The Belly Dancer of the Year Pageant
Most dancers have heard of the Belly Dancer of the Year Pageant, produced each May by Leea Aziz of Belly Dance! in Walnut Creek, California. Its origins, however, seem to be mostly lost in the mists of history..(how poetic!)
In the early 1970s, a performer named Sula opened a studio for Middle Eastern dance in Walnut Creek, and soon she added a shop where dancers could find costumes and supplies. In 1975, Sula presented the "First Western States Belly Dance Convention" in Walnut Creek. It was evidently quite a party - the entertainment included a male stripper, though other men were admitted only if they were belly dance teachers or professional performers. In 1976, the Second Annual Convention arrived - like the first one, there were also classes to be taken. This second one, however, added something new - a belly dance Show/Contest! The contestants were limited to ten, and all danced to the same music, though they were permitted any props they wanted. The judges included Bert Balladine, Marliza Pons from Las Vegas, Rhea and several other dancers, and the mayor of Walnut Creek! I am sorry to say that I don't know who won..
Over the next few years, the Pageant grew in numbers and popularity. Every year, Sula asked me to be a judge, but I always turned her down, as I didn't see how a contest between such an assortment of dancers could work. Then, in 1977, Amina was one of the judges, and she talked to me about it at some length - about how it really did work, and also was very fun and interesting to do. She convinced me, and I said that I would do it the next year.
I applied to be a judge and was accepted, and thus began, in 1978, my more than 20 years as a judge of the Belly Dancer of the Year Pageant.
That first year I was joined by a group of friends/fellow dancers who were also neophytes - Ginny, Kadiya, and my former student, Asfura. We supplemented the ranks of experienced judges such as Shukriya, Nakish, Robaire Nakashian, Jack Frick (Sula's widower), Emira and so on. The Pageant that year (and the next) was held in the little old Walnut Creek Women's Club, and it was just fascinating! Azuri won - she was a regular at the Bagdad - we could tell she was a club professional by the "Bagdad glaze" of her expression. There was a wide range of ability and experience, but the judging, while tough, was not impossible.
Judges are not asked to judge the dancers against each other, nor to make their judgments at the end of the night. Rather, each woman or troupe is judged against an ideal for the type of dancing she is doing - how well does she measure up? There are a number of categories to be rated from one to ten, such as professionalism, ability, appearance (ignoring any physical, unavoidable faults), personality, etc. In effect, the judges rate each girl against herself - not against the other dancers. The Pageant Committee (Leea doesn't try to do it all herself!) has made up a page of guidelines for the judges, to aid them in their difficult task.
Though doing the Pageant judging can give one a bad case of brain burn, it is also so much fun! There are contestants I can remember over the years for good things or bad. At one of the Pageants in the Women's Club (the venue has, over the years, gradually improved and improved), one poor man was dancing, stamping his boots and twirling a flag, when the sound conked out! The audience started clapping in the rhythm and speed of the music he had been using, he gathered his courage and wits, and completed his dance to the clapping! He garnered big points for poise! One very young dancer (who has since gone on to stardom) tangled herself in her veil and fled from the stage, crying. One dancer, probably as blind as I am, wore star-shaped, blue-tinted glasses to dance in. An out-of-state dancer, when she didn't win, had a furious, crying fit and had her husband come to us to demand an explanation. The next year she entered again, but didn't get to be in the finals, as she went back to the hotel for a nap after her qualifying dance and wasn't there to respond when her name was called as a finalist. One perennial contestant, who always made the prizes but not the top one til she won Grand Dancer, was always fascinating to watch, as she almost always did a little story dance, shorter than the time allowed, yet with every element of a good dance in it.
By the end of the evening, try as we might not to succumb, judges are tired! We like to see something new and exciting! Most judges did not, however, like to see one young troupe who, in dim light and wearing beaded mesh dresses, looked just about naked! (Well, I was an exception - I thought it looked good!) (And they weren't - naked, that is!) As I have told in a different column, my troupe, Zelzeleh, entered the Pageant twice. We didn't expect to win anything - and didn't - but it was a great adventure, and we were glad we had done it! Most of the participants were so nice to each other and so supportive that it was a very positive experience.
It has almost always
been difficult for me to participate in the Pageant. It is held on
Memorial Day weekend, and that same weekend is a science fiction/fantasy
convention, called BayCon, in San Jose, that I have sold costumes at
for years. I love that convention, and it is often the only scifi one
I do in a year, so I hate to miss it! In past years, when I was considerably
younger and more foolish, I would have a costume sales booth in both
venues - I had sufficient minions in the persons of students and so
on to staff both. I would go to San Jose on Thursday night and stay
in the convention hotel. On Friday morning, I and whoever was with
me would get up early, set up the booth, and I would stay there til
early afternoon, at which time I left and drove through the Friday afternoon
traffic to the Pageant venue, where I would meet my other crew and set
up my booth there. I stayed and judged the Pageant and then spent the
night at my mom's house in Walnut Creek. Saturday morning I would get
up, drive back to San Jose, spend the day til midafternoon, drive back
to the Pageant and judge. That was the end of the Pageant, so I would,
with my helpers, break down the booth and load it back in the car.
Back to Mom's to sleep - Sunday morning, back to the Con, taking in
the costumes from the Pageant booth to add to the racks there. Monday
afternoon the Con was over, so it was break down the booth and go home
at last! You can see that this was fairly strenuous, so for the past
several years I have dropped the Pageant booth and only did the judging
- though the same amount of running! Two years ago, the Pageant venue
was moved too far away for me to run (it's not just the driving - when
I am not at my booth, stuff doesn't sell nearly as well, never mind
the pleasant personalities and competence of my assistants), and then
last year Leea changed the schedule of events to accommodate a show
of past winners, and that didn't work for me, either. I hope that this
coming year will be one when I can once again be a Pageant judge, as
I miss it!
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