Belly dancing offers healthy fun

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Barbara Ruben

Josephine Lee, Mornita Dunson-Coleman, Carmen Shippy and Marcia Diamond find that belly dancing is a good way to strengthen their core muscles and get aerobic exercise. Shippy (second from right) teaches a class called Ancient Art Movement at Lee Community and Senior Center in Arlington, Va., which she says is the only belly dancing class specifically for seniors in the Washington area.
Photo by Barbara Ruben

Arms swoop gracefully over heads and gold coins jangle on metallic scarves tied around hips as dancers move to a sinuous melody, the rhythm tapped on a darabukka — a kind of drum that originated in the Middle East about 3,000 years ago.

Welcome to the Ancient Art Movement dance class at Lee Community and Senior Center in Arlington, Va., which is likely the only belly dancing class for older adults in the greater Washington area, according to Carmen Shippy, the class’s teacher.

In a recent class, sun illuminated the practice room as eight women in their late 50s through early 70s followed Shippy’s movements.

Belly dancing starts in the feet, and movement is generated from the ground, according to Shippy.

“You cannot dance stuck to the floor,” she tells her students. “You want to have some movement in the feet. Roll on the balls of your feet. Get up off the heels. You’re not going to fall.”

Twice a week, the women in the class don red T-shirts, yoga pants and flowing scarves and veils for a technique class.

A group of advanced dancers from the class performs as a troupe called the Sultanas. They practice an additional three times a week. Most of the 18 women involved live in Arlington.

Undulating in family-friendly way

While belly dancing has a reputation as a provocative dance, historically its undulating style was not intended to entertain men. Rather, belly dancing, which emphasizes moving the torso, 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.

For students in Shippy’s class, as well as dancers in the Sultanas, belly dancing is more about moving gracefully and exercising core muscles than it is about sensuality.

Hence, no bare midriffs for this troupe. “We’re family friendly,” said Shippy, 63. “You could bring your grandchildren” to performances, which are mostly at senior centers and assisted living communities.

When the Sultanas were invited to perform at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda during its holiday show for wounded veterans in 2013, officials asked numerous questions to ensure the show would be tame, Shippy said.

And that’s just fine with Mornita Dunson-Coleman. “I took classes at a studio where we wore two-piece costumes. I like that we are an age-appropriate group. I find this more comfortable,” she said.

Still, that doesn’t mean there’s no shimmying going on — although it can take a while to get the hang of it.

“It can take years to feel a joyful shimmy because of locked hips and a rigid pelvis,” according to Shippy. “Do not be disheartened,” she tells her students.

Gaining strength

Shippy, who took over teaching the class about two years ago, has a background in modern dance. She took up belly dancing in hopes of helping her maintain health after back surgery

“I knew I had to find something to keep me out of the hospital,” she said. “This type of dance really works the core muscles.”

Core exercise strengthens muscles in the abdomen, back and pelvis. [See “Physical fitness essential for healthy back,” on page 18.]

Many class members have also started taking the class to help with health issues. Like Shippy, Dunson-Coleman started belly dancing to ease back pain.

“This class is my physical therapy, my exercise, my everything,” she said.

Esther Petrilli-Massey, 59, started with the class after being diagnosed with osteoporosis. “The best thing for me is to strengthen my core. My spine is not 100 percent better, but I’m getting there,” she said. 

Carmen Anderson tried the class when her regular exercise class wasn’t meeting, figuring it might be fun — and not too taxing. She was wrong on the second count.

“It was hard work, and my arms were about to fall off by the end,” she said. Continuously raising and holding out the arms while turning and flipping a veil or scarf is harder than it looks, Anderson noted.

A supportive group

But the Ancient Art Movement dance class is about more than exercise. “It has become a sisterhood. What’s important is that we care for each other. We are all very different, but we come together here,” Shippy said.

Petrilli-Massey began taking the class when her husband was very ill. He later died.

“This class helped in getting me up and going at a very difficult time,” she said of the support she got from the other women, both inside and out of class.

The dancers also get together for holiday and birthday celebrations, trips to the Kennedy Center and even a Victorian tea.

The members of the class uniformly cite Shippy, who volunteers her time, as the reason they enjoy the class.

“Carmen makes you want to move more and become more skilled,” said Dunson-Coleman. “She helps you realize you’re not too old to do this and have an amazing experience. You really push yourself.

“Carmen designs costumes, does choreography, mentors us, is our therapist, you name it,” Dunson-Coleman said.

For Josephine Lee, 72, dancing has opened new doors after retirement. “When I was going to retire from my law firm, I thought I would be very bored. But it’s a blast. Carmen’s taken us to a very high level.”

Shippy won an Arlington Outstanding Volunteer Award last June for her work.

In turn, her students inspire Shippy.

“To see their excitement motivates me. Women in this class have master’s degrees, law degrees. There are all kinds of professions they have retired from. For them to spend this kind of time with me makes me happy and gratified.”

To learn more about the Ancient Art Movement dance class, which has ongoing registration and is offered free of charge, call the Lee Community and Senior Center at (703) 228-0555 or email

If there is sufficient interest, Shippy hopes to start a belly dancing class at a Fairfax County senior center later this year.