Out of the darkness, we entered the patio through a tiny bamboo grove. Shards of light filtered through the intricate carvings of an Oriental screen. Women of all ages, we had come to a private dance studio on an anonymous suburban street on the Westside to learn the art of the belly dance.
I had belly danced before. Now I was nearly seven months pregnant. I was here because I'd once been told that belly dancing originated in rituals of childbearing, and helped strengthen muscles needed in labor. I didn't know if it was true, but my low-impact exercise options were narrowing and my body growing more unwieldy by the day. My doctor had mentioned dance as a fitness option during pregnancy, so I sought something a little more exotic. The studio had mirrors on three walls, and artifacts placed around the room: rolled-up Persian carpets, a giant brass urn, a Moroccan lamp. Lights were dimmed to smoky hues, evocative of a Cairo casbah. We stood in a V, in this room perfectly sized to fit 10 dancers. Middle Eastern dance maven Aisha Ali, her long mane of hair cascading down her back, stood before us.
On this night, Ali wore simple black leggings, and a cropped black top with sheer material around her waist so we could watch her belly. A silver medallion hung from her neck, silver earrings dangled from her ears, and gold bangles clinked on her wrists. Her hip scarf was embroidered with hundreds of coins that jingled when she moved and caught the light, shimmering. For the next hour and a half we would follow her as if in a trance -- jiggling, shimmying and undulating.
The music began, a transporting mix of folk oboes, drums, cymbals and exotic rhythms. For five minutes we warmed up with stretches and bends you might do before a gym workout, except we fluttered our hands and moved to the beat.
Then we began to isolate our muscle groups. And this was where things got difficult: How do you make that specific part of your body do that thing she is doing?
"We are isolating below the waist," Ali said. "Everything is below the waist. We are not moving our shoulders, our arms or breathing heavily."
We did figure eights with our hips. We did vertical figure eights, flowing up and down from one foot to the other. We constantly wiggled our knees to keep our hip scarves jingling and our bodies jiggling. To a beat, during a 90-minute class, it's a real workout.
Ali's face looked impassive, like a mannequin's, or else broke into a calm smile. We grimaced with concentration and effort. Some of us moved like spasmodic marionettes.
We worked on isolating our chests, then our bellies.
Ali could control every inch of her belly with astounding accuracy. The effect was mesmerizing.
She had us puff out our stomachs like beach balls, then pull them in. "You want that shape, that cadaverous shape," she coaxed. She went around the class and critiqued the forms. (I couldn't pull in at all.)
I noticed some of the belly and pelvic moves were remarkably similar to those we used to strengthen our bodies in my prenatal yoga class. One was even called a kegel.
When I told friends I was taking the class, their reaction was mixed: Some thought the baby would love the swaying motions. Others worried that all that shaking and jiggling would be bad for the baby.
For me, dancing among these women was a relief. For 90 minutes I forgot about my ever-enlarging form, and instead could relax into feeling graceful and feminine.
I imagined my baby rocking to the rhythm, and coming into the world dancing.
There is no written record of how belly dance started, but dancers and anthropologists say it is one of the oldest forms of dance, dating back thousands of years to pre-biblical times, when it was part of goddess worship, fertility rites and religious rituals associated with childbirth.
Ali has taught dance since 1967. She has traced the roots of belly dance to tiny villages in the Middle East and performed at nightclubs in Cairo and Luxor. With her own dance troupe, she once performed all over the world, and trained dancers for decades here in Los Angeles. She believes that belly dancing was always a form of entertainment and celebration. While women in villages dance among themselves, she says, it was the prostitutes and courtesans who performed publicly.
"I know there are a lot of women who claim it is a fertility ritual, but I don't think that is accurate," she says. "It is a basic voluptuous movement which makes it ideal for conditioning for birthing, but that is not its reason for existence. That is a side effect."
But other teachers of dance say ties to childbearing rituals are clear. A 62-year-old dancer who goes by the name of Morocco and runs a studio in midtown Manhattan has researched the dance for 43 years. She says that as late as the 1950s the dance was performed in parts of the Middle East around the bedside of a woman in childbirth by a circle of fellow tribeswomen. Some of the movements, she said, can be traced to imitating the movements of labor and childbirth.
"The unexpected side effect is that [the dance] does help strengthen those muscles," Morocco said. "That was unintended. But it works. And it sure beats a Lamaze course."
At the end of the class we just danced. Song after song we followed Ali. We watched her until the moves melted into our psyches, becoming natural.
I was not exhausted the way I am after I run, or swim, but I could tell I was strengthening muscle groups that not even a full circuit on Nautilus machines could ever reach.
The women in the class all came for different reasons -- for fun, for fitness, for sisterhood.
"It has brought a lot of joy into my life," said Elizabeth Hedberg, 69, who began dancing nearly three years ago because she wanted a fun form of exercise. "It is like a girl's night out. It is just the fun of being with a lot of other women. It is like a soul dance."
My thighs and buttocks were sore the next day. Who knows if the dance would help me in labor, but I loved rocking my belly to the beat, getting a heady dose of female bonding, and working out a bit in the process.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Snapshot: Belly dancing
Duration of activity: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Calories burned: 204
Heart rate*: Average, 101; high, 130.
Time in target zone*: 2 minutes
Where to go: Classes are available throughout town, including some YMCAs, the Long Beach Parks and Recreation Department, West Los Angeles College's Westside Extension program, East Los Angeles College and private dance studios. For information about Aisha Ali's classes, phone (310) 474-4867 or go to www.aisha-ali.com.
* This information was obtained using a heart-rate monitor. Time in the target heart-rate zone is a measure of the intensity of the workout. Target zone varies based on age, individual heart rate.