A bellyful of pleasure: They gyrate, they swivel their hips, they do the camel walk, but they don't do it to titillate. Emma Cook contemplates her navel

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The Independent Culture
Belly-dancing has never quite transcended its sleazy reputation. It may be exotic and highly skilled, but its image will forever be associated with cabaret acts, Carry On films and Soho dance clubs.

'Those girls in Soho are just go-go dancers who took our costumes,' Jacqueline Chapman, a belly-dance teacher, says.

Determined to rescue the art-form from ignominy, Chapman gave up nursing 14 years ago to teach a more authentic version. 'People want to learn it properly,' she maintains. 'Not in a naughty way.'

The term 'belly-dance' is, she explains, a misnomer. It originated in 1893 when Algerian dancers shook their midriffs for the first time at the Chicago World Fair. The dance was erotic, but the name danse du ventre was not a crowd puller, so they changed it to 'belly-dancing'.

To find out how a few hip thrusts could improve my self-expression, I attended a lesson. I joined a group which resembled a large harem: women of all ages and sizes dripping in beads, sequins and fringes with midriffs very much in evidence.

To keep our heads upright, we are asked to imagine ourselves as 'beautiful African women balancing shopping on our heads'. Next, Chapman introduces us to the basic movements, which involve shaking or swinging isolated parts of the body: shoulder shimmies, hip rotations, drops and lifts.

We stand upright, holding abdomens in and pushing the bust out. 'Use those bazookas to burst your bra,' she instructs. On goes the Eastern music and Chapman demonstrates the first routine, tracing the figure of eight, clockwise then anti-clockwise, with her hips. She combines this with the 'camel walk' - a sort of undulating side-step.

We copy her, attempting to shoulder shimmy, rotate and undulate. Heads erect, we stare at our reflections in the wall-mirror. The music rises and figures become more animated.

Looking at the sensual movements of the other women, it's easy to see how the dance has been established as an erotic performance for male pleasure. 'Originally it was done by women for women, not men,' explains Chapman. 'It was never as overtly sexual as many would like to claim.'

Despite the sexy appearance, the thrusts, bumps and shakes can also serve a practical purpose. The dance rhythms are, she says, ideal for pregnant women, who can exercise their abdominal muscles in her 'Belly Babies' ante-natal class.

Social worker Vivienne Whittingham, 41, has been a keen belly-dancer for four years. 'It's about seductive powers and knowing how our own bodies work,' she says.

Legal secretary Nuala Douglas, 24, a striking dancer with jet-black hair and a peach-coloured, beaded costume, is less preoccupied with feminist analysis. 'I find the movements so erotic and graceful,' she says. She plans to turn professional in the next six months and hopes to travel round the world and dance for Arabic royalty: 'although my ultimate dream would be to appear in a U2 video'.

Belly-dancing for beginners, Danceworks, 16 Balderton Stret, London W1, Tuesdays, 7pm. pounds 4 per class. Details from Jacqueline Chapman 0733-348479

(Photograph omitted)