A Hip Classic

Exotic rhythms stir her body and soul

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To the syncopated sounds of Middle Eastern guitars and drums, she began twirling a delicate veil around her upper body, knelt, then leaned backward until her head literally touched the ground. She rose slowly, seductively, the music pulsating. Powerful hip swings progressed to pelvic thrusts as she yelled a high-pitch ululation traditionally shouted by enthusiastic belly-dancing women showing an appreciation for another dancer’s skill.

Cheryl D. Fields, vice president of Langhum Mitchell Communications, a communications consulting firm based in Washington, D.C., was demonstrating for a BET Heart and Soul TV audience how belly dancing–which is enjoying a renewed appreciation–is not only fun and sexy, but gives women a great workout.

For this 42-year-old executive, however, it’s more. “It’s been a way for me to tap into my culture and educate people about the history [of the dance], which has origins in North Africa,” she says. Cheryl performs with Nyansa (www.geocities.com/vienna/choir/5321), whose African name, according to the dancers, has meanings associated with wisdom. The group teaches and performs for a variety of audiences. “One of the responses we get is ‘I didn’t even know black people did this kind of dance,'” notes Cheryl. “Yet it is part of our culture.”

Dancing comes naturally for Cheryl. As a child she took ballet, jazz, and modern dance. As an adult she enjoyed West African and Caribbean styles. She started belly dancing six years ago when a woman handed her a flyer to attend classes.

Mastering the hip movements, though, was a challenge. It took her six months to learn how to shimmy, a fast, vigorous movement of the hips. “Then I had to learn how to play the zils (brass finger symbols),” she says. “Then I had to learn how to shout the ululation while doing all the other components of the dance.” Cheryl takes belly dancing lessons at Joe’s Movement Emporium in Mount Rainier, Maryland.

For Cheryl, dancing’s biggest reward is the camaraderie–meeting women who share similar interests in health and cultural awareness. “Our classes are full of positive, creative, wonderful feminine energy.”

Getting started

  • WATCH VIDEOS. Call a local dance studio to find an instructor or start with the following tapes: Belly Dancing for Fun & Fitness with Janine Rabbitt, $14.99; Belly Dancing I: Beginning Instruction with Mara, $23.34; and Egyptian Belly Dancing with Hilary Thacker, $39.
  • DANCING GEAR. In class or at home, wear what you would to any exercise class, according to Cheryl. The first item you might want to purchase is a pair of zils (brass finger symbols), which you can buy at most music stores for under $10. Log on to Fat Chance Belly Dancing (www.fcbd.com) for additional costume items.
  • READ BOOKS. Learn about the history from books. Start with these: Looking for Little Egypt, by Donna Carlton (International Dance Discovery Books, $14.95); Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance: Dance and Other Contexts, by Brenda Dixon Gottschild (Praeger Publication Trade, $23.95); Serpent of the Nile: Women and Dance in the Arab World, by Wendy Buonaventura and Ibrahim Farrah (Interlink Publication Group, $35).