Dare to Bare

Elisheva, the evocatively single-named instructor of belly dance classes, was happy to see several of her students come baring their bellies. Eight women mostly in their forties and fifties, all of varying shapes and sizes, attended the Saturday morning beginner level belly dancing technique class at Calliope Fitness & Arts in Roslyn. And some came proudly displaying their midriffs. “It’s the first time some of them have showed their stomachs in fifteen years,” said Elisheva.

That renewed sense of confidence is one of the benefits of belly dancing, along with full-body toning, increased body-mind awareness, improved poise and posture, and a meditative relaxation effect. Rhonda Carol, Calliope’s owner, said she and her formal dance-trained instructors “want to make every woman feel beautiful.”

Belly dancing as a group exercise has been a recent popular trend, but Rhonda sees the appeal of the ancient dance form surpassing simply physical benefits. “It’s supposed to be sensual, it helps you become healthier and more graceful, and builds self-esteem and confidence. It’s a type of dance that anyone without formal dance training can easily pick up.”

I definitely fall into the latter category. I’ve found myself stymied by simple choreography sequences in Zumba and other cardio dance classes, but the atmosphere at the scenic Roslyn Village studio overlooking a pond was far from intimidating. As the beginner technique class started, it became clear that the routines were intuitive and easy to follow once you got the hang of the posture and movements. Elisheva calmly emphasized technique and proper form but periodically reminded the students to smile, saying, “I also want you to have fun!”

Elisheva said that belly dancing is “cerebral as well as physical.” Students have to learn patience to match their movements to the music, as well as condition themselves to relax and release the tension we all hold in our faces and jaws—two of the harder aspects of the class.

We began with extensive stretching and body posture instruction and then learned slides, which are the side-to-side hip movements that are the hallmark of belly dancing. Elisheva boasts serious dancing chops—she is a professional belly dancer who’s toured with respected dance troupes—and she’s passionate about modernizing the dance form and distancing the art from the kitschy reputation. Think fewer hand movements and flashy, sequined get-ups than you’d see from Middle Eastern restaurant entertainment. The choreography can get tricky, though, especially as the music speeds up.

“I watch students come and struggle with the moves, and then all of a sudden I see it click for them,” she noted. She advises the women who attend her class to practice their hip shimmies while they wash the dishes or brush their teeth at home.

After learning the basic moves the class put them together to practice a simple dance sequence. The movements work the core in a comprehensive way, recruiting all your posture-stabilizing muscles and obliques instead of targeting only the “six-pack” abdominal muscles. The class wasn’t intensely aerobic, but you do work up a sweat.

Women who regularly attend her belly dancing classes form a bond in the friendly and positive female-centric space. Elisheva requests her students “have an open mind and bring energy.” The class danced to Middle Eastern drum beat music and Elisheva is known to insert some hip-hop fusion moves like pop-and-locks into the routines.

Rhonda explained that there are choreography classes (focusing on more complicated dance sequences), as well as technique classes for beginners and intermediate students. The studio also hosts workshops and student showcases for friends and family. Any self-consciousness that a new student may have started with is long gone by the time she is ready to perform in costume in front of a packed house. “The husbands do seem to enjoy it,” Rhonda laughed.

Calliope also offers a “belly dance and booty fitness” class that is more of an intense cardio workout. Free monthly “dance party meet-ups” are open to the public and run the gamut from belly dancing to hip-hop styles. Rhonda sums up Calliope’s mission simply: “We want to share dance and the joy of movement.”

Lauren Levine, the owner of LI Dance Fitness in Hauppauge, agrees that dance fitness classes offer a more fun way of exercising that appeals to a clientele that would be bored by running on a treadmill. The studio space is known for pole dancing classes, but Lauren added belly dancing to the schedule a year ago and has seen a steady interest from women of all ages and fitness levels. “We have students aged 16 to 60, and our classes are small, so instructors can focus on each student. It’s a fun class—you come barefoot, wear hip scarves, put moves together in a routine and get to experience a sense of accomplishment when you see yourself improve.”

Lauren admits the class is not the typical hard-charging cardio dance workout. “You’re not going to leave drenched in sweat but it’s more toning. It’s challenging to focus on one muscle at a time and just use your core.”

Jacqueline Sweet

Jacqueline Sweet

Jacqueline Sweet is a freelance journalist and writer who covers local news and writes features for local and regional publications. She has published work in national magazines like Salute magazine, Family (military) magazine, Triathlete magazine, regional publications like Long Island Pulse and Long Island Parenting, and reported local news for online outlets like LongIslandWins.com and Patch.com. She has been covering health, wellness, fitness beauty, spa and travel for Long Island Pulse for several years.