Fifteen women in their 20s to 40s pop their hips and shimmy across the wooden floor at north Scottsdale’s Pure Fitness on an early Wednesday evening. A jingling sound — from several of the ladies’ decorative hip scarves — overpowers the Middle Eastern music playing from a stereo as the women perfect their undulating moves and are encouraged to find their goddess posture.
Welcome to Belly Dance for the Everyday Woman.
Hot form of exercise
Scottsdale belly dancer Myryka Nunya (video) leads the hourlong introduction to the exotic Arabic dance Wednesdays at the gym, which is usually filled with 20 to 25 students, according to the instructor.
“Belly dance has always been a very timeless thing, but I think right now it’s become kind of a trend,” says the 26-year-old instructor, who also teaches salsa/reggaeton and Pilates. “I think people are beginning to recognize it has staying power. ... Belly-dancing gives women a chance to dress up and play princess. It’s also a good way for people who hate going to the gym to do something fun and burn calories.”
Denise Caldwell, 39, who is decked out in a shimmering hip scarf and shiny yellow sports bra, says she enjoys the exercise. “Belly-dancing is a good way to relieve stress and tone your body,” says the Fountain Hills test technician. “It’s women being feminine and doing some toning, too.”
Scottsdale’s Melissa Vaessen, who is dressed in a black tank top and capri sweat pants, says belly-dancing brings together a wide range of people.
“It allows people from a huge range of ages, sizes and shapes to find their own sex appeal,” says Vaessen, a 24-year-old behavioral specialist at a foster care agency. “It allows us to feel comfortable with our bodies and the way we move.”
Phoenix belly dancer Rose Adrian, a dental hygienist by day, says belly-dancing is so popular due to the exercise factor.
“People are trying to be fit now and this is a good way to be fit,” says Adrian, who dances at Tempe’s Cafe Istanbul and Oasis Cafe (E.V. restaurants with bellydancers) and teaches a belly-dancing class at Paradise Valley Community College in Phoenix. “You become more flexible and strong as you go. It’s a head-to-toe workout.”
Pop culture influence
Nunya, a fitness director at north Scottsdale’s Pure Fitness and a magician’s assistant, has been teaching belly-dancing for four years. She also teaches “Belly Dance: Hips, Buns and Abs” at Scottsdale’s Studiyo on Saturdays and dances at Tempe’s LayaLena Mediterranean Experience, a restaurant that she owns, on Fridays and Saturdays.
Nunya says the popularity of belly-dancing has increased since she learned the moves 14 years ago. She credits pop culture with making the dance more mainstream.
“Pop culture hasn’t influenced belly dance,” she says. “Belly dance has influenced pop culture. It’s got a lot of presence in videos and on MTV.”
Pop singer Shakira is known for her hip-shaking belly-dancing moves while rapper Akon raps “Hey ladies drop it down/Just want to see you touch the ground/Don’t be shy girl go Bananza/Shake ya body like a belly dancer” on the track “Bananza (Belly Dancer).”
Singer Sting’s music is known for its Arabic influence. R&B singer Aaliyah used belly dance as her signature move. And rapper Jay-Z sampled a Middle Eastern beat in “Big Pimpin’.”
In addition to influencing pop culture, Nunya says the dance has also become more acceptable over the years.
“People are starting to disassociate the negative connotations that it has had over the last few decades, and they’re starting to understand that it really is a legitimate art form and that it’s appropriate for (the) mainstream,” she says. “It’s something that’s more acceptable to have as a form of entertainment for weddings, for birthday parties, anniversaries, retirement parties, office parties.”
The dance also educates people about Middle Eastern culture, says Nunya.
“We have a lot of American people coming to the nightclub and starting to see a different portrayal of the Arabic and Middle Eastern cultures,” she says of her restaurant.
“Right now what we’re getting is the stuff that CNN and the newspapers are feeding us and not all of the time is that accurate.
"You come and you get to see a very loving group of people partying and sharing good times with each other. ... It erases the stereotypes that people have about the Middle Eastern culture.”