Applause sounds in appreciative smatters as a figure in red twirls and shimmies her way around the floor to the foreign cadence of Middle Eastern instruments.
“How many marriage proposals have you received?” calls a voice from the dozens of women bordering the room during a workshop at the Women’s Health Conference in Jackson, Tenn.
Amara, a professional bellydance instructor from ISIS Bellydance Center in Nashville, and her partner Elina Sahar joined other speakers and presenters at this year’s conference to demonstrate the physical and mental benefits of traditional bellydance.
After Amara’s performance, Sahar steps forward with her lithe body. Although she had studied many forms of dance since the age of nine, Sahar did not become interested in bellydance until a friend needed her help as a dance partner.
“Before I started bellydance I weighed 20 pounds less than this and I thought I needed to diet,” she says, shaking her short blonde hair. “That’s what bellydance did for me. You realize you have to be a woman. You have to eat. You have to have the jiggle.”
“Well, I definitely have that,” another woman quips, causing her neighbors to giggle in agreement.
The instructors also showed participants a few bellydance moves to try on their own. At the end of the session, everyone crowded around the ISIS table to pick through imported hip scarves in a bold array of colors.
A few women even tried on the scarves, practicing their new moves to the jangling gold or silver coins dancing on the fringes.
A general concern voiced among the conference attendants, many of whom were in their 30s or 40s, was that bellydance is viewed as an activity for younger women.
“Bellydance is for every stage of a woman’s life,” Amara said. “one of my students said it helps with menopause in strengthening the stomach muscles, and with osteoporosis. It’s a fun and safe way to keep active.”
Amara, who has been studying bellydance since her mother started taking her to classes at the age of four, said she believes bellydance is an empowering art which began in temples as a ritual celebrating a woman’s spiritual and reproductive life.
“It helps with cramps from PMS, it’s enticing to a mate and strengthens muscles while pregnant,” Amara said. “Belly undulations help with child birth and even after birth it helps with toning the muscles. It is also a means for women to get together in a social setting and have a great time and dance for each other in ‘haflas.’
Amara said it was not until later that bellydance became “a voyeuristic event where men watched in harems, then special events and night clubs.”
“It is now used for so many things – spirituality, fitness, entertainment and good luck at social events to name a few,” Amara said.
Muscle toning and control, core muscle strengthening, weight loss, good posture and poise, increased flexibility, body isolation and improved rhythm are among the fitness benefits Amara lists for bellydance.
Amara said the traditional dance also has an effect on the mind and spirit by increasing body awareness, unlocking the feminine spirit, building self-discipline and mindfulness and offering “release and renewal, joy, fun and freedom.”
Bellydance studios can be found in most major cities throughout the United States. “I believe classes are important to get the posture moves and feel correctly,” Amara said. “Personal attention will ensure moves are done correctly from the start and good habits will be strengthened. If there are not any classes around DVDs are a good way to start.”