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Fire in the belly
Hopkins Ph.D. candidate Piper Reid Hunt sways fluidly between the world of dance, which she was born to, and that of genetic research, which has captured her spirit.

By Sandra Crockett
Sun Staff

"I have taken classes all over, and she is the best teacher. She has the best form and the best spirit. You can see the joy in her face."
David Adams, dance class participant

One is an award-winning international belly dancer, a woman who learned the craft from her mother and is noted for her awesome hip action.

One is a woman with a biochemistry degree, now a Johns Hopkins University Ph.D. candidate who is studying human genetics while working in the field of mental retardation in children.

Both, believe it or not, are one woman: Piper Reid Hunt, medical researcher and the recent winner of the Belly Dancer of the Year 2000 award. Can anyone say 21st century Renaissance Woman?

"To me," Hunt says, "this is just normal."

And in her family, anyway, it is. Hunt's younger sister, Melinda Heywood, a French literature professor at Boston College, performs as a belly dancer around the Boston area. Hunt's mother, Deanna Likouri, the matriarch in this belly-dancing family, has been dancing for more than 30 years.

Hunt, 38, was born in the San Francisco area and began performing as a child. She even spent summers belly dancing for tourists in Greece. You see, that came about because her mother needed knee surgery and, well, the story really begins with Deanna Likouri's introduction to the art form.

"Mom started dancing at 25," Hunt says. "It was back in the 1960s, the club scene in San Francisco. It was not anything sleazy. Things were different back then."

But eventually, work got a little scarce, so her mother, who was divorced at the time, packed up the girls and moved to Greece, where she could earn a profitable living as a belly dancer.

"She never came back," Hunt says. "I was 14, my sister was seven."

Hunt had a difficult time being a teen-ager while adjusting to life outside of the United States.

"It was very shocking at first," she says. "Things like people eating fish with the heads and tails. There was no orange juice. And when you're 14 - with no TV!"

So she moved back to live with her grandparents while attending high school. She spent summers with her mother and sister in Greece. Each summer became a little easier, and after high school, Hunt ending up living in Greece for 10 years.

Her mother, 58, still lives in Greece, but was recently in Baltimore visiting her daughter. She is a vibrant, talkative woman with a short, stylish haircut and a body that makes her appear a good 20 years younger.

Of her daughter's belly-dancing accomplishments, Likouri says: "They say she came by it naturally because she is the daughter of a belly dancer."

Had things happened differently for her, Likouri, too, might have had a second vocation. Her goal had been to become a psychiatrist, but life happens.

"She was a secretary," Hunt said. "But Mom is a natural dancer. She was born to be a dancer, not a secretary."

Likouri got started when she saw an ad in the paper. She started dancing and found "it was a good profession." Besides, she says, it appealed to her dramatic nature. "It's fun to dress up in costumes," she says. "It's cool."

Likouri kept dancing when she was pregnant with her youngest daughter. Hunt offers documentation: a picture of a jubilant and very pregnant Likouri belly dancing while her eldest child sits on her shoulders.

The family moved to Greece, Likouri says, after the club scene in San Francisco changed. She'd received offers to dance in Athens. Once there, she danced in the clubs that tourists frequented because the local clubs sometimes wanted her to sit with the customers. "And sitting with the customers," she says, "you know what that means."

Now is as good a time as any to point out that no one in the family frequents unsavory nightspots in Greece or the United States. "I dance for the tourists, for families with their children," Likouri says.

Not too long after arriving in Athens, Likouri learned she had to have knee surgery. It was a major blow because she earned her living by dancing. But her children, who learned how to dance from their mother, took over.

"It was a little scary," she says now about allowing her children to dance.

It was a little scary for Hunt, too. Initially, she was hesitant to dance on stage. But she grew to love it. "When she got better, I said, 'Oh, Mom, don't you need to take some more time off?' "

Hunt, who had an interest in science and nutrition, eventually decided to return to this country to attend college. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1995, then enrolled at Hopkins, which brought her - and her belly dancing - to Baltimore.

Learning from the best

"And now," says Piper Reid Hunt, "we have a performance by "Rhea," an international belly dancer from Athens, Greece!"

She is talking to her class of about a dozen at Experimental Movement Concepts, a dance studio in Hampden. Her mother, whose stage name is Rhea, takes to the middle of the room and performs a hip-shaking, belly-rolling, arm-waving belly-dancing routine to the claps of the students.

Later, Hunt glides to the middle of the group as she instructs the students in a belly-dancing routine. It's much more complicated than merely shaking your midsection to music.

"Solid on the right foot and hold!" She is up on her toes; arms moving gracefully overhead while her mid-section undulates. "Now count. Four, three, two, one. The spine is long. I don't want to see anyone's shoulders move. When your left arm is up, move your right hip to the side. Squeeze on the left. Scrunch on the right."

The students' faces are a study in concentration. Occasionally, someone smiles or giggles when the hip, arm and feet movements are not quite doing what they are supposed to do.

David Adams, 36, the lone male in the room, had discussed taking the class with his wife. "She wouldn't go," says Adams, a teacher. "She said, 'You do it.' "

So here he is, a rarity with undulating hips along with all the women.

Although this is only the second class Adams has taken with Hunt, she has already impressed him with her teaching skills.

"I have taken classes all over, and she is the best teacher," Adams says. "She has the best form and the best spirit. You can see the joy in her face."

And the class, he adds, is great for his health. "It's cheaper than a chiropractor," he says.

It wasn't so much the physical benefits that spurred Ann Heinzer to take the class.

"I'm interested in the history, the culture behind it," says Heinzer, 27. "I've been taking the class on and off for about three years. It's a great time," she says as Hunt cues up the next musical piece, some selection from the Middle East, Turkey or North Africa.

Soon Hunt's hips, clad in a black leotard with a gold and black hip scarf, seem to take on lives of their own, moving up and down, in and out. She is a tiny woman with long, brown hair.

"I am famous for my hip work," the award-winning belly dancer says.

It was those amazing hip movements that apparently won her the title of "Belly Dancer of the Year" in a national contest held in San Ramon, Calif. in late May. "It was quite an event," Hunt says. "There were about 30 contestants and 10 finalists."

Hunt, who had taken some time off from belly dancing, missed it. "I had to get back into it in a big way," she says about winning the contest.

In the lab

At Kennedy Krieger Institute, where she routinely pulls 10 to 12 hour days in the lab, there is no hint of the belly dancer in Hunt. A long white lab coat covers her blue jeans and sweater. Her hair is pulled back, glasses perch on her face. The only things dancing in this room are Hunt's eyes as she discusses her research.

Lysosomal disorder is a class of diseases that can cause mental retardation, she explains. "Sometimes people die horribly."

"If we can find the defect in cells, test out level of proteins, maybe we can make cells that look like normal cells, " she says. "Maybe we can get the whole human body normal."

She peers through a microscope at cells, gesturing while talking excitedly of protein gel, DNA, normal cells, diseased cells, cell functions, genetics, yeast and diseases that could potentially be cured by discovering the link among all of these.

The human genetics graduate program at Hopkins takes about six and a half years, which includes one year of medical school. Hunt has completed five years.

"This is where I've had great joys and great sorrows - looking at my slides," she says.

But in this small space, a long, narrow cubicle with a window at one end, she remains connected to her other passion through two black and white photos taped high on a wall. The pictures, of her mother in full beaded belly dancer attire, make it seem as if a dancing Deanna Likouri is watching over her daughter.

Hunt is perfectly at home in both worlds. She gets as excited talking about human proteins as she does discussing belly dancing.

She is considering a few options once schooling is complete. One of the options would be to continue doing research. "But I would be more interested in working with parent groups," she says. "They need people to help them interact with researchers."

And, yes, she hopes to remain a practicing belly dancer.

"It keeps me going. It's my thing to look forward to," she says. "Science is interesting. Belly dancing is fun."

Originally published on Jul 29 2000