Published: circa April, 2005
KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) -- Belly dancing is creating ripples among women in East Asia as enthusiasts from Malaysia to Taiwan pick up the ancient art of seductive shimmying -- and get a good work-out at the same time. From teenage schoolgirls to businesswomen and housewives, belly-dancing students say learning how to undulate their bodies and sway their hips is more fun than the traditional exercises available in the gym.
In a dance studio hidden in a leafy suburb of Kuala Lumpur, belly-dancing instructor Sherlyn Koh teaches her students to "shimmy" and do the "camel" to the rhythmic beat of Middle Eastern music.
"Imagine your body is like water or a snake," she says, coaxing her students to bend their bodies further than they ever thought possible. "This is a very good cardiovascular exercise, good for your waist, for nice curves," she intones as she glides from student to student.
"It's an interesting work-out rather than going to the gym," says beginner Miriam Al-Arishee, 51, who runs a business in the oil and gas industry. "I have a treadmill at home but I never use it.
"Belly dancing is good for the right parts of your body, it tones your tummy, hips and breasts.
"When I first started, I only gained aches and pains. But it exposed my own weaknesses, I realised how unfit I was," says the glamorous Al-Arishee, who attends the class with her 27-year-old daughter. "It's something everyone can do, regardless of your age or body shape. It's an all-girls environment so you feel comfortable, nobody's going to laugh at you, there is no self-consciousness unlike at a gym.
"It's simply a beautiful dance. A form of self-expression," she says.
Writer Mavis Hooi, 26, who has been belly dancing for the past 15 months and has achieved "advanced" status, says she has found a form of exercise she can stick at.
"I had already tried theatre, all sorts of dancing like the waltz, flamenco. They didn't capture my interest," Hooi says. "Belly dancing did. It has made me move muscles I have never moved before," she says, adjusting her sparkling Egyptian hipscarf adorned with dangling gold coins.
Teacher Koh says one of the reasons women find the centuries-old dance so attractive is that it indulges their love of wearing jewelry and make-up.
"They like the coins, the costumes and of course, the dance. It's very feminine," says Koh, whose own hips are adorned with a black crocheted hipscarf with glittery beads.
"It's very pleasant to watch. It shows a lot of body silhouette. It's very exciting. It's a celebration of the soul and body."
Koh points to one of her students from her advanced class practising for an upcoming public performance.
"When she first came to me, she used to have very low self-esteem," she whispers. "But now, she's totally different. She's very confident.
"Belly dancing really makes you a more confident person. It makes you feel more comfortable with your body, regardless of what size you are.
"All women can do belly-dancing, naturally," says Koh, who was first "mesmerised" by the ancient art when she saw popular Latin pop star Shakira perform some three years ago.
She began studying the dance under instructors from Egypt, including the renowned Raqia Hassan, and then established her own school.
"I went to Egypt to study. Whenever I travel, I make it into a belly dance trip. Whenever I go to Singapore, Australia or America, I make sure I go there to hook up with a belly dance teacher."
Her students include celebrities and the wives and daughters of government ministers and business tycoons. "In any part of the world, especially Malaysia, people in high society love belly dancing," she says. "The costumes are very glamorous. You dress up for belly dancing, make yourself beautiful, it's part of the whole costume. The makeup, a lot of accessories, thick eyeliner, you need to look very sophisticated. It appeals to those in high society."
Belly dancing parties are also becoming fashionable, she says, adding that she has performed for members of Malaysia's royal family several times. Women-only 'haflas', where members of the belly dancing community meet up and show off their moves, are also on the rise.
In Taiwan, belly dancing lessons were introduced about two years ago by 32-year-old Violet Lee, who learned the dance while studying in Israel. She has taught thousands of students, mostly female office workers and housewives in the past two years. She has six part-time instructors in her dance studio in Taipei.
"I think Taiwanese women like belly dancing because it's fun and not so difficult to learn. It also provides a channel for women to express their beauty and sexiness," Lee says. "Most housewives take belly dancing lessons to lose weight and for fun while many office ladies use belly dancing to release pressure from work."
In Hong Kong, an Egyptian restaurant has been flying in professional belly dancers for the past three years not only to entertain diners but also give classes in the ancient art.
Hosni Emam, manager of Habibi, said the last set of classes, held thrice-weekly between October and December last year, attracted over 500 applicants, but with room for just 15 students each class, many people had to be turned away.