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Finding the rhythm; Belly dancing goes mainstream.

Byline: Susan Spencer

Rosemary Nolan appears the consummate corporate professional in her tweed cardigan sweater and black knit skirt, her honey-colored hair pinned in a neat bun. But tucked far in the corner of her cubicle at Fidelity Investments in Marlboro, the 39-year-old product consultant reveals glimpses of what she calls her fiendish obsession: photos and souvenirs from her 10 years of belly dancing.

Nolan and her Hudson-based troupe, Ambika Badiyah, perform at cultural festivals, Renaissance fairs and even for groups like the Girl Scouts.

The hypnotic rhythms and undulating torsos of belly dancing are no longer relegated to Middle Eastern nightclubs and Hollywood harem fantasies. This traditional dance of North Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East has taken root across North America, and is being practiced in venues from church halls to dance studios and health clubs. Suburban mothers, professionals and students from all walks of life are discovering the graceful beauty and serious toning benefits of belly dance. And while belly dance is a fascinating art form, its popularity is another reflection of the local emergence of world culture.

Belly dancing has captured the attention of Americans, often with risque overtones, since dancers at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago shimmied their shockingly uncorseted hips. The theatrical evolution of this ancient folk dance continued over the past century in dance halls, film and television.

Val Kerin, a 45-year-old human resources manager, performs and teaches several belly dance styles with the Hippy Chix and Eves troupes at Dance On dance studio in Hudson. She describes the glitzy descendant of the dance that scandalized Victorian America as a cabaret or Egyptian nightclub style of belly dance.

But increasingly belly dancers are practicing an earthier genre called American tribal style, or ATS, developed in San Francisco in the 1970s.

Unlike the ultra-feminine solos of cabaret belly dance, ATS is performed in a group, and dancers follow improvisational cues from each other. ATS continues to evolve, incorporating jazz, Latin and hip- hop. Nolan's favorite sub-genre, practiced by the Ambika Badiyah troupe, is gothic tribal fusion, which adds a darker mood through music and costume styling.

"Belly dancing has traveled this long road. People keep taking it, adding to it, and making it their own," says Lin Hultgren, a 52-year-old certified fitness trainer and dancer, who teaches a Middle Eastern dance-based exercise class at Emanuel Lutheran Church and other locations in Worcester.

The variety of styles and room for individual expression are part of the appeal. "It looks beautiful on anyone - any shape, any age," says Kerin. Plus, belly dancing is a powerful workout.

Twenty girls and women from age 9 to 60-ish crowd into a fitness room at the YWCA at Salem Square for an introductory belly dance class taught by Phoenix Avathar. Avathar's real name is Cheryl Bell. Exotic-sounding stage names are part of the

mystique, she explains.

"I want Shakira's moves!" shouts one stylish middle-aged woman, referring to the Latin-Lebanese pop star.

"Belly dancing is all about isolating the muscles of the body," says Bell. She teaches the class hip lifts and drops, using the core gluteal, abdominal and oblique muscles to control the movements. Pulsating drumming and singing resonate from her sound system. Call it Pilates with percussion.

Bell sees teens, mothers who need a night out, grandmothers, and whoever gets dragged there by a friend in belly dance classes. "I like to think of it as people who don't want to go to the gym but need the exercise," she says.

Hultgren changed the name of her class a few years ago from "Belly Dance for Fitness and Fun" to "Shake It Up with Hip Motion," to emphasize the fitness benefits over whatever connotations people perceived about belly dance. When 52-year-old Laura Buffone, an instructional assistant from Worcester, heads off to Hultgren's class she tells her

daughter that she's going to "exercise," making air quotation marks. The belly dance aspect initially raised some eyebrows among Buffone's colleagues at Vernon Hill School, but Buffone attributes better sleep, less stress and improved endurance to her practice.

"It seems to use muscles in a different way," says another student, Valerie Crockett, 51. "It's more fun than plain old exercise."

Still, there's the reaction people get when they tell others they belly dance. Valerie Clapham, 52, a volunteer coordinator for Audio Journal, enrolled in Hultgren's class because she loved dance and wanted exercise that was creative. She says, "People laugh or they go to me, `But you've got no belly!'"

Bell, who in addition to teaching belly dance is a high school science teacher and mother of a 1-year-old son, says, "A lot of people hear I'm a belly dancer and look at me, like, `you have a son; you're married; you're a teacher!'"

Bell's husband, Jay, originally encouraged her to try belly dancing after the couple was mesmerized by a performance at a festival. Jay, a salesman, even tried belly dancing - yes, real men do belly dance - but found he preferred to drum along as an accompanist, or just enjoy the show.

And as a self-described belly dance husband, Jay plays an active supporting role for his wife's performances, preparing for haflas (Middle Eastern dance parties), handling costumes, vending at events, and helping to manage their young son.

Festivals are a significant part of serious belly dancers' world.

Some dancers, like Kerin, teach workshops at events run by the Society for Creative Anachronism, an educational organization that re-enacts life in the Middle Ages. Others sell costumes, instruments and accessories at regional haflas or Renaissance fairs.

"It's very much a subculture. Once you get into it, you think everyone knows about it. But people have no clue it exists," says Bell.

Belly Buttons, the Central Massachusetts chapter of the Northeast Belly Dance Association, or NBDA, helps local dancers connect with each other and develop their performance skills.

"One of the big positions of the NBDA is providing venues for smaller groups that want to perform but don't have the opportunity," says coordinator Jeanine Swick, of Lunenburg.

Swick calls herself a recreational belly dancer, who also makes and sells costumes at festivals. Belly Buttons members meet every month to plan events such as a summer solstice performance this June in Winchendon and an October Halloween-themed hafla.

Those who have discovered and teach belly dance in Central Massachusetts are excited about its growing recognition.

No longer do they have to travel to Boston for classes. Women of all ages and shapes are finding their rhythm - and core muscles - and aren't afraid to share their practice.

Bell sees what's happening locally in belly dance as part of a more prominent arts and culture scene, including the recent opening of hip restaurants and performance venues.

She says, "I think Worcester's going to be a very different place, arts wise, in the next five years."

Where to get in the groove

Wiggles and Giggles - Beginner Tribal belly dance classes with the Eve belly dance troupe, taught by Val Kerin: Wednesdays, 7:30-8:30 p.m. at the Dance On Dance Studio, 15 Bonazzoli Drive, Hudson. $20 per month. Contact

Monthly Drum and Dance with the Millbury-based Society for Creative Anachronism chapter - Open to the public. Free, drop in. Held at the Mary Elizabeth McGrath Educational Center, 130 Elm St., Millbury. Contact or for schedule and more information.

Shake It Up with Hip Motion - Dancercise class using Middle Eastern dance

with Lin Hultgren: Tuesdays, 7-8:15 p.m. at Emanuel Lutheran Church, 200 Greenwood St., Worcester. $10 drop-in fee. Contact, (508) 212-4959.

Belly Dance Classes with Phoenix Avathar, including beginner belly dance, improvisational tribal style belly dance, kids' belly dance, creative performance and gothic fusion, and belly dance moves for clubbing. Dancing Ember Studio, 51 Union St., Worcester, Contact (508) 459-1528 or for more information.

Beginner Bellydance by Tara - Sundays, 5 - 6 p.m., State of Grace Yoga and Wellness Center, 104 East Hartford Ave., Uxbridge. American cabaret style. $72 for six-week session or $13 drop-in (first three weeks of session only). Contact, (508) 298-9859.

Belly Dance classes for fun and fitness, with Elizabeth Nett - Saturdays, 10:30 - 11:30 a.m., Wheeler Library, 49 East Main St., Orange. Free, donations accepted; Mondays, 7 - 8 p.m., Old Murdock High School, 54 Murdock Ave., Winchendon, $5 per class for four-week commitment, $8 drop-in; Tuesdays, 7 - 8 p.m., Athol Congregational Church, 1225 Chestnut St., Athol (see fee for Winchendon); Thursdays, noon - 1 p.m., Athol YMCA (March, April, May - fee TBD); Wednesdays, 7 - 8 p.m., Senior Center, Main Street, Route 68, Hubbardston (see fee for Winchendon). Contact, (978) 297-3042.

World Rhythms Dance, Health & Fitness Center - 221 Chandler St., Worcester. Check Web site for current belly dance classes


CUTLINE: Rosemary Nolan, a product consultant at Fidelity Investments, has a not-so-secret life as a belly dancer. (2) Val Kerin dances with her group during a gathering at the First Parish of Bolton. (3) Belly dance instructor Phoenix Avathar, whose real name is Cheryl Bell, conducts a beginner class. (4) Lin Hultgren, a certified fitness trainer and dancer, leads a belly dancing class.

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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Apr 23, 2008
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