Wiggle while you work (out)

Our arts editor attempts to belly dance with the Asha Belly Dancers

Kelley manages to do a few belly dancing moves with the Asha Belly Dancers.

Kelley manages to do a few belly dancing moves with the Asha Belly Dancers.

Photo by David Robert

We are a society obsessed with abs.

Everywhere we turn, there are countless fitness and women’s magazines touting the best ways to whittle away our waistlines. The latest Hollywood starlets and fading stars all display their superior abdominals in skimpy outfits for the world to see. Madonna gives birth to Baby Rocco and one month later is back in “Boy Toy” form. And then there’s Britney Spears hawking Pepsi products in another one of her midriff-bearing outfits. Those of us with not-so-firm tummies glare in envy.

But none of these celebrities have anything on the Asha Belly Dancers, a local dance troupe of five women dancers. These women have more abdominal power in one square inch of their oblique muscles than Britney has in her entire Pepsi-navel ring-wearing mid-section. Their bodies seem to slither and shimmy effortlessly; their hips and bellies wiggle in a controlled, fluid manner. I want to move like that.

I got a chance to try out some belly dancing moves last week when I visited the home of LeeAnn Malone, a co-founder of Asha. The group was rehearsing for a performance at the Tour de Nez block party, which was held at Deux Gros Nez last Saturday.

As LeeAnn and fellow dancer Kay Conley waited for another member to arrive, we settled in the back yard deck, where they often practice. LeeAnn cued up Middle Eastern music on her portable stereo. Once Monique Baron arrived, we talked about the group and how each of the women got into belly dancing.

I mentioned that I would like to learn a few moves—for my own interest, of course, but also because my editor wants to continue this newspaper’s tradition of putting staffers into all kinds of awkward and embarrassing situations that are often photographed and printed in the paper. The dancers graciously obliged.

We warmed up with a few stretches to loosen up the back, arms and legs. After 10 minutes, we began a few simple belly dancing moves. LeeAnn showed me the posture I should take when exercising these moves: tummy slightly tucked in, legs slightly bent, arms, neck and shoulders relaxed.

The first move was easy enough, a slight swaying of the hips. Then we moved up into the abdominal region, rocking the hips side to side with a little more vigor. As the movements became more complex, the stiffness in my body became more apparent. (A journalist’s life isn’t the healthiest one—hours spent sitting at a computer and writing, lack of exercise and poor diet tend to make us soft in the middle and backside.)

Asha Belly Dancers will perform during the “Come to the Casbah” Artown event July 15 at Wingfield Amphitheater.

Then, Monique demonstrated a move that made her long, lean body curve itself an “S” shape. She also showed me how to do a figure eight movement involving the hips and a few slight pelvic thrusts. I tried it, but I lacked grace. I felt like my hips were just swinging erratically. I could feel my face flush with embarrassment at my lack of coordination, but the women encouraged me and said I was doing fine. After 15 minutes or so, I started to get into the groove a bit, but it probably would take me a few years to get my stomach muscles to cooperate like theirs.

Of course, once the warm-up was over, the Asha dancers blew me away as they rehearsed their performance. They balanced baskets on their heads as they twirled about during one song they called “The Basket Song.” In another piece they called “Connected,” dancers kept their hands clasped together as they danced side to side or in a circle. Although they were wearing lightweight clothes that night, they often perform covered from head to toe in several items of clothing, jewelry and adornments.

Belly dancing probably won’t get your abs firmed up like 500 crunches a day would, but it’s still quite a workout. Not to mention that belly dancing is more aesthetically pleasing than lying and sweating on the floor as you attempt to complete a set of sit-ups. I may have felt a bit clumsy as I performed my first belly dancing lesson, but I think I might be ready for some more training, and perhaps one day I’ll be as agile and as graceful as these dancers.