When Alice Castilow died in 2004, the women who’d followed her lead into belly dancing were understandably concerned. Castilow was grand dame of the genre in Wichita and her studio, Amira’s Dance Productions, the city’s first studio dedicated to it.
“All the ladies were like ‘what are we going to do?’” said Pat Baab, who took over Amira with Castilow’s blessing. “She passed the torch to me.”
Baab hasn’t dropped it, though she’s quick to point out she’s had plenty of help. On Saturday, Amira will stage its 40th annual version of Dance Magic.
Baab said Castilow put on the first Dance Magic the year after she opened Amira.
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It was held at several venues around the city before moving about a decade ago to the Orpheum Theatre, where it typically draws about 800 people.
Saturday’s performance will feature about 80 dancers, ranging in age from 14 to 72.
“Some of them, it’ll be their first time on stage ever,” Baab said. “I like to refer to us as professional amateurs.”
This week, the dancers were busy practicing in the Amira studio, located on a second floor overlooking Douglas in Delano. The wooden floor of the studio, burnished by thousands of feet over the years, is almost exactly the same size as the Orpheum stage.
The studio teaches more than just belly dancing, which will be reflected in Saturday’s performance. Flamenco, ballroom, Polynesian and several more styles will be on display, including dancers spinning Hula Hoops and a pull-out-the-stops “Bollywood”-type production number.
But belly dancing is the main draw. Originating in the Middle East, belly dancing is different in each country and region, Baab said. Saturday’s performance will showcase many of the styles, from Egyptian and Lebanese to Turkish and folkloric. One segment of Saturday’s show is a five-part re-creation of a Middle Eastern wedding feast.
In the United States, according to Baab, belly dancing first developed into East and West Coast styles (Castilow went to New York for her training), but today is more or less a fusion of both.
Elisha Montoya is one of Amira’s veterans, having started taking lessons there 20 years ago.
“I didn’t like doing aerobics so I wanted to do something different,” Montoya, who is retired from the military, said.
Today, she teaches Polynesian dance at Amira and is Baab’s partner in the studio, which both describe as a break-even operation.
“Like most dancers, we like to express ourselves,” Montoya said. “And, it sounds corny, but it’s one way of getting sparkly and dressing up.”
Baab agreed, saying “the chance to become extremely glamorous is always tempting to women.”
The Orpheum show is the studio’s biggest money maker of the year, but hardly the dancers’ only performance. Amira dancers frequently appear at Riverfest and the Renaissance Fair, perform for nursing home residents and corporate events, and try to get involved in “anything that happens in Delano,” Baab said.
“We give back to the community because they support us. That’s why we’ve been around 40 years.”
Baab, a retired Maize school teacher, also made sure to shoot down the notion that there’s something risque about belly dancing.
“We fight a lot of stereotypes. All of the stuff we do is family oriented. Kids love it.”
As do the women who come to Amira.
“Belly dance is the main draw. They find it’s not just dance but it’s the camaraderie. I come here because it’s my happy place.”