Belly Dancing Queen

Can’t stomach one more Step class? Spice up your workout with some exotic belly dancing. This ab-whittling exercise is suitable for everyone, working every muscle through sexy shimmies and fluid twists. The more you work your belly, the more you’ll want to flaunt these moves.

You don't have to lie on your back to get a flat stomach. Women (and a few brave men) across the country are ditching the mindless repetition of crunches and Pilates for the ancient, infinitely more entertaining art of belly dancing to solve their tummy woes. Those legendary seductive moves have wriggled their way out of the harems and courts of yesterday, shimmied forth from stereotypes of Middle Eastern restaurants and costume parties and slinked into today's gyms.

"I think the recent focus on the Middle East has brought a lot of [positive] attention to the dance and music of the region," says Reyna Alcalá, who teaches Belly Moves at Crunch in New York City. "Every body shape can do it. I think for people who feel self-conscious in the gym, this is a good start for them."

Belly dancing, called raqs sharqi ("dance of the East") in Arabic, is actually a folk dance performed to celebrate weddings and births, and this contagious spirit of festivity makes you almost forget you're doing any exercise. But making isometric movements of the hips, rib cage, shoulders, arms, abdomen and head to the beat of traditional and techno-flavored Middle Eastern music will raise your heart rate while strengthening and defining your muscles.

First, you must maintain an upright, energetic posture, with the shoulders down and the glutes tucked in (this is almost a workout of its own for some of us). Then there's the basic hip lift and drop, which you do with one leg slightly bent and the heel raised while tilting that hip up and down, working the obliques, lower back and thighs. The shimmy works the hips in a similar direction by bending and straightening alternating legs, often at a challenging, rapid pace. For the shoulder shimmy, you alternate the shoulders forward and back, and sometimes even combine this with other hip movements. (This is a tough one, even for those of us who can pat our heads and rub our tummies while chewing gum.) The slightly more familiar hip twists and rib-cage isolations might remind you of how much typical nightclub boogying must be derived from belly dancing. Throughout the dance, you must also hold your arms in strong positions, raising one or both and make elegant, snakelike gestures with them. After a few minutes, you'll feel well on your way to gorgeously shaped shoulders and upper arms in addition to a toned middle.

"Basically, more than any other class, it really isolates the muscles, so you feel like it's actually shaping your body," explains Beth Bernstein, one of Reyna's students. "And it's really fun. That's important because that's what keeps me coming back."

In a dance studio, Reyna would normally spend time teaching the moves slowly, concentrating on proper form, but her gym class is less technical. "I can't break down everything because it is a big studio, and [explaining] takes too much away from people wanting to get a workout." Surprisingly, though you have to watch the teacher closely, it's easy for a beginner to catch on to the spirit of her movements and enjoy their physical benefits—even if you won't be ready for the stage any time soon. After stretching and warming up with the basics, Reyna builds the class up to a 20-minute block of fast-paced, nonstop shimmying and shaking, set to motivating drum music. It never reaches the sweaty, heart-pumping level of, say, kickboxing or spinning, but you will start to feel every muscle doing its job during this exhilarating portion.

The mental challenge of learning all these new ways of using your body prevents boredom and fatigue. And once you wrap your inexperienced hips in a scarf adorned with coins and beads, even the most amateur twists and wiggles look enticing and produce a satisfying jingle. Need we mention the confidence-boosting rewards of learning and performing something that looks so sexy? It's not like you've ever been dying to show off your mastery of sit-ups in the bedroom.

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