June 18, 2009

Belly Dance: Exercise or Embarrassing Exhibitionism?

Photo courtesy of Mike Lawrence

Belly Dancing makes me feel like an atheist in church.

In other words, I don't fit in and I figure if I speak up I might offend somebody. But since this place is called Cranky Fitness, I figure that it's okay to get a little ornery now and then.

Remember when you were a kid and exercise used to be fun? That's how I felt when I tried a belly dance class. I am sure that I looked extremely silly, but it didn't matter. It felt fun. Then the instructor moved away and I tried DVDs instead, and ran into the atheist-in-church phenomenon.

I dislike belly dancing because:


- it's like a country cousin that's gone to the city and had its head turned by the bright lights and glitter. In other words, when you see someone performing belly dance today, it's a faint distant echo of the dance's original roots
- people are so damn serious and solemn about it! It's dancing, for Nijinsky's sake. Lighten up a bit.
- far too often, the outfits are not really that flattering and get in the way, sometimes literally, of the dancing itself

I like belly dancing because:


- it's a whole lot more fun than situps
- it's easy to move when you've got a good drum beat
- dancing is fun
- it teaches isolation of muscles as well as balance (see the video below)




All right, that's freaky. But it's incredible muscle control, too. And it's the kind of control you can learn through belly dancing.


[Text for the bandwidth-impaired: What Delilah is doing is moving three coins on her stomach. Without using her hands, she moves them one at a time down her abdomen. She tells you which coin she's going to move, and then she uses her stomach muscles to move the coins. Now that's control. (Okay, you could also say that's insane. I think both apply. Fascinating, in a weird way.)]

I love the idea of anything that works the abs without laying down. Especially first thing in the morning, lying down tends to make the body think I'm being really cool and nice and letting it go back to sleep for awhile. It's not inclined to work out in the a.m. anyway, why encourage it to be sloth-like?


Belly dancing also teaches balance

While I'm not a fan of the outfits in general, the hip scarves or coin belts that dancers wear do serve a purpose. Belly dancing deals with isolation of muscle groups. If you're shimmying your shoulders, the hips aren't supposed to follow along. The jingly scarves will tell you if your hips start jiggling along with the upper body when they shouldn't.

When dancers become more adept, they show off how well they've mastered the trick of isolating moving the hips as opposed to the upper body.

[Text: this dancer is swaying her hips while squatting down and then kneeling ... all the while keeping a sword balanced edgewise on top of her head. Other dancers have performed while balancing a tray of glasses, or a lit candelabrum on the head while dancing. That's balance.]


If you want to try belly dance



The best way to learn is of course to find an instructor you like. But if that's not an option, there are a whole lot of DVDs that purport to teach belly dancing. Some are pretty damn silly. There are also a lot of DVDs that use "belly dance" in the title but are actually aerobic videos designed to give you a workout. Nothing wrong with that, so long as you don't expect instruction.

Below are a list of my most and least favorite DVDs out there.

Instructional Belly Dance DVDs


Warning: these videos are designed to teach you how to dance. So there's a lot of learning the movements, practicing them, then doing a bit of choreographed dancing. In other words, don't try these DVDs if you're looking to work up a sweat in 20 minutes. Try the Aerobic DVDs below instead.

For learning to belly dance, I love Delilah's DVDs. (The woman who did the coin trick video.) And I say that in spite of the fact that I find the music annoying, the warm up excessively New Age, and her hairstyle pure 80's. (I can get really persnickety sometimes. Probably because I do these DVDs first thing in the a.m., when I am at my most cranky.) None of those snippy little drawbacks matter a damn compared to the fact that Delilah is good at getting a concept into the brain.

Also, not that I'm getting paid for this, if you live near Portland (OR), Delilah is performing live at the end of the month.

If you want to ease into belly dancing, you might try the "belly dance twins" Neena and Veena's DVDs. They teach authentic belly dance, but they ease you into it gently so if you're not sure what you're doing, you never feel overwhelmed.

Jillina is a good teacher, if you're already a dancer or in good shape. Bit of a steep learning curve if you're not used to dancing or to working out.

Learn to belly dance with Rania. After I started this DVD, I went back and checked to make sure the title really was Learn to belly dance. It feels like a DVD geared toward people who already know how to do it. Get the feeling of being thrown in the deep end and expected to keep up. The pace is too fast if you're a newbie trying to wrap your brain around a concept and persuade your muscles to move in unusual directions. Probably this would work for someone who is already a dancer and who has had some experience with belly dance, and wants to try something different. Would not recommend it to a beginner.

Aerobic Belly Dance DVDs

While I'm not fond of her "Learn to Belly Dance" DVD, I love Rania's personal trainer DVD. (If you haven't tried her earlier aerobics DVDs you'll feel thrown in the deep end when it comes to the cardio portions, at least at first.) What I love is the variety of workouts that are on this DVD. I can look at the menu and decide whether I want a hard workout or a maintenance-level workout, or whether I just want to spend 10 minutes working on my abs. Rania excels at designing a workout that can get my blood pumping in only 10 minutes.

Again, if you're new to belly dancing or not really fit, I would recommend the belly dance twins' aerobic DVDs. Unlike their instructional DVDs, these are not really useful for learning the dance, but they're good for a beginner who wants to do some aerobics. I wouldn't recommend them if you're in good shape, as the routines are repetitive and not that fascinating. Good for getting your breathing rapid, but dull. On the other hand, even if you don't like the workout these women are very good dancers and they include sample dances that are the best I've seen.

Oh dear... I did say I'd include some of my least favorite DVDs... okay, here goes.

The Goddess Workout with Dophina: Bellydance with Veils. The cover and the title kinda tell it all. Do not pick up this DVD unless you have a very strong tolerance for the color pink, and also the ability to listen to a lot of talk about "your inner goddess." Do not expect a great workout. Based on the Amazon reviews, I thought that at least I would be able to give my arms a workout with this DVD. Nnnnnnnope. Though I did admire the way that a fan off-camera blew so that the veil the woman was holding was always artistically draped behind her.

Photo credit: Franco Folini

When you see people dressed up in gauze and glitter, it's hard to take this seriously as exercise. All the same, you ever have trouble getting moving, try a drum solo -- the beat bypasses the brain and goes straight to the feet. Need to get your heart rate up? Try doing a shimmy, tiny little controlled movements, for 20 minutes. While your upper body is doing entirely different movements. When you're doing lateral figure 8s with your hips and vertical figure 8s with your ribs, come back to me and tell me how easy this is.

Me? Defensive? Well... maybe a bit.

I'm kind of embarrassed to tell people I do this. Frankly, I think drug trafficking is considered more reputable. Prancing around in a silly skimpy outfit like an outsized reindeer?

The whole point of doing these exercises, it seems to me, is to be able to work your muscles in isolation. I love the idea of having such control over my body that I can control my stomach muscles to the point of moving coins separately down the body. Or of being able to be performing a side to side motion with the upper half of the body while the hips are following the shape of a vertical figure 8 at the same time. Trying to figure these sorts of movements out occupies the mind wonderfully, so that I can get a whole hour's worth of exercise and not spend half my time watching the clock.

Have you ever tried belly dancing? Or some other form of exercise that made people look askance at you? It's okay, you can tell me. Whisper it. I won't tell.




53 comments:

  1. Or, if you've tried Belly Dance DVDs, do you have any favorites that should get mentioned?

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  2. I've taken belly dancing lessons a couple of times and while I am not good at it, I love it. I think it's one of the most body-positive exercises available. Or at least it was when I took lessons. My instructor was not a rail thin model type and she looked beautiful dancing.

    I love it and look forward to more lessons.

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  3. It is on my "to-do" list and up until recently, it was taught at my gym. I know a lovely sprightly 70 year old who has done it all her life and she swears it is great for general all-round fitness.

    I want to give it a go, still, so will search out the DVDs that you recommend (I see coin tricks in my future,lol) - thanks!

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  4. Belly dancing seems like so much fun and I looove those jeweled hip belt thingies and it would be great to have any control of my belly outside of sucking it in when trying to fit into clothes. That said, I would be sooo uncomfortable doing it with an audience outside of my cat.

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  5. I think if I could get past my major embarrassment issues I would LOVE it. I would be fine with a DVD but I feel like I'd like to try it in a class first, but I'm too embarrassed to... see the cycle? But it's been on my list of things to try ever since I first saw Shakira in that music video...the one with the mud.

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  6. I kinda mocked all dance as exercise (well not all :) but most) as I am SO UNCOORDINATED I figured I wouldnt get any kind of workout in!
    Id lovelove to do a belly dancing class as after a bunch of salsa dvds (done at home. shades firmly drawn) Ive seen the error of my dancercizin' ways.

    my core was SOOOORE for days.

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  7. I think I'm about 120 pounds away from belly dancing... I can hide coins in my belly at this stage!

    Maybe I'll try it one day!

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  8. Would love to do belly dancing.. hopefully one day soon! :D

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  9. I did belly dancing in the privacy of my own home, but I couldn't get the hang of coordinating the moves, I felt stupid so I stopped doing it and put the dvd up on half.com

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  10. Quoted from MC Hammer "Can't touch this".

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  11. I have not tried it. It seems like one of those things that would be best learned by actually attending a class and I've never come across a convenient one. But maybe I'll check out some of those DVDs you mentioned. Looks like fun!

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  12. Thank you Merry!

    I've wanted to try belly dancign for a while. I picked up some of Rania's DVDs, and like you said, was thrown into the deep end. I ended up doing stuff incorrectly (at least I hope I did, as my knee started killing me) and had to turn it off in about 15 minutes.

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  13. Yes, I have. A friend teaches it and it is HARD. Muscle isolation of parts that are not very good at moving-- kinda like learning to wiggle your ears (which I can do.)

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  14. A good friend of mine taught middle eastern dance! She was quite fit and very good at it. I almost learned to move like Michael Jackson with her help :-)

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  15. I occasionally get hooked watching one of the belly dancing shows on FitTv. I will try out a few of the moves & then give up because my hips just do not move independent of my stomach!

    Oh, and for some reason close up shots of abs gross me out. I do not see a future in the belly dancing world LOL!

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  16. dragonmamma/naomiJune 18, 2009 at 9:15 AM

    I know a woman who married a Turkish man, and she says that they have a totally different viewpoint of belly dancing in Turkey than we do. They do not think of it as a dance for sexy young babes.

    When she went to Turkey to meet her husband's family at a party, EVERYONE did belly dancing: The mother and father, aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, and the little kids.

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  17. I've never tried bell dancing but I just might have to, it does look like fun! I''' be sure to do it with a dvd at home first though before I make a public appearance! ;)

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  18. I did it once as part of a friend's bachelorette party - it was fun!

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  19. It's true that in Turkey at weddings belly dance is something that men and women both do, and they don't get all glittered up. On the other hand, in Lebanon belly dance has gone completely Hollywood -- women perform it in miniskirts and high heels. Egyptian belly dance is more like the traditional style.

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  20. Don't let it get out, but I experimented with belly dancing in college. Unfortunately, I am extremely rigid and became quickly frustrated at my inability to isolate my shoulders, chest, and hips.

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  21. When it comes to getting your feet wet in belly dance, nothing compares to a class! Nearly all beginners feel totally awkward and clumsy, which can make for a fun, playful, supportive environment if you've got a good teacher to harness that energy. I really loved my class; we were even lucky enough to get a live drummer! Honestly, I feel more embarrassed watching bellydance DVDs than I do in class -- the ones I've seen are just so damn cheesy.

    I've always hugely admired Sadie's belly dance... I mean honestly, tell me your jaw doesn't drop watching these:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=odkINhLyRW4

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9FzDXvYAKEA

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  22. Oh, and by the way -- my belly dance teacher highly recommended Suhaila Salimpour's DVDs for home practice.

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  23. Thanks Sarah -- those are amazing videos. I've heard of Suhaila -- I haven't checked her out yet, but this sounds like a good excuse to get another DVD ;)

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  24. Having tried a few belly dance as cardio DVDs, I will say I wasn't impressed with them as a workout. But I did enjoy the dancing aspect and I wish I enough stomach control to flip a coin into a bowl!!

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  25. I've never taken belly dancing classes. (I don't know if I'm secure enough with my masculinity to try) But, I have several friends who are longtime belly dancers. It is my understanding that the dvds while the only option to many are not the way to go if you have the option. Try in person classes, or better yet find a group that dances for fun and see if you can join. Well that's my two sense.

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  26. I actually love belly dancing. It's so much fun and a great workout for someone like me who is trying to incorporate working out into their routine because it's fun and takes your focus off the fact that you are excercising.

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  27. Wow, I had no idea how much there was to belly dancing!

    I'd like to say I'm open minded enough to give it a try... but it's always seemed too "girly" for a unreformed tomboy like me. And I mean "girly" in a good way! I'm just not in touch enough with my feminine side to feel comfortable with all that hip movement.

    Picture an average hetero dude landing in a belly dancing class and you'd get some notion of what I'd look and feel like. But I totally admire all of you out there who are game for it!

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  28. I've tried a couple of DVDs, and have enjoyed it. I'd like to try an actual class, though. For beginners. Who have no rhythm. Or coordination.

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  29. I loved trying belly dancing! Haven't tried any dvds though (it was a 8 week class). It was tons of fun and some decent exercise. We were also commanded to smile and enjoy ourselves every time we got too serious with concentration.

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  30. I tried belly dancing when I was younger & was not great at it but it definitely works the core! I also like that their view of a beautiful body is not stick thin!

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  31. I don't know about this - my feet don't much care for dance classes. Last time I took one I ended up on the floor. And I wasn't supposed to be there. I tripped over myself and landed square on my bum.

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  32. I have taken a class and it was hilariously funny and eventually you do get a work out. At first you spend a lot of time just figuring out what muscle you are supposed to use to move JUST your hips. For anyone trying the first time, I highly recommend an actual class. It helps to have a teacher right there who can really help you focus on the part that should move and the part that should stay still.

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  33. That video was CrAzY!!!! I never knew abs could be a substitute for your hands!! Imagine flipping quarters off your abs into the parking meter, soda machine, etc.! The possibilities....

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  34. I took belly dancing classes and the instructor stressed the history of the dance. It wasn't a sexy, lap dance type of dancing but we danced as an art form. I really got into it. The clothing is great. The people are weird. (I met a woman who claimed she was a witch) and in the area I live in, there are many, many belly dance troupes. One thing I loved about it was there were a lot of different sizes of folks who danced. You could weigh 300 lbs and dance or you could be a thin-y mini and dance. All sizes welcome. No one made fun. As Roxie said, it was a very body-positive exercise and experience and my self-esteem improved.

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  35. That's quite true -- this is one exercise class at least where larger people are not scoffed at.

    If people are not confident enough about their ability to a)brave the classroom setting or b) move their body, then the Veena and Neena Basic Dance DVD is a good place to start.

    Some great comments here! I'm still snickering at the idea of using your abs to pop coins into the parking meter :)

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  36. My wife swears by belly dancing. And she's the boss so I'm on board!

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  37. i've done belly dance. i like Bharatiya Natyam better. but ALL dance is greaty in my book.

    and i have ankle bells, belt bells, saris, cholis, salwars, nose rings, hair jewelry, i have it all... i love jingling.

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  38. I just published a post on my bellydance experience. I loved everything about it. I love feeling sexy while getting a workout too....that didn't come out right, but I meant bellydance LOL

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  39. Aw, Nikki, we knew what you meant.

    Sekmetsat... do I want to ask how you get past metal detectors? Naah... probably not ;)

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  40. I took intro bellydancing classes and loved the positive energy from an all shaped group of women. I just found myself giggling and laughing too much. I didn't exactly get kicked out of the class, but I realised it wasn't for me. After that I tried boxing classes, which got rid of the giggles very quickly.

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  41. Jenna's basic moves and isolations DVD explains everything very clearly, i highly recommend this one! Belly Dance has staved off depression, got me in the best shape i've been in years and i've only been doing it for 2 months! Plus you can turn your husband into a sultan! haha, ok just kidding about that last part but they do like to watch...

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  42. Kellie -- well, so long as you're still enjoying yourself, with or without giggles!

    E.A. -- Yes, I've heard other people recommend Jenna before; she has a good reputation for teaching belly dance.

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  43. Belly dancing is fun! I never took a class, but used the Neena and Veena DVDs. They have some fun routines and teach at a slow enough pace for uncoordinated people like me! Definitely not good for cardio, but great for learning how to isolate muscle groups. Plus, once you know a few moves you can always put on some music and have fun looking silly and getting your heart rate up. I just envision that any man walking by my window will be awestruck by my mad skilz!

    I have always heard that many classes out there are for all fitness levels and body shapes. For instance, belly dancing classes are extremely popular at one of our local senior centers!

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  44. I signed up once for a class, many years ago in my thinner (but not skinny) days, but the class was cancelled. I've wanted to try again. I might check out some of these DVDs!

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  45. I second the Suhaila videos. They are similar to "Learn to Bellydance" in that they move fairly quickly. I have found it best to do the video and then practice the exercises alone so that I am better at them the next time I try to go through it.

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  46. I started doing the Twins belly dance dvd's 2 months ago. Seemed hard at first but now I surprisingly have the moves down.I dont see it as a workout and actually look forward to doing it daily. Ive lost inches all over the place and found curves I thought I had lost. I highly reccomend the twins instructional dvds.

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  47. ADDICTED and I hate exercise. I'm about as coordinated as a fainting goat, but belly dancing seems to fit me. 1st class, I was clumsy and embarassed by the whole idea of it. 2nd class, I started thinking "hey, I can do this". 3rd class I was feeling downright sexy and feeling it. I actually went to two classes today and am practicing moves at home. I'm loving it... it's exercise that doesn't feel like exercise and is dare I say it?... "fun". I don't think I'll be wearing the costumes or anything (maybe on Halloween) but as far as "exercise" goes, it's the one thing I found that doesn't suck :)

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  48. If you live in Chicago, the only REAL teacher that I've ever known is Sophia Gates at Cheetah GYm in Edgewater. This dance has a rich cultural background and is considered more an art form than an exercise even if you work out with it. I myself am an Instructor at a Edward Health Fitness gym in Woodridge, IL and have to remind people that all the time. :-( Yes, its supposed to be "fun" but it is more expressionistic than a smiley happy stupid dance. Its like Argentinian Tango in that sense You express EVERYTHING. Sad, angry, happy, etc, its just PASSIONATE.

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  49. "Belly dance" is a Western nickname, in the Middle East it is known as Oriental Dance or as Country Dance. This is a social dance style that men, women, children and grannies dance in the Middle East, don't believe those harem girl stereotypes that are shown in the movies - and now sadly also portrayed in most tourist shows. The midriff revealing costumes are relatively recent and Western inspired too, they are not traditional. So no need to get your belly out and no need for the glitter and sparkles. Unless of course you like them!

    As a teacher and performer in this style I wouldn't recommend most of the DVDs above - try Belly Dance Basics and Beyond with Jenna. I also would only recommend doing a DVD as a supplement to taking a class because a DVD can't tell you if you get it wrong. Repeated poor execution of moves or bad posture can lead to injury. Just make sure you get a good teacher - try several if you can, and make sure they have good experience in the dance as anyone can set themselves up as a belly dance teacher! If you are based near Leeds, UK, and want to learn then look me up!

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  50. I feel like you have belly dancing all wrong and you know nothing about it.

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  51. Audrey, I think you should create a blog (it's really not hard) and write a post detailing what you think belly dance is all about. That way, anyone googling belly dance can read both opposing viewpoints.

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  52. Belly dance should not be viewed as an exercise but an art form for that is what it truly is.

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  53. Bellydancing is a art that comes from the Middle East and has some faint roots in India. If done well, it celebrates a woman's femininity and is a great way to get moving. The problem I think is that when made too much into an exercise it looses the core roots and can resemble what you describe as something "weird". However, it can a beautiful experience. Try watching some dancers on You Tube who present this art in a more Egyptian and Middle Eastern way such as www.jillina.com Jillina in California, www.youtube.com/NJBellyDancEvents Soraya in New Jersey, Dahlena.com Dahlena from Chicago and Nourhan Sharif in New York. Also watch the Egyptians Fifi Abdu, Nagwa Foad and you see what you may not be getting in your class. Stay away from instructors who make it too much into an aerobics class and do not give a good cultural background and do not present the movements in the proper context. Bellydancing I noticed emphasizes coordination in tandem with the music. When you find a bellydancer and style you connect with, focus on her style. Have fun belly dancing! Priscilla

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