Long associated with the Middle East and featured in music videos, belly dancing has found a new niche - as an exercise class. Mischa Allen finds out more
Rhythmic movements back and forth, with swirling fabrics full of colourful reds, purples, oranges, yellows - and rows of tinkling gold bells. The image of a belly dancer is recognised the world over.
When pop stars such as Shakira sing about their hips don’t lie and shake them provocatively towards a camera in music viedeos, it looks like an activity designed only for the young and athletic, with perfect bodies.
But belly dancing has come a long way since its origins as a dance for the goddess of fertility in Middle Eastern countries. Increasingly this dance style is reaching a newer audience, with women of all ages using it as a way of exercising.
With new fitness videos and dance styles such as Zumba, which draws its techniques from hip hop, salsa and belly dancing, it’s gradually coming into the mainstream.
Teresa Griffin, 60, who lives in Emsworth, has run belly dancing classes in Portsmouth for more than 25 years. She believes that, when done traditionally, it is a way of empowering women.
Teresa says: ‘It’s so feminine, and it’s very much to do with your own feelings and emotions. I mean, you get to dress up and enjoy yourself. A lot of the girls dress up for the classes, wearing the jingly bells, just because they can.
‘It’s a safe environment for women to let themselves go and really enjoy it. They all do it completely for their own enjoyment.’
Classes are springing up across the country, and new dance styles with belly dancing influences are becoming more and more popular. Teresa believes women see it as a perfect way to exercise.
She explains: ‘It works the whole body in such a rhythmic way, and it’s for all ages, shapes and sizes. Anybody can do it.
‘My youngest girl is just 18 and she comes along with her mother, while I’ve got several others in their 70s. It’s really good for you and women are looking for a new way of keeping fit.’
It’s been proven that belly dancing is good exercise for the prevention of osteoporosis in older people as it is weight-bearing. Dancers are on their feet throughout the workout, which helps improve bone strength.
Traditional techniques of belly dancing such as hip drops, circles, figures-of-eight and shimmies help the joints and ligaments in the lower back and hip, while arms and shoulders can be toned by holding them up in the correct position while dancing.
Belly dancing has even been known to reduce stress levels.
Teresa, who is married with two children, Joseph, 30, and Annie, 26, has spent her whole life dancing, having learned ballet and tap from the age of three. It was when she turned 18 that she started to look at belly dancing.
That was in the 1960s, when the belly dancing culture was becoming popular in and around the UK.
‘I was in cabaret for six or seven years,’ she says, ‘and started teaching in 1981. I had a break and had my son, but then just carried on doing it.
‘I gradually expanded it, and I really could never stop doing it. It’s lovely to get up every day and do something I enjoy.’
Teresa’s dance troupe, Aziza Egyptian Dance Group, has performed at school fetes and local events across the Portsmouth area.
She says: ‘It’s great to see women come along that have never done it before, and see how much it builds up their confidence in their bodies to go out and perform.
‘I have this one woman who has wanted to be in a dance troupe since she was a little girl, and she’s taking part in our next show at The Spring in Havant. Its just boosted her confidence, and to see this woman just blossom, really it’s amazing.’
Along with televised talent contests and fitness videos, belly dancing is becoming more popular than ever, with many people having their own ideas about the dancing style.
But Teresa believes the best way to understand real belly dancing is to attend traditional classes, and learn about the original techniques of the dance.
‘Some people come along,’ she says, ‘and it’s just a completely new experience. I always say try one class and see what you think. They are for anybody with an interest and for any age.
Aziza Egyptian Dance Group is next performing at The Spring, Havant Arts Centre, in aid of Breast Cancer Care, on October 21. The performance is called Aziza’s Allsorts - Arabic Dance Show. Tickets cost £10 from Teresa on 07534347373 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.