Belly-Dance Boom

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Fahtiem is a master belly-dance instructor with no wiggle room in her schedule. She gives private lessons at her Los Angeles studio seven days a week, teaches at two colleges and is employed by three cities to offer group classes at their recreation centers. "I have enough work to keep me busy almost all day, seven days a week," she says.

She's not alone. Around the country, belly-dance classes are overflowing, belly-dance websites are jammed, and instructional tapes are selling briskly. "People get hooked," says Fahtiem, who uses one name both professionally and personally. "The next thing you know, they bring two or three of their friends. It's like the word is out: This is what you need to do to feel good and look good."

The craze, which began in the late 1990s, seems to have taken off in the wake of 9/11, when curiosity about Middle Eastern culture intensified. Belly-dance moves on music videos by Britney Spears and Shakira certainly propelled the movement. But what seems to be sustaining the trend now is Americans' never-ending search for ways to keep fit without getting injured--or bored.

"In the last year and a half, belly-dance fitness has become all about the movements rather than the cultural attachments," says Jennifer James-Long, owner and publisher of Habibi, a fast-growing belly-dance magazine, and creator of a belly-dance website that gets 750,000 hits a month.

While plenty of women are still attracted to the sensuous belly-dance mystique--diaphanous veils, belts hung with coins, finger cymbals and exotic Middle Eastern music--there's a new fan base that sees nothing unusual about executing a hip drop or camel walk to the strains of 21st century techno music as long as it's a good workout. And there are a host of new belly-dance videos with titles like Cardio Shimmy and Pure Sweat to show how it's done. "What we're doing is creating physical movement that has nothing to do with having an emotional connection with the culture," explains Berkeley, Calif., instructor Suhaila Salimpour, whose Fitness Fusion series of videos was released early this year.

Even fitness guru Kathy Smith has set aside her free weights to undulate in a new DVD, Flex Appeal: A Belly Dance Workout. Says Smith: "My hope was to bring belly dancing to a person who would be too intimidated to take a class. I saw there was a need for something a little different for the mainstream audience."

Just how good a workout is belly dance? That, of course, depends on how you do it--and how often. But practitioners say the precise, rolling movements of belly dance combine aerobic exercise with stretching and strengthening. "Everybody learning the muscle-isolation exercises says they discovered muscles they never knew they had, because we don't just work the main muscle groups--we're engaging all the supporting ones," says Rania Androniki Bossonis, a Long Beach, Calif., instructor who, in keeping with the trend, has created a DVD series called Bellydance Fitness for Weight Loss.