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Belly Dancing Fitness Classes in the Hudson Valley

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In the last decade or so, videos of pop stars seducing their audiences with shimmering hip scarves and twisting torsos have brought the art of belly dancing into the popular culture (think Shakira). What many Americans don’t realize, though, is that this Middle Eastern dance is much more family-oriented than it is commonly perceived — it is, in fact, a folk dance done by both men and women of all ages at family parties and other celebrations.  

Here in the Valley, several belly dancers, who both perform and teach, hope to quell the stereotypes — and more importantly, introduce this ancient art form as a fun, strengthening, and empowering form of dance. It’s already catching on.

“When a woman feels this type of movement in her body, it gives her internal confidence; she’s happier, feels better about herself because her muscles are tighter, and that confidence permeates the rest of her world. It’s empowering and she feels like a goddess,” says belly dance performer and teacher Christine Dempsey, a Saugerties resident who goes by the name of Willow.

» Learn belly dancing with Willow in Kingston, NY

She says she believes the misconceptions about the art form go all the way back to the 1893 Chicago World Fair. “There was a belly dancer named Little Egypt who performed, and after that, many burlesque and vaudeville acts started mimicking her moves and calling themselves Little Egypt,” she explains. “Since then, several types of belly dance have evolved into burlesque-type acts. In my opinion, it’s every belly dancer’s responsibility to not push that stereotype of it being a purely sexual form of movement. It’s supposed to be a little coy, playful, but it’s not a striptease. It’s a dance of the people — a celebration of life.”

 

 

christine willow dempseyWillow (Christine Dempsey) performing a fusion of belly dance styles

Photograph courtesy of Willow

Lebanon, Syria, Israel, and other Middle Eastern and North African countries all have their own region-specific form of movement. Turkish belly dance, Willow explains, tends to be more flamboyant than Egyptian; their costumes are skimpier, and their movements are less conservative. In the two classes she teaches — for beginners and for intermediate students, both at MAC Fitness in Kingston — she combines multiple styles. “I teach mixed classes with strong Turkish influences, but I include some Egyptian style,” she says. “They’re almost opposite, but I like to blend, not stick to one style. Many teachers do that and that’s how a lot of fusion styles have started in America.”

Like many teachers, she begins her beginner classes with some light physical training, including abdominal work and squats, but goes a bit deeper into strength training with the intermediate class. “It’s a very muscular dance form,” she explains, “and it takes work to do it properly — it’s not just about women shakin’ it. The movement comes from the inside out, so you’re toning and strengthening muscles all over your body; you’ll work muscles in your shoulders, chest, waist, hips, glutes, calves, and feet. My classes aren’t as aerobic — you won’t sweat like you would in Zumba, but you might be a little sore the next day.”

angelique hanesworth bellydancing classHanesworth teaches Egyptian-style belly dance to a class

Photograph courtesy of Angelique Hanesworth

Angelique Hanesworth, a teacher and performer from New Paltz who goes by her first name, also focuses more on Egyptian style and its culture. “Everybody does it in Egypt, even little girls with their aunts and mothers,” she says (although she does note that “good girls don’t do it professionally”).

» Learn belly dancing with Angelique in New Paltz, NY

Even though the Egyptian style is closest to her heart (“It’s elegant, graceful, powerful, and I love the music and orchestration”), Angelique’s classes at the Living Seed in New Paltz also combine elements of other cultures. “I have many students who have different preferences: some like to do Turkish, some prefer tribal — a new form that’s developed over the last 10-15 years. So I base classes on strengthening and technique,” she explains. Sessions begin with a more physically demanding warm-up of crunches, stretches, lunges, and other exercises that might be a little intimidating to a beginner, but those who come back a few times find it easier to handle. From there, she’ll cover basic techniques: proper arm placement — usually overhead or extended to the sides for periods of time, which can get tiring; controlled, wavelike movements of the torso called undulations; and figure eights or infinite symbols with the hips or chest. The movements are then incorporated in choreographed dances.

“In a class when we do choreographed movement, you’ll notice a variation of the dance, they’re not carbon copies of me, and that’s a good thing. I don’t want people to dance like me; I want them to learn basic technique, then make it their own,” she says. “An undulation is an undulation, but how you interpret it to music is how you define your style.”

 

 

serpentessaSerpentessa and a close friend perform a fusion of old-school American cabaret dancing with newer Egyptian techniques

Photograph courtesy of Serpentessa

Serpentessa, who dubs herself a snake priestess, performs belly dance with boa constrictors. While she only dances with one at a time, she has a few snakes that have been with her for almost 30 years. “The boa constrictors are very gentle; of all the 3,000 or so species of snakes, they are the best human-snake ambassadors,” she says. “You just have to respect them. When one slithers onto my shoulders, I won’t shimmy them, I’ll start moving my hips more.”

» Learn belly dancing with Serpentessa in New Paltz, NY

The New Paltz resident says she was once very self-conscious about her own body, but working with the reptiles has been healing for her. “Snakes respond to our body rhythms, scent, and musical vibrations. The way they wrapped around me quieted my mind, brought a sense of peace, and I started to know and understand my body.”

For about 10 years, Serpentessa has been teaching a form of belly dance that is “a fusion of old-school American cabaret with elements of newer Egyptian technique,” but has been giving performances rather than teaching as of late. Teaching a class or workshop often leads to participants overcoming their fear of snakes, she says. And while she does wear the traditional garb, her belly dance performance style is family-friendly — she even performs at bar and bat mitzvahs.

“When you’re using serpentine movements that stem from the core muscles, it has a natural sensuality,” Serpentessa explains. “Sensuality, to me, means that no matter what age or size you are, you’re not afraid to live from your core, feminine power. We live in a culture that makes people feel like we’re lacking — women are taught to fear what they will become when they get older. Belly dance can allow a woman to appreciate her own body.”

These classes also allow women something that’s important to the culture of the dance — time spent together. “One of the most important elements of my class is the community of women that it has begun,” Angelique says. “My classes include women who work full-time, others who have big families to take care of. This gives them a couple of hours a week to do something for themselves — a chance to get together with other women, be social, sweat, laugh, and dance. It’s beautiful.”

» Visit the Hudson Valley Sports, Recreation, and Fitness Guide for more dance classes

 

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