Middle Eastern dance gaining devotees as fun, fulfilling activity

MOORHEAD - Belly dancing often conjures up images of a scantily clad woman seductively shaking her hips for bunch of men. But the true performance art, known as Middle Eastern dance, is very pro-woman, said Rita Slator, who teaches the dance styl...

MOORHEAD - Belly dancing often conjures up images of a scantily clad woman seductively shaking her hips for bunch of men.

But the true performance art, known as Middle Eastern dance, is very pro-woman, said Rita Slator, who teaches the dance style for Moorhead Community Education.

"It's just something for yourself, really. You come in for an hour and half, and you don't think about work; you don't think about the kids. You're just focused on the dance, so it's a real good escape," Slator said.

Slator has been teaching Middle Eastern dance for 35 years, nearly 10 of those years for Moorhead Community Education.

Lauri Winterfeldt, Moorhead Community Education director, said the belly dancing classes are extremely popular and fill fast.


"It's a nice combination of fitness opportunity, but it's also fun to learn a new dance from another culture," she said. "I think it appeals to people on a lot of levels."

Women take the classes for a variety of reasons.

Most do it for camaraderie with friends. One bridal shower party did it as a way for all of the bridesmaids and bride to bond.

"They're looking for time to spend with their girlfriends and sweat a little," Slator said.

Slator has also had students take the classes on a dare.

Elizabeth Wagner of Fargo was one of those students.

She and a friend had become bored with taking cooking classes and wanted to try something different, so they dared each other to take up belly dancing.

Her friend quit after one class, but Wagner has stuck with it for five years and has even started performing, which she said is exhilarating.


"I like the fact that it's given me a new appreciation for my body and how I can control my body," she said.

In addition, she said she has found in her fellow dancers a group of women who are always there for her with open arms and open hearts.

"We laugh with each other, we laugh at each other, we cry together, and we celebrate together," Wagner said. "We have become very close."

It's also a fun way to exercise, Slator said.

The dance is made for a woman's musculature and skeletal structure and helps women learn to stand better so they don't put all of their weight on the small of their back, she said. It also helps strengthen quadriceps, abdominal muscles, back muscles and shoulders, she said.

"Some of my students have told me that they can walk farther on their job, whether they're a postal carrier or a meter reader," Slator said. "We go over stretches that can help relieve certain aches and pains and other things that women have to endure."

A wide range of women take the classes, from young women wanting to do something fun with friends to moms with young children who want to do something for themselves and women over 50 whose kids are grown and they want to find themselves again, Slator said.

"A lot of baby boomers, we all think that we're still 18 at heart," Winterfeldt said. "You don't often get the chance to wave a scarf around or tie a scarf around your hips and make it move."


Many women think Middle Eastern dance looks fun, but they also make the mistake of thinking it looks easy, Slator said.

"That's probably the thing that shocks them the most," she said. "It's kind of like learning how to pat your head, rub your stomach, and whistle at the same time. You're really doing a minimum of three things at one time."

The Moorhead Community Education classes are for beginners. Beyond that, dancers who have taken classes with Slator can participate in the Oasis club for belly dancing enthusiasts or Shimmy Sisters, an elite group by invitation only.

Women of all ages and body types recently performed at a Middle Eastern Dance show in Fargo.

Some were Moorhead Community Education students and others belonged to Oasis or Shimmy Sisters.

"Not everybody wants to perform," Slator said. "I usually encourage people to at least try it once."

Though it is a dance for women by women, it is often misunderstood.

"The first thing they think is that you're going to take your clothes off," Slator said. "The second thing they think is you're going to be sexually enticing to men."


The reason for the stereotype is that when Middle Eastern dance came to the United States, an American named it belly dance at the Chicago World's Fair and then wouldn't let women see the show, even though the dancers were completely covered except for their faces and hands, Slator said.

"This was in the time when you couldn't even say leg or arm; you had to say limbs," Slator said. "He kind of started the expectations that this is not going to be appropriate for women, and really it's a dance by women for women."

Moorhead Community Education takes registrations up to the day classes start.

The belly dancing class, which starts Monday, is full, but additional sessions may be added if there is enough interest, Winterfeldt said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526

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