- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 1, 2004

PORTLAND, Maine - Most don’t look like harem girls and few midriffs are showing. But they sure seem to be belly dancing.

A woman in her late 40s is swiveling her hips with the charisma of a teen pop star. A dozen others ranging from petite teens to middle-aged moms swarm around her, ringing out a rhythmic chorus on their finger cymbals.

Belly dancing has emerged as a form of exercise for those who find its sultry undulations more their speed than hours of aerobics or weightlifting. As with Pilates and yoga, you don’t have to be willowy to belly dance.

“You get to a certain age where you can’t do ballet anymore,” said Anne Cornely, 46, of Brunswick. “This is a dance anybody, no matter your age or your size, can do.”

Like many of the older, more modest dancers, Mrs. Cornely wears a black tank top and matching, long spandex pants during the workout. A few of the younger women are decked out in full, shimmering, traditional costume.

But all wear the colorful hip scarves that give them the sense of flowing movement.

Considered a folk dance in some cultures, a celebration of femininity in others, belly dancing is thought to have been introduced in the United States during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

The allure of belly dancing in the new millennium lies in its low-impact mix of meditation and workout, exercise buffs say. The ancient dance is now less about sultry moves or Middle Eastern culture than feeling fit and losing weight.

“It appeals to the person who, for whatever reason, has not found traditional exercise to be their cup of tea,” said Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist at the American Council on Exercise in San Diego. “It has really grown out of people looking at alternative modes of activity to spice up their workout.”

During a recent class in Brunswick, Jamileh Jeanne Handy, a Lebanese belly dancing instructor, said women do not have to know the cultural history of the dance to feel a connection to the women spinning with them.

“It feeds your spirit, it feeds your mind, and it feeds your body,” she said. “After a session, there is no question about it: Attitudes shift about bodies.”

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