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                Tonya, Floor Position         Tonya Chianis. Belly dancer




Biography - Tonya, Southern California Bellydancer, Premier Teacher, Talented Performer, Choreographer, MC and Promoter Some of her awards and honors include:

Middle Eastern Culture and Dance Association "Hall of Fame" award twice for her unselfish dedication to the dance form through teaching, promotion, integrity and professionalism in the field.  Middle Eastern Culture and Dance Association Humanitarian Award, Best Teacher award from International Academy of Middle Eastern Dance. Promoter of the Year, Zahgareet Magazine. Teacher of the Year, International Academy of Middle Eastern Dance Promoter of the Year, International Dance and Theater Arts Association, Kansas City, Missouri.

Tonya - one of  Southern California's premier teachers, performers, choreographers, and promoters.

Tonya has captured the highest awards possible in the field of Middle Eastern Dance from across the nation.  Among them:  Best Teacher; Promoter; Achiever; MC  Tonya is the producer and co-producer of the Bellydancer of the Universe® Competitions held annually in Long Beach, CA. She has alternated holding the offices of President and Vice President of the Middle Eastern Culture and Dance Association (MECDA) Beach Cities Chapter. 

The following is an interview with Tonya, co-founder of the Bellydancer of the Universe® Competition (co-founded with her daughter, Atlantis). We are very thankful that Tonya has agreed to the interview and are very touched by the honesty and valuable content she has provided. More than anything, I am deeply touched by the love Tonya has for her daughter and this dance form. Beautiful. Thank you Tonya!

When did you take your first Belly Dance Class? 
After seeing Aisha Ali perform at the Fez Supperclub in Los Angeles, Ca., I approached her about taking lessons. I studied privately with her for five months, once a week.

When did each of you decide to become a Belly dancer? 
I knew as soon as I saw this amazing dance that I wanted to do it professionally, and it has served me beautifully ever since. 

Besides your career as a belly dancer, what are your other professions? 
I have worked as an Engineering Planner, as a professional singer and mistress of ceremonies, as a choreographer and as a Practitioner of Religious Science. 

How did your daughter Atlantis start out? Did you teach her? Was it something she wanted to do because she saw you performing? 
Atlantis came out of the womb dancing and has gratefully taken everything I was ever able to give her along with all the wonderful attributes of beauty, talent and strength, the universe so lovingly bestowed upon her. Atlantis is very strong willed and although I was her only Belly Dance teacher she is well versed in many types of dance. Her father (a famous Greek clarinetist) and I were in the business so I feel she followed in our footsteps naturally. 

Have either of you encountered any obstacles in your career as a dancer? 
As we present and attend events, we notice the ever growing lack of protocol.The lack of professional ethics that one encounters was bad before, but with the great influx of people entering the Belly Dance field, it's now unbelievable. People don't think twice about putting on an event close to yours or even on the same day. Yes it's hard to get places to present your event but some people don't care if they present a workshop or show or competition in a very close proximity to yours. Other people show so little respect at your event and violate all the rules and regulations that you require to make your event run smoothly. They come with the attitude that their event will be bigger and better than yours, without realizing that there's enough good out there for all. Others refuse to use their own power of creativity and find it's so much easier to do everything you do at your event. When people work hard to be "Original" and try so hard to make sure they give audiences something new to experience in the way of production, it's quite pathetic that people can't tap into there own personal greatness and come up with something new to do or a new way to present the same old same old. 

The Bellydancer of the Universe® Competition is considered the most prestigious of all Belly Dance competitions. What advice would you give someone who would like to compete, regardless of level or years of training? 
Read all the information - follow all the rules - and proceed with common sense. After a contestant enters, they receive their packets containing all the information and how they will be scored. Many of The scores are based on how well you follow the information listed in the packet, such as length of routine, and stylization requirements. When you follow the rules, you don't have to worry about those things and you can concentrate on perfecting your performance. Of course it's wise to always look, and feel as good as possible and most of all stay as positive as possible. This is not a beauty contest, but it is a wonderful opportunity for dancers to network and show their personal best. The wise contestant, in my opinion,would take workshops that are offered at the competition. Don't forget, most of the workshop instructors are judges and one can see their stylization through their teaching . Relax and remember , "It isn't always how much you know, but how well you look doing what you know". This is my creed and I share it with all! 

Tonya, you are also a costume designer, where can we find your pieces and what makes them unique? 
Thank you so much. I've made costumes for many years,for my troupe and some select individuals, but mostly for Atlantis. I make belts and bras and although I love Glamor and Glitz, many of my creations would fall into the Tribal style of costuming. I'm not a great seamstress but my outfits are most unique because I like to work with odds and ends and bits of things that catch my eye. Some of my most creative endeavors have come from taking the sleeves of a velvet jacket, sewing them together to make a belt then taking the collar and buttons to make the front piece. I use the material from the rest of the jacket to cover the bra and add whatever is necessary to make it work. I often use pieces of belts, fake fur , scarves and trinkets I find in thrift shops. Everything that's popular now, I've made before. It's the same in dance. Thirty five years ago, I danced in pants (hip-hugers) with flares and at that time no one wore pants. My shows always had glamor and glitz, Las Vegas style with many different types of music, and fusion was who we were. We did it all and made it a point to be able to satisfy all types of audiences in our dance and our costumes. Atlantis and I have always been before our time.. 

How has Belly Dancing helped your relationship with your mom/daughter? 
It's been so wonderful for me in every way. Atlantis has always danced from the time she was a child. I joke and say "She came out of the womb dancing", but it's true. She has great strength of character and dance and although she studied with me, she never danced like me. She has always been an individual and I feel this is one of her greatest assets. She has never found the need to be like anyone else. To be able to still work with her on the competition and not feel like I'm intruding in her life is so wonderful. I've never had the business sense that she has, so I'm able to learn so much from her. We both used to share in the choreography for our troupes and still do. We share a wonderful balance together and I am so grateful. 

Even as professional dancers, do you still take dance classes, and if so, how important is it to remain a student of dance? 
We will always be students of dance, as long as time permits and our desire is strong. We both share a love of all kinds of dance and have many times enhanced our creativity in Belly Dance by taking Ballet, Flamenco and Jazz classes. I personally feel one should do whatever is necessary to keep the "Love of Dance" burning brightly in your hearts. 

Who are your favorite Belly Dancers or Idols? 
When I first began to dance, I loved my teacher Aisha Ali and still do. Helena Vlahos has my undying respect as a dancer and as a beautiful lady, Jannie Wells was simply spectacular and of course Feiruz Aram. Everyone likes different dancers for different reasons, but when you have to watch the same dancer over and over, I personally get bored because most of them do the same thing time and time again. This is why I have to say my favorite dancer is Atlantis. In all the years we've worked together or whenever I have gone to see her perform in a restaurant or show, she never looks or dances quite the same way, and she always holds my interest (not because she's my daughter) but because she's creative. I once asked her how she managed to do this and she said "I get bored with myself if I don't change" She once worked at a restaurant for 8 yrs. and on the week- ends sometimes she'd only get to dance 5 minutes. She often told me how difficult it was to make the most out of 5 minutes to the same song they played over and over for her and still be able to give the audience the show they deserved. She never cheats an audience out of what they deserve and what they pay for, that's why she has always worked many years at the same clubs. She has worked very hard at all her jobs, to bring respect and dignity to Belly Dancing and has never allowed anyone to tip her in an undignified way or disrespect her on the job or otherwise. Yes, she is my idol. 

What advice would you give to aspiring dancers? How do you get started as a Belly Dancer? What are the tips and tricks of the trade?
Get rid of your ego and get rid of fear. As a long time teacher of this dance, I many years ago started doing showcases for my students, to give them the opportunity to take their learning to the level of practical application and to better understand that the dance is only a part of the whole. One must learn to entertain, to handle embarrassing circumstances such as costume malfunctions, to entertain and to work to live music. And most of all to Enjoy the Thrill of Being a Spontaneous Dancer, (Go with the Flow!) Showcases are the best way to get rid of fear because they are mostly "dancers supporting dancers". Being able to watch a lot of dancers is a wonderful way to learn . Notice how the audience reacts to them. If you don't like what they do, then you will learn what not to do. Dance at least 3 times before you critique yourself. Then start taking it one step at a time/. For instance tell yourself tonight I'm just going to focus on looking people in the eye. Next time focus on room coverage and the next on arm work and on and on. Listen to people you trust to give you opinions. When you first do a showcase, dance with someone else. You will be much more relaxed. When looking for a job, whether you're a beginner or a pro, try to get in touch with dancers that are working in clubs and tell them you are available and would vary much appreciate being able to fill in should they need a replacement. Ask if they know who might need a dancer. For me, I always loved creating my own work and never took a job away from another dancer. Go to different restaurants that don't have entertainment and tell them you really feel you could enhance their business if they would hire you. Be seen at different events and dance whenever there is an opportunity to do so. Word gets around fast if you are good. It's really important not to under price other dancers. Ask different dancers and teachers what the going rate is and abide by it. Desperation and under pricing has torn many Belly Dance communities apart and it's taken us so long to gain respect for this dance and be able to perform in wonderful places that we need to stick together. There is Great Truth and Goodness in Oneness! Deepest thanks for wanting to interview us and I hope this is adequate.

Tonya presently teaches belly dancing (Le Danse Oriental) or Middle Eastern Dance, at Golden West College, Cerritos College and Cypress College and tutors privately. Tonya teaches workshops, is a professional vocalist and MC both locally and abroad.

Also a fabulous costume designer, she designs for the dancer's unique personal style.

Tonya is a practitioner of Religious Science as well as a published author of Insights and Inspirations for Dancers - A book of spiritual healing for dancers

Tonya is the creator of Tonya's original Bellydance Showcase featuring live music and spontaneous dance performance for all levels and styles. Showcases are held across Los Angeles and Orange County monthly as well and have something to offer the whole family.

Tonya's classes are always well attended and one of her greatest attributes is her ability to give a complete understanding of this dance in six weeks, thus giving the student the opportunity to know what is ahead should she wish to continue. She has the ability to give personalized attention no matter how large the class and takes great pride in sharing her vast knowledge with all her students. ###

Tonya appears as the fire sculptress in the twice nominated episode of Star Trek Next Generation - "Cost of Living."

Article from THE PAPYRUS: SAMEDA's publication, San Diego California
Cover Story - Focus on Tonya by Jolie Lucas

Tall. Dark. Poised. Elegant. That was how I remembered Tonya when I first met her at the very first Bellydancer of the Universe® Competition. After a delightful telephone interview, I can now add some adjectives: spiritual, energetic, and inspiring. I was very impressed with her dedication to the dance community and her compassion for her fellow dancers and students. For example, the last question I asked was, "If I gave you a magic wand and you could change anything you wanted about dance, the dance community, new students, your skills, the audience, etc., what would you change'?" Did she respond with a desire to lose five pounds or master tummy flutters'? No. She almost instantly answered, "I just wish dancers would have more respect for themselves and more self- esteem." Isn't she amazing? (Of course, in all fairness, she doesn't need to lose five pounds, and I'm sure she's already mastered all the tummy arts!

Tonya had a strong ballet background before she became enamored of middle eastern dance, music and costumes. The freedom that belly dancing seemed to represent was appealing after the rigid ballet training. After five months of private lessons she began dancing professionally and her life was forever altered! She quickly recited her "dance resume" to me - so much experience that I couldn't capture it all.

She is the recipient of many awards and accolades from all across the United States. She is very proud to have received the "Teacher of the Year" award from the International Academy of Middle Eastern Dance (and awarded to her daughter, Atlantis, Cabaret Dancer of the Year.) Then, in the middle of her dance career, she found herself "tired." She knew she wanted to "keep it going in any way I can." What did she do to recuperate'? She became a Religious Science Practitioner to help her implement her philosophy that it is "time for a healing." She begins each day by asking herself, "How can I serve my community and make a positive difference in people's lives today?"

She and Atlantis host weekly showcaseson Wednesday evening in Long Beach. They showcase from 6-15 dancers on any given Wednesday! She teaches on Tuesday nights at the Golden West College in Huntington Beach, Thursday nights at the Southern California Dance Academy, Friday nights at Cerritos College and on Saturdays at Santa Monica College.

She wrote a book and self published it. She enjoys the occasional opportunities to perform with her husband (a Greek musician) and Atlantis . . Oh, and remember the annual Bellydancer of the Universe® Competitions? She and Atlantis are founders and hostesses for the competition, which is actually a merger of their two annual events. And I think I deserve a medal if I make it to the post office and dry cleaners in the same day!


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