If you don't believe central Illinois supports a diverse arts community, consider Peoria-born and -raised Thais Banu, who's had a successful Middle Eastern dance and instruction career for decades.

During the 1970s, Banu studied Middle Eastern dance locally with several different instructors. "In the late 1970s, I began to study with 'grannies' to explore more of the cultural roots of this rich dance form. At this time, I immersed myself into the Turkish style. Eventually, I passed the level of my local teachers and began to study in workshops and seminars with highly respected teachers in Chicago, St. Louis, and Indianapolis. The more I studied, the more I realized I didn't know enough. To this day, I still seek more."

Deciding it was time to try her hand at instruction, Banu ran Bellydancing by Thais in the 1980s. "This was when sending Bellygrams was popular. I did thousands of dancing grams. I was also teaching Raks Sharki at this time. I performed throughout central Illinois and in Chicago Arabic clubs."

She took a different approach in the 1990s. "I was raised in the dance with the understanding that when you reached a certain age, you were to perform less and teach more. So, I began to slowly slip into a semi-retirement. This gave me a chance to explore the history of this dance I love so much. As an extension of my teaching, I began 'Unveiled Thoughts-A Middle Eastern Dancer's Newsletter,' which I retired five years later. The next few years I was happily floating among my books and research articles, and my articles have been published in trade magazines on three different continents."

Currently, Banu teaches Raks Sharki for the Peoria Park District. "Raks Sharki is the proper Arabic term for Dance of the East," she said. "First, there was one class once a week. Now five years later, there are six classes a week and Parks Troupe Mirage, a professional performing Middle Eastern dance troupe, under my direction. I also teach various styles of Middle Eastern dance in my small, private studio. These include Modern Egyptian, Turkish, and Folkloric. Occasionally, I do American Cabaret, which is also known as Belly dance."

Banu said there have been many high points as a dance teacher. "It's the joy on a student's face when she finally 'gets it,' knowing I've trained many students that have gone on to become fine Raks Sharki performers and teachers, knowing my knowledge is passed on as another link in an unbroken chain, and knowing my life's work has made a difference and touched many."

From a dancer's perspective, the list of high points is at least equally as long. "Performing with live bands tops my list," she said. "The sweetness of the performances when I connected with the music-the rich tapestry we wove together-is almost indescribable poetry. I've had the opportunity to dance with greats like George Abdo and his Flames of Araby band, and the chance to dance early in my career with Eddie Kochack-and then 20 years later to dance again with him in Indy. He drummed and sang for me, and I danced for him for old time's sake. This last time wasn't a raised stage with bright lights and hundreds in the audience. It was just Eddie and me outside at a seminar-a drummer and a dancer-he throwing kisses, and I playfully miming catching them."
Given her love of Middle Eastern dance, it isn't surprising that Banu's family has gotten into the act. "My daughter, Shoshana, also dances Raks Sharki and is a fine drummer. I'm a grandmother, and yes, my granddaughter, Anna, also dances."

To help introduce others to Middle Eastern Dance, Banu is conducting a seminar called "An Oasis of Dance II" May 7 at the Hilton Masonic Lodge in East Peoria. "It'll be a whole day devoted to Raks Sharki-Middle Eastern Dance," she said. "Odessa of Cincinnati will be the instructor during the day and the featured performer on the evening show. The fee for the four-hour seminar is $65, and the show ticket fee is $10."

She said this seminar is one of many she conducts. "In the early years of my career, I would travel constantly to workshops, seminars, and retreats to study with talented Raks Sharki artists. Rarely were these seminars offered in central Illinois. Even though the travel time and costs added up quickly, I was thankful I had the opportunity to learn, watch, and listen to such artists. The thought of sponsoring 'An Oasis of Dance' came out of my reflections of 2000. I knew that with the help of my family and friends, I could give back to the Middle Eastern dance community by sponsoring Raks Sharki artists to come to central Illinois. In 2003, I decided the time had come to plan my first seminar. I turned to two dear friends-Bonnie Dieter and Debbie Eriksen, owners of Mid-East Magic-for suggestions. Without their advice and knowledge, I couldn't have sponsored this event."

Banu didn't plan to have an annual Raks Sharki dance seminar until she saw the success of the first one in May 2004. "To me, success was the response by the Middle Eastern dance community-the knowledge that I was giving back some of what was given to me in the beginning. Success was the joy and energy on the seminar attendees' faces when studying during the day with members of Blue Lotus Tribe, the opportunity to present a diversified two-hour professional showcase of Middle Eastern dance to central Illinois, and my personal decision to select a new struggling artist or dance troupe and give them a slot on the evening dance show with fabulous established seasoned performers. It was the outpouring of warmth and love when my daughter, Shoshana, my grandaughter, Anna, and I, took the stage for our dance. That night it was the realization of three generations of Raks Sharki dance in one family; some said we literally represented the past, present, and future-a future that looks bright, sparkling, and full of hope for this dance."

She said one of the headaches of being a seminar sponsor is not knowing for certain who's coming. "So far, advance reservations are coming in steady. The only teacher for the seminar will be Odessa; several Raks Sharki instructors and their students are coming to study with her. The evening showcase will feature Odessa, and she alone is worth the price of the ticket. I know other dancers or troupes that plan to perform include Parks Troupe Mirage, Innana, Banat Casablanca, Tribal Attitude, Karida, Troupe Zahava, and myself."

In addition to all of her ongoing projects, one of Banu's latest endeavors in Middle Eastern dance is founding and organizing Peoria's Belly Dance Meetup.com group. "This is a new, interesting direction for me to take. The group now has 19 members, and their common interest in Middle Eastern dance is what links them together. It's their group-not mine. I don't use it to promote my classes or other dance-related activities. I organized the group so members could meet once a month and socialize with each other. I saw a need for people to spend more time with each other than just at class. So far, the Bellydance Meetup group has had two monthly meetings, and the group's feedback is at 100 percent great. I'm very happy to offer another outlet for future dancers and enthusiasts to connect in their common hobby."

This outlet is much needed, as Middle Eastern dance enjoys a surge in popularity. "Middle Eastern Dance is one of the oldest documentable forms of dance on Earth," she said. "Scholars can trace its roots back through time to the tomb drawings of Egypt's pyramids. Throughout the centuries, it's enjoyed many waves of popularity, and there are many different factors involved in this most recent wave of interest. My students come from all walks of life-high school and college students, engineers, homemakers, medical professionals, office workers, and others. I always ask them what brought them to class the first time, and I receive many different answers. The benefits of this dance as a low-impact exercise for women of all ages and sizes in amazing. It also offers an opportunity for many to reconnect to their feminine side. Raks Sharki builds stamina, strength, and grace-things they feel they need. Students achieve a sense of belonging and bonding with their classmates. I've seen many deep, long-lasting friendships arise from participation in this dance. Students who stay and study longer achieve a sense of community that's lacking in their daily lives."

For Banu, the best part of being a Raks Sharki dancer is the freedom and joy it brings. "It's a difficult feeling to describe-one of total fulfillment and surrender to my inner self. It's a deep-rooted feeling that this is what I was meant to do-my calling, my destiny. The most challenging as a dancer and teacher is keeping my level of self-motivation high and finding new paths to explore in Raks Sharki so I continue to grow and learn." AA!