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The greatest of ease

Melinda Pavlata teaches a class at the Moody Street Circus, a performing arts studio in Waltham that she oversees with her husband, Sacha. Melinda Pavlata teaches a class at the Moody Street Circus, a performing arts studio in Waltham that she oversees with her husband, Sacha. (Photos by John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent | / October 16, 2011

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Dressed in a flowing and bejeweled ensemble, pregnant stomach exposed, the woman in the black-and-white poster shimmies and glides in a belly dance.

The blown-up portrait, displayed on the wall in a second-floor studio in Waltham, depicts Melinda “Melina’’ Pavlata’s mother - when she was expecting Melina.

So, the lifelong performer points out, she was essentially “belly dancing from the womb.’’

Pavlata was born into the whimsical and creative life of a belly dancer, aerial artist, and circus entertainer. Today, along with her Czech husband, Sacha, she runs the Waltham-based Moody Street Circus, which combines a belly dance studio, called Daughters of Rhea, with a circus arts school, Cirque Passion.

She also regularly performs in both disciplines. This month, she is directing a circus running on weekends at American Legion Post 440, 295 California St. in Newton, as a fund-raiser for veterans’ causes and the ALS Therapy Development Foundation.

“I love the ways you can challenge and express yourself,’’ said the lithe, auburn-haired Pavlata from her seat on a futon in her studio. “It’s never-ending exploration.’’

Apparently, that propensity is shared by her immediate and extended family.

Her mother, Rhea, discovered belly dancing in the 1960s in Berkeley, Calif. She quickly joined a troupe, and began instructing.

“Boom! She was off, she was on fire,’’ Pavlata said.

Eventually, after a tour of the Mediterranean, Rhea relocated to Greece - where she has lived for the past several decades, and still performs and teaches - seduced by its culture and history.

Then there’s Pavlata’s father, who was a longtime band leader with the Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco; and her stepmother, a ringmaster for the European-style Circus Flora.

As a result of this melange of cultures and backgrounds, Pavlata and her older sister, Piper, had what she calls a bohemian upbringing: Six months of the year they were in Greece with their mother (they still visit her yearly); the other six months they spent in the United States with their father and stepmother. And, nearly as far back as she can remember, she was studying and performing belly dancing with her mother, and acrobatics and other circus acts back in the United States, until completely veering off onto an academic track, earning a doctorate in medieval French literature from the University of Pennsylvania in 1997.

But after a stint teaching at Boston College, she was lured back to the family tradition, and eventually met her husband, a fifth-generation circus performer (he was born in a traveling circus wagon). He taught her the aerial arts - the trapeze, the lyra, the elegant hanging fabrics that are used by Cirque du Soleil performers.

“It’s a place of dreams and imagination,’’ Pavlata says of life in the circus world, and she is passing on the performing arts to her 11-year-old daughter, Zoe. Ultimately, the discipline exhibits the limitlessness of human capability, she said, calling it a “challenging, beautiful art form.’’

Early last year, she and her husband, who live in Waltham, opened their fusion studio, tucked on the second floor of a brick building. It features shiny hardwood floors, high ceilings, and a wall of mirrors, and draws a rotation of adult, teenage, and preteen students. Her sister runs a similar setup in Baltimore.

Catherine Curtis regularly makes the trek all the way from Providence. She started a year ago, after watching Pavlata in a belly-dance performance at a fund-raiser.

“She makes me feel like I can dance,’’ she said on a recent Saturday afternoon, and referred to her teacher as a “blithe spirit.’’

The student is also impressed by her teacher’s background, “steeped in a tradition.’’

The tradition was clearly on display when Pavlata led a dozen women of varying ages in a series of belly-dance moves.

Dressed in a matching blue tank top and drapey pants, a hip scarf tied casually around her waist and exposing her flat, tan stomach, Pavlata instructed the class on hip drops, arm swoops, pelvis scoops, fast and slow shimmies, crisscross steps, and arabesques, all to a medley of Turkish, Greek, and Arabic music.

“Dip-2-step-and-hip,’’ she called. “And-drop-step-and-hip.

“It’s like you’re dribbling a basketball, but it’s your hip.’’

The wood floors creaked in their own rhythm beneath bare and sock-clad feet. Hip scarves, retrieved from a basket at the door, jingled. Many of the women showed off their bellies (flat or not); some were fluid and graceful, others a little creaky.

Ultimately, belly dancing is “very democratic,’’ Pavlata said later; anybody can do it.

And she dismissed its oversexualized image. “We’re beyond stigma now,’’ she said.

Her sentiments shared by Curtis. Belly dancing is “classical and beautiful,’’ she said after class, the women around her untying their scarves and slipping on their shoes.

It’s a good core workout, she added, a good spirit workout: “It draws on a joyous energy that is not released very often.’’

A fellow dancer-in-training, Ann Walters of Watertown, agreed that it’s “empowering.’’

A student for six years, Walters added, “It centers you in your body, gets you out of your head.’’

The immersive experience is similar to circus arts. Later in the afternoon, two young female students were silent and concentrated as they performed aerial moves on hanging red fabric.

To a rotation of blues and jazz tunes, Pavlata’s students floated this way and that, extending a leg, an arm (or both), twirling, flipping their bodies upside-down, straightening into pencils, tightening into balls, and hanging in other ways that seemingly snubbed gravity.

Later, they walked on wire (not too high, though - just a foot and a half off the ground); juggled; balanced on stability balls; and swung on a low-hanging trapeze.

“I love to see them do things that they didn’t think were possible,’’ Pavlata noted after a long afternoon of teaching, picking away at an orange, her hair tied in a breezy ponytail.

“Let’s not take ourselves so seriously all the time,’’ she said. “Let’s do, let’s create.’’

For information on the Waltham studio or the circus performances through Oct. 31 in Newton, visit