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At Clarksville Commons, belly dancing and lunch provide healthy exercise with a side of Egyptian culture

In the cold winter months following the holidays, what better time is there to try something new?

That was Iman Moussa’s train of thought last year, and she knew just what to do. As the owner of the Egyptian-food restaurant Koshary by Misteka in Clarksville Commons, Moussa was already promoting healthy ethnic food. It was time to add a little culture, too.

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She enlisted the help of Asala El Masri, a professional belly dancer, to offer drop-in belly dancing classes followed by a meal at Koshary. Held twice a month in January and February, the Dance & Dine sessions proved to be hit.

“People are bored and want to do something,” Moussa said. “After the holidays, people go back to resolutions and want to put off weight.”

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Growing up in Egypt, Moussa never thought of belly dancing as exercise. It wasn’t until she moved to the United States eight years ago that she started to look at it and other parts of her childhood through “a different lens.”

“Belly dancing is very typical to Egyptian culture. I had to leave to see it differently,” Moussa said. “Belly dancing is a low-impact exercise.”

On a Saturday morning in early February, Moussa joined a group of eight women who each paid $25 in a community room at Clarksville Commons to listen to El Masri as she explained the various forms of belly dancing and their subtle differences.

“How many of you were inspired by Shakira?" El Masri asked, in reference to the Super Bowl halftime show star. “When I was a kid and Shakria came out, I thought ‘Wow. That would be something so cool to learn.'”

Saturday morning’s session, however, was just about the basic techniques of the dance.

“There will be no crazy spins,” El Masri said. “The most I will give you is a three-point turn.”

During the one-hour introduction, the group learned how to move not just their bellies but their whole bodies, from their head to their toes, to create the moves for belly dancing. When the various moves were layered together, the sound of the ladies’ hip wraps jingling filled the room.

“It should feel natural and not forced,” El Masri said. “Just flow.”

The group laughed as they crossed the room, arms raised.

“It was a good little workout,” said Candice Westbrook, of Baltimore. “I like all types of dance. It was really good.”

After the music faded and the women returned their hip wraps, Moussa led the group to her restaurant in the Common Kitchen, where each received a bowl of koshary, the national dish of Egypt that features lentils and chickpeas, Moussa said.

Moussa decided to open her restaurant 15 months ago because Egyptian food, she realized, was “a little scary” to many people.

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“No one knew what Egyptian food was,” Moussa said. “The more I thought about it — lentils, beans, chickpeas, fried onions — there is nothing weird. We just put them together."

Using her mother’s recipes, Moussa offers dishes at her restaurant that are vegan and gluten-free. Gathered at a table in the crowded Common Kitchen, the participants enjoyed a bowl of koshary, a falafel ball and a small salad.

“I’m not gluten free or vegan, but I am trying to cut back, and this is good,” said Dana Shourbaji, of Clarksville. She also found the dance introduction fun.

“I need to keep moving,” Shourbaji said. “[Belly dancing is] aerobics and everything all rolled up in one.”

Erin Ahmad went right from the dance session home to get her children so they could enjoy lunch, too.

“My husband is Egyptian and I’ve seen it in Egypt,” Ahmad said of belly dancing. “This piqued my interest. In my mind’s eyes, I was amazing. I’m still not sure.”

Viviana Lindo, of Columbia, has only belly danced for fun with close friends from the Middle East in their homes. The lesson, she said, was inspiring.

“This was good, I didn’t just imitate. I learned the movements and the feelings,” Lindo said. “I think for someone like me trying to lose the weight after having a child, it’s perfect."

She also enjoyed having time to herself to enjoy a healthy meal.

“I’m coming back for the next class.”

Designed as an introductory lesson, Dance & Dine is a standalone course for teenagers and women, Moussa said, and there have been as many as 14 people at a session. Typically, it attracts a lot of new faces, though there have been some repeat participants.

“There is a lot of interest in a progressive class,” Moussa said. “Asala and I are discussing the possibilities.”

If a progressive class were to form, it will likely be in summer, she added, as she plans to keep Saturday mornings in the winter months available for the Dance & Dine sessions.

“It’s a great way to introduce people to Eygptian street food and culture,” Moussa said. “You’re doing something for wellness and a healthy lifestyle.”

The next Dance & Dine at Koshary by Misteka will be at 11 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 22, in the community room, Suite D, Clarksville Commons, 12240 Clarksville Pike, Clarksville. For more information, call 240-319-4011.

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