Rita Simon sat alone outside the Heyde Center for the Arts in Chippewa Falls 10 years ago, unsure of what she’d gotten herself into.
“Oh boy,” the healthcare professional thought to herself. “This is probably the most stupid thing I’ve ever done.”
Simon was sure she’d feel out of place. Then in her mid-50s, she pictured her silver hair sticking out among the heads of all the young women she was certain would also be attending the class.
After all, many consider belly dancing an art form for the young.
But when Simon walked into her first class, she discovered an inter-generational community of women of all shapes and ages who supported one another.
Ten years later and well into retirement, Simon is a belly dance instructor and continues to dance with women ranging from teenagers to those with decades of life experience.
Among those women, Simon is not alone in her journey.
No age divide
As rain poured on Wednesday outside of Dragonfly Dance and Wellness in Eau Claire, a chorus of shimmying and swaying bodies followed the rhythm of a lively drum beat.
A loose semicircle of women surrounded a group of three, who watched each other with smiles as they moved in synchronization. At the center of the group was Simon, her neck adorned with coins, bright flowers in her hair. Every movement Simon started, the two others followed.
“For me, it’s about joy,” Simon, now 64, said of the way belly dancing makes her feel. “When I danced that first night and I felt that immediate sense of joy, I recognized that I hadn’t felt that way for a very, very long time.”
Where the instrumental music softened or intensified, some of the women let out encouraging yips to signal support for their dance partners in the center of the semi-circle. When the music changed, Simon and her companions rotated and another woman — this one in her 20s — took the lead.
Having a classroom full of women in different stages of life brings belly dancing back to its roots, said Dana Dachel, director of the group Lasa Anahata Tribal, which was practicing Wednesday night.
“The beauty of belly dance is that it’s inter-generational,” she said, noting that young girls used to learn the dance from their mothers and grandmothers. “As an instructor, (older adults) give you a new perspective on life. You feel very humble, and you feel very grateful. They kind of help us create that open environment that we want in this classroom setting just by being here.
“It’s very connected,” she said about American Tribal Style belly dancing, which is the style of dance her group practices. “You can definitely tell the dancers are communicating with their eyes and how they move.”
Community is key
That connected feeling is what keeps Cindy Hopkins, 58, involved in belly dancing. She started dancing 10 years ago, and is also an instructor at Lasa Anahata Tribal.
“You’re looking across at somebody who is gray,” she said, “and you’re looking at somebody else who is maybe 19. You’re all in this thing together.”
“It’s not a competition,” added Sue Hunt, 60, who has been a belly dancing student for six years. “Whenever you turn around, all your dance sisters are smiling at you and with you. You’re totally supported by everybody.”
And American Tribal Style belly dancing provides an opportunity to connect with women all over the world no matter the age, Simon said. The largely improvised dance has universal basic steps and cues that lead into specific moves, she said, meaning dancers don’t have to understand each other’s spoken language to dance together.
“Because everybody has learned the same foundation, I could be dancing with a woman from Russia whom I’ve never met before, and we can dance together because we have the same language,” Simon said.
“It creates a really special community overall,” Hopkins added. “People in level one, after they’ve been to a class or two, I think they start picking up that there’s something different about the whole thing. You find that there’s something going on between the people and the individuals.”
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