MASTERCLASSES : Lessons in sense and sensuality

BELLY DANCING; Real belly dancing has nothing to do with strip joints. It's a respectable art form, and good for you, too. Continuing our series of expert practical instruction for beginners, Hester Lacey consults an English exponent
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JACQUELINE Chapman does not look like a belly dancer. With her English-rose fragility and blonde hair she is a far cry from the traditional buxom, sloe-eyed houri. And she has four grown-up sons and a granddaughter aged three. Nevertheless, she is the doyenne of British belly dancing (or Middle Eastern dance, as she prefers to call it). Jacqueline is the only full-time professional belly dancer in the country; she has quite a following, too, in Egypt, Turkey and Lebanon, where she is mobbed like a film star after her performances.

Back home she also teaches - her regular classes in London and Peter- borough are much in demand - and she travels frequently throughout Britain, giving lessons and talks.

So who are the licentious audiences on this belly-dancing lecture circuit? In fact, they're far more interested in keeping fit and toning their muscles than learning naughty East-ern wiles to snare a man. Belly dancing, explains Jacqueline, is far from being the preserve of the shameless. It is excellent for the figure.

"Belly dancing is based on a nubile, voluptuous shape, and we keep a very small, toned waist, rounded hips and quite high bazookas," she says. "It's because we're always working individual muscle groups. The aim of Middle Eastern dancing is to be able to move just one part of the body and keep the rest still. We work a great deal on the hips, abdomen, thighs and waist, areas which many women would like to tone up. Most dance forms don't work all the middle bits." It is, she says, particularly suitable for the less-than-fit beginner: her oldest pupil was 91 and danced with a stick.

Belly dancing also has another, less obvious benefit. Jacqueline, who trained as a nurse, has found that regular practice tones internal as well as external body parts. "Middle Eastern dancing is exceptionally good for strengthening the gynaecological area. It's very good for things like stress incontinence, slack vaginal muscles. Let's face it, the uterus, the vagina, the bladder, all those bits and pieces are just muscles, and usually they just hang around inside doing nothing at all."

She dissolves into wild giggles. "Me, I like to work them. I'm working on the woman beautiful from the inside out. Everyone is so worried about how they look - if you feel wonderful, which means taking care of yourself internally as well as externally, you'll look good." Her philosophy does not end there: "Middle Eastern dancing concentrates the mind wonderfully. My mind goes to cabbage soup if I don't dance. It's a thinking woman's workout."

She is certainly a glowing advertisement for the benefits of what she preaches. But gynaecological health and enhanced concentration are not the first things that spring to mind in connection with belly dancing. What about that sleazy Soho image? "This dancing is sensual and emotional, but not in fact overtly sexual. There is a corrupt form, we can't deny that, but its origins are quite different. Middle Eastern dancing is normally danced in deeply religious countries, behind locked doors, by women for women to show love, respect and friendship, particularly after an event like childbirth or marriage. Husbands were not invited to watch, although nowadays, in Middle Eastern countries women are beginning to dance much more in public."

Jacqueline herself happened upon Middle Eastern dancing quite by chance. She trained as a ballerina, was forbidden by her parents to take to the stage, and went on to put in a 10-year stint as a nurse. "I was on night duty one night, reading a magazine just to keep awake. There was one sentence that said 'belly dancing cures all backache'. I was a nurse, and what do nurses get? Backache. I was on a medical ward lifting gentlemen weighing 20 stone."

Initially she had reservations. "I was very naive, and I thought, 'surely only bad girls do it - but hang on, this is a good magazine, I'm sure they wouldn't recommend anything wrong', and I decided to give it a go. So I went in search of belly dancing. And could I find it? No. Of course there's always Soho, but they just wear the pretty costumes and do naughty dancing. I couldn't find a school that taught Middle Eastern dance in any shape or form." Eventually, via a friend of a friend, she found an Egyptian woman who taught her the basic movements and from that start she practised and trained until she was proficient enough to turn professional in 1980.

I went along to her weekly Tuesday evening class in a central London dance studio. Just before seven, when the class was to begin, women of all ages, shapes and sizes were queuing patiently on the stairs, clutching their pounds 4 fee for the hour-long session. Jacqueline, flitting up and down the line to welcome new members, was a barefoot vision wearing a raspberry confection: a long, flowing skirt with matching bra top, clinking trinkets and a towering head-dress.

In the studio, everyone whipped off jackets, shoes, jumpers, and a number hitched up or knotted their tops to reveal the one essential accoutrement - the tummy (some were flattish, some not). Mine, alas, was shielded inside a sturdy popper-fastening body. This is a considerable disadvantage: the appropriate undulations are a major thing when it comes to looking the part. The more confident hurried to grab a good spot at the front near the mirrored wall. I fled to the back, near the fire door, with the other novices.

Jacqueline does not hang about. On goes the music, a haunting, rhythmic mix of tabla drum, accordion and lute, and immediately she is demonstrating the first movement: the hip drop. Sensuously twitching one hip without moving the other is more difficult than sounds. Concentrating so hard on one specific muscle group precludes paying any attention to others, notably those controlling facial expressions. Any time I dared to glance in the mirror I was looking both pained and alarmed and not at all sexy. The more experienced were doing very well indeed, adding their own fluid arm movements and gazing hypnotically into their mirrored eyes. Jacqueline urged us on: "And smile. Television smiles, everyone!"

With the next instruction the gynaecological dimension kicked in: "Imagine there's a pencil in your vagina, grip it and draw with it," exhorted Jacqueline. No one raises an eyebrow. Anyone would think the whole class had been practising imaginary genital artistry for years; and there was no denying that drawing a circle and figures of eight with our imaginary HBs moved our hips in just the right way. Jacqueline padded barefoot around the class, praising here, correcting there.

The first half of the class was spent practising individual movements, working hips, arms, torso with the figures of eight (see panel, page 78), the camel walk (page 79, right), shimmying (page 79, main picture) and Egyptian dipping (see right). These were gradually brought together into simple sequences; the class culminated in a mass performance of a routine specially choreographed by Jacqueline, and ended with a rousing yell, the zhagareet, to show the dancers' confidence and joy.

The yell actually comes out rather British and subdued, but the class is certainly enthusiastic. Susan French, 40, has been learning belly dancing with Jacqueline for 18 months. "I'm a Turkaholic," she explains. "I adore Turkey - the culture, the history, the music. Since I started to learn the dancing, I don't get out of breath any more, and my abdominal muscles are so strong, I can keep doing sit-ups in aerobics forever. "

Dawn, 28, a veteran of eight years of classes, is resplendent in a genuine Turkish yellow and gold outfit that rivals Jacqueline's own. "Dancing tones you magnificently and gives you confidence in yourself," she says. She works in a finance company, but is also a semi-professional dancer and might even turn pro one day. "The top dancers in Turkey are in their forties and fifties, so I'm in no hurry."

WHAT TO WEAR

Loose, comfortable clothes are ideal for beginners - an authentically flowing skirt and tummy-revealing top make all the movements look more effective. Jacqueline discourages the full leotard-and-lycra aerobics look. For those who become hooked, the options are glittering: sequinned bra tops, jewelled skirts, chiming brass zills (the chain-and-pendant belts, pounds 7-pounds 15 per set), veils (pounds 6-pounds 30), and navel jewels (pounds 1, assorted colours). All these can be picked up on holiday in the Middle East, made yourself, or ordered from Jacqueline.

THE BASIC MOVEMENTS

To begin with, it's important to assume the correct posture (see panel, page 78). Stand straight, with (preferably bare) feet flat to the floor and close together. Knees should be relaxed. Squeeze the backside inwards to "eliminate the buttocks", as Jacqueline puts it; this also squeezes the inner thigh muscles. Think about your pelvic floor: picture the imaginary pencil, squeezed tightly in your vaginal muscles, and throughout the dance try to keep the pencil pointing downwards to the floor. This will keep your pelvic floor slightly forwards, and your body straight and perfectly balanced.

Pull your abdominal muscles in. Lift your ribcage slightly, so that your torso lengthens from waist to breastbone, which should also lift your breasts. Relax the shoulders. Finally, and most important, remember to keep your eyes looking straight ahead; don't drop your head. Start all the movements standing correctly.

FIGURES OF EIGHT

Prepare by making a simple twist, bringing the right hip forward, then the left hip forward, moving from the waistline. To create the figure of eight (see panel, page 78), use this motion to make circular movements, drawing a "D" with your imaginary pencil, and a reverse it for the other side. Twist the right hip forward, stretch, then make a semi-circle front to back; repeat on the other side, visualising a figure of eight. Keep your body above the waist perfectly still.

THE EGYPTIAN HIP DROP

Raise the right heel, as in a ballet demi-plie, and relax the knee. Keep the left foot flat on the floor. Keeping the demi-plie right foot, straighten the knee to raise the hip, then relax the knee and allow the hip to drop again - the accent is on the downward movement. Repeat with the left hip.

THE CAMEL WALK

If you are right-handed, put your right foot slightly in front of your left (if left-handed, vice versa). Transfer your weight from the front to the back foot, then from back to the front (see panel, page 79). With the weight on your front foot, push out abdominal and midriff muscles gently, and as you step back suck them in. Exagger-ate the movement. A very good slimmer and toner for the abdomen, this is also good for the spine.

SHIMMYING

This is a rapid shaking motion - good for the circulation, as it's extremely aerobic. Beginners should concentrate on shoulders and hips, the advanced move on to thighs and arms. To shimmy the shoulders, alternate each shoulder forward, stretching from the waistline and keeping chest muscles tight. Start gently and gradually build up speed; it's possible to work up to several minutes at a time. The next stage on is fluttering, which can be kept up even longer by an experienced dancer.

THE HALF EGYPTIAN DIP

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, buttocks tight and pelvis pointing down (with your "pencil" pointing to the floor). Push the rib cage out to the left, then slide smoothly back across and out to the right - don't strain or jerk, and remember to try not to move body parts not involved in the movement. Create a semi-circular sweep by bending forwards and dipping at the same time - only bend as far as you can while still looking ahead, and don't twist your body. Keep your knees relaxed, your back straight, and let your legs take the strain. If you are left-handed, move the opposite way.

ARM MOVEMENTS

All these steps can be accentuated with arm movements. With your arms slightly bowed out in front of you, imagine that you are holding something fragile and precious between your thumb and middle finger - you don't want to drop it, so keep your hands in position, and use the arms only to make graceful ripples. "Have beautiful thoughts," says Jacqueline. "It sounds corny, but what you are thinking will come out in your body. In many ways, you dance with your heart, not your feet." The arm movements are very free and open to individual interpretation. Novices, says Jacqueline, are advised not to worry too much about them initially. "The co-ordination of the steps and the arm movement is really too difficult for beginners - it's like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time."

All these basic movements can be practised at home, but it is a good idea to find a teacher to demonstrate them correctly - belly dancing is very visual. To become a really good dancer takes four or five years, says Jacqueline - but fitness is improved after three to six months.

HOW TO CREATE A DANCE

The moves can be combined in any order - the best way to put together a dance is to follow the music. "One of the greatest joys of belly dancing is that your personality shines through," says Jacqueline. "If you gave 20 dancers the same music you would see 20 different dances. A dancer would think, 'Oh, that violin passage is lovely, I'll do a camel walk to that.' Professional belly dancers would stick to a routine, varying depending on the country they come from, but the individual who is learning for health or simply for the joy of it can experiment freely."

WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF DANCE?

Middle Eastern dancing's generic name is Raqs Orientale. Variations are regional and depend on the local music and costume - in much the same way as, say, Scottish and Irish dancing differs, Jacqueline says. Most movements are basically similar, though, and differences are subtle - for example, a Turkish dancer will perform a hip lift where an Egyptian dancer will prefer a hip drop. Jacqueline teaches mainly Egyptian movements, with a few Turkish and Lebanese ones.

FINDING THE RIGHT MUSIC

Tapes are available direct from Jacqueline Chapman (pounds 5-pounds 10, see below). HMV and Tower records also have a selection; look for any Egyptian or Turkish oriental dance music. Especially recommended are Mohammed Abdul Wahab, a classical musician, or Farid El Atrache, who is more lively and modern. If you go on holiday to Turkey or Egypt, ask a shopkeeper to recommend a suitable tape - beginners should ask for something that is not too fast. Listen before buying: "when you hear music that pulls your heartstrings, that's the one for you," says Jacqueline.

MUSCLE POWER

Movements are simple to learn and not strenuous. An adapted form is even suitable for pregnant women. The dance is also suitable for women with back injuries. "A lot of people in my class have come to me because they're fed up with all the injuries from aerobics and modern dance and fitness- related classes," Jacqueline says. "At the moment I have two people in the class, one with a slipped disc, one with a broken back, because they went to a non-qualified aerobics teacher who just said 'Do this, do that' - she wasn't interested in their medical history; one woman already had sciatica and really shouldn't have been accepted into the class."

Jacqueline is currently seeking London-based volunteers to help in an experiment to assess the beneficial effects of belly dancing on the pelvic floor, in conjunction with a doctor and physiotherapist who are preparing a research paper on the subject. Volunteers will need a pelvic-floor assessment before starting classes, and another four months later.

FINDING A CLASS

Jacqueline Chapman's London classes are held on Tuesdays at the Danceworks Studio, 16 Balderton Street, London W1. Ring 0181-906 3865; or send an sae to: Willowfield, 585 Watford Way, Mill Hill, London NW7 3JG. She also teaches in Peter-borough on Mondays and Wednes-days at her own private studio; ring 01733 348479; or send an sae to: 79A Broadway, Peterborough, Cambs PE1 4DA. On an occasional basis, she travels the UK lecturing and giving classes, including her Belly Babies antenatal classes. You could also check your local fitness centre and evening class directory - Floodlight, the London evening classes handbook lists several courses - or Jacqueline may be able to recommend a local class. Failing that, Jacqueline has produced several videos. She has also just started taking groups out to learn in Egypt.

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