Dance Class: Shake Your Booty Middle Eastern Style

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Valerie Castañeda is a belly dancer.

Her body shimmies and undulates to the beat of a Middle Eastern melody. The silver coins hanging from her bra and the eggplant-purple sash around her waist jingle in unison. Castañeda's long, brown waist-length hair whips around her face as she twists and turns.

"Belly dancing is sensual," Castañeda said. "It is not meant to be sexual. The belly dancer is equated with a stripper or pole dancer. Belly dancing is a respected art. It takes a lot of training."

Castañeda, stage name Desert Rose, brings her passion for belly dancing to the Rim Country via Show Low, through her dance company, Habibi Orientale or Heart of the East.

Part of the mission statement reads: "An organization dedicated to the encouragement, growth, self-esteem and fellowship of women. ... A time for women to spend away from the normal routine of daily lives to come together for a time of fellowship, fun and fitness ...."

Starting Feb. 7, Castañeda will hold low-cost weekly belly dancing classes for women -- and if men are interested, they won't be turned away -- of all ages.

"Belly dancing is for every shape and every size," Castañeda said. "It strengthens and tones a woman's body no matter what size you are."

Castañeda, a woman in her 40s with the hourglass figure of a 25-year-old, is a lifelong dancer. In the early years, she took ballet, jazz and modern dance. Later on, as she refined her artistic intrigues, she delved into the exotic: belly dancing and Irish folk steps.

To stay in shape, Castañeda practices either Pilates, yoga or dance every day of the week; to keep in top belly-dancing form, she participates in at least one advanced dance workshop a month.

"It makes me feel beautiful," Castañeda said. "Belly dancing makes me feel graceful, where I don't always feel like that."

Belly dancing originated in the Middle East; ancient Egyptians chronicled the prevalence of this living art on the walls of their pyramids.

Dancers call their serpentine movements Raqs al Sharqi, or oriental dance.

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Valerie Castañeda says the movements of belly dancing are natural body motions exaggerated.

From the arid heat of the Western Sahara -- Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia -- across the Mediterranean Sea to the balmy peninsula of Turkey, and down the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to Iran, belly dancing fuses provincial movement techniques with Arabic folk dance.

"In every region, they have their own style," Castañeda said. "My style is more American-Egyptian."

As bare-bellied Castañeda sways across the room, her lavender floor-length skirt adorned with gold lamé sweeps the floor. She spirals a violet veil around her head. The coin-encrusted bra and sash combination -- called a bedlah -- chime like pockets full of change. Sometimes Castañeda uses props, such as a sword or finger tambourines, called zills, in her routines.

"All this stuff does is attract attention to the parts that are being moved," Castañeda said. "It's good for performing, but you don't need anything to belly dance. All you need is yourself."

The common myth of belly dancing elicits images of beer-drinking guys shoving dollar bills in the cleavage of a dancer, or a woman swirling around a room of men who are sipping tea and smoking a hookah pipe.

"It's a nice thing to do for a husband, but women end up wanting to do it for themselves," Castañeda said. "I know there's a stigma attached to belly dancing, but that's because people don't understand."

Belly dancing is primarily women dancing for and with other women. It's an opportunity for ladies to free themselves of inhibitions and to bond with others in a safe environment.

"That's what my organization is: by women, for women," Castañeda said.

The belly-dancing buzz is already spreading among like-minded women in the Rim Country.

Diane Alhandy, owner of Past and Present Boutique, said she learned about belly dancing from her ex-husband, a Middle Eastern man.

"It's going to be a really fun class," Alhandy said. "Rather than going to the gym or that kind of thing. It's not just about belly dancing with Valerie. It's an inspirational thing."

The basic belly-dancing move is the shimmy, then comes the hip sway and body-movement isolation. Castañeda said these motions target the areas most women complain about: the belly, hips and torso. The lower body motions to help relieve stress and menstrual pain too.

"The shimmy is just a back-and-forth movement," Castañeda said. "The upper shimmy is very light, not a heavy, in-your-face move. Belly dancing is all about isolation, and that's the challenge of it. This is taking what the body does naturally and exaggerating it."

Castañeda, a certified yoga instructor, incorporates yoga and Pilates in her class. Belly dancing, she added, is a great low-impact exercise for everyone: young or old, mobile or disabled, thin or heavy.

"Even how you hold your body," Alhandy said of the dance's benefits. "And just the confidence it gives you."

Castañeda's classes are from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., starting Feb. 7 at the Elks Lodge, 1206 N. Beeline Highway. She charges $5 a class. No reservation necessary; walk-ins welcome. For more information, contact Castañeda at (928) 242-9503.

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