Forget the movie stereotype of voluptuous 20-year-olds in skimpy chiffon outfits belly dancing to please a harem full of men in the desert. In a Tacoma, Wash., community center last week, belly dance students ranged from 20-somethings to senior citizens, from slender to plus size. They were of Asian, European and African descent.
Nearly all wore a hip scarf embellished with coin-shaped metal pieces that flashed and jingled with their every move. Yet while a few donned jewel-colored skirts and long-sleeved tops, others favored comfy cotton pants and tank tops.
"You don't have to be perfect in appearance," said Shawn Gagnon, a 42-year-old mother and certified public accountant who's danced for six years. "Anybody can belly dance. Any body type: thin, tall, any age, any shape. ... It's entertaining, and it makes you feel good about your body."
Though it's rooted in an ancient art form, American belly-dancing is a marked contrast to dance in the Middle East. Americans "all have this idea of the Hollywood thing, that you're out in the desert, and girls come out in flimsy costumes and dance," she said.
In ancient times, Arabic women danced with, and for, each other _ not for public shows and not with men, a practice that continues in many Arabic countries, several Shahdaroba troupe members said.
Though there are professional belly dancers in the Middle East, lay people typically wear regular clothes, often with a scarf on their hip, when they dance.
"It depends on where you are and how modern they are," said Anderson, who teaches at the Fircrest Community Center and South Park Community Center. "They still have that idea that 'nice' women don't dance for men."
Meanwhile, American performers typically combine movements, music and outfits from multiple Middle Eastern cultures. Anderson, for instance, choreographs numbers for Shahdaroba and her classes, using Middle Eastern music ranging from modern Egyptian pop to traditional Arabic music.
"There are certain universal steps that have been around forever, but you have great freedom to put together your own choreography," Anderson said. "It's not like ballet or folk dances with certain steps you have to do."
For Anderson, that's the attraction. "You have freedom of expression because you're dancing to what you hear in the music."
No one knows why it's called "belly dancing," but it's close to "beledi," an Arabic term for folk dancing. Anderson likes the theory that European travelers saw a dance and mistakenly thought they heard people saying "belly" dance.
Shahdaroba, whose name comes from a Roy Orbison song, performs at festivals and competitions, and several members dance individually at weddings and other events for Arabic families. None of the six dancers is of Middle Eastern descent, and, several members said, they don't know of any dance troupes in the state with Middle Eastern dancers.
Troupe dancers stress their performances are family friendly, with no lewd moves or bare midriffs allowed. Some costumes give the illusion of skin through flesh-colored "power net" covering tummies.
"It's a sensuous dance, not a sexual dance," Anderson said. Belly dance is surging in popularity across the United States, with the help of hip-hop dance trends and Shakira, the Colombian-born songstress who incorporates belly dance moves into her videos.
It also has health benefits.
Chiropractors sometimes advise patients to take up belly dance. It's a low-impact activity that improves posture. Moves are performed with bent knees, and take pressure off the lower back, Anderson said.
Belly dance provided the inspiration Johanna Jensen craved to lose more than 100 pounds.
The pre-dance Jensen wore a size 4X and weighed 300 pounds. Three years after starting Anderson's belly dance classes, plus changing her eating habits, the 5-foot-7 Jensen is a svelt 120 pounds.
"I've been through a lot of hell medically, physically, spiritually, financially. My marriage fell apart," the 42-year-old said. "When I had this, I had something to look forward to. The food wasn't my happiness. These ladies were my happiness."
Many dancers spoke of the camaraderie and joy of dance they share.
At their weekly class in Fircrest on a recent Wednesday, Anderson's students linked their little fingers to form a circle while a recording of an oboe-like "mizmar" blared a catchy tune.
Their expressions were a study in concentration, as they listened to Anderson calling out the steps: "Five, six, seven, eight. Egyptian basic forward. And step, hip. Step, hip. ... Back, side, front, switch. Egyptian basic, back, and Suzie-Q, hip. Suzie-Q, stop."
Occasionally, someone flubbed up or bumped into another dancer. It was no big deal. They laughed and kept going.
"A lot of women say their money is better spent in an hour of belly dance than an hour of therapy," said Hasani Abbott, a Shahdaroba performer who teaches belly dance in her Gig Harbor studio. "All these women are on their own journey. Here, it's like our journey converges. It joins women together. It's almost like a slumber party."