This year's Miss Montana is bringing a talent to the Miss America stage that hasn't been seen there in about three decades.
Jennifer Hepner, a 23-year-old from Great Falls, will represent Montana at the Miss America pageant on Jan. 24 in Las Vegas. Her talent? Middle Eastern Raqs Sharqi Dance, also known as belly-dancing.
Hepner took her first belly-dancing class as a student at the University of Montana. In 2006, she attended Rakkasah, the largest belly dance festival in the world. At that point, she was hooked. She takes lessons at the Suhaila Salimpour School of Dance in Berkeley, Calif., where she studies a variety of styles, including tribal fusion and cabaret.
Telling a story
"I've always been interested in the dance," she said. "There's something about the dance that tells the story of women."
Hepner won't be the only Miss America contestant belly-dancing at the pageant this year. Miss Oregon will also demonstrate the art. The competition between the two, however, is relegated to the stage.
"Miss Oregon is one of my best friends," she said. "Belly-dancing is about sisterhood. It's something that's made us navigate closer to each other."
With two contestants performing the distinctive style of dance, Hepner sees a door opening for new talent in the Miss America pageant.
"The system is becoming a little bit more contemporary, I feel," she said.
A UM graduate, Hepner works to bring awareness to her platform issue: "Beyond the Bell: After-school Programs for America's Youth." She focuses on what she calls "The 4 S's," which are safety, studies, support and success.
"Mentorship is a huge issue," she said.
She is taking a leave of absence from her graduate studies in communications at UM, but she plans to go back to school in the fall. Right now, though, her life is all about preparing for the Miss America pageant.
"The transformation process - that's your reason to not eat that Big Mac, to take that extra yoga class, to pick up a copy of Time," she said. "It's a wonderful reason to push yourself mentally, physically, any way that a person can push themselves."
That transformation process is why the Great Falls native decided to compete for the title of Miss Montana in the first place.
"I just wanted a reason to challenge myself," she said.
Hepner was born in Washington, but she has lived in Montana since 1990, when her father was transferred to Malmstrom Air Force Base.
"Of all the places we'd lived, Montana felt the most like home," she said. "As long as I can remember, I remember growing up in Montana."
Before the pageant, Hepner and the other contestants filmed a reality TV show for TLC, the station that will be airing this year's competition, called "Countdown to the Crown."
"It was exciting," she said. "It gave the contestants a chance to get to know each other before competing."
Viewers will get to learn more about the Miss America hopefuls, too.
"Contestants are girls next door," Hepner said. "They're not superhuman. They're just like everyone else. You see not weakness, but that humanity."
She enjoyed filming the show but was glad to return to her home.
"I am just so honored to represent a place like Montana," Hepner said. "When I was done filming the reality show, I was so relieved to come back to Montana, to breathe that Montana air, to see the Montana stars."
It's an experience that Hepner hopes other young Montana women will consider.
"I strongly encourage every young woman to register," she said. "I wasn't bred to do pageants. I just decided to take a chance."