It's Monday night, 7: 30, time for stomach rolls, shoulder shimmies and hip lifts in a basement studio in Columbia's Long Reach Village Center.
Bathed in the lilting sounds of Middle Eastern music, a small group of working women and suburban homemakers gathers for lessons in what is commonly known as belly dancing.
Columbia is the unlikely hub in Maryland for such dancing -- more properly called Oriental or Middle Eastern dance. The planned ,, community, known more for its forested neighborhoods and youth soccer leagues, is also home to the Maryland Company of Middle Eastern Dancers.
The troupe is the largest group of belly dancers in Maryland, and its members offer just about the only professional instruction available in the state.
The complex Oriental art form often associated with exotic, bare-bellied women is being kept alive -- in Columbia and across the country -- by otherwise average women with no ethnic connection to the Middle East.
"Yes, often it's the suburban women who are interested," says Michelle Forner, a dance ethnologist at the Library of Congress in Washington who has written a book on Middle Eastern dance.
"But many women are involved in this dance: biologists, economists, lawyers, librarians. Professional women. They are the ones bitten by the bug -- and they're really keeping this dance form alive," Forner says.
Most of those learning the dance in Columbia are working mothers and homemakers, says Pat Miller, who runs the dance company and teaches the Long Reach class. And most have no desire to perform in public or even wear the silky, sequined costumes -- although, says Miller, they are often eager to try the finger-cymbals and sample the effects of a veil and hip sash.
Belly-dancing lessons start with basic instruction on isolating body parts -- hips, ribs and hands -- and quickly move into hip lifts and drops. Unlike ballet or jazz dance, Middle Eastern dance movements have no standardized names, so the best way to start is simply to learn a routine and slowly try to perfect it, teachers say.
Why, between meetings at the office, grocery shopping, day care pickups and ferrying children to sports competitions, do these women pursue belly dancing?
"Some think it will just be neat and some want the exercise," says Alix McDonough, who teaches weekly classes in Columbia's Dorsey's Search village.
"Sometimes they are just the type who like to try new things. Last week it was wine tasting, this month it's belly dancing and next month it'll be something else," McDonough says.
One attractive feature of the dance is that practitioners ideally should not be rail-thin or muscular. The best belly dancers use their womanly curves to enhance the sensual hip and chest accents that are the staple of the art, dancers say.
In addition, the dance moves derive from the way women naturally walk and move, teachers say. That's likely why Middle Eastern dance has traditionally been inclusive: Anyone, regardless of age or physical strength and flexibility, can belly dance.
Some women say they belly dance for reasons they can't quite define. They hear the Eastern rhythms or see a professional dance performance and are hooked.
"Just listen to this music," says a 43-year-old student in a class at Long Reach. She closes her eyes, smiles and sways her hips in time to undulating Persian melodies.
"When I heard this music, it touched me spiritually. I had never taken any classes but I loved the movements immediately. This is so feminine, so womanly."
The woman, wearing a lavender leotard and no shoes, does not want her name printed. She works for a conservative company and worries that belly dancing might violate the moral code she signed as a condition of employment.
So she goes only by "Gopita," a Hindi word meaning "one who keeps secrets," which she has taken as her "dance name." Nearly all serious Middle Eastern dancers choose a dance name -- usually one from an Eastern language -- for safety reasons, says Miller, whose dance name is "Cyra."
At best, Western media images of Middle Eastern dancers are erotic. At worst, they are semipornographic, causing performers worries -- especially if they perform in public.
"We get calls every now and then from men, 'Uh, can you come dance for me at my house?' " Miller says, rolling her eyes. "It's frightening."
Some of the most pervasive media images are the least accurate, dancers say. Rather than sequined-bra-and-harem-pants costumes -- termed a chalvar -- many professional dancers prefer more conservative, historically accurate outfits: heavily beaded and jeweled robes and sashes that enhance fluid dance moves.
"If people see a good dancer perform, they inevitably say things like, 'Wow, this is really an art,' " says "Artemis," the dance name of a professional dancer from Silver Spring who offers some of the few lessons in the state outside Columbia. "It's difficult and artistic but is also sensual.
"Unfortunately, there are people who can't see beyond, 'Whoa, this is sexy' stuff. They look at the Sistine Chapel and can't see beyond the nudity," she says.
Miller tells the story of a stripper who called one teacher because she wanted to use some belly dancing in her act. "This is the kind of call that puts us in real psychic pain," she says. "You don't want to turn away students, but that is not what our dancing is all about."
It is about the history, culture and tradition of much of Asia and North Africa, dancers say.
The dances -- there are dozens of variations, often several within a single country -- started more than 1,000 years ago, but historians don't agree on how. They likely were spread by traders, migrating clans and shepherds and were first performed alone by women who were banned from dancing in public, Forner says.
Belly dancing came to the United States about a century ago through the World's Fair in Chicago, Forner says, and evolved into a something of a New Age hobby.
But most of the women who learn and practice the dance in Columbia say they simply want to have fun, feel good and try something new.
"I've liked Middle Eastern music for years," says Yvonne Brunot, a member of the Columbia dance troupe who lives in Silver Spring. "I just got tired of not knowing what to do with it and decided to find out."
Pub Date: 12/28/96