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(Melina/Melinda Heywood at far left teaching in Newton Highlands, MA)

Boston Globe Calendar Article 10/3/02

Belly dancing
By Monica L. Williams, Globe Correspondent

I'm still getting used to the looks. When friends find out that I've taken up belly dancing, their eyes immediately drop toward my middle.

Attention was the last thing I was seeking when I decided earlier this year to try this latest fitness craze. I hadn't gained a pound in my 20s. Then, almost overnight, pockets of fat began to settle around my abdomen and hips. Silently, I panicked.

Belly dance has long had a reputation for being a seductive and provocative art form. But it's gaining respect as a legitimate dance and as a way to work out.

An Internet search turned up several classes nearby. Despite my fears, I drive one evening to Karoun, a Newton restaurant that held drop-in sessions this summer. About 30 women are warming up when I arrive. "Geesh, there are people eating - and watching - here," I think, as I hide out in a booth. My college sweats and yellow T-shirt must give me away, because soon I'm asked to join the class.

Most of the women appear to be in their 20s; some have exposed bellies and fancy coin belts. The class is taught by Melinda Heywood, a second-generation dancer (and Boston College French lit professor) who performs at Karoun on weekends. Heywood guides us through a series of hip workouts. "Bang, bangbang, bang, bangbang!" she coaches as we move our hips toward the outside of the circle.

"This is easy," I think, as we shake to the sounds of Omar Faruk Tekbilek. After all, I grew up in '70s Motown.

My bubble is soon deflated. Heywood throws in a few foot moves that trip me up. Within seconds, I hear snickers from two young male diners. My first thought: They're laughing at me. But Heywood's exultations of "good" and "that's it" make me feel that I'm doing something right - not that I know what right is.

My arms ache from holding them over my head. The 8-year-old student seems to be getting the hang of things a lot faster. I must have a "duh" look on my face because Heywood says with a smile, "Fake it. I'm a huge proponent of faking it."

After one night, I'm hooked. But frankly, I'm not sure I can hang. So I drop in - at classes throughout Greater Boston.

To my surprise - and delight - the six women who show up one night for class at Robicheau Martial Arts in Georgetown all look older. Their shapes look more like my mother's, but half of them are baring their midriffs. After a warm-up, we try twists, shimmies, head slides, and hip lifts. The instructor, Amy Smith, 43, lends me a hip scarf and gently corrects my missteps. Smith produces a newsletter and maintains a Web site on New England's burgeoning belly dance scene.

Eventually, I brave an intermediate class at The Dance Complex in Cambridge. Most of the students are wearing black tights - and black is for serious dancers. I'm also wearing black, but the long skirt I've chosen is designed to hide my figure.

OK, so maybe I'm not quite at the intermediate level yet. But my commitment hasn't waned. My waist is more defined, but, no, the abs haven't shrunk; in fact, my belly looks larger than it was a few months ago. Still, I have more stamina, fewer backaches, a love for the art, and a new appreciation for my body.