Bellydance and Bollywood | Spicy Flavors of Dance Make Workouts Fun

Students flock to SanDee Skelton’s Belly Dancing classes in Cedar Rapids.

Everybody knows that we’ll live longer if we raise our heart rate for at least 20 minutes three times every week, but running is hard on the knees, spin classes can start to feel redundant, and kickboxing isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Thirty years after Jane Fonda made aerobics a household word, several eastern Iowa dance instructors have tapped into customer thirst for unusual music, steps, and movements and now offer dance styles that you might find in splashy Mumbai musicals, Middle Eastern restaurants, festivals from Persia to Afghanistan, or Las Vegas gentlemen’s clubs.

Shimmying for Fitness

In Cedar Rapids, SanDee Skelton has taught dance for more than 30 years. Currently offering Belly Dancing for Fun and Fitness, as well as Belly Dancing for Performance, through the Park and Recreation department, she helped to locally popularize this style in the ’70s.

As a child she remembered watching in fascination as the Lebanese neighbors downstairs danced for holiday celebrations, so when she had a chance to study belly dance in Chicago, she didn’t hesitate. After several years of study she persuaded the YWCA to let her offer her first class, with the prediction that she would find little interest. “The first night 84 women showed up,” SanDee says. Shekicked the basketball players out of the gym and showed her students some basic moves. “When they got to shimmying I thought the wood floor was going to cave in!”

In addition to teaching, SanDee got so good she was well known for enlivening hundreds of birthdays, anniversaries, and retirement parties by delivering surprise “bellygram” dances, complete with her turbaned husband holding the boom box. 

In keeping with the changing times, she stopped offering belly dance in the ’80s when country line dancing became popular, but a few years ago one of her former belly dance students encouraged her to start up those lessons again. With the popularity of Slumdog Millionaire, the timing seemed to be right.

Meeting in a converted elementary school on Mount Vernon Road, introductory students are encouraged to tie on a jingling hip scarf, “let the music move through you,” learn some basic isolation movements for hips, hands, and shoulders, and hear about the history of Middle Eastern dance. Her advanced students learn specific choreography that uses muscles many people forget they have, with maneuvers like the undulating camel and happy hip. SanDee’s Shifting Sands dancers perform frequently at festivals and nursing homes.


In a similar way, Wendy Stegall, who has been a serious student of North Indian Kathak dance for over 20 years, was approached by some women in Iowa City who wanted to dance in the style of Bollywood’s blissfully expressive movies. While she was familiar with the dance style, Wendy felt reluctant to embrace it because it didn’t have the same disciplined body movements of Kathak. “It took me a month to stew about it,” she recalls, while taking a closer look at some Indian musicals. She soon noticed that Bollywood dance styles were a fusion of classical Indian styles, 1930s chorus line, and American hip-hop. That persuaded her to develop her first Bollywood dance class last year.

“It’s pure joy,” she says. “The West got some of its moves from Indian folk dance and now they borrow them back,” pointing to fancy footwork like steps popularized by Michael Jackson. 

Now teaching in Fairfield, Wendy separated her classes into Bolly-robics for beginners and a performance class where dancers learn routines. Her students did a spontaneous flash mob performance at the Fairfield Farmer’s Market last May that’s gotten hundreds of hits on YouTube. 

Serious Middle Eastern Dance

In Iowa City, Kahraman Dance founder Marie Wilkes offers regular classes and special workshops in Near East Dance. “People are meant to dance,” Marie says. As a young girl she found herself captivated  by Arabic music and dance, so she pursued a professional dance career for several years, got her M.F.A. in dance in 1993, and founded Kahraman in 1994. If you want a taste of the Kahraman Near East Dance Ensemble, mark your calendar for October 23 when the dancers present their Annual “Spoofla” Hafla/Show, an ebullient evening of  music, dance, and home-cooked Middle Eastern food.

And Finally: Las Vegas Style

Back in Cedar Rapids, entrepreneur Megan Reck has opened Wicked Enchantment Pole Dancing a block from the river downtown. “I know that this isn’t yet normal in Iowa, but pole dancing is so huge on the coasts, I really believe it will take off here, too,”she says. For Love the Pole 101 she teaches women basic pole climbing and spins, which build stronger arm and core muscles. “When I learned this in Las Vegas, it really increased my self-confidence. If I can share that with other women, then why not?”

Recognizing that this style of dance isn’t for everyone, Megan sells one-time classes before students commit to a series.    “It’s a great bonding experience, even if you don’t know your classmates beforehand,” she says. “It’s so much fun and you don’t realize what a good workout you’re getting until a few days later.”

Anyone looking to get a taste of these styles will find plenty of videos available on YouTube or the satellite channel FitTV. Then maybe you’ll be brave enough to don a bright scarf, move to the music, and give your heart a good workout. Who knows—you might get somebody else’s heart moving, too.

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