With a steady drumbeat reminiscent of ancient tribal rhythms pulsating from a boombox, Candy Ranlet, barefoot and bejeweled, raises her arms above her head and moves her hips back and forth, up and down, building from a slow, seductive sway to a fast shimmy.
"Nothing else should be moving, just go back and forth with your hips," she says, introducing a class of 25 women in Eldersburg to belly dancing. "The upper body is as motionless as you can get, but unless you are a stick, things will shake, rattle and roll."
Ranlet, who just turned 50, teaches belly dancing, which has become something of a trend in fitness. She promises her students that the world's oldest surviving dance will give them a better workout than aerobics, weight lifting or kickboxing, and that it will make them feel pretty.
The benefits of belly dancing are many, according to Ethan Urbansky, a certified athletic trainer at Union Memorial Hospital's sports medicine center in Baltimore. "It increases the heart rate, you are working your muscles, and it's an activity you do for an hour. It is certainly more strenuous than walking, and look how good that is for you."
Lynda Wilkinson, an executive with the federal government who dances professionally as Latifah, says the ancient dance form "appeals to a real cross-section of women."
The Anne Arundel County resident studied Middle Eastern dance in New York for 10 years and now teaches it two nights a week in Millersville and leads a dance troupe. She became so intrigued with the culture of belly dancing that she earned a master's degree in Arab studies from Georgetown University.
Patricia Wilcoxon, a former pupil of Wilkinson, also teaches belly dancing. "People really get into the history and the meaning of a dance that is 10,000 years old," says the Severna Park resident. "This dance is fluid and it stimulates the cerebral spinal fluid and invigorates. It is grace, serenity, power and medicinal value all in one."
Teaching the moves
Ranlet teaches an hourlong class, where "basically, you are just moving around shaking things. After you get going," she says, "you don't realize that you are working."
Before an introductory class last month, she offered advice to her students:
"Forget what is out there and what you're cooking for dinner later. You just be the goddess that walked in the door. Think of yourself as the cutest thing on this floor."
Ranlet's students emulated her stance: feet apart, knees bent, rib cage up, shoulders back and arms raised above the head in any number of classic poses. Then the hips start moving back and forth - "like bumping a car door closed when you have a handful of groceries," Ranlet says.
The dancers, all barefoot, have their choice of fringed scarves and hip-hugging metal belts as accessories.
"Tie a scarf around your hips, breathe deep and watch how you move," she says. "You need to look at your hips, and the scarf is a great visual cue."
Cristi Mills, of Eldersburg, rejects several scarves before settling on a red-fringed number that she wraps around her waist several times. She quickly learns the preliminary steps.
"I love this class!" she says. "I had tired of tap and jazz and wanted something different." A belly-dancing class in Columbia was filled when she tried to get in, and Mills was delighted when one was offered in her own neighborhood.
Ranlet encourages students to bare their midriffs, knowing that it takes confidence for women to show off sagging stomachs and stretch marks. Novices usually wear T-shirts, but after a while most will don the classic belly-dance attire with its layers of soft material, veils and as much costume jewelry as possible - all available at thrift shops, she advises.
"The whole class is bashful at first, inhibited about wrinkles and rolls, but it all changes," Ranlet says.
Billie Tolmach, of Mount Airy, who has been studying with Ranlet for a year at a Mount Airy fitness center, wears a black velvet halter top and a flowing black skirt topped with several belts made of silver coins. She is not shy about her belly.
"I got it and it's gonna jiggle," she says.
Nearly all the 25 women who tried Ranlet's introductory class enrolled in the eight-week course that costs $45. The dance steps are so simple that newcomers pick it up without much trouble.
"Middle Eastern dancing is basically walking with the knees bent," says Verna Thompson, program director for the Washington Area Mid-East Dance Association. "The way you walk moves your hips."
Karen Boger, one of Ranlet's students who lives in Westminster, is so enthralled with the technique that she has introduced pieces of the dance into the yoga classes she teaches.
"It gives you a good workout and lets you move in ways you don't usually," Boger says. "It's round and flowing."
Body and mind
Belly dancing stems from African and Middle Eastern cultures that regarded the body as the center of creation.
"There has been a real surge of interest, and it is no longer so taboo," says Ranlet of the dance form. "Many used to think it was lewd or that it belonged in nightclubs only."
At 71, Thompson has been belly dancing for more than 25 years. "It's something you can do all your life," she says. "It's a thorough workout from your head to your toes, and it does as much for what goes on inside your head as it does for your body."
Jaissa maran-Kaiel, who has studied with Ranlet for several months and is rehearsing for a recital next month, adds: "I am not thin and I have had two kids, but it doesn't matter. I feel really pretty when I do this dancing. This is the only exercise class where women dress up and look beautiful."
For more information about belly dancing and how to participate in classes:
Washington Area Mid-East Dance Association -
Promotes Middle Eastern dance, music and culture: 301-556-2144;
Amara - Middle Eastern/North African dance classes, in Gaithersburg: 301-515-0003
El Naar Haninah - Classes in Middle Eastern dance through Gaithersburg's Parks and Recreation Department: 301-977-3040
Latifa - Instruction and coaching at all levels, Millersville: 410-544-5925
Lotus Niraja - Lebanese-style belly dancing with Egyptian influences, Randallstown: 410-922-6715