Hip to Belly Dancing : At Leisure World They Strike a Pose, Age-Old Moves All the Vogue

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eva Garnet, 77, stands in front of her dance class looking like a character out of "The Arabian Nights."

Three sets of necklaces complement the Egyptian bracelets wrapped tightly around her arms. The chains on her belt drip with coins and other baubles.

Suddenly, tantalizing strains of Middle Eastern music strike up from a cassette player. Garnet, a former Broadway dancer, slithers to the rhythm, her hands in perfect sync with the subtle swivels of her hip.

A dozen other women imitate Garnet's serpentine movements, and moments later find themselves running around the room clinking finger cymbals, twirling veils and gyrating their hips.

If belly dancing has been banned in some Middle Eastern countries because of Islamic fundamentalism, here at Leisure World its popularity has never been greater. It's become a Friday afternoon ritual of sorts, drawing students ranging in age from 64 to 82.

"Age is no barrier to belly dancing," said Virginia Walters, politely declining to provide her age. "This is just a beautiful form of body building and therapy."

And that is the point that Garnet, who studied alongside Doris Humphrey, Martha Graham and other pioneers of modern American dance, set out to prove when she started the belly dancing class for Leisure World residents a year ago.

Garnet, who appeared in several Broadway productions during the 1930s, admitted that she was surprised by the response from senior dance aficionados. Twenty women who enrolled in the first class last year pleaded with Garnet to continue the program this year.

"People think that belly dancing is a sort of hoochie-coochie, cheap entertainment or something less than respectful," said Ruth Littman, a sculptor when she is not belly dancing. "But that is far from the truth. They don't know about the peace of mind you get from learning these subtle swaying movements."

Garnet's goal is simple: to provide needed exercise for seniors while fulfilling their emotional needs.

"Many women in Leisure World are widows or their husbands are couch potatoes," Garnet said. "Belly dancing is gentle, feminine, humorous and sensual. It provides so many possibilities for expression and outlets that some of us do not have."

Jan Williamson, 71, agrees. Williamson knows that finding a male dance partner in this retirement community of 21,000 residents, where women outnumber men 3 to 1, can be difficult. Since her husband died two years ago, Williams plays the lead role of the male dancer when she attends tamer forms of dances at Leisure World--square and folk dances among them--several times a week at the retirement facility.

Belly dancing, she said, allows her to be a woman. Once a week, she closes her eyes and imagines herself swaying gracefully to the music. "It is a kind of fantasy and a real pleasure," Williamson said. "Once in a while, I like to remember that I'm a woman."

Garnet urges her students to release their inhibitions. Don't worry about struggling to move your hips or your arms, she tells them.

"Don't think you're too fat," she said. "We're creating beauty and creating ourselves. The important thing is to strike a pose. That's what makes it come alive--the feeling you have of being that pose."

Garnet calls the moves like an aerobics instructor. "Clasp hands. Right, then left. Step. Roll it around. Make a circle with your hips, then pose. Hip. Right. Then left. Hip back. Then thrust. Make a circle. Pose."

Then, the women unfurl their brightly colored silky veils and, twirling them around their heads, run around the room.

"Catch the wind," Garnet shouted out. "Catch the wind. The veil won't billow unless you catch the wind."

Jarmila Boyen, 79, who taught ballet for 30 years in Chicago before retiring, calls the new dance discipline "such a challenge. In ballet you have to move the entire body. With belly dancing, you have to isolate the movements to one part of the body at a time. I didn't know it would be so difficult."

The origin of the belly dance is not known, but many believe it started with slaves in Northern African tribes about 5,000 years ago before spreading to the Mediterranean, Northern India and other countries.

Whatever its origins, the dancers of Leisure World try to hold true to its traditions--right down to the colorful costumes.

Take Lisa Borel, a 64-year-old Swiss native who wears a new costume to each class.

Borel, who recently retired as training director for Estee Lauder, wore a Snow White-type dress with a gold bandanna tied around her head at the first class. Last week, she donned a revealing pair of harem pants and a top that she had sewed together an hour before the class.

"My neighbors whistled when they saw me walk out the doors with my costume," Borel said. "I'm such a fashion hound, but it is so much fun. I hate wearing shorts and sweat shirts all the time. Here, I can let go of my feelings and be a different person for an hour and a half."

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