Story, photos by Jennifer Ferrell
“(Belly Cardio) class is a community building experience. As well as making great friends you will learn awesome dance moves and get a life changing workout.”- Erin, Belly Cardio student
Belly dance is a traditional dance dated back longer than to what history can attest. What we can gather is that there are many different styles and the dance has persisted over time to be one of the most exotic and adored practices all around the world. In today’s times, there are many different interpretations of the dance called fusion styles but the health benefits remain. Since belly dance is ancient, it is comprised of moves that are natural for the body. Therefore shimmying is good for all bodies, not just Shakira and Sadie. It has been said that it opens the spirit and chakra system, offers a boosted self esteem, and quite often can become a life transformation.
People often ask me why I first started to belly dance given that my background is not of any Arabic descent. I was first introduced to it at Middle East Restaurant in Philadelphia when I was out to dinner with my family. One of the well known belly dancers made her way over to our table. I still remember to this day, my 7 year old self who loved dance and all things fancy, was so enamored by the belly dancer my godfather paid to have her teach me upstairs in the studio above the restaurant. It was that moment I found the wonders of belly dance.
I took belly dance classes casually in college and after my second class I was asked to study professionally. My body responded to the rhythm, techniques, and energy of the dance. I was taught every style, which helped to cultivate my own unique fusion style combined with my many years of western dance and my love of world rhythm and traditional belly dance. I began teaching dance when a Zumba teacher noticed my moves in the belly dance song in class. I told her of my experience and she asked me to run a belly dance cardio class. Having zero experience as a fitness instructor but never one to shy away from a challenge, I was thrilled. It was there that I successfully choreographed and held my first class, which gained regular followers immediately who loved the way the belly dance workout made them feel. My class regulars were women in their 60s, young women in their early 20s, and even those recovering from injuries.
Belly dance cardio class is similar to other dance fitness modalities of group fitness yet it is held in bare feet with moves that are gentle on the body without impact. Thus, challenging the entire abdominal structure with moves that are safe for the joints. The roundness and repetition of the moves actually lubricate the joints offering them relief. Throughout the course of an hour, the moves increase in speed and intensity thus creating intense core strength training while still getting a cardio workout.
The class begins with an upbeat Arabic club remix with moves meant to loosen up the body and prepare for a workout leading into slower moves like figure-8s and hip drops. The class works up to an energetic mix of traditional Arabic music, a few Latin or Indian songs, and peppered with a few modern American songs that are all set with simple choreography that is easy to learn. The class ends with belly rolls or a hip rolling pattern and a slow stretching song. By the end of class, everyone is sweaty and smiling. Women are celebrating their bodies no matter what age, shape, or dance, or fitness experience!
After several years I brought this belly dance cardio class format to Philly along with me when I moved. The class gained many devoted followers who eventually turned into my belly dance troupe, the East Coast Shimmies. The Shimmies started as a few regular Belly Cardio students and now have extended to seven performers, including myself and have been gracing Philadelphia in shows and festivals. Each Shimmy has been selected by being a devoted Belly Cardio student who learns the technique of belly dance in class, shows athletic ability for performances, and loves being a part of our troupe!
One Shimmy, Erin who’s quote is above, was pregnant for several shows and every Belly Cardio class. There seems to be a misconception about belly dance being unsafe for pregnancy, which caused a lot of gasps in the audience. In fact, some historical references state the entire purpose of the dance was to aid in delivery in the birthing pit while the mother was surrounded by her dancing family members to celebrate and help her though labor. Each move seems to correspond with a different benefit. For example, belly rolls are a great massage for the baby. Every dancer has agreed that labor was a lot easier due to the practice.
Belly Dance cardio offered her a chance to feel powerful and express her femininity while pregnant. She told me she felt more fit and energized and was able to feel that way throughout a practice designed to assist a mother carrying a child instead of putting undue stress on her body. She bonded each week and often other social times with the students of Belly Cardio that quickly became close friends. She was not the only student to express the benefits and impact of of this class to me.
One night after a rigorous practice for a show with my Shimmies, we decided to treat ourselves to a girls’ night out. We toasted to our newly found successes when my very first devoted student in Philly held up her glass and said, “You know, I was just turning 45 when I started belly dancing with you and I wasn’t feeling great. I was feeling old, and tired, and just blah. Through your class I found myself again. I feel feminine and beautiful and just amazing.” At that very moment, while trying to hold back tears, my second longest student raised her glass and said, “Wait, that is what you did for me too.” I was shocked and choked up that my classes could be something so transformative and not just a fun outlet after work for my students.
It was this moment when I realized the importance of belly dance and a woman’s spirit. Belly dance and Belly Cardio are not just fun activities after work, rather a practice that enables students to feel powerful, strong, and accomplished; something that doesn’t come by easily in our society. It is a moment the students have to themselves, a mere hour, without life’s responsibilities where they can focus, work hard, and feel beautiful. My class has even created a strong group of friends who count on each other for everything from relationship advice, outfitting, travel partnerships, workout buddies, and sisterhood.
This strong bond was created when we all gathered to practice an ancient dance that is good for the body, mind and spirit while exercising, improving cardiovascular health and gaining abdominal strength by moving in a rhythmic, sensual way celebrated in history. The benefits of belly dance class has a value that is immeasurable to the health of women everywhere. Don’t just workout, transform your life in Belly Dance Cardio!
Belly Cardio classes are held every Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. by Jeni Belly Dancer (that’s me!) at the Philadelphia Dance Academy, 219 Cuthbert St, 3rd Fl, Philadelphia, PA 19106. Visit http://www.bellydancewithjeni.com for more details.