Belly dancing: Swivel your way to fitness
By Stephanie Smith
LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- In Asia, it is a dance to usher in a new birth. In Turkey, it is considered a folk dance. In a small studio in West Los Angeles brimming with women of all ages, belly dancing is a unique way to get in shape.
"There's parts of your body that after you do this dance you realize you haven't been moving those parts in years," said Iris Parker, a student in the class.
Parker's instructor, Aisha Ali, said that while swaying and sashaying through the hour-long class her students don't just move parts of their bodies, but the entire body.
"The neck moves and the shoulders move and the chest lifts and the diaphragm lifts. The pelvis goes up and down," said Ali, who has been performing and teaching belly dancing for more than two decades. "It's soft for the joints and yet it's very energetic and very aerobic."
According to Ali, a single belly dance session works hundreds of muscles, burns calories and helps students to de-stress.
"You really have to stay with it," said longtime student Jytte Springer. "It's always a challenge, a physical challenge, and that's the real workout."
Belly dancing has emerged as one of the hot new workout trends in recent years, according to the American Council on Exercise.
The fitness advocate group says belly dancing and other dances have evolved from the traditional concepts to become heart-pumping workouts in gyms across the nation.
Many students attend classes to lose weight, but Ali said other aspects of the class are what make them stay.
"Eventually they get interested in all the different kinds of music we play...and they want to know about those countries," said Ali.
In most of the world, belly dancing is called Danse Orientale, or Oriental Dance. It is a form of expression that draws elements and styles from different continents to arrive at what Westerners consider belly dancing.
Belly dancing in the United States is actually inspired by dance styles from disparate places such as Morocco, Spain, Egypt and Russia.
While Western lore and movies stress the seductive characteristics like the willowy arms and undulating pelvis, Ali said that to isolate belly dancing to that alone is a misguided idea of the dance.
"It's normal to move the pelvis," Ali said. "It's not meant to be lascivious. It's meant to be a form of everyday expression."
This is one of many themes Ali visits during her weekly belly dance classes. Her students explore the history of the dance and their own femininity.
"I think every woman originally moves like that," said Parker, as she described what its like to belly dance. "The sensuality of the dance was why I really wanted to learn how to do [it]."
A bonding dance
The sound system in Ali's class pours out music from all over the world. Students shake their hips, adorned with gold coins, as their bare feet patter and slide across the floor.
At times, they watch Ali intently, emulating her moves. At other times the studio rings with laughter. When the class is over, students huddle in groups, exhilarated, chatting about the class.
"We form bonds," said Ali. "It's a very female bonding kind of dance."
Her students agree about bonding and they also agree about the intense workout.
"You feel it," said Parker. "It makes your body have a beautiful shape and it's very good for a person who doesn't like, say, running and going to the gym."