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From the belly of a belly dancer to the stage


By Joanna Weiss, 2/25/2002

The way Melinda Heywood sees it, she's been a belly dancer since she was in utero. A photograph from 1969 proves it: There's her mother, Rhea, a cabaret sword dancer of San Francisco-area fame, dancing with elder daughter Piper on her shoulders and Melinda inside her quite-exposed belly.

With a personal history like that, there's no way Heywood was going to discontinue the tradition. Now 32, with a PhD in French literature and a 2-year-old of her own, she operates a belly-dancing studio out of her home in Newton Highlands. She also performs several times a month at the Newtonville restaurant Karoun, using the name Melina. (''In the belly-dance world, everybody uses their first name, like Cher,'' she explains.) She and her sister have also cofounded Daughters of Rhea, a belly-dancing troupe with chapters in the cities where they live, Boston and Baltimore.

Yesterday marked the debut performance of Boston Daughters of Rhea, upstairs at the Middle East in Cambridge. Nine professional women and mothers, ranging in age from 21 to 40, shimmied and undulated to Heywood's choreography as they took part in a ''hafli'' - a belly-dancing gathering - organized by local dancer Za-Beth. The Daughters' next performance will be in April at Karoun, as part of a benefit for the ALS Therapy Development Foundation. Heywood hopes there will be more to come.

Belly dancing is an unappreciated art, she says, and is poorly understood. ''It is not a prurient dance just for the male gaze,'' she says. She considers it democratic - it fits any type of body - and says it should be danced with feeling and pride. ''It is empowering and joyful and sensual, depending on what your mood is.

''My goal is to celebrate life, creativity, community,'' Heywood says. ''And express your most ecstatic, wild self.''

This story ran on page B8 of the Boston Globe on 2/25/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.