Born on the Greek island of Hydra, at the age of eight Helena immigrated to America with her family. Exactly eight years later, in 1964, at the tender age of sixteen, she began her long and illustrious career in belly dance…a career that continues to this day.
With an easy elegance and subtlety that can only come from years of experience, Helena never languishes in the past, but keeps moving and changing along with the times. She has nurtured countless students (many of whom have become well-known professional dancers) while at the same time, still humbly and unassumingly attending classes and workshops herself. Her technique, stage presence and never-ending passion for this beautiful art form are superlative and mesmerizing.
I have had the privilege and pleasure of learning from - and personally getting to know - Helena since she moved to Los Angeles a couple of years ago. Though she definitely qualifies as a bona fide diva, refreshingly, she never behaves like one. Though her talent and expertise are staggering, she is always highly approachable and, like the doting grandmother she is, is also quite nurturing. Is it obvious I’m one of her biggest fans? I hope so…cause I am!
One of the things most dancers are always curious about is the way the belly dance community functioned “back in the day”.
So for this edition of Dancers Backstage Rituals, Helena specifically prepared a comparison on how she gets ready for her shows, contrasting the earlier and more contemporary parts of her career.
Here, in her own words, are Helena’s thoughts on the subject:
From 1964 To The 1980’s
“When I started dancing, I danced in one restaurant at a time of anywhere from three months to a year or more. I kept my costumes in my dressing room at the restaurant so I did not have to bring two or three costumes every day.
I prepared at home by applying full makeup and putting on my fall, which I secured with bobby pins. You could pull on it and it would not come off since I first put my own hair up in four ponytails, one on top, one on each side and one down my head, like a triangle. I would then place the fall on my head with the ponytails inside the base of the fall and proceed to bobby pin the fall to the ponytails. It hurt especially when the bobby pins lost their soft tips, but the hair was never in danger of falling off during a performance even when I used to swing my head around (yes, I used to do that in my early days). I always wore false eyelashes at that time, not only for a performance but also for every day. I would never leave the house without full makeup; I just wore it heavier for shows. In those days we had to wear nice eveningwear between shows so we would look like stars (glamorous) to impress everyone (the audience). That got even more expensive than just our costumes. Again in those days we had to make our own costumes, which used to take months and months of work (and the beads were expensive even then). I used to start sewing as soon as I got up (around 12:00 noon), and continued until I had to get ready for work (7:00 p.m.). I took a few breaks in between of course.
Besides worrying about makeup, hair and what dress to wear, I had to make sure to bring safety pins for my costumes, finger cymbals (and extra elastic in case the finger cymbal elastic broke), costume panties and fishnet stocking that I always wore for a show.
I got to work around 8:30 or 9:00 p.m. I went to my dressing room to put my purse and makeup bag and whatever accessories I had away. I then went to the bar and chatted with the bartender (had a drink) or waiters/waitresses/hosts or the other dancer and just got a feeling of the crowd/atmosphere. The musicians would play from 8:00 or 8:30 p.m. so I got to enjoy the music and get into the dancing mood before I had to perform. Depending on the restaurant, there were usually three to five musicians, one to four singers and one to three dancers. We usually had two shows, the first one starting at around 9:30 p.m. The show started with the musicians playing livelier music pieces (four or five pieces), and then the singer would come on (around four songs), then the first dancer (around thirty minutes). If there were more singers, the next one went next, if not, then more show music, then the second dancer thirty minutes). You get the general idea.
When I worked in Greek restaurants, the second show was mostly for the regular crowd with a few non-Greeks. We (the dancers) danced shorter sets (around twenty minutes) because the regulars wanted to dance and listen to the Greek singers. I loved to watch some of the regulars dance, some were fantastic! You might say the entertainer got entertained! At these times I would sit with some of the regulars that had become friends as well. Mostly, it was a fun time!”
From The 1990’s To The Present
“These days for performances, I get ready at home by trying on every costume that I think I might want to wear for a show. Of course I wait until the last minutes (okay, hour not minute) to do this. Afterwards, my room looks like a cyclone hit but I have no time to tidy up before I leave the house (who cares at that time). I put my full makeup on with false eyelashes; I try on different hair (mostly ponytails that are clip on, which can easily come off). I put on the one I like best and throw the rest in a pile on my bed or wherever (who cares at this time). I put my costume in a carry on (I like to bring an extra costume if possible, just in case) and then look at my list of what not to forget for a show, which I have saved on my computer in my Word Documents. I look at my list to make sure I don’t forget anything (I still sometimes forget one thing or another), I place all items on the list in the carry on, dress for the evening in my usually black dress or skirt and blouse, pantyhose and heels, check myself in the mirror for last minute adjustments and off I go in a nervous state (not because of the show I will do but for the preparation I just went through). I almost forgot, I have to make sure that I have my CD for the show as unfortunately, we don’t usually have live music. I have to say; the older I get the more I have to do to prepare for a show!”
Helena is appearing at The Belly Dance Of The Universe Competition, Long Beach, CA teaching, performing and judging contestants February 15-17, 2013 http://www.bellydanceroftheuniverse.com/bduc2013.htm
For information about more of her upcoming events, her rich history or to book her, visit her website: http://www.helenavlahos.com/main.html
Helena’s quarter-rolling on The Spectacular World Of Guiness Recordsn, with host david Frost, 1980’s http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yik7c0EXV0M
Helena’s weekly classes in Los Angeles at Dance Garden: http://www.dancegardenla.com/