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"Those Move Easiest Who Have Learned to Dance.”

Belly dancing provides fun, fitness, relaxation

They jingled, they jangled. They clicked and clacked. Residents loved it – the residents of Sunrise Assisted Living, that is.

Linda MacDonald, owner of At Ease Massage Services, led a group of five students through a dozen belly-dance routines during a special performance last month. “At one class, we made a pact that we would dance at a retirement home before we were residents,” MacDonald said. “I guess it was a change of pace for them—it was very fun.” Based on the success of last month’s performance, they will probably do more shows in the area.

MacDonald herself is no stranger to performing. A belly-dancing practitioner since the 1970s, MacDonald used to perform in Middle Eastern Greek and Persian clubs. She also taught classes for years, but took a break.

She began teaching again a few years ago, first at the Women’s Fitness Center in Belle View, and more recently at Mount Vernon RECenter, as part of the Fairfax County Park Authority program. Her current class runs through the end of March; two more sessions begin April 3 – a beginner and intermediate class. Both sessions meet on Thursday evenings.

MacDonald is very high on belly dancing, which she is a healing dance. “It’s also a form of dance that is immensely adaptable,” she said. “There’s some dimension adaptable for everyone. It’s fun to watch people become more tuned in to their bodies and become freer. I watch the women become transformed creatures.”

In her program for the retirement home, she wrote, “The intent of belly dancing is to express and communicate feelings ranging from happiness to sorrow, from playful to respectful and from flirtatious to reserved.”

DURING THEIR one-hour show at the retirement home, members of MacDonald’s troupe expressed all these emotions. Some songs were loud, some were soft and gentle. The basic outfit was a black leotard and skirt, but dancers added colorful scarves, beads and other attire. Starting with a rendition of “Layla” by the full troupe, the program gave individual members turns performing their own numbers.

“Dance, Samra, Dance” was performed by Nadira (Linda MacDonald); “The Rose” by Sabira (Shelley Graham);” “Island Girl” by Thalia (Bobbie Cook); “Esma Yalli” by Emma (Emma Green);” Shubra” by Rahida (Rebecca Roberts); and “Drum Solo” and “Melody of Love” again by Nadira.

“I choreographed the group dances, but the others did their own,” said MacDonald. “We are an eclectic group of women.”

MACDONALD HAS KNOWN some of the women for a long time. Bobbie Cook took lessons with MacDonald 30 years ago, and signed up for this most recent class, unbeknownst to MacDonald.

“I knew Linda from the ‘70s when we took class together,” said Cook. “It was a happy surprise when I went to class and found Linda was my teacher.”

Although Cook is one of the more experienced dancers in the class, she said, “You can start learning quickly enough that you can start dancing and enjoy it immediately. You can enjoy it right from the start and then start taking it to the next level.”

Cook is now taking it to the next level and has branched out even in her selection of music. Her song, “Island Girl,” came from an album of music she purchased on Martha’s Vineyard. “It has a good, strong beat and got my attention. You don’t necessarily have to use Middle Eastern music. Many are using Latin and Caribbean music.”

Cook said that people take up belly dancing for many reasons: fun, exercise, the music, or just the intrigue of it all. Cook’s goal is to do belly dancing at her 40th high school reunion. “I love feeling the music,” she said.

Some people use belly dancing as therapy. Shelley Graham started belly dancing three years ago; she was turning 50 and was looking for something different. She saw a sign at Women’s Fitness Center, advertising the belly dancing class and decided to sign up. “I did this for my 50th birthday,” she said. “I wanted to do something different for myself.”

GRAHAM SAID THAT she was “a wee bit shy at first,” but liked it. MacDonald told her that she looked so stiff at first, but she loosened up quickly. Now she says, “It will make you so revitalized. The moves are so subtle, but they’re controlled.”

“I will never stop. I love it for the peace of mind; I do it for my femininity; and I do it for fitness,” she said.

Graham really needed the peace of mind when she did the show at Sunrise. Just a block away, her younger sister lay in a hospital bed at Inova Mount Vernon Hospital. Both her legs had been amputated days before. “My family told me to dance,” said Graham. “I danced for her [my sister]. I loved performing.”

Graham said that every time she took her sister to the doctor, she would teach her how to move her upper body; she’s still planning to do that, as her sister begins a long, painful recovery.

Rebecca Roberts started taking lessons two years ago. “I was taking Tai Chi and the instructor kept saying, ‘slow down, slow down.’” She decided to try belly dancing instead, and said, “I liked the idea of movement. I liked to dance.”

“It’s fun on so many different levels. It’s incredibly feminine.” Roberts recently moved from the area, so she isn’t able to take MacDonald’s class anymore. She still stays in touch with the core group, and remembers the class, saying, “We had a very diverse group – women in their teens and others who were 50 and 60. Linda really made it a lot of fun.”