Say the words 'belly dancing' and you're likely to conjure up images of scantily clad women in spangly, chiffon-y outfits, shimmying and undulating ' sensual, and maybe a little sordid. You're unlikely to imagine average-looking women in workout clothes, breaking a sweat. But it's true: Belly dance is a lot of work, and it's a growing fitness trend.
Local teacher Sadira says that it's an ideal form of exercise. 'As a dance form, it's probably one of the easiest ones on your body,' she says, explaining that as a folk dance, belly dance is done by 'normal people, who won't do things that will hurt themselves.' That said, she adds, 'You use most major muscle groups, so you get a great workout.'
Student Tracy Benton agrees. She started dancing about three and a half years ago after she got tired of her regular form of exercise: 'I'd been exercising using an extensive library of exercise videos. They got boring, because they don't engage your brain very much.' Benton took a six-week mini-course from teacher Mona N'wal at Union South, and she was hooked. She loved the music and the costumes (so much so, in fact, that she now has a small business dying veils for other students).
Benton appreciates the egalitarian nature of belly dance. 'I don't feel comfortable going to the gym. As a bigger person, I don't want to do it. But in belly dance, nobody cares that I probably weigh 70 pounds more than the person I'm standing next to.'
A visit to a belly dance class does reveal women of varying shapes and sizes. (Men, by the way, do participate in Middle Eastern dance, but they're few and far between.) In fact, many participants feel that one of the advantages of belly dancing is becoming more comfortable with their bodies, no matter their shape or size.
Jane Schroeder has been dancing for around three years. 'I used to be more conscious about my body,' she notes; she credits belly dance for helping her develop greater acceptance of herself. Schroeder became enamored of belly dancing 'the moment my bare feet hit the floor.' She started dancing shortly after she turned 40: 'I was looking for something just on the fringe of my comfort level,' she recalls.
A few years after beginning her study, Schroeder had a hip replacement. She feels that one of the reasons she rebounded quickly was her involvement in belly dance ' 'I really think it helped with my recovery.'
Amy Wolff, a student of N'wal's, has been dancing for two years. She's suffered from fibromyalgia (a kind of chronic muscle pain and fatigue) for years and says that belly dance has helped her heal. When she takes time off from dancing, 'I can feel the difference in my body.'
Belly dancing really does work a lot of muscle groups. I attended a class and, even as a fairly dedicated gym-goer who can toss off push-ups or crunches with the best of them, I got tired. The abdominal muscles and the arms work particularly hard. Warm-ups involve not just typical dance moves but also incorporate yoga and Pilates.
'I steal from wherever I can,' says N'wal, when asked about the integration of different techniques into her class. N'wal, who came to belly dance with a strong background in ballet, is a technically precise teacher. 'It's important to have a teacher who knows body mechanics, and who knows how to progress through movements in a logical way, without trying to push too much too fast.'
N'wal is also a testimony to the benefits of belly dance as a fitness form. A slender redhead, at 51 she has a body that women a couple decades younger would envy. N'wal's been teaching for over 25 years. Right now she teaches between two and three and a half hours a day, three days a week, as well as performing monthly at Bunky's on Atwood. As an obstetrics nurse in her day job, she appreciates the power of a strong abdominal core. Done correctly, she said, belly dance should 'feel like you're giving your organs a massage.'
The movements of belly dance are performed in isolation, somewhat like jazz dance. The trick is not in moving your hips or your shoulders, but in moving them without moving all of the other attached parts. Says N'wal, 'The hard part is just getting things coordinated so that they move when they're supposed to. It takes a lot of mental coordination.'
Teacher Seana Dishun sees that as the greatest benefit of belly dancing. 'It's a challenge for western bodies, because in belly dance we isolate different areas of the body,' she explains. 'You're teaching your body new tricks: to move in a completely different way than it probably ever has. So you're relearning how to teach your body to move.' Dishun feels that this process helps reconnect students to their bodies. 'We've lost the ability to listen to our bodies and communicate with them. I think belly dancing helps reestablish that.'
In addition to providing a great workout and a better mind-body connection, belly dance seems to provide something else that's often hard to come by in exercise classes: a sense of community. During stretches, women dished the dirt on their boyfriends, or admired one another's hipscarves. There's a sense of ease and warmth in the classroom. Dishun says that the shared interest in dance helps develop closeness among the students in her classes. 'We all understand the joy that we get from belly dance. It's a common ground we have ' there's a camaraderie.'
It took Tracy Benton awhile to understand the biggest gift she got from belly dancing. After about six months of dancing, 'I was pondering whether or not I should keep taking class.' Her husband was the person who persuaded her: 'He told me I should keep going because 'When you get home from class, you're happy.''
Dance of the East, all over town
The term 'belly dance' is likely to raise eyebrows among some of its practitioners and teachers. 'I'm still on a campaign against that phrase,' says local teacher Sadira, who prefers to call it Middle Eastern dance. Another acceptable term is 'Raks Sharki' (or sharqi), which translates as 'Dance of the East.' Here are some local teachers and classes.
Teaches introductory minicourses through the UW Memorial Union (608-262-3156; www.union.wisc.edu/minicourses). She also teaches at Storybook Ballet in Hilldale Mall.
Teaches beginning belly dance through the YMCA (608-276-6606 (west), 608-221-1571 (east); www.ymcadanecounty. org) and beginning and advanced beginning classes through Madison School Community Recreation (608-204-3000, www.mscr.org) as well as tribal belly dance classes at Tap-It/New Works Studio and School of Madison Ballet.
Teaches through the Department of Continuing Studies at UW Madison (608-263-8927; www.dcs.wisc.edu/classes/dance.htm). She also offers classes at Kanopy Dance and Atwood Community Center.
UW Belly Dance Club
Open to anyone; offers classes and the chance to perform.
More danceways to get fit
Interested in using dance to get in shape, but not sure belly dance is your cup of tea? There are other options.
NIA, or Neuromuscular Integrative Action, blends dance, yoga and martial arts. Classes are available at Main Street Yoga (www.mainstreet yoga.org) and Dean/St. Mary's Healthworks (www.deancare.com/dhs/educational_programs/hw_fitness.asp), among other places.
Main Street Yoga also offers Contact Improvisational Dance classes. According to a Web site devoted to it (www.contractimprov.net): 'If you could do Aikido, surf, wrestle and dance at the same time, you would have an idea of what Contact Improvisation feels like.'
In addition to belly dance and the usual jazz / ballet / tap, UW continuing studies provides classes in African dance and hip-hop dance.
If you've always wanted to try your luck on a trapeze, look into an introductory workshop with aerial dance troupe Cycropia, www.cycropia.org.
For other dance groups, many of which offer lessons, see the Madstage listing at www.madstage.com/Dance/Companies/index.html.