Up-tempo, exotic music pulses through the speakers as brightly coloured coin belts jangle, tied loosely around the waists of a dozen women.
Participants, ranging in age from their teens to their 50s, are scattered throughout the well-lit studio, clad in black yoga pants and T-shirts with bare feet resting on hardwood floors.
They are gathered at Down Hips Dance Studio in Kitchener, attending the studio’s most popular class led by belly dancing instructor Amanda Elgie-Boettger. She cheerfully walks the beginners through the basic movements and muscle isolations that characterize the dance.
The women practise the smooth, flowing, complex and sensual movements of the torso, with alternating shaking and shimmying of the hips, shoulders and chest.
“If you’re going to be wiggling your boobs in front of people you’ve got to be cute about it,” Elgie-Boettger calls out, making the dancers laugh.
The origins of belly dancing, though unclear, can be traced to the Middle East, the Mediterranean and Africa. Paintings in Egyptian tombs and Persian paintings suggest that belly dancing was part of their culture, dating back to 13th and 14th century BC. Though largely associated with harems, belly dancing for Saudi women was considered to be sacred and not intended to be seen by men at all.
Since the turn of the century, belly dancing has grown enormously in popularity worldwide. Belly dance festivals, workshops, lessons and seminars attract large audiences of both women and men.
Mandy Habermehl, owner and dance instructor at Down Hips, said though 99 per cent of her students are female, she does have the occasional male dancer.
“We have a few male belly dancers in the area who are a lot of fun, one of whom is also a teacher,” Habermehl said. “This past session was our first time having a male student in class, however, everyone was very accepting. He even danced in the student recital and is coming back for another session.”
Regardless of gender, age or dance experience, Habermehl said the hardest part for all new belly dancers is to have their bodies listen to them. Because belly dance utilizes isolations and muscle groups like no other dance style, everyone starts at ground level, she said.
“A lot of the exchanges of weight and isolations are opposite the muscle memory we have built up over years,” Habermehl said. “It’s a lot of fun though, students laugh it off when they stare at a body part telling it to move and nothing happens – it takes time and practise. It’s definitely exciting when it happens.”
From building core strength and flexibility, promoting weight loss and social interaction, the dance has numerous benefits not only health-wise but for self-esteem.
Habermehl said she initially lost 45 pounds in less than two years as she began dancing more, staying active and healthy while building strength.
“For me it was the confidence,” Habermehl said. “When I was larger, I was belly dancing and the group of women, the belly dance community and the pure passion for belly dance made me feel that no matter what I had to shake, that I could be graceful, beautiful and accepted. I was able to get on stage, and I even chose to bare my belly at the size it was, (and I was) proud of myself and my body. Belly dancing was the first time in my life I had accepted and come to love my body at the size it was. Everyone was, and is so incredibly supportive of one another, that I grew to love and accept myself. The weight loss happened on its own.”