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There Are Aliens Among Us & They're Wearing Sequins: The Bellydancer of the Universe Competition Is This Weekend

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Photo by Carl Sermon
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By Andreanna Ditton/Special to LAistFill the Long Beach Convention Center with belly dancers and belly dance enthusiasts and it will look pretty much like you’d expect: a sea of glitter, glitz, chiffon, sequins, false eyelashes, fake hair and boundless enthusiasm. Throw in a collection of cash prizes and cheering crowds and you have the 21st Annual Bellydancer of the Universe Competition (BDUC), happening this weekend. (So far, there haven’t been any alien competitors, but the table is open to them.)

Mother/daughter dancers and promotional team Tonya Chianis and Atlantis Long held the first BDUC competition in part to help bridge cultural gaps through dance during the height of Desert Storm. Seasoned professionals and well known entertainers, the duo brought their experience, knowledge and serious sense of fun to the table to create something new for the belly dance community.

Over the years, the competition has evolved from a local Southern California event to an international spectacle. Dancers, vendors, teachers and students come from Japan, Korea, Mexico, South America, Europe and all over the U.S. to compete, give workshops, sell costumes, catch up with old friends and make new ones. “In the beginning,” says Atlantis, “I used to cook a big dinner for the judges and crew to express our appreciation. I’d pop out during one of the long categories - start the sauce, open the wine. Unfortunately, we’ve gotten too big for me to still do that! But we still try to make it special.”

From two initial categories - group and universal with an improv finale, there are now 10 different options. It’s a true celebration of the sensual, sophisticated art form that originated in the Middle East. The BDUC showcases both the classical Egyptian and cabaret styles, and the more flamboyant, playful iterations with the troupe, all ages and fusion categories.

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Dancers are judged on their skill with rhythms, styles, costuming, and presentation. For attendees unfamiliar with belly dance, it’s a chance to learn about a new art form--one that involves lots of glitter, elegant body isolations and hard-won skill.

At stake is up to $5000 and a trophy, along with starring roles in the BDUC DVDs and promotional pieces for the following year’s competition. Winners get the opportunity to teach and perform all over the community, locally and abroad thanks to the support of Tonya and Atlantis. The competition is friendly but fierce: never underestimate the will of a woman (or man) in 20 pounds of sequins who’s been practicing a complicated routine for a year or more.

Judges are some of the legends in the field: among them former Bellydance Superstar Jillina, Sahra Saeda, and Helena Vlahos--a beautiful dancer also known for her ability to roll multiple quarters along her toned and talented midriff

These judges have seen it all, including one memorable year when part of a (male) contestant’s wardrobe slipped off and ended up wrapped around the head of the judge.

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The wardrobe malfunction is a rare occurrence, but there are always surprises: dancers playfully pushing the boundaries of their category, making the art their own with hip-hop or Bollywood soundtracks, feather boas, and the more traditional swords, wings, or canes, layering individual personality and flair onto a base of belly dance.

Participation is encouraged. Audience members-- even those with little knowledge of a 9/8 rhythm or the proper way to make a zaghareet--can vote in the People’s Choice award for their favorite dancer.

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Rachel-George, 2010 Universal Champion (Photo by David Silpa)
And for those lured in by the sparkle, costumes from famous designers like Madame Abla or vendors Turquoise International are on display as well as wares from local teachers and artists. Seeing a beautifully crafted, hand-beaded costume on a stage can fill even the most nascent dancer’s heart full of the thrill of performance. A hip sash makes a great gift for anyone, even a lady with two left feet.The BDUC has endured floods, earthquakes, and blackouts, and at 21 has come of age, (and for those also of age, the bar cart at the Long Beach Convention Center makes a mean Bloody Mary). After four hours trying to judge between the best of the 40 amazing Egyptian dancers, you’ll thank me for the recommendation.

In fact, you’ll thank me for the whole weekend. You may not see any aliens, but I guarantee you’ll leave wanting to shake your hips in unearthly ways.

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Doors open at 10 a.m. in The Seaside Ballroom for the competition and at 6 p.m. for the evening shows. Tickets are available at the door for $20 a session or $35 for a combination of competition and show.

For those inspired to try out bellydance after seeing these stars in action, LA Raqs has a comprehensive listing of teachers all over Southern California.