Love your belly

A circle of women slowly sidestep. As they move in rhythmic unison, their hips pulse — to the right,
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A circle of women slowly sidestep. As they move in rhythmic unison, their hips pulse — to the right, to the center, to the left. With each flick of the hip, copper coins that dangle from colorful hip scarves jangle to the beat.

Suzanne “Lilya” Rancourt leads this weekly ring of belly dancers at the YWCA in Schenectady. And she says, as they absorb the ancient art of Middle Eastern dance, these women are getting fit. But more importantly, they are connecting with their femininity and having a great time doing it.

This cadre of women is not unique. A report from the American Authority on Fitness, a nonprofit advocate, says more and more American women are enrolling in belly dancing classes. Rancourt says it’s true. In recent years, attendance at her regional classes has risen.

“I think there are two answers to this,” said Rancourt, who prepared for her class in the gym. “There are groups of people who want to reclaim the power of their own feminine self. They see themselves as bearers of life and want to become more feminine. There is another group who have seen Shakira [pop artist from Colombia] dance and they want to do that.”

Mary Bejian, who has taught Middle Eastern dancing at eba Center for Dance and Fitness for 13 years, said a lot of women start belly dancing as a way to exercise. But they become hooked when they tap into the mind/body connection that the dance cultivates. As this happens, the women also become enamored of the music and the culture that inspire the dance.

“It takes the workout aspect to another level, a spiritual level,” said Bejian.

Bejian says there are plenty of physical benefits, too. It lowers blood pressure, reduces stress and realigns the body, she says. Rancourt lists other perks. The rippling movement of the torso tones muscles and strengthens connective tissue. Firming the core relieves pain, especially to the back. The lift of the rib cage gives more space to the organs. She also says it promotes easier labor in and a faster recovery from childbirth. The dance is especially helpful to women who have undergone Caesarean sections.

“It’s about connecting with the body and it’s the one form of dance that wants you to keep your curves,” said Rancourt.

Full workout

Sue Press, who has been a belly dancing for more than 30 years, said the dance works her from head to toe.

“To get it, you use everything you got,” said Press, who lives in Ballston Lake. Better yet, she says it’s the kind of dance you can perform forever. Age is not a deterrent; neither is body type.

Still, belly dancing is harder than it looks. Body parts shift in isolation. Movement undulates through the neck, the shoulders, the stomach and the hips.

At the class that Rancourt leads, some of the dancers are new to the form. Nozomi Sakata, a Union College student, attends the class for the first time. As she follows along, she struggles to match Rancourt’s swooping ribs and her soft, pliant arms. Undeterred, she wrestles with the movement with another newbie as Rancourt and her students lunge into deep stretches and thrust their hips, both fast and slow.

Mary Berry of Delmar, who takes Rancourt’s class, said everyone can master the moves with practice. She said learning the art has improved her posture, flexibility and made her more graceful. She also likes the freedom the dance lends.

At the same time, the dance can be very controlled. An accomplished belly dancer can isolate and direct the flex of every muscle.

But over the past century, the dance has become stereotyped as a segue to sex. For many, belly dancing conjures visions of bare midriffs and push-up bras with fringes that reveal shimmying gestures performed for voyeuristic men. That style of belly dancing, known as cabaret or club, is not the traditional folk style that Rancourt and Bejian teach.

Folk or cabaret, said Press, “it’s pretty sexy stuff, but it’s not pole dancing or lap dancing. We are not seducing men.”

Misty heritage

The history of Middle Eastern dance is sketchy. It could be found from Egypt to Greece dating from 1000 B.C. Some were gypsies, uneducated women who danced in the streets. But many women were trained in the dance as ritual. Their role was to invoke goddesses or pray for fertility. These temple dancers were often schooled in reciting poetry and playing the oud.

Today’s American belly dancers simply dance, finding joy in every flip of the hips and shake of the shoulders.

“People come into class. They look like crap,” said Bejian. “But after one hour of belly dancing, the look like themselves again. Stress leaves them. Their shoulders are relaxed. Their backs don’t hurt. Their legs don’t hurt. They have color in their cheeks. And when you don’t get it, it’s OK because there is no wrong in belly dancing. Our bodies are a work-in-progress. It’s very empowering.”

Rancourt agreed.

“Women in our society often feel fat and ugly from the hips down. We are discouraged about feeling beautiful from the hips down. Women who do this can celebrate their hips. It’s about finding inner beauty and letting it shine. It’s about reclaiming the power of the feminine self.” And getting in shape at the same time.

Categories: Life and Arts

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