Years ago, a girl from Utah adopted a new name and a new purpose: to bring the world together through belly dancing.
OK, maybe Alisa McAffee's goal wasn't that profound, but when she became Samira, when she began to teach the art and host gatherings and see the small changes these things made, she began to consider her impact.
"I love this dance. I love this art. I love the people who do this art, and I want to celebrate it in its entirety," said McAffee, a local teacher and creator of the Las Vegas Valley's biggest belly-dancing festival, which kicked off Thursday.
The festival, dubbed the Las Vegas Bellydance Intensive, has grown from a largely informal gathering in a dance studio to a full-fledged event with hundreds of attendees and four days of activities. It runs through Sunday at Palace Station. Anyone can browse the festival. Classes will cost $30 each.
It started as a series of monthly gatherings of mostly friends in the dance studio McAffee worked in at the time.
She had been teaching ballroom dance for several years after graduating from UNLV. She grew up in Utah, she said, and latched onto belly dancing as a teenager in 1991 as a way to rebel against what she saw then as a stifling conservatism.
From there, her love of belly dancing eventually grew into the festival.
Treasa Saint-Laurent said she came for a class from teacher Sharon Kihara.
"She's a belly-dancing superstar," Saint-Laurent said.
Saint-Laurent, 35, is herself a local belly-dancing teacher who goes by the name Fataneh Kanzan. She said most teachers in the community do that, to sound authentic.
Though she's been dancing her whole life, she didn't take up belly dancing until fairly recently. She said she first became fascinated by it as a child, when she saw a belly dancer on Jerry Lewis' Labor Day telethon.
But it wasn't until she signed up for belly-dancing classes five years ago that she became hooked.
She and other women -- the vast majority of attendees at this festival are women -- said belly dancing isn't like other dancing. Anyone can do it, no matter their experience or their personality or their body type.
"You don't need to be 5 feet 5 and 102 pounds," Saint-Laurent said.
Olga Nielsen, 34, said belly dancing gives her an outlet that she doesn't get in her normal life.
She's a financial analyst who lives in San Diego. There's not a lot of emotion involved in being a financial analyst.
But with belly dancing? She can express herself and feel like she belongs to something larger than she is.
Nielsen, who is originally from Armenia, said the connection with her Middle Eastern origins also draws her in.
But it is the emotional connection she feels to the dance and to the other women that keeps her coming back, she said. It makes her feel vulnerable and strong at the same time.
"It helps me to express my emotions," she said.
McAffee, the festival's creator, said it's common to hear stories such as Nielsen's.
"I think belly dancing as a whole -- a lot of women are attracted to it because they feel beautiful and they feel sexy," McAffee said.
As more women learn about belly dancing, she said, the festival grows every year. She expects 200 people to take classes this year and as many as 500 attendees.
That's not bad for a festival that started out eight years ago as little more than an excuse for a bunch of friends to get together and dance.
Contact reporter Richard Lake at rlake@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0307.