St. Louis The class begins simply enough, with a head roll, first to the left, then to the right. Then, to warm up the shoulders, you roll those, too. Next, you move the arms, then the chest, then the rib cage. Next come the hips rolls--oh, the hip rolls. And then you shake out the legs and wiggle the toes.
And in merely performing the warm up, you learn what instructor Gloria McCaine tells her students: "You work every part of your body with belly dancing."
"You work on muscles you didn't even know you have," says Jennifer Barnes, 27, the recreation specialist at Maryland Heights (Mo.) Centre, where she's been taking classes with McCaine for more than four years. "You look at it, and it looks easy, but then you do it."
Classmate Annette Potter, 29, agrees.
"The morning after class I'm aching like I'm 80 years old."
Potter recently joined the class with her sister as a way of helping her stay in shape after losing 125 pounds.
"It's terrible to get on a treadmill and just run. It's so boring. This is fun."
A passion for belly dancing seems to unite most who take the classes, whether it's at a community center or a dance school dedicated to the art, such as Aalim Belly Dance academy, which offers classes at three St. Louis locations.
"The best way to describe belly dance is art in motion," says Lois Marshall, 49. Marshall, whose stage name is Salwa, is the director of Aalim Belly Dance, which has 150 students. She has been belly dancing for 27 years.
"This is an art form about individuality," she says. "We all bring something different to it."
Any belly will do
Contrary to images you may have in your head, belly dancers do not need to have perfectly formed abdominals or be curvaceous sirens.
In one class you might find a woman with six-pack abs dancing next to a woman who just had a baby dancing next to a 60-year-old who's had many babies.
"All shapes and all sizes," said Marshall, who notes that dancers there have ranged in age from 9 to 72.
|¢ Snake arms. Bring your arms out to your sides. Lift your right shoulder up. Next, bring your elbow toward the ceiling, then bring your wrist toward the ceiling. Now, drop the right shoulder while lifting the left. Now drop the right elbow while bringing the left one up. Then follow with bringing the right wrist down while bringing the left up.¢ Hip drop. Start with knees slightly bent. Put one foot slightly in front of the other touching only the ball of your foot to the floor. Most of the weight should be in the standing foot. Now raise the hip up and drop it down on the beat.¢ Basic shimmy. Stand with your knees slightly bent and your feet together with the pelvis tucked underneath you comfortably. Squeeze your left glute muscle, then your right, alternating as fast as you can.¢ Wide hip circles. Standing with your feet a little wider than hip-width apart, push your hips way out to the right and then bring them around to the back leaning forward with your upper body. Now, bring your hips out to the left and then to the front leaning slightly back with the upper body.|
"Belly dancing is not just for a certain type," McCaine says. And you don't have to bare your belly in class, either. Some people just come wearing sweats. Others wear leotards with hip scarves, often with jangly coins.
"It helps you see the movements better," Barnes says.
And more than likely, after attending a class where others are wearing them, you'll want one, too, Marshall says.
The traditional art form of belly dance is based on isolations. That's the idea that you keep the rest of your body steady while moving just one part in a fluid motion. For instance, when you do rib cage circles your entire body is still except for your rib cage, which moves in a fluid circle from the back to the left to the front and then to the right.
Beginners learn to do one isolation at a time, but the very best dancers can layer one isolation on top of another, meaning they are isolating their neck muscles, their chest muscles and their hip muscles at the same time.
At Aalim, they teach their students to use their glute muscles for hip movements, which means it's often your rear than ends up in better shape than your abs.
"Using your glutes instead of your knees (to do hip shimmies) allows for better control, so you can do more isolations," Marshall said.
You can see the payoff of those moves in Deb Voegeli, 45. Voegeli, whose stage name is Zareen, has been taking classes with Marshall for seven years. She now helps teach class and dances professionally at restaurants and private parties.
"I like how it keeps me physically fit," says Voegeli, who also lifts weights and runs. "It gives me joy, and it's fun. It's more fun than any of the other stuff (she does to stay fit)."
On the dance floor, Lois Marshall becomes Salwa, a sexy dancer with moves Britney Spears would love to have. But inside, she says, she's still a shy girl who wanted nothing more than to become a concert pianist.
"Dancing gave me a lot of confidence," she says. "It made me blossom. I'm still shy, but not when I'm dancing. It took me from being somebody who was very sheltered and intimidated by many things to someone who can express myself creatively."