Belly dancing lauded as fun fitness regimen that enhances self-confidenceA blend of art and exercise, belly dancing lauded as a fun fitness regimen that enhances self-confidence.
By: Pamela Knudson, Grand Forks Herald
With easy precision, Kelly Ferguson mimics her instructor’s movements in unison with verbal cues. She bends one knee slightly, then the other, her hands by her side with palms parallel to the floor.
It’s subtle but specific.
“You might feel a little bit like a showgirl,” said Natasha Thomas, 27, as she leads students through the horizontal movements of belly dancing at a recent class in the Altru Family YMCA in Grand Forks.
Ferguson, 28, appears serene, her face graced with a soft smile that never fades, while the hip-scarf, covered with tiny, shiny coins, jingles in rhythm with ethereal Middle Eastern music from a CD player.
“Your chest stays in place the whole time, with your hips making a circle. Then, speed it up,” Thomas said as her hips vibrate like a paint-mixer.
“If you’re one who wants to keep it slow, that’s okay too. It’s more important that the movement is accurate than that it’s fast,” she said.
Ferguson has been at this for about a year, she said.
“I’ve always been interested in dance in general and never found a dance that fit me,” she said.
That is, until she saw a performance by the Lovely Dozen Troupe of belly dancers at The 12 Houses in Grand Forks.
“It’s the first dance that I’ve ever watched and thought, ‘I want to do that’ and ‘I think I can do that,’” she said. “It was amazing. I thought it was so graceful and feminine.”
She enrolled in a class and later joined the troupe as a performer, making her first appearance at Zombie Music Fest last fall in Grand Forks. Her second was at the local Art Fest earlier this month.
“I’m not the kind of person who can get up and talk in front of people,” she said. “If someone would have told me I was going to get up and perform at Art Fest, I would’ve laughed.”
She has gained much from the study and practice of belly dancing, she said, including a greater understanding of other cultures. Belly dancing is expressed in distinct forms such as Egyptian, Turkish, Persian, Lebanese, Indian and American Tribal Style. Specific movements, music, costuming and props — finger cymbals, veils, baskets — identify each style.
“It’s definitely something I’ve found a passion for,” Ferguson said.
The experience has helped her in other ways, she said.
“I have a lot more self-confidence and more flexibility and strength. I’ve built strong relationships with my fellow dancers,” she said.
Health benefits go beyond the physical, extending into the realms of emotion and self-esteem.
“I don’t know if I can say this,” she said, almost shyly, “but, I feel more sexy and more like a woman.
“I’ve never felt confident in my body, especially after two kids,” born 13 months apart, she said. Her body “is not what it was before kids,” she said.
Ferguson is “not a ‘toothpick’ dancer,” she said, “but belly dancers are not all skinny girls.”
With newfound self-confidence, she doesn’t hesitate to bare her mid-drift in traditional belly-dancing costumes.
It’s a form of dance and exercise “that embraces all types of women — all body types and ages,” said Jenna Solem, 28, who’s been involved in other forms of dance her whole life and in belly dancing almost five years. “It celebrates life and … womanhood.
“Although men can do this, too,” she quickly added.
Proving her point, at this session at the Y, the lone male student, Lou Delgato, xx, of Grand Forks, said this was his first class; he “loved it” and planned to attend again.
Belly dancing is “very accepting, great exercise, and gentle — it’s not tough on the joints,” Solem said. “And it’s a lot of fun.”
She echoed Ferguson’s comments about its effect on self-esteem.
“The women I’ve seen from start-up have grown by leaps and bounds,” she said. “It’s an incredible confidence booster.
“To see how they carry themselves now — how they love themselves — it’s amazing.”
Thomas has been belly dancing since she was first inspired by a 60-something woman who performed at the Renaissance Festival in Shakopee, Minn., in 2005.
“She was fluid and flexible,” she said. “I thought, ‘I want to be like that well into retirement.’”
She was impressed with how the dancer connected with her audience and infused teaching into her performance.
After a few years learning the dance form, Thomas began teaching it in 2008 at the Y.
Belly dancing is becoming increasingly known as a fitness regimen, she said. Its growing popularity may be tied to the rise of Zumba, a form of exercise that taps into belly dancing, too.
“Many people are surprised by how involved belly dancing is,” she said. “At the end of the class, they’re sweating.”
The practice of isolating and working specific muscles reinforces the fitness benefits, she said. “It’s really good for people who have low-back pain.”
“I tell students, ‘you’re going to use muscles you didn’t know you had in ways you never thought you could,’” she said.
In spite of its name, she said, “you don’t use your belly as much as you’re using your core (muscles), but it may not be visible.”
At first, new dancers can’t move their rib-cage, she said, but they’re fascinated by how much their bodies start to change. “They’re amazed at how much better they feel when they loosen up that torso.”
Engaging the community and educating people about different cultures is an important element of the troupe’s mission, Solem said.
Audiences respond with a sense of “intrigue, excitement and curiosity,” she said.
For the past few years, she and Thomas have been attending workshops and classes throughout the region.
“With each type of dancing we do, we research it,” she said. “We learn as much about it as we can so we can explain it to the audience.”
The Egyptian style “is expressive while being incredibly subtle,” Thomas said. “I think, because of my background in theatre, I’m really drawn to (it).”
She also prefers the Persian style, too, she said. “There’s more extension (of the limbs),” which taps into her background in ballet.
The Turkish movements, she tells her students in this class, are expansive and enthusiastic.
Specific movements have specific meanings, Thomas said. For example, some Turkish movements are considered vulgar by those who adhere to Egyptian style.
Persian belly dancing is illegal in Iran, she said, even “to the point that you could be imprisoned.
“It’s crazy to think that would still happen.”
The history of belly dancing belies the notion that it is seductive and sexually charged, meant to be witnessed and enjoyed by men.
“That’s not what it’s meant to be at all,” Solem said.
Years ago, it was performed “by women, for women, to prepare for life changes,” Thomas said. “It was meant to empower women.”
Men weren’t allowed to watch.
“It was a way for women to help other women,” she said, including as a means of easing the childbirth stages of labor and delivery.
“I tell students, ‘if you’re pregnant and you don’t want to go into labor, don’t do this movement.’”
The stigma that this form of dance is “less than a pristine art” has lingered, Thomas said. “Some say it is not an art, but ‘glorified stripping.’”
Solem said belly dancers “are concerned” about that potential image.
“The idea of objectifying women is not what we do,” she said. “If people have that idea, we hope to change it. We are shifting the paradigm.”
She and fellow dancers want to eradicate that stereotype, in part, by further promoting the art to women and men of all ages and families with children. “There’s a lot of cool stuff that kids can do.”
Solem said kids “love to wear the noisy hip-scarves; it’s a lot of fun for them to shake them and make a lot of noise.”
Using the term “Middle East dance,” rather than belly dancing, she said, can also help to diminish the sexual connotation associated with the dance form.
“I’ve seen those raised eyebrows,” she said.
Belly dancing classes have attracted students from ages 6 to 60, Thomas said.
“It’s a beautiful form of movement,” Solem said, “with so much history.”
Learn to dance
Belly dancing classes are offered in Grand Forks each week at the Altru Family YMCA, University Avenue and Seventh Street, and at The 12 Houses, 1604 S. Washington St.
For more info on classes and upcoming performances: www.LovelyBellyDance.com.
Knudson covers Health and Family for the Herald and can be reached at (701) 780-1107, (800) 477-6572, ext.1107 or firstname.lastname@example.org.