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When Fitness Goes Belly Up
The Tummy Gets a Workout
By Marian Jones   Fox News
  NEW YORK — Looking around, I saw all sorts of bellies: Ranya's abundant one, which sat proudly above her skirt; the instructor's small-but-shakeable bowl; another woman's expansive roundness.

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William Tolan/Fox News Online
Mystery, intrigue ... a serious burn in the abs

My own flat fitness-fiend abs, for the first time in my life, felt like a distinct disadvantage in this exercise class.

But you can't judge a dancer by the look of her belly. When Elena, our instructor, led us through a cascade of serpentine Middle Eastern dance moves, I learned that a belly dancer's trademark roll hides an impressively trained system of abdominal muscles. Belly dancing works all of them — as well as the hips, buttocks, and arms — in ways that they have probably never been used before.

Cobracize

My first class, at Fazilís Dance Studio in Times Square, proved a total immersion experience in the world of belly dancing. Before class, I noticed that the preferred workout costume was a skirt or tights with a large hip scarf tied on the side a couple of inches below the navel.

The women in class morphed into two-legged cobras once the Arabic music started. We danced across the floor of the studio on tiptoe; I spun dizzily across the floor, hoping not to run into the wall and focusing on a spot in order to keep my balance.

As one particularly dramatic sequence built to a crescendo, Elena led us by lunging and flinging her black hair forward. I tried to imitate her, succeeding with the grace of a heavy metal guitarist.

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William Tolan/Fox News Online
The class followed the teacher's snaky arms and hips

Understanding Undulation

When the belly and hips move together in a circle, that's undulation. I realized, in trying it, that washboard abs were nothing more than well-trained dogs: they go up, down, up, down during my regular sit-up routine. But a belly roll required me to scoop them up, move them backwards through my trunk in a circular motion and back down through my hips.

Ranya, a professional belly dancer who was taking the class, told me to hold out my chest and to visualize my heart opening up while lifting up my back so as not to strain it. "Put your chest up on the shelf," she said.

The Hip Jiggle

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William Tolan/Fox News Online
The music, along with the mood, makes for an exotic workout

The belly dancer's secret, Ranya told me, is all in the tush. Squeeze one buttock while you push opposite hip down and in. Then reverse.

At first I used my legs. It was hard to catch the precise hip muscle contraction. But I kept trying, with Ranya's encouragement. "Its important to know which muscles youíre supposed to be using, so youíre not feeling soreness in your joints or in lower, middle back," she told me later.

Gym Bellies and Veiled Confusion

The next class I took at my gym in Chelsea Piers Sports Center. Nathalie, an instructor who has introduced belly dancing to gyms around the city, led a more athletic class. I worked on my undulations and hip jerks until I had managed to un-freeze my stiff body. We also tried a couple of belly shakes and chest shimmies, although I was wishing I had more to shake.

Later, it was back to Elenaís for a second class. This time, we practiced the same moves, but added a new accoutrement: the veil.

We learned to spin the veil around through the air, spin ourselves up into translucent nylon cocoons and toss it behind our heads in an insouciant snap.

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William Tolan/Fox News Online
Shake it but don't break it: It's important to support and protect your back

Belly Safe

Belly dancing is a pretty safe activity, most dancers I talked to agreed. But itís still important to take certain precautions.

The first, Ranya stressed, is finding a teacher with whom you feel comfortable. There is no formal certification or accreditation process for belly dancers, so beginning students have to rely on word of mouth, belly dancing Web sites and experimentation.

Secondly, said Dr. Joseph Kansao, a Manhattan sports medicine chiropractor who treats many professional dancers, itís key to stretch out before class for 10 to 15 minutes.

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William Tolan/Fox News Online
The veil adds to the mood, helping you forget what you're doing is exercise

"If a person does have [physical] problems, they should consult a physician prior to engaging in belly dancing or any activity," said Dr. Kansao. "And if you have a history of chronic lower back pain, itís not a wise choice of exercise to do."

Nonetheless, itís an exercise that most people can enjoy when taught properly, says Ranya, who teaches her own classes.

"I have dancers of all sizes who take my classes," she explained. "Sometimes the really thin ones will say ĎI wish I had a little more to shake around,' but since the dance is so individual, you work with what you have. There is always something that will look good on your body."