Brenda Thames, a dance instructor herself, decided to take belly dancing classes a few months ago, and now she can't get enough of the activity that exercises her core muscles.

"It's so much fun! It's low-impact, so it's not so much exertion you can't handle it. But it works so many different muscles in your body," Thames, of Moline, said.

The 40-year-old works for the U.S. Postal Service, and she also teaches both ballroom and Latin dance lessons. The post office job gives her an upper-body workout because she lifts boxes and sorts mail. Her legs get a workout during the dance lessons she teaches. But the belly dancing "is fabulous for a central core workout," she said.

Of Middle Eastern origin

Belly dancing originated in the Middle East hundreds of years ago, and classes have been offered in the Quad-Cities for at least three decades. Today, many classes are organized through three teachers who coordinate their lessons and a website, QuadCitiesBellyDance.com.

The three women — Bez Lancial of Rock Island, Lisa Dalton of Sherrard, Ill., and Jennifer, ("Jenahid") Stumpff of Davenport — teach classes, lead workshops and take part in area performances. In 2013, Lancial founded a performance group called Troupe Amate. 

Many women are shocked by how belly dancing "grabs them," Lancial said.

"They start slow, and by the end they are amazed what their body can do," she added.

Central core workout

Belly dancing works the hips in addition to providing a strong central core workout. Stumpff teaches classes at the Scott County Family Y and discusses the muscle workout with her students as well as the dance's cultural history.

The three women have some students who are recovering from medical issues or trauma. One is a sexual assault survivor while another was in a serious traffic accident.

Dalton, the dance teacher from Sherrard, has rheumatoid arthritis herself, but she said the dancing prevents many flare-ups.

"I'm much more flexible than I used to be," she added.

Misconceptions at the start

Many women think they will have to bare their tummies in class, but the instructors insist that's not necessary. Most students wear yoga pants and long T-shirts, Stumpff said.

There is some nervousness at the beginning of a class, but the teachers are adept at calming the atmosphere. Stumpff, for example, starts classes with some non-threatening yoga moves, and that helps get the giggles out of the way, she said.

Sometimes groups of women arrive at a class and might have some anxiety about it, Dalton said. Often, though, at least one person in the group returns for a second class and simply wants to learn the dances, she added.

This is not a "sexy harem dance for sultans," said Stumpff, the history buff among the dance instructors.

Hip scarves are available at the classes, and many are outfitted with coins. "It's fun to wear the belts and listen to the jingles," Dalton said. Students may not try on the scarves and belts at first, but many pick them up by the end of the class.

Culturally popular

Belly dancing has been endorsed as an "excellent workout," by Dr. Mehmet Oz, a nationally known cardiologist and the host of his own daily TV medical show. Then there's Shakira, the internationally popular singer and TV personality on NBC's "The Voice." Of Colombian and Lebanese descent, she uses the dance form in video arrangements for her new album.

The belly dancing students in the Quad-Cities get a good workout while forming friendly bonds with others in their class.

"The class is so much fun, and it's full of great people," Thames said. "It's like we are building a new group of friends there.

"I just love it." 

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