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Author: By Adrianne Appel, Globe Correspondent Date: 11/21/1999 Page: 2 Section: West Weekly

WEST WEEKLY / LIVES Melinda Heywood, 30, of Newton Highlands said she often walks around at

home balancing pots on her head.

"I'll balance anything," she said. It's not as if the teacher of French literature at Boston College has nothingbetter to do. It's just that belly-dancing has become a way of life for her.

"It was a family thing," Heywood said. "My mother is an ex-Bohemian dancer" and "my father was the bandleader of the Pickle Family Circus."

Maybe we should start at the beginning, which is the 1960s and '70s in San Francisco.

"I was born into the whole belly-dance world. My mother was the No.1 sword dancer in the Bay Area."

Today she is a famous belly dancer in Athens, where she still specializes in dancing with a sword on her head. Heywood's parents split up when she was 7, so she would spend six months in Athens with her mother and six months in the Bay Area with her father. Heywood can't remember when she first went into the ring with the circus, as a child acrobat. But she remembers vividly when she first performed a belly dance.

"I was 7 when my mother put a tray of candles on my head and said, `Why don't you try this?' I found I could balance it and basically do it."

Today, at Karoun Restaurant in Newton, Heywood is a consummate performer. The band begins beforehand, setting the scene for her entrance. It is a cue for the regulars to ask for their plates to be cleared and for the newcomers to hurry up and finish. Suddenly, Heywood is there, a dazzle of movement and color and sound. She moves constantly in her bright costume, keeping time with a cascade of finger cymbals. She smiles all the while and enchants the crowd, drawing gasps when she places a tray of lit candles on her head and later does a back-bend.

"I like to think that I dance with tasteful elegance. When I dance, I have energy and joy and also technique.

"I'm conscious that this is an art form. I want to present it to the best of my ability."

Heywood said she refuses to dance in situations that she feels would cheapen her performance, such as abachelor party. After seeing Heywood dance, "a lot of women have said it makes them proud to be a woman. And that is how I like to think of it," she said.

Heywood also teaches belly-dancing, which provides excellent exercise and muscle toning.

"People who take my class burn a good 300 calories. In fact, you burn more because you have fun."

Her friends and family fully support her belly-dancing. "More people look askance at me for having a PhD in medieval French literature. Education, however, is another passion.

"It was a stabilizing influence in my life and I never stopped," she said. Heywood did her undergraduate work at Wellesley College and received a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania. Her sister, Piper Hunt, is studying for a doctorate in human genetics at Johns Hopkins University. She also belly dances.

Heywood and her husband moved back to the Boston area after her brother-in-law was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease. In addition to teaching and dancing, she is helping her family build the ALS Therapy Development Foundation, which will assist people with the disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Heywood also has kept up with her circus acts and regularly performs with Circus Flora, based in New York City. "Under the big top, I can really combine all my performance skills," she said.

Heywood is expecting a baby in April. "I'm creating the third-generation belly-dancer. I don't know the gender but I know my mother will have it dancing."

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