Tired of Tae Bo? Health clubs now offering belly dancing

Monday, November 29th 2004, 1:49 pm
By: News On 6

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) _ Most don't look like harem girls and few midriffs are showing. But they sure seem to be belly dancing.

A woman in her late 40s is swiveling her hips with the charisma of a teen pop star. A dozen others ranging from petite teens to middle-aged moms swarm around her, ringing out a rhythmic chorus on their finger cymbals.

Belly dancing has emerged as a form of exercise for those who find its sultry undulations more their speed than hours of aerobics or weightlifting. As with Pilates and yoga, you do not have to be willowy to belly dance.

``You get to a certain age where you can't do ballet anymore,'' said Anne Cornely, 46, of Brunswick, her face covered in a film of sweat after finishing a dance. ``This is a dance anybody, no matter your age or your size, can do.''

Like many of the older, more modest dancers, Cornely wears a black tank top and matching, long spandex pants during the workout. A few of the younger women are decked out in full, shimmering, traditional costume.

But all wear the colorful hip scarves that give them the sense of flowing movement.

Considered a folk dance in some cultures, a celebration of femininity in others, belly dancing is thought to have been introduced in the United States during the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago.

The allure of belly dancing in the new millennium lies in its low-impact mix of meditation and workout, experts say. The ancient dance is now less about sultry moves or Middle Eastern culture than feeling fit and losing weight.

``It appeals to the person who, for whatever reason, has not found traditional exercise to be their cup of tea,'' said Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist at the American Council on Exercise in San Diego. ``It has really grown out of people looking at alternative modes of activity to spice up their workout.''

During a recent class in Brunswick, Jamileh Jeanne Handy, a Lebanese belly dancing instructor, smiled from the corner while her students tossed aside their inhibitions to dip and lean into the moves she was asking them to perform.

Handy said women do not have to know the cultural history of the dance to feel a connection to the women spinning with them.

The nature of the dance is suitable for youthful or aging bodies, she said, and it doesn't require Spandex or sweat towels.

``It feeds your spirit, it feeds your mind, and it feeds your body,'' she said. ``After a session, there is no question about it, attitudes shift about bodies.''

Carol Heppell, who at 48 is the oldest woman in the class, has been belly dancing for a year. She said that during that time she began to understand why she was intrigued by belly dancing even as a little girl. Now a middle-aged woman, she giggled as she spun across the room.

``I was always very inward,'' she said. ``But this really brings out the woman inside. The rhythm is inside me.''

Modern culture often tells women that having pride in their bodies if they are not models is bad, she said. Belly dancing helps women overcome that.

Not surprisingly, Handy said, many women back away from belly dancing because they are self-conscious about their bodies.

Only in the West, where Hollywood representations often show belly dancers as exotic harem girls doing the dance as a means of seduction, do belly dancers have to bare a midriff and wear belts shimmering with coins, she said.

Women do not have to be models to pride themselves on their femininity or exude a powerful sexuality with every move to consider themselves belly dancers.

``Belly dancing celebrates the excitement of youth, the pride of motherhood, and the wisdom of age,'' she said. ``My students keep coming back because they're having a good time. And that's one of the biggest hurdles in exercise.''