Helena Vlahos Tribute
The career of the Great Raks Sharki dancer, Helena Vlahos, coincided with the emergence of Belly Dance in America. In the 1960s, she was among a small group of working belly dancers that created the American Belly Dance style we know today. The dance gained respect as pioneers like Helena portrayed the dance as ART.
Off the northeast coast of the Greek state of Peloponnesos lies the tiny island of Ydra. Here in the spring of 1948, Helena Vlahos, was born. When Helena was 8 years old, her father moved the family to the United States, the "Land of Opportunity". They arrived in New York City after crossing the Atlantic by ship. Shortly thereafter the family moved to Los Angeles where she grew up inside a close Greek community circle. Family gatherings always included Greek folk dance and in this setting, Helena’s natural talent began to blossom.
Under the guidance of Fofo de Milo, a distant relative, Helena’s beauty and youthfulness were groomed for the stage. Fofo sensed that Helena was a natural, and offered to give her dance instruction in exchange for help at her studio. During 1963, Helena remembers FoFo teaching her the basic fig. 8s, shimmies, flutters, rolls while also learning the etiquette and behavior of being a professional dancer. Ms. De Milo and her husband were also the first owners of the Greek Village restaurant on Hollywood Blvd in Los Angeles. It was here that Helena first performed at the age of 15.
By the time she was 17, she was performing at several clubs in Hollywood and enjoyed a near celebrity status. Helena is sentimental about this part of her life: Supper clubs with 5-part shows, which included a star dancer accompanied by a band of ethnic musicians. The intimate, close cabaret setting allowed for a close connection between the dancer, the musicians, and the audience.
At one point, an elderly Middle Eastern patron took her aside and told her she "ought to learn to use her hands, like Marliza Pons.” Later on, Helena was fortunate enough to befriend and work with the fabulous Marliza. Helena remains very fond of Marliza to this day, recalling her as a superb performer with an incredible shimmy. She says with a smile, "Marliza could shake and yawn at the same time!"
An early high point in her career came in 1966 when she opened in Las Vegas at the Aladdin Casino and Hotel as the featured dancer with the very popular concert violinist, Hrach Yacoubian. The show was a blend of Greek, Arabic, and Persian music. Las Vegas was, and still is, her most favorite place to perform. By 1970, Helena was a seasoned pro in the Belly Dance world. This coincided with the American discovery of this new “fad’ called “Belly Dance.” Many of the clubs at this time were Greek and Helena had that music in her blood! Her elegant demeanor and energetic drums solos made her a favorite. In 1971 she received a fabulous 3-month contract offer to work at the 400-seat dinner club, the Bacchanal in Houston, Texas. This job resulted in a 5-year stay in Houston. The club offered superb dance facilities along with the much treasured live musicians. Here she met and married Aleko Papageorgiou. The marriage proved to be an unhappy match. Even so, the divorce had a happy ending when the love of her life was born in 1974, Daphne.
Helena had taught herself to perform belly rolls while reclining with her arms propping her up. She incorporated the position into the belly roll segment of her act. Naturally, appreciative patrons would shower her with tips as she performed. Then on this particular night, a customer placed a bill right where it caught perfectly in her belly fold, causing the note to flip neatly over. The crowd went wild! Helena realized that here was something really cute she could add to her show. She began to practice the act in her spare time. At first she worked only with the bill, but then thought, why not give coins a try? After experimenting with various coins, she settled on quarters as working the best for her. Years of persistence finally led to her mastery of an incredible nine-coin row, a feat that hasn't been matched since. Today Helena is best known for this unique ability! She is in the Guinness Book of World Records for Unique Abdominal Dexterity.
Soon Helena moved yet again, this time to Austin, TX. She not only performed but also opened up a dance studio. Success came again, but again she grew restless. A party was held for changing of the keys of her studio to a newcomer on the dance scene, myself, Amaya, I remember being astounded to find myself a studio owner virtually overnight for a very reasonable $500! This studio jump-started my dance career. Helena was a legend in Austin --She performed almost nightly at the Zorba’s Restaurant on Lamar St. Her coin rolling, her dancing, the good Greek food, and the live music were all huge spark for the Austin nightlife!
The lure of her beloved Los Angeles held sway over Helena, and in 1978 she and Daphne and grandma returned. It was in L.A., 1981 that a good friend spread the buzz to the local media about Helena's Nine Quarters Act. The description of her feat got the attention of Regis Philbin, who at the time hosted the local morning chat show, “A.M. Los Angeles.” Soon a phone call came inviting her to appear on the show and perform her act. The act was such a hit with the Hollywood crowd that media greats started scrambling to get Helena on their shows.
A flurry of television spots followed; The Merv Griffin Show, The Mike Douglas Show, That's Incredible! Here's Richard (Richard Simmons), Thicke of the Night, Regis Philbin Healthstyles, and finally Spectacular World of Guinness Records. Also to follow was a nice cameo role in an episode of Dynasty, plus a spot appearance in the Allan Carr film "Can't Stop the Music".
Helena recalls her fondest moment as being the time she was booked as the entertainer for Mohammed Ali's private 40th birthday party at his estate. The thrill for Helena came when she went to meet her audience for the evening. Sitting there right in front of her, besides Mohammed Ali, was none other than her girlhood screen idol, Cary Grant! Other great stars populated the room as well, such as John Travolta, Kris Kristofferson, and Mayor Bradley.
After spending about ten more years in Los Angeles, Helena came to Phoenix, Arizona to provide Daphne with a safer place to spend her adolescence. Luckily for local dancers, Helena chose to remain in Phoenix, where the Arizona Middle Eastern Dance Association (AMEDA) treasures her as the jewel in their crown. She's very quick to point out that the fondness is mutual. More recently, she has been on the executive panel of judges for the Belly Dancer of the Universe Competition held each year in Long Beach, California. She continues to dance and teach a full schedule including Paradise Valley Community College credit classes.
AM Los Angeles with Regis Philbin
The Merv Griffin Show
Merv Griffin Productions
The Mike Douglas Show
Mike Douglas Productions
Alan Lansburg Productions
Here's Richard (Richard Simmons)
Fraser Simmons Productions
Regis Philbin Health Styles
Philbin Productions Inc.
Thicke of the Night
Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer Film Co.
Spectacular World of Guinness Records
Enjoy Yourself Tonight
Television Broadcasts Limited (Kowloon, Hong Kong)
Can't Stop the Music, Allan Carr Films Inc., The Crime Killer
George Pan-Andreas Production
The quarter in the crease of your belly, relax your muscles