Middle Eastern Workout

Like many a Marin mom, Melanie Lee begins her days in fast forward and stays that way: getting breakfast ready, driving the kids to school, running errands, picking up the kids, preparing dinner, helping with homework.

Yet for about an hour most days, Lee transforms from busy mom to dancing goddess—shimmying and shaking to the sounds of Middle Eastern music. For this Terra Linda mother of five, belly dancing is a chance to reach within herself without even realizing it.  “You really don’t even think about focusing on yourself because you’re so into the movement,” says Lee.

Forget the popularized notion of young harem girls seducing the sultan with their undulating hips. Belly dancing is an ancient art form that celebrates the feminine, the inner divinity in each woman, with movements that come naturally to women of all ages, body types and backgrounds. No wonder it appeals to Marin women who relish a great physical workout that also nourishes the soul.

Also called Middle Eastern dancing, belly dancing is widely believed to have begun as a women’s dance in the Middle East, yet its exact origins remain a mystery. Some think it may have initially served as a birthing ceremony, as the movements tone and strengthen the muscles used during labor. Still others contend it was originally part of a religious tradition or possibly a fertility ritual. Whatever its true history, belly dancers agree on one thing—the dance is much more wholesome than its reputation suggests.

“It’s not about seduction,” says Dhyanis, who has been belly dancing for 35 years and co-owns WorldDance Fitness, a dance studio in San Anselmo. “It was not originally intended in that way, and yet we do feel ultrafeminine when we do it.” (Some men do belly dance as well.)

Just one class is enough to confirm that point to even the most beginner-level student. As hips sway in a figure-eight pattern, tassels dangling from clothing mimic the movement. Arms extend from the body, flowing, snakelike. Chests move up, down, and side-to-side without anything else moving. Everything about the dance is graceful, but in a sensual, not sexual, way.

This is clearly a discipline that involves more than simply shaking one’s hips. While it emphasizes natural movements, it is not effortless. Part of the challenge comes from the muscle isolation the dance demands: each area of the body—hips, arms, shoulders, chest—must be moved independently of other areas. Add in uptempo music and you have a heart-pumping workout. Yet within three weeks, Dhyanis says, most beginners are no longer beginners.

“It’s not like ballet, where you have to study for 20 years to be really good or you have to start when you’re really young,” she says.
“You can be 50 and start [belly dancing].”

In fact, many of her students began belly dancing later in life. Crystal Wright, a 53-year-old consultant from San Rafael, tried a class about three years ago and was hooked: “I just loved the way I felt during and after the classes,” she says. “The best instructors understand women’s bodies and how to coax movement out of them.”

They also know that belly dancing has the power to change the way a woman sees herself. It teaches women about the strength they hold inside and promotes self-acceptance even if their bodies are far from perfect. These are moves that all women can perform, regardless of age or physique; something about shimmying one’s hips in front of others helps self-consciousness quickly dissolve and self-esteem take its place.

Yet the benefits are more than psychological. Belly dancing also strengthens and tones, particularly the area that fitness experts call the core muscle group. After belly dancing for a year, 46-year-old Lee found herself no longer needing medication for her lower back pain. Remaining limber is another bonus, which Dhyanis, 59, displays proudly with a standing  forward bend—knees straight and hands flat on the floor.

It’s also just downright fun. Women are encouraged to embrace their creative sides with colorful, billowing fabrics, jewelry and coin-decorated scarves tied low on their hips.

Barefoot on the dance floor, they set aside their lives as attorneys, psychiatrists, nurses and homemakers and focus on coming together as a community. From the 15-year-old to the 70-year-old, they’re modern women tapping into an ancient art that celebrates the natural beauty of the female spirit.

Indulge your inner dancing diva and join a local class at one of these locations:

Inner Rhythm
518D Tamalpais Dr.
Corte Madera
Beginner to advanced classes; call for schedule. All sessions are drop-in. Cost is $14 per class or $96 for eight classes within eight weeks.

World Dance Fitness
40 Greenfield Ave.
San Anselmo
Beginner to advanced classes; schedule online. All sessions are drop-in. Cost is $15 per class, or buy a 10-class card for $125, a 20-class card
for $220.