Fire in the Belly

Hopkins Ph.D. candidate Piper Reid Hunt sways fluidly between the world of dance, which she was born to, and that of genetic research, which has captured her spirit.

July 29, 2000|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

One is an award-winning international belly dancer, a woman who learned the craft from her mother and is noted for her awesome hip action.

One is a woman with a biochemistry degree, now a Johns Hopkins University Ph.D. candidate who is studying human genetics while working in the field of mental retardation in children.

Both, believe it or not, are one woman: Piper Reid Hunt, medical researcher and the recent winner of the Belly Dancer of the Year 2000 award. Can anyone say 21st century Renaissance Woman?

"To me," Hunt says, "this is just normal."

And in her family, anyway, it is. Hunt's younger sister, Melinda Heywood, a French literature professor at Boston College, performs as a belly dancer around the Boston area. Hunt's mother, Deanna Likouri, the matriarch in this belly-dancing family, has been dancing for more than 30 years.

Hunt, 38, was born in the San Francisco area and began performing as a child. She even spent summers belly dancing for tourists in Greece. You see, that came about because her mother needed knee surgery and, well, the story really begins with Deanna Likouri's introduction to the art form.

"Mom started dancing at 25," Hunt says. "It was back in the 1960s, the club scene in San Francisco. It was not anything sleazy. Things were different back then."

But eventually, work got a little scarce, so her mother, who was divorced at the time, packed up the girls and moved to Greece, where she could earn a profitable living as a belly dancer.

"She never came back," Hunt says. "I was 14, my sister was seven."

Hunt had a difficult time being a teen-ager while adjusting to life outside of the United States.

"It was very shocking at first," she says. "Things like people eating fish with the heads and tails. There was no orange juice. And when you're 14 - with no TV!"

So she moved back to live with her grandparents while attending high school. She spent summers with her mother and sister in Greece. Each summer became a little easier, and after high school, Hunt ending up living in Greece for 10 years.

Her mother, 58, still lives in Greece, but was recently in Baltimore visiting her daughter. She is a vibrant, talkative woman with a short, stylish haircut and a body that makes her appear a good 20 years younger.

Of her daughter's belly-dancing accomplishments, Likouri says: "They say she came by it naturally because she is the daughter of a belly dancer."

Had things happened differently for her, Likouri, too, might have had a second vocation. Her goal had been to become a psychiatrist, but life happens.

"She was a secretary," Hunt said. "But Mom is a natural dancer. She was born to be a dancer, not a secretary."

Likouri got started when she saw an ad in the paper. She started dancing and found "it was a good profession." Besides, she says, it appealed to her dramatic nature. "It's fun to dress up in costumes," she says. "It's cool."

Likouri kept dancing when she was pregnant with her youngest daughter. Hunt offers documentation: a picture of a jubilant and very pregnant Likouri belly dancing while her eldest child sits on her shoulders.

The family moved to Greece, Likouri says, after the club scene in San Francisco changed. She'd received offers to dance in Athens. Once there, she danced in the clubs that tourists frequented because the local clubs sometimes wanted her to sit with the customers. "And sitting with the customers," she says, "you know what that means."

Now is as good a time as any to point out that no one in the family frequents unsavory nightspots in Greece or the United States. "I dance for the tourists, for families with their children," Likouri says.

Not too long after arriving in Athens, Likouri learned she had to have knee surgery. It was a major blow because she earned her living by dancing. But her children, who learned how to dance from their mother, took over.

"It was a little scary," she says now about allowing her children to dance.

It was a little scary for Hunt, too. Initially, she was hesitant to dance on stage. But she grew to love it. "When she got better, I said, `Oh, Mom, don't you need to take some more time off?' "

Hunt, who had an interest in science and nutrition, eventually decided to return to this country to attend college. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1995, then enrolled at Hopkins, which brought her - and her belly dancing - to Baltimore.

Learning from the best

"And now," says Piper Reid Hunt, "we have a performance by "Rhea," an international belly dancer from Athens, Greece!"

She is talking to her class of about a dozen at Experimental Movement Concepts, a dance studio in Hampden. Her mother, whose stage name is Rhea, takes to the middle of the room and performs a hip-shaking, belly-rolling, arm-waving belly-dancing routine to the claps of the students.

Later, Hunt glides to the middle of the group as she instructs the students in a belly-dancing routine. It's much more complicated than merely shaking your midsection to music.

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