It was packed with muscle-bound women wearing high-cut Olivia Newton John “Let’s Get Physical” style leotards. They intimidated me to no end so I skulked to the very back of the class and tried to remain unnoticed. When the music started, they moved elegantly in time to the beat, synchronizing their legs and arms like a Russian ballet corp. In contrast to their perfection, I was a mess. When everyone stepped right I moved left, flailing my arms around hopelessly out of time. By the end of the class I was dripping with sweat and glowed like a traffic light stuck on red. My lungs shuddered with effort as I tried to draw breath, and I staggered rather than walked back to the changing room. belly dancing for exercise
When I hit my 30s, outings with friends changed from all-night drinking sessions and parties to sedate dinners and daytime picnics. One weekend someone suggested bike riding. Ignoring the mental image of what I looked like in Lycra and focusing on the physical benefits, I said yes. Enthusiastically I pedaled off, sandwiches packed neatly into my daypack, only to be thwarted by the first slight hill. No matter how much I told my legs to do the work instead of my lungs, exercise-induced asthma overruled me.
As time passed and my lack of flexibility threatened to become more of a problem, yoga seemed like a good choice. Everything was going well until I fell over doing the warrior pose. (Follow these 6 tips to avoid injury during yoga class.) Lying on my back I took in the fact that all the other participants were taller, thinner, and far more graceful than I would ever be. At the end of the session—when everyone was getting in touch with their third eye during the breathing exercises—I started to feel extremely dizzy. My narrow sinus passages stopped me from inhaling enough oxygen and I nearly passed out.
I’d just about decided all exercise was a form of torture and that I should just give up—then I discovered belly dancing.
I was living in Turkey at the time and people there dance to celebrate anything and everything. Meeting up with old friends for the first time in years means dropping everything to dance, even out on the street. During bachelorette parties the girls hit the dance floor straightaway and compete to see who can be the sexiest. At weddings, sans alcohol (because most people in Turkey are Muslim), people groove for days. Everyone, right down to the tiniest little girl, knows the moves.
I joined in and had fun, but I was an amateur. When I returned to my home in Australia a few years later, at age 47, I resolved to improve my skills. I Googled “belly dancing” and discovered that my local community center was offering inexpensive classes aimed at beginners. From the first class I was hooked: I loved the pulsating rhythms, and the short bursts of concentrated energy expended made it easier for me to control my breathing. And you get to work your arms, hips and legs at different times, so it isn’t impossible even if you’re a bit uncoordinated.
I’ve now been taking classes for five years, and over time my stamina has improved enormously. Half of every lesson is spent practicing specific moves. Sometimes we work on our hip flicks, beating time left and right and up and down. Then we do camels, tightening and rippling the muscles up and down our torsos until the sweat pours off us.
Belly dancing for exercise is hard work, but it’s always fun. Even after a class when I can’t get the steps right and make constant mistakes, I come out humming with delight. Sometimes our teacher challenges us to move faster and quicker for longer and longer and we try valiantly, staring at our silhouettes, beating time with our hips, frantically trying to keep up. Finally we whirl manically out of control before coming to a stop hard up against the mirror, laughing the whole time.
My hips are still generous, but the exercises we do each lesson mean my body has firmed up. Having curves is something to flaunt in belly dancing, and I actually have stomach muscles to control now. Best of all, I can easily run for the bus now without collapsing from an asthma attack.
The other students in my class range from teenagers to grandmothers, and there are plenty of different body shapes and abilities. When I compare myself to them in the mirror in the studio, I feel pretty good. I might not be tall and lithe, but I’m one of the best in the class. When I’m dancing I feel strong, fit, and healthy.