Belly up to the dance floor

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 26, 2001

Just because we live in the land of forever winter doesn’t mean we can’t learn how to do an exercise from warm desert countries.

Friday, January 26, 2001

Just because we live in the land of forever winter doesn’t mean we can’t learn how to do an exercise from warm desert countries. Belly dancing is heating up the aerobics room of Riverland Community College on Thursday nights and Saturday mornings. These are the times the Raks Sharqi Middle Eastern Dance Company gets together to practice and perfect their routines.

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"Thursday nights are troupe practice and Saturday mornings starting at 11 we do an aerobic dance workout. The aerobic dance workout is open to anyone and the cost is $5," said Fatima, secretary of the dance group. Each members creates a performance name, by which they are identified.

The group’s name, Raks Sharqi – pronounced "rocks shark key" – actually means undulating dance in Arabic.

Belly dancing is one of the oldest dance forms. Its roots go back to sacred religious dance. Through the centuries women have practiced the undulating movements to help strengthen their pelvic and abdominal muscles for childbirth and tone their stomachs after delivery.

The swaying hip movements and belly rolls strengthen the abdominal muscles and condition the back, hips and buttocks, while the graceful arm and chest movements tone the upper body. Belly dancing works every part of the body in a gentle, pleasant and more natural way.

Belly dancing increases flexibility while it firms the muscles. It is an ideal workout for women of all ages and body types. Many great dancers are in their 40s and 50s, even older. Unlike pencil-thin ballerinas, some have pleasantly rounded figures that actually adds to their appeal. Women who participate in this ancient dance form actually say it enhances a woman’s awareness of her body’s natural grace and makes her feel sensuous, confident and like a jolt of strong caffeine, rejuvenated.

Seeing the Raks Sharqi dance group in their costume finery and performing is watching women celebrating their femininity. The dancers work long hours perfecting their movements of isolation and also spend long hours creating their costumes.

The costumes don’t come cheap either. The skirts of a dancer may be as much as seven yards of material. The skirts are heavy so when the dancer spins and the skirt twirls and the affect is quite dramatic.

The dancers usually wear vests to enhance their bodice. The vests come in different styles and trim and tassels are added to embellish. The women wear bras adorned with coins and hip scarves with coins sewn into them to make noise when they move. The bras the women sew, and the coined hip scarves are purchased through vendors who travel to Minneapolis and dance workshops in the area. Hip scarves can be purchased over the Internet at belly dancing sites. The dancers discourage doing this as you want to feel the weight of the belt on your hips and the rattle factor of coin belts differs with each belt.

Dressing up, practicing, making your own costume are part of becoming a belly dancer. Another part is taking a dance name. Having a dance name gives the woman an alter ego. Choosing the name you want to be when you are dancing is like rebirthing one self. You still are the same person but your alter ego takes over when you perform.

Women start belly dancing for different reasons. Fatima started after she injured herself jogging. Tamira who enjoys all types of dancing, started to belly dance because it was something she was always interested in.

"In the ’70s, I lived in Garner, Iowa. I was thinking of moving back to Austin. I saw through a flyer someone was giving belly dancing classes. I told my boss when I move back to Austin I am going to take belly dancing lessons," said Tamira.

By the time she moved to Austin, no one was giving lessons. Then in the 1990s, her daughter-in-law and granddaughter were going to take lessons and Tamira started to take them too. Her daughter-in-law and granddaughter didn’t stay with the classes, but Tamira is still dancing.

"I like the dancing and I like the costuming. The people are a fun group to be with. I enjoy all forms of a dancing and this is just another form," said Tamira.

Tutah started to dance when she was 9 years old.

"Dancing makes me happy. I come alive when I dance. Dancing is challenging, there is always something new to learn. I like the women in the group and the costumes are so beautiful. I’ve gotten stronger because I dance," said Tutah.

There is a male dancer in the Raks Sharqi Troop who does a sword dance. A male dancer is more masculine in his movements but they are as mesmerizing as the female dancers.

Riverland Community College offers a credited belly dance class, and it will also be available this fall. The class is taught by Nazmeya.