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LIVE WELL: Hip-shaking fun at belly dance class

November 17, 2010
photo - Barb Ferrill Van Hoy aka Zafia  Photo by
Barb Ferrill Van Hoy aka Zafia Photo by  

I swung my pelvis to and fro last weekend. Not yoga, not zumba, not nia.

Belly dance.

You might think belly dance is all about the belly, but I found it was more my hips working to make the belly look good.

I was a first-timer in “Zafia’s” beginning traditional belly dance class on Saturday mornings. “Zafia” is Barb Ferrill Van Hoy, a local woman who began belly dancing in Denver in 1997, became enamored with the movement and the music, and began Springs Oasis Belly Dance. She has taught now for 5 1/2 years.

I won’t lie; it was challenging and required concentration and body awareness. But it was also uplifting. It spoke to my female spirit. I watched the women bare their bellies, an act of complete vulnerability in itself, and then find a wild and yet contained rhythm in their bodies. They wore fitted bra tops tied in the middle above their navels, and vibrant, knotted hip belts decorated with fringe and loads of twinkling coins that shimmied and tinkled together.

Their wrists were adorned with a bounty of bangles, large rings perched on their fingers and earrings dangled from their lobes.

The rich and evocative Middle Eastern music played as we shimmied in front of a wall of mirrors. My eyes followed Van Hoy’s hips as they jounced up and down in perfect time. It takes some practice to locate your hip and move it independently versus just thrusting the whole side of the body out to the side. There were shoulder and chest movements. Right, left, right, around. There were snake arms and beautiful, twirling hand and wrist movements.
When the ladies worked on a choreographed routine they already knew, I took the chance to sink onto the couch and become a voyeur. Belly dance is a beautiful and mesmerizing art form.

“It’s for everyone,” Van Hoy said. “It’s not like ballet where you need a specific kind of body and there’s an exact way to do it. There are as many ways to (belly dance) as there are bodies that move.”

Van Hoy also teaches Tribal Style belly dance. Traditional is more of a solo performance art, free-form in that the dancer makes the moves her own. In Tribal Style, it’s a group improv format, where dancers learn the movement and cues, then dance as a group with one woman as the leader. Yes, it’s true. Male belly dancers are few and far between, though there are some out there.

Belly dance is one of the great iconic cultural traditions of the Middle East, where it has an interesting, dichotomic history. While a respectable family with any sense would never omit hiring a belly dancer to perform at their child’s wedding, at the same time, one of the greatest insults is to say to somebody that she is the daughter of a belly dancer. Yet in the Middle East, almost all women will learn how to do it at some point, usually from an older woman in the family. It’s an integral part of the community, respected and disrespected at the same time. It’s similar to how the American population views prostitution, Van Hoy said.

Fortunately, we in the West do not attach any stigma to the dance.

Those with bad backs should keep belly dance in mind. It’s a low-impact workout that can help the lower back. Proper posture in belly dance includes tucking the low tailbone and keeping the knees bent. That’s where all the movement of the hips, shoulder, chest and belly should come from.

And that’s precisely why it becomes challenging. Maintaining that proper posture and then adding in the gyrating body parts is tough. But back health and back injuries are both improved by the therapeutic movement of the spine and joints as you dance.

Despite my claim that the hips are the workhorse here, your core will work, too. It won’t work it in the same way as yoga’s boat posture or bicycle crunches, but all of the ab muscles will be called upon to move the torso in ways you might never have imagined it could.

Watch Zafia in action at “A Night at the Casbah with Zafia,” 6:30 p.m. today at Coquette Creperie, 915 Manitou Ave., Manitou Springs. Admission is free and there will be a free short lesson. For more information, visit

Video of Van Hoy performing a solo belly dance:

Video of Mizmar Madness performing:


Jennifer Mulson teaches yoga at Corepower Yoga and Gold’s Gym in Colorado Springs. Read more Live Well columns and watch yoga videos at

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