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Posted March 14, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Grapes' expectations: Belly-dancing sisters aim to use talents toward jobs, charity

Erin Grapes Sterling, Ashley Grapes and Audra Grapes
From left, Erin Grapes Sterling, Ashley Grapes and Audra Grapes strike a traditional pose in their belly dancing outfits. The three sisters share a passion for belly dancing, each adding her own unique style to the choreography. Andrew Thayer/Daily

Sterling demonstrates a feather dance
Sterling, who has been dancing for most of her life, taught two of her younger sisters to belly dance. Demonstrating a feather dance recently, she says she hopes to perform on stage with her sisters after recovering from treatment for Lyme disease. Andrew Thayer/Daily

Ashley Grapes performs a sword dance
Ashley Grapes, who took lessons from older sister Erin Grapes Sterling before beginning an aerobic belly dance class, performs a sword dance recently. Andrew Thayer/Daily


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By Ben Orcutt

borcutt@nvdaily.com

BERRYVILLE -- What are the chances of there being three sisters named Grapes and all of them being belly dancers?

Pretty good if they're the daughters of Vernon and Leann Grapes of Berryville.

"Dancing's just always been my passion," says 28-year-old Erin Grapes Sterling. "It's been almost my escape and any time I was stressed out, that was like the easiest thing to do is put on music and just dance. Everything else kind of goes away at that point. There is just a lot of freedom in it, a way to express yourself."

Mrs. Sterling and her husband, Shawn, live in Inwood, W.Va., and have two boys, Aidan, 4, and Devan, 3. A trained respiratory therapist, Mrs. Sterling was diagnosed in 2007 with Lyme disease, a serious inflammatory ailment that causes fatigue and can possibly affect the neurological system.

"I kind of quit dancing professionally last year. I miss it a lot. I really do," says Mrs. Sterling, whose stage name is Daliyah, which means "grapevine" in Arabic.

During a recent interview at their parents' home, Mrs. Sterling and her sisters, Audra and Ashley Grapes, talked enthusiastically about belly dancing and what it means to them.

Ashley Grapes, 22, is a senior at Virginia Tech, where she is majoring in animal science and biology. Her stage name is Farrah, which means "friendly."

"She [Erin] and YouTube taught me and I started dancing at a bunch of stuff at Virginia Tech, like Relay for Life," Ashley Grapes says. "I started teaching an aerobics belly dance class. It's hard for me because I have to balance school with it and I have to work, too. So it's hard for me to do it, but I definitely enjoy it and I definitely want to keep doing it."

Audra Grapes, 26, is a Virginia Tech graduate and a teacher who is unemployed due to the downturn in the economy. Her stage name is Nasrin, which means "wild rose" in Arabic.

"I started dancing towards the end of 2006," Audra Grapes says. "I love belly dancing just because of the history of it. It's pretty fascinating when you start learning about the history of it, and it's a nice balance for me. My other thing that I like to do is Western martial arts. I study historical European martial arts, long swords in particular."

The Grapeses have two other children, Hannah Grapes Anderson, 25, who has not caught the belly dancing bug, and Austin Grapes, 20, who just returned stateside after a tour of duty with the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq.

Mrs. Grapes designs and sews the colorful costumes for her three belly-dancing daughters.

"They're great," she says. "I think they're wonderful. They get their rhythm from my mom, who was a ballet dancer when she was younger."

The three sisters have not performed together on stage, which is something they would like to do once Mrs. Sterling is well enough.

"One day I would really like to be able to host my own show at the Strasburg Theatre or one of the other local theaters around here and feature us as soloists and maybe get some other dancers," she says. "Actually there are many families in the professional world of belly dancing that really the whole family does it, and in a lot of Middle Eastern cultures belly dancing is really a family thing. They're taught from the time they're little girls and until they're women, that's what they do. The men go out to work. The women shut all their windows and doors and they dance for each other."

Belly dancing is believed to have originated in the Middle East, Mrs. Sterling says.

"Every country really has their own style and their own movement," she says. "It depends on where you go as to what they do. It's hard to trace like the actual true roots of belly dancing. They believe it may have started where it was more of a fertility dance in terms of growing crops. When a woman was in labor, they would kind of get in the hut and gather around the woman while she was giving birth, and they would dance like this and encourage the woman to do the same while she was going through the labor process."

Just like other artists, belly dancers have their own styles.

"Every dancer I've ever seen really has a very unique style for them, and you can play a piece of music and I bet no belly dancer would dance exactly the same way to it," Mrs. Sterling says.

Audra Grapes says the ability to create your own style is what makes the art attractive to her.

"That's one of the things that I like most about belly dancing," she says. "It doesn't matter how old you are or no matter what kind of shape you're in, if you're moving and it feels good, that's it."

Belly dancing is a good way to stay in shape, she adds.

"It's great core work because your muscles are tight all the time," she says. "My style's a little bit more on the sensual side. Maybe more than it would be traditionally. It's just the way I move naturally, so I kind of go with it."

For Ashley Grapes, her style is sort of a fusion of belly dancing and hip hop.

"When I am dancing at a benefit or a show when I'm supposed to be professional, I make sure not to integrate too many styles," she says.

"It's the kind of dance where, the older you get, the better you get," Mrs. Sterling adds. "The more that you do, the more that you learn. The more people you study with, the better you're gonna get. I don't think age has absolutely anything to do with it, or even kids for that matter. I've known people who [have] four kids and look fabulous, and they're still doing it."

Ashley Grapes says she believes her best dancing is ahead of her.

"I really think when I get out of school I'll have more time to do it," she says. "I feel like I haven't even gotten anywhere near my prime. I feel like as a dancer, I'm gonna be great. I need to get time."

For Audra Grapes, belly dancing is more of a personal activity.

"I've never really been interested in dancing professionally," she says. "I am still very nervous when I'm on stage. I enjoy dancing for myself. I'd like to continue doing choreography and just recording things and put 'em up on YouTube. I don't really see myself performing in restaurants like Erin used to or anything like that."

"We can't really share costumes too much," Audra Grapes adds, starting her sisters to laugh. "We've got three different chest sizes."

While belly dancing may not have brought them closer together, it does help keep them close. Ashley Grapes is hosting a belly dancing benefit for Mrs. Sterling on April 18 at Virginia Tech to help her sister with her medical bills.

"I consider them my best friends," Ashley Grapes says of her sisters, "and I think it's just one more thing that we get to do together."

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