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Movin' and shakin'

Charlotte bellies up to an ancient art

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An eclectic group of women of varying shapes, sizes and ages gyrate and shimmy their hips inside a small dance studio off Old Pineville Road. The studio, a no-frills affair with a low drop ceiling and faux wood paneling, has been jazzed up with colorful pillows and draperies, candles, incense and assorted Middle Eastern fare. As the women watch themselves in two mirrored walls, they laugh and tease each other, all reveling in their collective inner goddess. Huriyyah, the dance instructor, adorned in exotic and flowing garb, stands on a small stage at the head of the room and speaks into a headset microphone. "Y'all ready?" she asks with a Southern twang, then leads the women through a series of ancient moves.

Welcome to belly dancing, Charlotte-style.

The highly physical art form has been around since its beginnings in the 14th century Middle East. "Belly dance" is actually a Western term for raqs sharqi (Arabic for "Eastern dance"). It started as something done at family functions by people of all ages and sexes. The West appropriated the dance, sexed it up, and today performers like Shakira (who is part Arabic) are introducing new generations to its hip-shimmying charms.

Belly dancing also is making quite an impression in Charlotte. "People think of belly dancing as more of a West Coast thing or something in New York," says Yasmine, 32, who owns and operates Belly Dance by Yasmine. "No one thinks of Charlotte as a hotbed for belly dancing, but it's definitely growing."

Although they sport the exotic look, Yasmine and her 19-year-old sister and assistant dance instructor Huriyyah are both Southern girls, originally from Lancaster, SC. ("Yasmine" and "Huriyyah" are their adopted belly dancing names). Before she began teaching belly dance, Yasmine had an extensive background in ballet, tap and jazz, but worked at the very un-exotic Hydraulic and Pneumatic Sales. After she took her first belly dance lesson, Yasmine was hooked. She started teaching belly dance in 2002 with just a handful of students. She opened her studio in May, and now has about 140 students running the gamut from twentysomething college students to mothers and housewives.

Sisters-in-law Heather and Hannah Arrowood started taking lessons from Yasmine last year. Heather, a 24-year-old loan processor, says her interest was piqued when she saw Yasmine perform at the Renaissance Festival. "It has made me feel so much more confident in my own skin because I don't have to look or dress or act any certain way," Heather says. "Everyone is unique in their own way and that's what makes it so cool."

In fact, many of the women stress the empowering and liberating nature of belly dance. "We see a lot of women come in wearing sweatpants and long T-shirts," says Yasmine. "This helps them step out of that box. After a few weeks they're wearing these beautiful costumes and feeling like a bold woman again."

"It's very self-affirming," says Zarifa, who has been performing professionally since 1975 and teaching belly dance in Charlotte for more than 10 years. "I have dancers of all shapes, sizes and ages. It affirms that you are OK the way you are, and not much else does in our society today -- you don't have to look like a Barbie doll or be anorexic to belly dance."

You don't even have to be a woman. Woodrow Hill, one of the few men in Charlotte who belly dances, first got into the art form when he was a teenager. "It was fascination at first sight," says Hill, a 34-year-old web designer. "Some of it was the women, I'll admit, and I dare any man to not say that the sight of a lovely lady in the glittery belly dance outfit doesn't strike his fancy. But I was also looking for a dance to do. I grew up sort of an egghead and yearned for a physical outlet to parallel my mental activities."

Hill's fascination with belly dancing continued as he entered Hampshire College in Massachusetts, and he started taking lessons at a nearby school. Later, when he moved to Charlotte, he studied under Zarifa, and today he maintains a dance weblog at http://raqsstorm.org/apostate/.

"It's difficult to summarize all the aspects of this form that I love," Hill says. "A great deal of it is its exotic nature. But it also has to do with how this form is so adaptable to not just one's body, but one's personality, and how it allows you to develop your personality in a strongly supportive environment."

Yasmine and her professional troupe, The Magic-Hips Dancers, perform at the 2005 Carolina Renaissance Festival every weekend until November 13. For more information check out: www.magic-hips.com.

Zarifa teaches belly dance at the Jewish Community Center in Charlotte and at the Gaston Dance Theater in Gastonia. For more information check out: http://home.carolina.rr.com/zarifa/default.htm.

The Belly Dance Shop offers authentic Turkish, Egyptian and Pakistani belly dance products, as well as links to information on many local and regional instructors. Check out: www.thebellydanceshop.com.

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