December 1, 2004

Women Try Belly Dance for Exercise

PORTLAND, Maine - Most don't look like harem girls and few midriffs are showing. But they sure seem to be belly dancing.

A woman in her late 40s is swiveling her hips with the charisma of a teen pop star. A dozen others ranging from petite teens to middle-aged moms swarm around her, ringing out a rhythmic chorus on their finger cymbals.

Belly dancing has emerged as a form of exercise for those who find its sultry undulations more their speed than hours of aerobics. As with Pilates and yoga, you do not 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. "This is a dance anybody, no matter your age or your size, can do."

Like many of the older, more modest dancers, Ms. Cornely wears a black tank top and matching, long spandex pants during the workout. A few of the younger women are decked out in full, shimmering, traditional costume.

But all wear the colorful hip scarves that give them the sense of flowing movement.

Considered a folk dance in some cultures and a celebration of femininity in others, belly dancing is thought to have been introduced in the United States during the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago.

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, the chief exercise physiologist at the American Council on Exercise in San Diego.

"Belly dancing celebrates the excitement of youth, the pride of motherhood and the wisdom of age," said Jamileh Jeanne Handy, a Lebanese belly dancing instructor. "My students keep coming back because they're having a good time. And that's one of the biggest hurdles in exercise."