Class of the Month: Belly dancing at Mobtown Ballroom

For The Baltimore Sun

In the cavernous space of Mobtown Ballroom in Pigtown, a small group of women shimmy their hips and move their arms in time to drum solos and Middle Eastern pop music.

It's the first day of a five-week session in a beginner's level belly dance class. The class is taught by Elizabeth Miner, who goes by the stage name Isabel. Miner has been teaching belly dance classes for three years and says belly dance is a great physical activity that helps people form a positive body image.

The class is geared toward those new to belly dance and those looking for a refresher on the basics.

"The purpose is to introduce new students to the technique and stylization that makes belly dance unique," she says. "And to start to develop an appreciation for the music and the culture that it comes from."

And, of course, belly dancing has health benefits, too. "It helps with flexibility and control of the body and developing core strength," Miner says. She adds that becoming proficient at belly dancing can also boost confidence.

You will need: Comfortable clothes you can easily dance in: yoga pants, tank tops, T-shirts, etc. No prior dance experience or cross training is needed.

A typical class: Begins with a warm-up, involving stretches of the abs, shoulders, arms, hips and legs as well as balance exercises. Then you get into the basic moves of belly dance. These include hip ups and downs, undulations and shimmies.

The class alternates between step-by-step new instruction and repetition with music. Miner first demonstrates the move, then breaks it down to its simplest form, answering any questions and giving individual attention where needed. Since much of belly dance relies upon the isolation of different muscle groups, Miner tells the students which muscles are working in specific movements.

After everyone has the basic idea, Miner brings the music back and everyone runs through the moves in repetition. She talks about the importance of posture, keeping arms lifted but relaxed and keeping the lower back tucked to reduce the "S" curve of the spine, which prevents any painful crunching of the lower back. She also describes different belly dance styles and approaches to provide additional background knowledge for the students — a cabaret-style undulation, for example, is generally very exaggerated and dramatic, while an Egyptian undulation is typically very small and isolated to the abs.

After basic moves are covered, the class dances through a combination of all the moves they've learned. Miner adds levels of difficulty as options, such as level changes and arm positions.

Who's in the class: Nine women ranging from college age to middle age.

Why they like it: Ellie McShea, who took a previous beginner's level session with Miner last month, says she's always enjoyed dancing. "I've always wanted to learn how to belly dance," McShea says. "I think it's a very sensual form of dance."

Though she finds the class fun, McShea says, she's also in it to challenge herself. She hopes to gain flexibility.

Julianne Dirks, who lives in Towson, says she decided to take the class as a way to meet people and become involved in the community. And Rebecca Ebrahimpour, who is Iranian, notes that one of the reasons she signed up for the class was to get in touch with her Middle Eastern roots: "I thought the class was a little difficult," she says, "but I'm planning on practicing by myself."

How to join: The classes are generally taught in five- to six-week sessions. You can register on Mobtown Ballroom's website for the entire session ($65 for adults, $55 for students) or drop in on individual classes ($15 for adults, $12 for students).

Where: Mobtown Ballroom, 861 Washington Blvd., Baltimore

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