empty wine glasses from the crisp, white tablecloths before them. Contest judges -- among them the renowned Dr. Mo Geddawi, who founded Egypt's Reda Troupe; Phaedra Ameerah, producer of the Moon Over Denver Festival; San Francisco poet laureate Richard Angilly; and Natica Angilly, who serves as president of the Artists Embassy -- sit at a long table in front of the stage. The ballroom is standing-room-only when Magana Baptiste announces that the "moment everyone has been waiting for" is about to begin. Latecomers trickle in from the belly dancing bazaar -- mostly clean-cut young men and women dressed like hippies and beautiful Gypsy scamps -- and plop themselves down on the floor in anticipation.
Belly dancers are judged on five points: entrance, rhythm and grace, costume, knowledge of dance, and dancing skill. At Baptiste's request, the contestants, all of them women (apparently the "Mr." portion of the contest is held at some other time), parade across the stage in a vivid exhibition of flashing sequins and fluttering veils. It is a pageant of color -- red, orange, blue, purple, white, black, pink, green -- with nearly as many different types of women. There are women in their early 20s; women in their mid- to late 40s; African-American women; Hawaiian women; Filipino women; Midwestern women; women with purple hair; women with thick, black hair; women with badly permed hair; short women; tall women; heavy women; slender women; women who have been dancing for 21 years; and women who have only just begun. The only sort not present is the ever-popular emaciated waif. Unlike, say, ballet dancing, belly dancing extols the comeliness of the adult female body. To belly dance, you must have veils and things that jiggle -- hips, tits, buttocks, and, you guessed it, a belly. The rest is open to interpretation and temperament.
Although it elicits moans from a table of veteran dancers, Daleela believes that Mediterranean dance has a healing power, at least psychologically. Before dancing, Naiya says that she loves the art form because it doesn't exclude people as they become older. Hateji, who is the largest girl of the lot, moves with complete grace countered by overflowing giddiness. Michella, a '50s pinup come to life, dances more with her eyes than anything else. Theadra performs with a sword and a frozen Mary Kay smile. And San Francisco's own Calliope (you may have seen her at Pasha) has a shimmy that could melt butter at a hundred paces.
"Together," says Hass, "they are the perfect woman. Actually, Calliope may be the perfect woman all on her own." The judges agree, selecting her as Miss America of the Belly Dance and giving her the grand prize of three days and two nights in Las Vegas, Reno, or Lake Tahoe. As of press time, Calliope had not asked Hass to accompany her.
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By Silke Tudor
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