Irene Gray started Middle Eastern dancing when she was only 13 years old.
She's never stopped moving.
Today, Gray continues to passion for dance by leading the Raja Dance Troupe based out of the Massillon YMCA.
Dancing, Gray said, helped build her self-esteem during her teenage years. She started teaching and then formed the dance troupe because she wanted to help others feel the same way. That was almost 10 years ago.
"I named the troupe after the tiger in the Disney movie, Aladdin," Gray said. "Since we are based in the Massillon YMCA, I wanted the name to reference a tiger."
Gray formed the group in 2004 with dancers from her dance classes. Gray said the styles the troupe performs include belly dancing, Celtic, Spanish, American Tribal, African, Hip-Hop and ballet. Along with the varying dance styles, the group itself is made up of an eclectic group of dancers.
"We have all ages and sizes in the group," said Missy Moore, one of the Raja dancers. "The troupe really dances for the love of it. We also like to educate people about the style of dance. Belly dancing brings out your self-esteem and makes you feel proud of yourself. I feel prouder of the way I look since I started dancing."
Every year, Raja shares that passion and pride with the community. It has performed at a number of venues and community events including Relay for Life walks, Akron Arts Expo, First Fridays, Kids Fest and at local nursing homes. They also do demonstrations for elementary and nursery schools.
The group also has won first-place in a number of competitions including the Cherry Blossom Festival in Barberton, Canal Days, the St. Patrick's Day parade in Akron and Ohio's Finest Hafla among others.
In an effort to keep that success going and encourage growth within the group, Gray and her dancers are holding their first fundraising event in February. They want to raise money to maintain the troupe and help support organizations such as the Stark County Humane Society with a special basket raffle.
Since the group's inception, Gray has been paying to costume the 18 dancers. She's hoping the fundraiser will help with ongoing expenses associated with costuming.
The troupe is already selling tickets to the limited seating event. The Raja Dance Expo will be held at the Firehouse Grill and Pub in downtown Massillon on Feb. 22.
Tickets include a buffet style dinner, live performances by Raja and other dance troupes from the area, a 50/50 drawing and gift basket raffles. There will also be a number of vendor tables setup for visitors to browse.
Troup member Mary Lou Weinberg is hoping to see a full house at the Feb. 22 event.
"A lot of times fundraising goes to more traditional arts such as the Canton Symphony or a local arts program," Weinberg said. "We're hoping people see how wonderful Middle Eastern dancing is and decide to join us to help raise money for the future of the troupe."