Belly Dancing – It’s for the Ladies


The café bustles with energy as guests attempt to squeeze by each other; the view is limited from the rear so the crowd stands on the furniture.  All four entranceways are brimming with excitement as guests, three women to every male, try to gain entrance into the already overfilled venue.  Low lights flicker off the yellow walls, creating a golden hue.  An amber glow lights the faces of the austere musicians of Middle Earth whose music is contagious.  The whole place bounces with a rhythm that is unmistakably Arabic and yet somehow a little rock-n-roll. 

A shimmer of blue and silver, she shimmies onto the stage beneath a cover of veils.  Her bare feet patter in sequence with the drumming.  Her movements are altogether exotic and sensual, romantic and mysterious.  One by one her veils drop until her face is revealed.  Green eyes lowered, she floats across the floor with an increased momentum, as if her motion dictates the music.  Faster she moves, the crowd begins to clap with the increasing beat as she spins energetically, all the while smiling – her eyes twinkle with sincerity and laughter.  She loves this – the crowd, the music, the dance.  

She is Leilainia Marcus Penix, a 27-year-old San Diego belly dancer whose heritage is rich in music and dance. Leilainia’s parents thrived in the 60s and 70s.  They were members of a generation influenced by a sense of community and creative fusion.  Her mother started belly dancing when she was 19; she studied in Morocco and Egypt.  While she expressed her music with her movements, Leilainia’s father, spoke his own language in the form of Middle Eastern percussion – together they toured North America and shared their love of music and dance.

Leilainia was dancing before she was born, raised in a world of laughter and music she sees things a little differently than most people – to her life is a dance, every noise is part of an endless rhythm, life is to be celebrated. 

For Leilainia, dancing is more than a job or a pastime; it is a part of her very being.  Raised in El Paso, Texas, she has early memories of dancing with other children in brightly colored skirts and makeshift dancer regalia.

Today she shares her creativity and laughter with others – she is a founding member of the dance troupe Gypsy Duende, an eclectic mix of talented dancers with varying styles.

Gypsy Duende is more than a dance troupe, it is a bond between five women who share a passion. They are moved by an art form that has for centuries been an expression of joyous celebration.  Dancing brings people together. 

Leilainia’s decision to start a dance troupe was not a conscious one.  After a car accident in 2003, she realized that life has to be grabbed not accepted.  

“I saw how lucky I was and how fleeting the body is,” said Leilainia.  “I made the decision to dedicate myself to what I enjoy most, dancing.”

She started teaching and subbing in local studios.

Finding her place among professional San Diego belly dancers was easier than she had anticipated.  She began to realize that she embodied a unique style different than other dancers in the area.

While performing at San Diego’s Hard Rock Café, Leilainia met Abigail Dagostino, co-founder of Gypsy Duende.  Together, they created an energy that people couldn’t help but notice.

“People started asking us if we danced regularly, how much did we charge for events and did we teach?” said Leilainia.  “Photographers offered us free photo shoots.  There was lot’s of support, it blossomed without us even realizing it.”

While Leilainia performs traditional cabaret, Egyptian and gypsy-belly dancing, Abigail, a native of Argentina, is rooted in flamenco dancing.  Together the ladies create a fusion of dance styles that epitomize the very reason for Gypsy Duende’s inception.  The dance troupe is an ever-growing meld of Latin, Samba, Belly Dance, Flamenco, African, Hip-Hop, Modern and Jazz.

“On there own, each style of dance is like a box,” says Leilainia, “we believe in combing these traditions and styles to create our own expression.”

Leilainia and Abigail started to meet other dancers whom shared their ideals and vision.

“We have been fortunate to meet other dancers with our same drive and enthusiasm.  We all have other jobs, but the dancing brings us together. I love dancing,” says Abigail, “It makes me feel alive and happy.”

Abigail is a registered nurse in the Intensive Care Unit at Scripps Memorial Hospital, she says her dancing balances her stressful work environment by helping her stay grounded and relaxed.


While belly dancing is certainly not considered mainstream, there is a growing scene that is readily available to the public.  Belly dancing is taught and performed nearly everyday of the week throughout San Diego. 

Its rhythmic feeling is catching on all over the country.  From New York to San Francisco, people are starting to take notice. Like aerobics of days past, belly dancing is offered in gyms and yoga studios nationwide.  Whether it’s the idea of learning a dance that is erotic and mysterious or the benefit of toning the midriff, belly dancing is quickly becoming a contagious pastime for men and women alike (but mainly women).

In an interview with The Daily Star, Miles Copeland III, former manager to singer songwriter Sting, said he believes that belly dancing will be the next big dance craze in America.  Pop idols like Britney Spears and Shakira are incorporating the eroticism of belly dancing into their music videos. Not surprising.  After all, what is pop music if not a melding of styles and traditions from days past?  How else can the world of pop culture remain vibrant if it doesn’t rework, redefine and reinvent tradition? 

In a nutshell, that’s the history of belly dancing – indefinable.  Its origins are obscure and tentative, differing from one speculation to the next.  Despite a lack of accurate historical information, there are a few ideas that are widely accepted.

Some evidence suggests that belly dancing originates from an ancient fertility dance: Women performed belly dancing for each other.  A far cry from the risqué nightclub scene it is commonly associated with.

Commonly it is believed that nomadic gypsies traveled throughout the Middle East embracing various styles of dance.  Truly, how can anyone tie down this ancient art form when its roots span vast cultures and regions?  The language of belly dancing is an eclectic mix of styles from Egypt, Lebanon, North Africa, the Arabian Gulf and Turkey.

So, while Gypsy Duende is a dance troupe embracing styles and movements from many differing traditions, they’re fusion is far from new and different.  They are however, one of the few dance troupes in San Diego whose identity is based on the idea that variety is vibrant and tradition is stringent.

While Gypsy Duende is pushing the envelope, they are gaining the attention of musicians whose philosophies are indeed similar. They perform regularly with musical group Middle Earth whose desire to meld traditional and modern styles is reflected in their music. 

            “You might say we play twisted up Middle Eastern Music,” said Mike Mesleh of Middle Earth.  “We get our influence from folk, rock, gypsy, Spanish and Muslim.”

            Mesleh plays the Oud, an Arabic stringed instrument similar to the mandolin.  He says he enjoys performing with Gypsy Duende because they let themselves step out of the traditional box and go where the music takes them. Often their movements take the music to a completely different level.  He describes playing with Gypsy Duende like following a path less resistant.  There are no rules, just passion and instinct.  Every moment is cherished and respected.

“You can see it in their eyes,” says Mesleh.

            A synergy between the band and the dancers results from an improvised performance.  Like the dancers, the band feeds off the crowd.  And likewise, the crowd feeds off the energy of the performers.

            Gypsy Duende hopes to take their passion to the road and share their dance with people all over the nation.  Possibly they can dance in the wake of Hollywood, where pop culture is jumping on an ancient bandwagon. And maybe as pop idols open the doors to new and different ideas of expression – dancers like Leilainia and Abigail will gain a little notoriety in their own hometown where exotic dance is more than a sleazy nightclub but a dance by women for women, and the guys like it to. 

For more information about Gypsy Duende including upcoming performances and belly dancing lessons, visit












San Diego Belly Dance Scene in your area:


LA JOLLA: Marrakesh : Moroccan Dinner & A Show Every Night at 8PM : 634 Pearl St. , La Jolla, 858.454.2500:


HILLCREST: Med Grill: Every Friday and Saturday at 8PM: 263 University Ave. 619.683.2233


NORTH PARK: Claire De Lune Coffee Lounge : Every 3rd Thursday of the month: 8-10PM: 2906 University Ave.: 619-688-9845


NORTH COUNTY: Greek Paradise: Thurs/Fri/Sat/Sun : 7-9 pm : 608 Mission Ave., Oceansd. : (760) 721-1044 -


CLAIRMONT: Greek Palace : Dinner Shows every Friday 7-9PM : 8878 Clairemont Mesa Blvd.: (858) 573-0155


GASLAMP: Sadaf Persian Cuisine: Every Thursday and Friday at 8PM: 828 Fifth ave.: 619.338.0008


COLLAGE AREA: The Egyptian Tea Room : 4644 College Ave. : (619) 265-7287


EL CAJON: Greek Town Buffet : Fri/Sat. 7:00 pm : 345 W. Main St., El Cajon, (619) 441-9708 -