When “Andalee” Nicole Owens set up a belly dance booth at last year’s International Village at Clovis Fest, she piqued the curiosity of many attendees.
“We live in a world that is far more global than it’s ever been and people are curious about different cultures,” said Owens, a Clovis High graduate who lives here with her husband and their two daughters.
Owens earned a degree in biology from Humboldt State University, but it was actually a Middle Eastern dance class that she took at the college in 1999 that paved her career path.
“I immediately fell in love with belly dance,” she said. “After I graduated, I decided that’s what I wanted to do as my career. A professional belly dancer — it’s a real thing!”
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Owens traveled to Turkey and Lebanon and continued to fall in love with Middle Eastern culture and dance. When she moved back to Clovis, she began teaching belly dance classes at California Arts Academy in Fresno and directing Eastern Sun Dance Company, a local belly dancing troupe.
Participating in competitions around the country, Owens has earned many titles. One of the more prestigious ones, she said, was winning Project Belly Dance, a reality-style web show filmed in Baltimore.
The competitions inspired her to produce one here.
“I think the area is ripe for it, being in the center of California,” she said. “We have a pretty big belly dance community in the area, surprisingly. A lot of people have taken classes. We have several belly dance troupes and a lot of belly dance teachers with a lot of different styles.”
This month, many of those belly dancers will take part in Hot Raqs — Raqs is Arabic for dance — a two-day festival and competition held in Clovis Veterans Memorial District.
Competitors and performers are coming in from all over California and as far away as Arizona, Washington, Oregon and Philadelphia, for more than 100 unique performances lined up for the April 22 and 23, Owens said.
“My hope is that people who may have not even had contact with belly dance before come check it out,” Owens said. “They could see anything from less traditional fusion style belly dance to more traditional belly dance.”
The festival will incorporate more than dance, with several vendors, workshops and food trucks there to introduce attendees to Middle Eastern culture.
“It’s kind of a way to get an adventure without leaving (Clovis),” Owens said.
When creating her event, Owens was sure not to leave out the cornerstone of Middle Eastern dance — the music itself. “There hasn’t been another competition I’ve seen that includes musicians,” she said.
Drummers will compete for trophies and cash prizes and will be judged by Middle Eastern musicians. Kanun player Jim Karagozian, who has been part of local belly dance music band Mirage for about a decade, will judge the rhythm competition.
“I’m excited because finally someone is bringing something (to Clovis) that we’ve always had to go out of town for,” Karagozian said. “(Owens is) the only person who can rally everyone together to make something like this successful, in my estimation.”
Owens wants to share the beauty of Middle Eastern music with the community.
“There’s a reason why there’s so many belly dancers,” she said, “It’s because there’s so much intensity and passion and joy. Middle Eastern music and dance is just joyous; it’s a celebration.”
One interesting performance to watch will be by Wild Card Belly Dance, a well-known troupe that performs improvisational tribal style.
“They don’t have a choreography; they have a set vocabulary and there’s somebody leading the group and everybody follows along,” Owens explained. “They are completely in sync. It’s kind of thrilling to watch them dance because you don’t know what’s going to happen — because they don’t know what’s going to happen. They kind of make it up as they go along.”
Another must-see is the Cabaret Professional competition, featuring a $1,500 cash prize to the top professional performer at Sunday’s live show.
“Live music is sort of the natural habitat of belly dance,” Owens explained. “We get so used to dancing to CDs because there’s not as many Arabic bands in this area. So we say, ‘look, a real, professional belly dancer can dance to live music.’”
While belly dancers are familiar with traditional Middle Eastern, North African, Turkish and Greek songs, they can’t choreograph anything to live music because they don’t quite know how the band is going to play it, Owens explained.
“You get up there and you feel the music and you put it out there for the audience,” she said. “You interpret the music on the fly.”
What: Hot Raqs belly dance competition and festival
When: 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, April 22 and 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, April 23
Where: Clovis Veterans Memorial District, 808 4th St., Clovis
How much: Tickets cost $10 on Saturday and $8 on Sunday. Children 12 and under are admitted free.
▪ Saturday Night Gala Show beginning at 8 p.m. will feature Wild Card Belly Dance, Brazen Tassle, Maria Sokolova and more. Tickets cost $15.
▪ Sunday Live Music Concert featuring Elias Lammam band and Cabaret finals competition will begin at 4 p.m. Tickets cost $20.
▪ A full weekend pass for the festival, competitions and both professional shows is on sale at hotraqs.com for $45. These passes will not be sold at the door.