B elly dance, one of the oldest of dance forms, is one of few that is still performed in restaurants. While people eat such Middle Eastern delicacies as bastilla, grape leaves and baklava, they can also watch somebody else's stomach.
Perhaps because it is the only dance named for a body part, belly dance--or Middle Eastern dance, as many professionals would prefer to have it called--is probably the least understood dance form. It demands perfect concentration, but only a few of the hundreds of movements are done by the abdominal muscles.
Dancers often perform with props and are able to move arms, hands and head in coordinated opposite directions while twitching hips and playing finger cymbals in time to the music.
The origin of belly dance is uncertain, but many think it started with slaves in Northern African tribes about 5,000 years ago and spread to Turkey, Morocco, Syria, Greece, Northern India and other countries--all adding their own variations.
In the Southland, belly dancing is featured in about 30 restaurants, where you can feast your eyes on a sensuous and ancient art form while feasting your stomach. Here is a sampling of those restaurants: \f7 Dar Maghreb, 7651 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (213) 876-7651. Open Monday-Friday 6-11 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays 5:30-11 p.m. with belly dancing every night. Stepping into the 12-year-old Dar Maghreb, which means "House of Morocco," is like being in an ornate palace from the "Arabian Nights." This Moroccan hideaway has fountains, wood carvings, mosaic tiles, hand-painted beamed ceilings and a large open-air courtyard in the entryway. One of four female dancers performs. There is no cover, but one of the seven-course feasts ($20.50-$24.50) is required. Another location is at Rancho Mirage in Palm Springs, (619) 568-9486.
Athenian Gardens, 1835 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood, (213) 469-7038. Open Tuesday-Sunday 6 p.m.-2 a.m., with entertainment 9 p.m.-2 a.m. Features the queen of quarter-rolling, Helena Vlahos, who lines up nine quarters on her belly and flips the row up and down her stomach, then rolls just one quarter at a time up and down her belly, keeping the other quarters still. This Greek club, established 20 years ago, does not charge extra for the show, but one must order a dinner or two drinks. Dinners range from $13 to $20.
Marrakesh, 13003 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 788-6354. Open seven days, Sunday-Thursday 5-10 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays 5-11 p.m. Features a female belly dancer Wednesday-Saturday and a male belly dancer Fridays and Saturdays. Flirtatious dancers like to involve the audience and make them laugh, sometimes climbing on the cushions and dancing around behind diners, often draping a veil around a customer. Mohammad Khordadian balances a sword on his head, a cane on each shoulder and a cane on a bent knee, and then dances in this position. He also performs while balancing filled glasses. Female dancers balance swords and canes while dancing. The restaurant, started in 1979, has seven tent-like rooms with carpeted walls, long, low couches and a ceiling the color of the evening sky. There is no cover and dinner is not required, although most patrons order a meal, from $16 to $22. Also has locations in Newport Beach, (714) 645-8384, and La Mesa, (619) 223-6609.
Moun of Tunis, 7445 1/2 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (213) 874-3333, features belly dancing seven nights, with a male dancer Monday-Wednesday and a female dancer Thursday-Sunday. Hours are 6-11 p.m. Dancers perform 20-minute shows in each of the six pillowy, tent-like rooms of this Tunisian-Moroccan restaurant started nine years ago by Moun Asli. Female dancer Marie, who has performed in Arab countries, dances right on top of the cushions next to patrons. Male belly dancers balance swords and canes on their heads as they shimmy around tables. No cover charge, but dinner is required. Prices of $9.95 to $14.95 for authentic Tunisian food.
Aegean Isles, 4325 Glencoe Ave., Marina del Rey, (213) 822-6221. Opens 11 a.m. Tuesday-Friday and closes at 11 p.m. except Fridays (2 a.m.) Opens at 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and closes 2 a.m. Saturdays, 11 p.m. Sundays. Closed Mondays. Designed like a Greek taverna , this restaurant features a "Belly Dance Night" Thursdays with belly dancers from the area and musicians. Sometimes featuring up to seven dancers, professionals dancers perform alongside nervous beginners. Belly-dance veterans Shadia and Kamala perform Fridays and Saturdays at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. And there is a belly dance lunch on Thursdays at 12:30 p.m. The 2-year-old restaurant requires a $5 minimum, which one can apply toward dinner, appetizer, dessert or drinks.