Shimmies but no shakes for poised 85-year-old Catonsville belly dancer during contest

When Angie Rounis bellies up to the competition, she does so literally.

Under the stage name Samara, the 85-year-old took to the stage not once, but twice, during the Oct. 6 Baltimore County Seniors Got Talent competition at the Maryland Fairgrounds in Timonium.

"It went well," said Rounis the day after the event after she returned home from teaching a class.

"Everybody said, everybody said, I should have won," said Rounis after the three judges awarded the $500 travel gift certificate first prize to the husband and wife singing duo of Tom Kowalski and Paula Rehr.

"One of the judges told me, 'It was absolutely beautiful,' " Rounis said.

"And my girls danced beautifully," said the 40-year-Catonsville resident on the performance by Patricia Bach, Dorothy Binder, Mary Breland, Janet Butts, Maxine Howard and Mary McLaughlin. "I was so thrilled."

The seven performed a 20-minute piece prior to the start of the Baltimore County Seniors Got Talent show at 2 p.m.

For the previous six years, the show that concludes the Baby Boomer/Senior Expo was purely a singing competition, said Marion Oser, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore County Department of Aging.

"It ran its course. People lost enthusiasm for it," said Oser, who noted the change to a talent show was to reinvigorate the friendly competition. "We decided to base it very loosely on (the television show) 'America's Got Talent.' "

Thirty people, including Rounis, auditioned for the competition and 10 were selected, Oser said.

Most of the contestants sang. Rounis was the only dancer.

She said she wasn't nervous, having performed in venues such as Martin's West and Martin's Eastwind.

"THEY were big crowds," she said.

Rounis entered the competition as champion of the Catonsville Senior Center's Seniors Got Talent competition that took place on July 20.

She said she fell in love with the Middle Eastern dance, after seeing a performance at a night club in New York City as a 15-year-old.

"I love it," she said. "First of all, it inspires you. It's therapy. If you have any troubles, you put that music on and dance."

Instead of pursuing the dance, Rounis chose a more traditional route and got married and started a family.

Rounis wouldn't start pursuing the dance until 1974, and it was only as a means to lose some weight and get healthier.

"I really only took (classes) for exercise, but of course I fell in love with it," Rounis said. "It gives you a thrill.

"We've got 640 muscles in our body. We use them all."

Belly dancing quickly became her passion, though, and Rounis studied under a number of teachers in New York and Pennsylvania.

Shortly after, Rounis chose the stage name Samara in homage of her mother, Mary, whose maiden name was Samaras, and danced professionally, she said.

Her pursuits led to her to perform all over Maryland and even twice in Greece.

"They wouldn't let me down off the stage," Rounis recalled of her 1977 performance in Athens. "I felt like a celebrity then."

Rounis likely gets a similar feeling these days when performing at any of her many gigs, including weddings and festivals, in Baltimore County.

She said she's often recognized by people who have seen her perform.

The performances have changed little since Rounis began as a professional belly dancer more than three decades ago.

Rounis said she can still pull off all of the techniques, even the Turkish Drop, a maneuver in which the dancer spins and spins and spins then suddenly drops, knees and head touching the floor simultaneously.

She has the ability to perform the feat, but admits she hasn't attempted it in years.

"I can do that, but I'm afraid," she said. "You can break a bone or something."

It's not the pain she fears, but the potential of being forced to be sedentary.

"I don't want to stay and play bingo my whole life," Rounis said. "That's not my goal in life. I want to be active.

"I know 85 year olds who can't hardly move," she added. "(Dancing) makes you feel good. It gives you a high."

Her son, Michael Vatakis, said he can't imagine his mother ever stopping belly dancing.

"She's a very young 85, and I see her doing this until she's 105," said Vatakis, a Perry Hall resident. "She's one of the fortunate ones that found something she can do as she got older.

"It's more than a passion, it's almost her life."

Rounis teaches belly dancing for one hour every Friday at 10 a.m. at the Catonsville Senior Center.

Vatakis said he's not sure whether she enjoys teaching or dancing more.

"It's my business to make these people feel the music and the dance," Rounis said.

Rounis teaches technique and implores the dancers to keep their eyes up, lest they look like they're counting, to 13 women each week, she said.

"I do not teach anything hoochie coochie," Rounis added. "It's a beautiful Middle Eastern belly dance."

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