Belly dance fitness

By Katy Nielsen

Scarves embroidered with coins and beads clink together on women’s hips, their arms float gracefully and their bodies move in trance-like waves. These women are taking belly dance classes, and according to the students, this is a way for them to express their sexuality, feel empowered, build confidence and improve their physical fitness.

Belly dance may seem like an unusual, foreign technique, but Chicago women with typical day jobs are discovering how the art of belly dance can teach them to love their bodies and discover their inner goddesses.

“Belly dance was originally practiced by women in the Middle East.  It was done for enjoyment and to help the female organs in child birth,” said Kareena Beckman, owner of Sweet Magic Studio, 6960 N. Sheridan Road. “It wasn’t choreographed until the 1950s when they started bringing it to the West.”

The basic technique is simple, but dance variations are infinite, according to Beckman.

“That makes belly dance one of the most interesting types of dance I’ve ever found,” Beckman said. “The idea is for people to learn these techniques and express themselves.”

People are drawn to belly dance for a variety of reasons, but they tend to discover their own individuality through the

art form.

“When I started, I was looking up yoga classes, just anything to get me out of the house that wouldn’t take me to a gym,” said Stacy Chesney, manager at Bark Place, a doggie daycare in Rogers Park and student at Arabesque Dance Studios, 3703 N. Elston Ave. “That was four years ago, and now I’m totally obsessed. I belly dance every day.”

At first, Chesney said she struggled to do the dance steps. But with practice, she found herself moving more easily and feeling a great sense of confidence.

“I had a lot of body image issues and I don’t anymore,” Chesney said. “You get to see what makes you beautiful.”

Unlike ballet and other dance techniques typically designed for a particular physique, belly dance is for people of all sizes.

“I’ve been dancing for seven years. I’ve taken tap, jazz, ballet and belly dancing,” said Alexandra Douvris, a clinical coordinator for a mobile doctors company. “You don’t have to be this height, this weight or this physique to belly dance. It’s open to everyone and everyone can look beautiful during a performance.”

When you know your body well, you increase your self-esteem. According to Beckman, the art is especially popular for larger women.

“The best dancers I’ve ever seen are big dancers because they are more grounded,” Beckman said.

In a world where women are concerned about the size of their waist, belly dancing is a way for some women to accept the beauty of their bodies as they are and discover their power as women, according to Beckman.

Beckman said this form of dance is a great workout and keeps your body in shape.

“You’ll definitely work up a sweat,” Douvris said. “You use your abs a lot to the do the slides, and you use your shoulders to move your upper body. You use your lower bottom and legs to do the shimmy and you use your trapezius to maintain your arm position. You feel the burn afterward.”

Belly dancing is beautiful and a good form of exercise,  and it can help women who suffer from lower body problems, according to Beckman.

“A lot of women suffer from cramps and reproductive problems,” Beckman said. “This really helps with that. I teach it for health and fitness, so it’s very non-competitive.”

Although belly dancing is typically a non-competitive activity, there is a performance aspect to the art form. Students at Arabesque Dance Studios have the opportunity to showcase their work even after their first eight weeks of classes.

The first time Chesney performed she said she was nervous. Since then, she has danced on stage 10 more times and finds the experience thrilling.

“I was never anybody that would be up on stage, ever, so this is a big thing for me,” she said.

Douvris has performed belly dance at fairs in Wisconsin, private parties and other events since she started seven years ago.

“You get to dress up all sparkly and wear skirts that make noise,” Douvris said. “I love it. It’s a lot of fun and you get to be extra girly.”

For students, belly dance is fun exercise that allows them to follow basic technique and add their interpretation to it. For anyone looking to express themselves through a dance form, belly dance offers a unique outlet.

“Someone will do the same move in a different way,” Douvris said. “That just adds to the beauty of the dance.”