PORTLAND (AP) – A woman in her late 40s glides through a studio with tiny finger cymbals clinging out the rhythm to her workout. She swivels her hips with the charisma of a teen pop star, raises her arms, and twirls.

A dozen others ranging from 17 to 48, petite teenagers and middle-aged mothers, swarm around her sounding out a rhythmic chorus to accompany their dance.

Belly dancing has emerged as a form of exercise for those who find its sultry undulations more suiting – or more comfortable – than hours of aerobics or weights. Like pilates and yoga, you don’t have to be willowy to belly dance.

“You get to a certain age where you can’t do ballet anymore,” said Anne Cornely, 46, of Brunswick, her face covered in a film of sweat after finishing a dance. “This is a dance anybody, no matter your age or your size, can do.”

The origins and history of belly dancing are nebulous. Considered a folk-dance in some cultures, a celebration of femininity in others, it is thought to have been introduced in the United States during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

The allur e of belly dancing in the new millennium lies in a low-impact mix of meditation and workout, experts say. And the ancient dance is now less about sultry moves or Middle Eastern culture than feeling fit and losing weight.

“It appeals to the person who, for whatever reason, has not found traditional exercise to be their cup of tea,” said Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist at the American Council on Exercise in San Diego. “It has really grown out of people looking at alternative modes of activity to spice up their workout.”

During a recent class in Brunswick, Jamileh Jeanne Handy, a Lebanese belly dancing instructor, smiled from the corner while her students tossed aside their inhibitions to dip and lean into the moves she was asking them to perform.

Besides using belly dancing as a way to lose weight, Handy said women don’t have to know the cultural history of the dance – a family’s women passed it down through generational lines – to feel a connection to the women spinning with them.

The nature of the dance is suitable for youthful or aging bodies, she said, and it doesn’t require spandex or sweat towels.

“It feeds your spirit, it feeds your mind, and it feeds your body,” she said. “After a session, there is no question about it, attitudes shift about bodies.”

Carol Heppell, who at 48 is the oldest woman in the class, has been belly dancing for a year. She said during that time she began to understand why she was intrigued by belly dancing even as a little girl.

Now a middle-aged woman, she giggled as she spun across the room.

“I do it for self-confidence reasons,” she said. “I was always very inward. But this really brings out the woman inside. The rhythm is inside me.”

Modern culture often tells women that having pride in their bodies if they are not models is bad, she said. Belly dancing helps women overcome that.

Not surprisingly, Handy said many women back away from belly dancing because of self-confidence. Many of her current students had reservations when they began that were the product of those images, she said.

Some wondered when they started if they were in adequate shape to begin the program. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Only in the West, where Hollywood representations often show belly dancers as exotic harem girls doing the dance as a means to seduction, do belly dancers have to bare a midriff and wear belts shimmering with coins, she said.

Women don’t have to be models to pride themselves on their femininity or exude a powerful sexuality with every move to consider themselves belly dancers.

“Belly dancing celebrates the excitement of youth, the pride of motherhood, and the wisdom of age,” she said. “My students keep coming back because they’re having a good time. And that’s one of the biggest hurdles in exercise.”

AP-ES-11-07-04 1231EST



Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.