CANNONYVILLE — Growing up in a cabin without electricity outside Mount Shasta, Calif., Serene Knight practiced dancing to her father’s hand drums.
She was picked on as a child for being different, she said, and belly dancing was where she found comfort.
“Belly dance was my best friend and my art,” said Knight, 27.
On Saturday, the massage therapist from McArthur, Calif., wore a buffalo skin cape and a white eye mask, and carried out a sensuous routine for a crowd of about 80.
“When I wear the mask, I feel like a ghost,” she said.
Going on this weekend at the Seven Feathers Casino Resort is the 2013 Belly Dancer USA Competition, an event first held 30 years ago in a conference room at the Coos Bay Red Lion Hotel.
This year, more than 100 dancers are scheduled to perform, competing for event titles and the ultimate honor of “Miss Belly Dancer USA.”
On Saturday, hobbyists danced in the morning, then professionals executed short routines in the alternative music category. By the middle of the afternoon, judges announced that Miss Roxy, aka Roxy Stimpson of Everett, Wash., had won alternative music. Serene Knight took third.
Today, dancers in the goddess (45 and older) and golden girl (55 and older) divisions will compete, but “compete” is maybe not the right word, said 2011 Miss Belly Dancer USA Fanina Padykula of Portland.
“It’s not about winning. It’s about working toward that goal of letting go of your ego and expressing your personal essence,” she said.
Padykula said a common misconception is that belly dancing is about arousing lust in the audience. It’s meant to be sensual, she said, not sexual.
2009 Miss Belly Dancer USA Ruby Beh of Portland said the dance style is unique in that it’s open to women of all ages, shapes and sizes.
“It’s by women for women, passed down through generations,” said Beh.
The eight judges on Saturday looked for creativity, technique and stage presence. But unlike other dance styles, technical proficiency is less important than a skill that’s harder to define, said event organizer Mezdulene Reed.
“The emotional connection is a huge part of belly dancing,” she said.
Sally Pelkey, 47, said several audience members told her her routine scared them. Last year, the Lane County employee from Springfield danced a sadder dance and even made some crowd members cry, she said.
This year she used the 2011 death of her husband to produce the anger that came across on stage.
“I told him, ‘Sorry Jim, I’m channeling you today,’ ” said Pelky, who dances under the stage name Salome Bahar.
Natalia Selivanova moved to the U.S. from Moscow three years ago when her husband found work in California.
She worked as an architect in her homeland for eight years, but now earns what she can dancing under the name “Natika” at Middle Eastern restaurants and private parties. She admits it’s a big step in down in pay, but dancing, she says, remedies a condition that’s afflicted her since birth.
“You either have this sickness or you don’t, this need to be on stage,” she said. “It’s not healthy, I understand.”
Selivanova said that beyond the need to perform is the need to compete and win, to show her more traditional family she’s not wasting her time belly dancing.
On Saturday, she left her home in San Jose at 3 a.m. to drive to Seven Feathers. She plans to tell her husband she took the trip only after she returns and cooks him a nice dinner.
“I kind of have to prove myself. If I don’t prove it, I would just be an architect.”
• You can reach reporter Garrett Andrews at 541-957-4218 or by email at email@example.com.