One Arabian Night
Our intrepid reporter tries belly dancing

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About the cover


D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    May 2008

One Arabian Night

Ever wonder what it would be like to try belly dancing? Our intrepid reporter bares — well, not quite all.

Story and photos by Donna Clayton Lawder

Zoe Wolfe swears that belly dancing is not what I think. "It's not about that! It's not about bared bellies or performing," the Silver City belly-dancing instructor and ceramics artist insists. "It's about moving and having fun!"

Belly Dancing
Wolfe shouts "Happy spring!" in a joyous
release at the end of the class closing ritual.

I'd heard about the fitness benefits of this Middle Eastern form of dance — core muscle toning, strength building, cardio workout. In fact, one story of belly dancing's origins says it developed as a form of exercise to prepare women for the rigors of childbirth. And it does sound like fun: I imagine those distinctive flutes and stringed instruments, the crisp ching of finger bells, interwoven with visions of Peter O'Toole (admittedly a life-long crush) in his Lawrence of Arabia garb. . . .

So, the next thing I know, I'm at Wolfe's weekly belly-dancing class at A Daily Practice Yoga Studio, prepared to suck it up — and maybe suck it in a little — and give it a try.

The other women gathered for class tonight — chatting, helping each other tie on a scarf or adjust a spangled brassiere — fit my vision of those Middle Eastern women of old: a coffee klatch, perhaps, but with spangles. They range from their early 30s into their 50s, from short to tall, athletic to stick-thin to voluptuous. They adjust their outfits while sharing their reasons for taking belly dance classes.

"I do it to get into my body. It gets me out of my head, out of the rest of my life and into this space," says one woman, a hand lovingly planted on her abdomen to emphasize her point. "And I just love it, too. I shimmy in my kitchen!"

"Me, too," says another student. "I do it around the house. It's really good for your waist."

A diminutive, silver-haired lady puts in, "It's great exercise and it's fun to do."

Most of these students have been taking this class for six months to a year or more. One has been Wolfe's student for all 10 years she has been teaching belly dancing in Silver City.

True to Wolfe's word, only one student shows even a flash of bare belly. One woman in a loose black skirt and sleeveless top tells another student, "I didn't wear my fancy outfit tonight." She ties a bright scarf around her hips, turning her simple garb into something exotic.

"Oh, you look fine," the other reassures her.

They both admire the flowing, tiered multi-colored skirt of a new arrival. Her hip scarf is an elaborate open-weave variety, made of shimmering threads and with long fringes. Another student has tied on a scarf with metal disks that resemble coins or large sequins. She gives her hips a vigorous shake to test out her jingle.

In my loose-fitting "genie" pants and black knit top, I feel plain, even under-equipped. Well, my clothes are comfortable for movement — and I have brought along my belly, after all.

Carrying several large shopping bags and an enormous boombox, instructor Zoe Wolfe sweeps into the room, calling out greetings, smiling broadly. Her eyes seem to snap with electricity from within. Dark, curly hair flows behind her in a long wave. Her form-fitting, midriff-baring outfit gives evidence of how slimming belly dancing can be.

Wolfe sets down her bags and boombox, warmly welcomes me and another new student, then surveys my outfit. With a warm and pleasant smile, she says simply, "You need a scarf."

An awkward wave of uncertainty washes over me. Is my outfit that plain? Do I really merit a fancy scarf on my first night — can I do it justice? My face must betray my doubts, as Wolfe quickly pipes up, "Well, we all need scarves, right ladies?" She hands me an exotic blue scarf that compliments my humble attempt at belly dance attire. She ties another, of the jingling variety, around her own hips.

It turns out the scarf is to help me, not just make me look fancy or authentic. "It makes you aware of your hips," Wolfe explains with a shake that punctuates her point.

Her eyes light up with something akin to mischief. "It also helps me get out of my street persona and into my belly dancing self," she adds brightly. As if instantly transformed into some exotic ancient creature, she waves her arms in a fluid, serpentine movement and gives her hips another energetic, jingly shake.

She advances to the front of the room, pops a CD into the boombox and calls the women together to form a circle. "Let's warm up!"

We start with micro-moves and proper posture: feet under hips, hips forward, neck circles, shoulder rolls to loosen up. So far, so good. Years of yoga and Pilates have given me some helpful body awareness and balance.

Following Wolfe's lead, we begin undulating our bodies like snakes. There are a lot of "snake" components to belly dancing, I soon discover; this sinuous movement is what gives the dance its characteristic flow. Though Wolfe and the others make it look easy — bringing to mind exotic cobras — I am aware that my own movements are coming off more like that of a New Jersey garter snake. No, that would be an insult to the garter snake.

Wolfe catches sight of my attempts at undulation, then breaks down the movement into segments so I can perhaps find the missing step in my process and catch the movement's flow.

"Hips forward," she says, "just hips," and demonstrates with a subtle move that suggests she has no vertebrae to work around — at least not stubborn vertebrae like mine.

I focus on the micro-movement of my own hips. Up, back, up, back. Soon I can combine the moves into a sequence that gives me that snake-like flow. I'm just about getting good at it — more cobra, less garter snake! — when Wolfe adds another move.

"Now step with it! One, two, three, four!" she calls out in time with the music. The others easily follow her lead and step toward the front of the room, keeping up their undulations. "Then back!" Wolfe calls, and all shimmy back into place with those quick little graceful footsteps familiar from belly dancing scenes in movies.

Of course, unfamiliar with the steps and calls, I miss even this basic cue and find myself still undulating at the back of the room, then trying to catch up with the little steps forward and back. No problem, it turns out — we're going to do this again and again. I work to reestablish my undulation and wait for the stepping cue.

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