Danza Viva offers a tantalizing taste of the Middle East

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Entering Danza Viva's brightly lit storefront at 46 Lake St., I joined a growing crowd of friends and fans, a diverse audience, which is appropriate for a venue that emphasizes world dance. Gauzy pink and magenta cloth was draped across the track lighting and framed the mirrored walls.

Betsy Arias' design company, Fairy Godmothers, created this Arabian Nights atmosphere. Arias is a survivor of Danza Viva's "Boot Camp," but more about that later.

Rebecca Huntman, executive director of Danza Viva and artistic director of One World Dance Theater, began teaching dance classes in the back of her Oak Park home a number of years ago. She's traveled to Brazil and Argentina to study tango with world-renowned choreographers. Her vision has grown into Danza Viva, which opened in 2002, and One World Dance Theater, which followed the next year. Tonight, dressed in a striking turquoise sari, she's leading the effort to raise funds to support that vision.

Up the stairs in the rear dance space, Grape Leaves and Khyber Pass have donated a spread of Middle Eastern food, and a silent auction is available for the bidding?#34;six weeks of dance classes at Danza Viva, an hour of massage therapy, Circle Theatre season tickets, etc.

Back downstairs, Denise Kozel, the massage therapist, is applying Moroccan henna "tattoos." Kozel cleans the skin with eucalyptus oil and explains that the pattern lasts about three weeks.

Board member Tamara Minaghan fills me in on the renovation this space has undergone. In what used to be offices, two dance studios have emerged, with clean white walls and new wooden floors. The upper studio features sturdier floors for flamenco. She also mentions the Boot Camp. Three days a week for six weeks, from 6 to 7 a.m., participants combine push-ups, strength moves and dance steps.

Huntman introduces the evening's guest artist, Sonja of Arabesque, an Egyptian-style, Middle-Eastern belly dancer. Sonja glides onto the floor. Her entire right arm is tattooed, with another tattoo on her back, tickled by waist-length hair. She demonstrates mastery of movement, isolated to quivering hips, rippling stomach muscles and undulating shoulders. The audience joins in with that now-familiar high-pitched Middle Eastern yodel.

After explaining One World's mission?#34;to promote global unity and understanding by fusing world dance and musical traditions?#34;Huntman introduces the next performances. These works-in-progress will premiere at their May 6 to 8 concert at Chicago's Athenaeum Theatre.

Katie Engle choreographed the first piece, which echoes belly dance movements, for four young dancers. The dancers choreographed the next pieces. Jazmyn Gunter, a girl with porcelain skin and fire-red dress, dances with arched back and strong extensions to spoken poetry, written by the ancient mystic poets Rumi and Tagore. Other pieces evoke the roots of African tribal dance and explore the dynamics of relationships. These works-in-progress are still rough, needing some practice and polish. But the dancers never lack confidence, and it was enough to make one look forward to the finished work in May.

The enthusiastic support for this new company, recipient of Oak Park Area Arts Council's Best Newcomer Award, was evident throughout the evening. Danza Viva conveys a sense of commitment, clear vision, celebration, and the promise of good things to come.

?#34;Mary Lee O'Brien

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