Belly dancing offers healthy fun for all

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Carol Sorgen

Dancers of all ages participate in the belly dancing troupe Aubergine, which performs throughout the area, accompanied by its own dancer/musicians. Founded by Nina Amaya, the group helps women stay in shape and have fun at the same time.
Photo courtesy of Nina Amaya

Like many single moms, Nina Amaya was stretched to the limit. Her primary care physician wrote her a prescription to “have fun.” On a lark, Amaya signed up for a belly dancing class at her local Y.

Twenty-some years later, Amaya, now 52 and living in North Baltimore, is still having fun. So much so, in fact, that she now teaches belly dancing herself and is the founder of the 10-member dance troupe Aubergine, and their accompanying band, Brinjal (Hindi for eggplant).

What Amaya found she most enjoyed through belly dancing was self-expression. As time went on and she became more proficient, she also enjoyed the ability to entertain others.

Add to those aspects both the physical and mental health benefits of belly dancing, and you have the whole picture.

“I used to have a bad back, and that soon went away,” said Amaya, explaining that belly dancing strengthens abdominal, pelvic and back muscles.

In addition, it is a good form of stretching and toning, and a means to develop grace and self-confidence, as well as acceptance of your body, no matter what shape it’s in.

Though belly dancing is not a weight loss program, being more aware of your body often leads dancers to become more aware of what they eat, she noted.

Amaya also appreciates the fact that belly dancing —predominantly, though not exclusively, a female art form — is a “girl thing.” That’s especially gratifying given that she shares a home with her husband, a houseful of sons, and “even a male dog!”

Exotic, in a good way

For the uninitiated, belly dance is a torso-driven dance, which emphasizes movement of the hips. Unlike many Western dance forms, such as ballet and jazz, the focus of belly dance is on relaxed, natural isolations of the torso muscles, rather than on movements of the limbs through space.

There is no formal vocabulary of belly dance moves, as there is, say, in ballet. But belly dance does have a variety of styles — from Modern Egyptian, American Tribal and Folkloric Belly Dance to the new Goth Fusion.

While belly dancing has a reputation as a provocative dance, historically its undulating style was not intended to entertain men. Rather, one school of thought is that belly dancing was originally performed for other women during fertility rites.

Belly dancing first became widely seen in the United States as part of the 1893 World’s Fair, where it was called “danse du ventre,” which literally translates to belly dancing.

Jeanne Gary, 60, is one of the members of Amaya’s dance troupe. She was first introduced to belly dancing 10 years ago when a younger friend talked her into going to a class. “I didn’t want to,” Gary recalled, “but I fell in love with it. It was just a bug that bit me.”

Gary admits that her initial impression of belly dancing was that it was exotic dancing — “and not in a good way,” she said. But it didn’t take long for her to learn to appreciate the strength and control that the dance calls for. “I came to see it for the true art form it is,” said Gary.

Soon after she began taking classes, Gary met Amaya (a former Spanish teacher), who was looking for dancers to perform at Artscape, Baltimore’s annual summertime arts festival. Gary was reluctant at first, but another dancer persuaded Gary to perform, and she hasn’t stopped since.

She now appears with Amaya’s company as often as she can (as she still works full-time for the State of Maryland), performing at festivals such as the annual Renaissance Festival, at nursing homes, private parties, fundraisers and more.

The band is a relatively recent addition to the troupe. Two flutists, a bass player and a drummer accompany many dances, but some dancers, including Amaya, also play instruments, and some musicians also dance.

Performances include some musical interludes, including songs from Turkey, Egypt, Greece, Armenia and Israel, and some “modern melting-pot songs.”

Never too late to learn

One of the attractions of belly dancing for Gary is the bond she finds among those who practice the art. “There’s a sense of community and of sisterhood among us all,” she said.

In particular, as one of the older dancers in the belly dancing community, she appreciates the respect that older women receive from the younger women.

Along those lines, Amaya hopes to begin teaching belly dancing in senior centers, saying, “It’s never too late to start.”

Nina Amaya offers private and group classes. Contact her at ninadances@gmail.com or visit her website at www.ninaamaya.com.

The Community College of Baltimore County offers classes through its continuing education program. Visit bit.ly/bellydanceCCBC, call (443) 840-CCBC (2222), or email contact@ccbcmd.edu.

For a list of other private teachers, visit http://bellydancebaltimore.com.