Belly dancing, explains Jolene White, is a bit of a misnomer.
The dance style founded in the Middle East and brought to Britain in the ‘Flapper’ era involves much more than just one’s navel.
The 34-year-old, from Havant, says belly dancing was brought to Britain by a woman in the 1910s or 1920s.
‘The people that saw her said: “what kind of dance is this?”
‘She said it was baladi, which is a kind of dance. But they thought she said belly and the name stuck. That’s one theory about it anyway.’
‘But it’s not really a belly dance because most of the time we’re moving our hips.’
Jolene has made a job out of her passion and teaches belly dance for a living.
On any given night of the week, women of all shapes and ages file into a sports hall or community centre, don brightly-coloured, jangly ‘hip scarves’ and shimmy across the floor.
Throw in plenty of banter and a few laughs and an occasional on-stage performance and you’ve pretty much got the gist of belly dancing as a hobby.
Jolene said many of her pupils kept swiveling their tummies thanks to the camaraderie and the confidence-building the classes gave them.
She explains: ‘My motto with the class is: show women how to love their curves and embrace their wobbly bits.
‘No matter what your shape or your age, you can feel comfortable with yourself and get rid of all the neurosis and insecurity created by the media and beauty magazines.
‘It’s really about empowering people. It’s okay to be you no matter who you are.’
Jolene says that, like many women, she once had a negative image of her own body.
‘At school I was very: ‘‘Don’t look at me, I hate the way I look!’’’ she remembers.
‘I used to get a lot of stick for my big bum at school, but now it’s my teaching assistant.’
Jolene says she decided to give belly dancing a try when she was 18, and working in Sandhurst, Berkshire.
Although at first it was merely a way to relieve the boredom of office life, Jolene says she instantly fell in love.
‘I was working for a firm doing data input. It wasn’t a very fun job. A few of the girls I work with saw an advert in the local newspaper for a belly dance club.
‘We thought it sounded absolutely hilarious.’
Jolene says she became fascinated with the Egyptian style of belly dance, and learned creatively-named moves including shimmy, camel, Kenya, hip drop and mya.
‘I think one of the first moves I did was a camel,’ she says.
‘It just felt so natural. I saw myself in the mirror and I knew I was doing it right.
‘After all those years of not wanting to do sports and being self-conscious, it felt perfect.
‘I realised that this is what your body is designed for.’
And it’s not just women who can benefit from belly dancing.
Jolene says: ‘I’ve known some amazing belly dancers who are male.
‘It’s all about muscle isolation – you might have to move your shoulders or your hips without moving the rest.
‘It’s no different from Bruce Lee striking out and doing a punch independent from the rest of his body.’
Jolene says it’s a shame that people are a lot less active than they should be because of society and technology.
She says: ‘We’re all human beings, living on a natural planet, so why aren’t we using these muscles in our body?
‘A lot of people are just sitting around on the computer.
‘But we’re able to do much more with our bodies than we give ourselves credit for.
‘All my girls do tummy rolls now but none of them could when they started,’ Jolene says.
And if anyone should know about pushing your body to the limits of flexibility, it’s her.
Jolene was involved in a serious car accident in January, suffering a brain bleed, broken hips and broken ribs.
But after three months of regular practice, she was once again able to do the splits.
Jolene’s most advanced class, Just Dandys, has regular performances including at the Victorious Festival and the Majma Dance Festival in Glastonbury.
Jolene says her classes aren’t strictly traditional, and she often teaches a ‘fusion of traditional Egyptian belly dance combined with pop music’ everyone would recognise.
‘The moves are traditional, but sometimes the music is something you might not hear if you were on the back of a camel in the desert.
‘We did a show with a Halloween theme and for Christmas we’re doing something with music by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.’
The group will take the stage as part of the Groundlings Theatre’s Christmas panto Cinderella.
Jolene says the show was a follow-on from last year.
‘We were in the panto Aladdin at the Groundlings last year.
‘All the girls really enjoyed it and at the end of the show they all said: “we really want to do another one”.
‘So they wrote us in as part of a winter travelling fair in Cinderella. We’re all going to be gypsies.’
Jolene says belly dancing probably has its roots among the peasant girls of Egypt and Turkey.
She says: ‘They would have been village girls who came down from the villages. They needed money to pay for their dowries so they could get married.
‘They would stick the coins they earned to their bodies and then later sew them into their clothes.’
Dawn dances with her daughter
Dawn Simpson, 64, of Denmead, learns belly dance with her daughter, Lucy.
She says: ‘I started about 10 years ago, not long after Lucy had one of her children – she’s got two.
‘So I said to her, let’s give it a try, this would be something we can do together, and it’s been really great.
‘It’s a great thing to talk about and dance together and bond over.
‘Remembering the routines is probably the hardest thing.
‘Although we’re learning new routines all the time we still have to remember our old ones, so there are probably 10 to 15 routines that we roll out from time to time.
‘We did Victorian Festival of Christmas at the Historic Dockyard as well.
‘But we don’t have bare tummies in the winter when we perform because it’s so chilly.
‘They [the audience] were very keen – they obviously enjoyed it.
‘There was a lot of applause and a few whistles.’
‘Now they’re almost-family’
Helen McManus, 50, of Fareham, says she took up belly dancing to expand her social circle.
She says: ‘I wanted to meet people outside my normal circle of friends.
‘Because I’m a nurse, lots of my friends are nurses, so I wanted to meet people from the area that were completely different.
‘I’ve done that and now they’re my almost-family.
‘Our very first performances were challenging. We push ourselves to do solos and duets and perform more and more. Sometimes we’re doing performances every week.’
New beginning for Jane
Jane Swatton, 56, of Fareham, says she got into belly dancing at a difficult time in her life.
She says: ‘It was about seven years ago.
‘I was in a bad place at the time, because I was going through being made redundant.
‘I just wanted to do something for me, and get out and meet other people.’
‘I started doing it thinking gosh, I’ve got two left feet here, I’d better persevere, and my feet haven’t stopped dancing. ‘It’s so much fun and it’s given me so much more confidence.’
We just exude fun
Lorraine Hollobone, 50 of Havant, says perceptions of belly dancing have changed over time.
She says: ‘Traditionally it was a little bit seedy and erotic, but we don’t look like that.
‘We have fun on stage, and you can tell that by our movements and the giggling that goes on.
‘We just exude fun.
‘I got into it about 10 years ago.
‘Doing a solo in front of a big group would be a bit intimidating, but when you’re part of a group of all shapes and sizes on stage it’s safety in numbers.
‘When we go to haflas, which are belly dancing shows, everybody gets a lot of experience if they’re beginners or experienced dancers. It’s a very good feeling.
‘This year we were competitors in Miss Bellydance UK.
‘There were a lot of professional dancers there too and it was lovely to see them strutting their stuff.’
You become more body confident
Carol Syms, 48, of Cosham, says belly dancing can be more difficult than it looks.
She says: ‘At times it’s a workout. It can be quite tough and you do get a bit hot.
‘Sometimes you go home and you can feel muscles that have worked that you didn’t realise you had.
‘I started about five or six years ago. You make some really good friends and it’s fun. There’s a great camaraderie between all of us.
‘You become more body confident.
‘We danced at the Victorious festival, dressed as sailors, and we also danced down at the Drake Fest.
‘At Victorious we started in the children’s area, but we weren’t getting much of an audience there so we decided to go mobile and pitch up where people were – dancing on the road, on the grass, by the beer tent.
‘We got a lot of people taking photos of us because we were all dressed the same.’
Belly dancers just wanna have fun
Whatever image you have of belly dancing in your mind, the reality is probably a good deal more fun.
When I step into a class at Havant Academy, the first thing that strikes me is how much the women taking part are enjoying themselves.
Chatter and laughs fill the sports hall as the group of a dozen women don belly dancing kit – hip scarves dripping strings of coins, sparkly belts, bright vests and patchwork dresses, tambourines and the occasional Geisha parasol.
Teacher Jolene White declares the lesson can run late as the group not only have to prepare for a Christmas hafla – belly dance meeting – there is also an upcoming panto performance to think about.
Facing a mirror that fills an entire wall ,they launch into a series of snappy steps.
Jolene’s guidance almost sounds like it could be directions from a rally car navigator in a Paris to Dakar race.
‘One, two, three, tap! Camel, camel, camel, shimmy! Mya, mya, hip drop, figure of eight, turn! Kenya, Kenya, Kenya, Kenya!’
At one point, Jolene pauses because she can’t remember the sequence of moves.
Memory loss is an after-effect of her brush with mortality – the car accident in January she was involved in. But the dancers just get on with it.
‘They completely understand whenever I have a brain fade,’ Jolene tells me later.
Before long the troupe is back shimmying across the floor at full trot, brimming with confidence and united in joy.
When and where
Where: Morning and evening classes are held at Petersfield Community centre, Havant Academy and Scarlett Rose School of Dance in North End.