- Photo by Bob Pennell

Taut Torsos

Contorting her hips and waist to trace figure-8s and "golden arches," Emily Alrick moves in the sensual manner specific to belly dance.

Enticement, however, has no place in the performance, a workout and instruction for 11 of Alrick's students. Widely viewed as a provocative art form, ancient and modern belly dances assign new aesthetics to exercising the core.

"You learn to isolate different muscles to create the movement you want," says Alrick, 29. "It really works your whole body."

Before they ever start learning dance postures, Alrick's students start with a 45-minute warm-up that incorporates yoga, stretching, squats, lunges, push-ups, sit-ups and other abdominal exercises. The trilling percussion and tambourines common to Middle Eastern music provide the beat for squeezing buttocks and tightening bellies.

"With this, you're getting a foundation," says 34-year-old Sarah Ratto. "Most of it is warm-up."

Teaching belly dance since 2006, Alrick started studying "American tribal" style three years earlier in the San Francisco Bay area. Alrick brought the technique of dancer Suhaila Salimpour from Albany, Calif., back to her hometown of Ashland. Her three weekly classes at Agile Healing Arts on Ashland's A Street incorporate modern, jazz and ballet dance, along with a basic fitness routine.

"I think it's a little more gentle than just doing a step (aerobics) class," Alrick says, adding that belly dance can be a "gateway" exercise that fosters awareness of physical movement.

Fellow belly dance instructor Tiazza Wilson, 31, teaches a different style but agrees with Alrick's exercise philosophy.

"It's a low-impact exercise," Wilson says. "You can take it to any level you want."

At the Rogue Valley Family YMCA in Medford, Wilson hosts "cardio" belly dance, which focuses on simple movements sustained at a rapid pace. For Medford and Ashland parks and recreation departments, Wilson teaches the classical dances of Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon and her native Morocco fused with Latin dances, such as flamenco, and even a touch of hip-hop.

"We try to reflect different styles," Wilson says. "We don't do any tribal at all."

"American tribal" style, Wilson and Alrick agree, is a modern yet folkloric interpretation of traditional Arab belly dance. Tribal dance often relies on dramatic costumes and makeup, Wilson says, adding that its persona varies depending on the region.

"There is all this rivalry thing going on," she says. "The East Coast tribal ... it's more like Gothic belly dance."

Both Alrick and Wilson coordinate belly dance performance troupes. Alrick's Circus Tribal Bellydance Co. has performed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Green Show while Wilson's Sahara Bellydancers has been the main attraction at nonprofit fundraisers. Wilson encourages would-be belly dancers to watch a professional performance before enrolling in a class.

"It is not easy," she says. "You're going to be sore the first few times, even though you don't think you're even sweating."

Belly dance has been Ratto's primary form of exercise since she signed up with Alrick in April. Already promoted to the intermediate level, the Ashland resident still starts her week with the beginner's class, mainly for its fitness component.

"I either work out, or I do belly dance, and I'd rather belly dance," she says.

Dabbling over the years in other types of dance, cardio kickboxing, Pilates, yoga, even the heated Bikram format, Ratto has concluded that belly dance best suits her body type.

"This is the best, though," Ratto says. "I'm pretty passionate about it."

Beginning belly dancers can expect to improve their posture and flexibility and to tone and strengthen muscles, particularly legs, hips, back and abdomen, Alrick says. But more importantly, belly dancing builds confidence. Because people tend to form the wrong impression about belly dance, Alrick doesn't promote it as sexy but does agree that the sensation can rub off on viewers and participants alike.

"Confidence is sexy," she says.

Confidently twitching her torso in the "sharp and small" movements that Alrick's class requires, Ratto is enjoying her newfound accomplishment in the difficult dance form. She also is enjoying a frame that's 10 pounds lighter after just a few months of belly dancing. Being "skinny," she says, isn't her goal. She plans on sticking with belly dancing, which benefits from a fuller figure.

"I don't want to be a rail," she says. "I want curves."

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