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Belly dancing takes off as an empowering exercise

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It's Friday night and Nayna and Khurrem are gearing up for their big 9pm show. It's a pretty good crowd on hand at The Kazba in downtown Charlotte, and all eyes focus on the two women adorned in ornate, colorful costumes as they gracefully swirl and move about the room. They put on a fun, playfully sensual show that lasts nearly two hours. They're performing what is known as "Raks-as-Sharqi," which is Arabic for "dance of the Orient," or as we like to call it here in the US, belly dancing. After the show, Nanya, (which means "the one with beautiful eyes"), adopts her other identity -- Denise Jones, a 37-year-old single mother of two. Khurrenn (which means "the joyous one") also sheds her alter ego, and becomes Vicki Walters, a married, 35-year-old mother of one.

"I've always liked to dance, and I've always liked things that are a little more avant-garde or out of the norm," said Walters, who works as a laboratory quality director. "Belly dancing gives you incredible confidence. A lot of people think of belly dancers as a slave dancing for the master. But in reality the dancer is in control. They're the one running the room."

"It's a dance that makes a woman feel beautiful," said Jones. "And I don't care how old you are, we're still girls, and we love to play dress up."

If Jones and Walters don't sound like the typical hip-shimmying pop tart you might find on MTV, well, that's kind of the whole idea. They're part of a diverse and rapidly growing community of (mostly) women who've taken up the centuries-old artform in Charlotte. Local enthusiasts say it's a welcoming community, and just as the dancers themselves are diverse, so too are their reasons for getting into it, which run the gamut from exercise or camaraderie to a fun hobby or, for Jones, a little playful fantasy.

"For a lot of women it's a time to put on a costume and be someone else for a while," she said. "You don't think about the bills or anything else. When I'm out there performing I'm Nayna, not Denise."

Jones and Walters were just two of dozens of dancers who performed recently during a recital in Pineville, that belly dancing mecca, presented by local instructor Yasmine Jeaneane Wright. The dancers were of all colors, shapes and ages -- from teenagers to retirees. Jones and Walters both started taking lessons from Yasmine a little over a year ago, and they now perform together regularly at restaurants, parties and festivals all over Charlotte.

"It's kind of become a hobby that's paying for itself," Jones said. "We call it dancing to support the sequin habit."

Yasmine, who teaches belly dancing at three different Charlotte locations, says she's seen a real boost in interest recently. "I started out with about eight students in February of last year," Yasmine said. "Now I have over 80."

"It's like we're having a revival," said Jane Copeland (AKA "Zarifa"), who also teaches belly dancing in Charlotte. "Women are looking for something that's just for them. It gives women a sense of their own bodies that not much else in our culture does. Plus, a lot of women find that it's just a wonderful night out with a support group."

Zarifa taught belly dancing in Minneapolis for over 20 years before moving to Charlotte in 1995. She says she currently has about 50 students, a number that continues to grow. "It's a very diverse group," she says. "High school students, senior citizens, business professionals and housewives. You see all kinds."

Yasmine first got into belly dancing about four years ago when a friend bought her some lessons for a Christmas present.

"I had a background in ballet, tap and jazz, and as I got older I really started to miss dancing," Yasmine said. "As soon as I started belly dancing, I fell in love with it. Now I love that I'm able to share it with others," she continued. "I get to see what I'm building -- stronger, beautiful, more confident women."

Kimberlie Coleman went to her first lesson about a year ago as an alternative to going to the gym. "I was looking for some exercise classes that weren't too expensive," she said. "My girlfriend and I decided to check out belly dancing, and we both really liked it. Coleman soon recruited Quortni Watkins, her nine-year-old daughter, to join her, and they've been going together ever since.

"It's fun to dress up and look pretty," Coleman said. "It's really good for your self-esteem. You don't have to look like Britney Spears. I'm not a skinny woman, and it really makes me feel healthy and better about myself."

Nicole Hoover was getting her nails done when her pedicurist told her how much she enjoyed it, and convinced her to check it out for herself.

"It's been a lot of fun," said Hoover, who works as a real estate developer. "I work an awful lot, so I needed something fun to do to get out of the office once in a while. I'm a high-maintenance girly-girly, and I like all the girly stuff -- the costumes and the jewelry. In addition to being fun and good exercise, it's pretty empowering for women. It's a very open, accepting and supportive community. Plus, it's sexy and my husband loves it."

There are many theories regarding the origins of belly dancing, but most evidence suggests it came from the Middle East and Africa. Some forms have their roots in Middle Eastern fertility ceremonies -- a dance performed by women for women. In other cultures it's a traditional folk dance performed at family gatherings and parties. Egyptian tomb paintings dating as far back as the 14th century BC depict partially clad dancers whose positions appear to be very similar to those used in belly dancing. And Greek cultures participated in esoteric religious rites that included dancing throughout their history. Many other countries -- Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and Morocco, to name a few -- have all influenced the dance with their own unique style.

Belly dancing is characterized by its smooth, flowing, complex, and sensual movements. Dancers sometimes use various instruments when they perform, such as small finger cymbals known as zills. Many also use props in the dance such as snakes, swords, veils, and candles, which often represent magical or protective functions.

Belly dancing is still very popular in many Middle Eastern countries, particularly Turkey, where it's customary for the bride and groom to hire a belly dancer for their wedding or for a family to hire a dancer for circumcision parties.

Lee Ann Ertezuk was introduced to the belly dancing culture after she met her Turkish husband-to-be, Cuneyt, while attending college in Canada. "We went to Turkey for a two-week vacation, and ended up staying seven years," said Ertezuk.

Although Ertezuk was too shy to join in with Cuneyt's family when they belly danced, she found she really missed being around it when the couple moved to Charlotte a little over a year ago. She signed up for lessons with both Zarifa and Yasmine, is now an accomplished student, and has even opened up her own belly dancing store (www.thebellydanceshop.com). "I didn't have enough confidence to dance while I was in Turkey because everybody could do it so well, but when my husband and I go to Turkey next month, I'm going to dance for all my friends and family."

Zarifa teaches belly dancing at the Jewish Community Center on Providence and Phoenix Rising on Monroe. She can be reached at 704-643-7149.

Yasmine teaches belly dancing at Steps in Motion in Ballantyne, Ray's Splash Planet uptown, and the A & E Ballroom in Matthews. She can be reached at 704-752-8323, or www.magic-hips.com.

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