Health & Wellness

Fit File: We Try Bellydancing at Sanctuary Bodyworks in Fells Point

Instructor Isabel Asra shares her tips.

Elizabeth Minot at Sanctuary Bodyworks.

Bored with your typical gym workout consisting of not really knowing how to use the machines and the treadmill to nowhere? Then perhaps it’s time to spice up your sweat sessions by moving your body in a completely different way. Belly dancing gives you an aerobic workout and helps to improve your flexibility, core strength, as well as teaching a beautiful (and super impressive at parties) way of dancing.

As well as the physical benefits, the combination of music and exercise can really help you to have a more positive outlook on life.  We talk to Isabel Asra, belly dance instructor (who just happens to be five months pregnant) at Sanctuary Bodyworks in Fells Point, to get the low down on this ancient form of shaking it.

How long have you been a belly dance instructor?  I have been belly dancing for about 13 years and teaching for six years. When I started I was living in New Orleans at the time and I went to see a friend’s band perform. The act that was on before them was a belly-dancing troupe. I watched their show and instantly fell in love. I started taking belly-dancing classes from them and haven’t stopped since. The style of movement and the unity of women that it represents is so appealing to me. 

If I weren’t a belly dance instructor, I would be a...? I've always been drawn to yoga. I could see myself teaching that, but so far I’ve only taken classes. Unrelated to fitness, I have some experience doing work as a graphic designer and web designer. But this is absolutely my favorite thing to do! It’s hard to imagine not doing it.

How do you inspire people who are new to the class? I try to make it very approachable, friendly, and fun. I like to joke around a little bit because I want to build a space that is less intimidating, more relaxed and appeals to people on all different skill levels.

What’s your typical class like?  We start off with a brief warm-up and then I usually put together three combinations of movements. First I will break down the individual moves and explain the technique a little bit, and have people drill it in a few times to really get familiar. We then string the moves together into a short dance that we can all do together. We do all of these in different tempos; I usually include one or two conditioning movements to help build strength and endurance. Lastly, we cool down with a nice slow, mellow composition to kind of ground and cool down the muscles in the body.

How do you bring the culture of belly dancing to your students?  I like to mention things during class about the origin of all the different movements. A lot of them have origins in folkloric dance styles and social dancing for the Middle East and Mediterranean. I like to enlighten people about those things in hopes that they develop an appreciation for the fact that this dance is part of a much larger and very rich culture, so they can think of it as more than just a form of exercise.

What is your favorite song to workout to?  Oh, I couldn't even begin to pick only one song! In terms of genre, I really enjoy using Shaabi music, which is the popular street music of Cairo, Egypt. The music is upbeat, relatable, and casual. Sometimes the lyrics are funny and I’ll look them up online and tell my students a little bit about what they’re actually saying. I also really like to use this pretty instrumental music called Taqsim, which is solo instrumental improvisation, for the cool down part of my class.

What workout clothes do you recommend for belly dancing?  I encourage students to wear stretchy and comfortable clothing that they feel good in; it’s helpful for me if it’s close-fitting enough that I can really see their posture, and make sure they are doing the movements well, and safely. Belly revealing tops can be helpful, but they’re certainly not required. I also encourage students to tie something around their hips. This is to help emphasize the hip movements. I sell fancy hip scarfs, with the beautiful coins dangling that jingle when you move your hips, so you can kind of hear if you are on the beat.

What is your best health/wellness tip?  In some way, you should be moving every day. Make time to get some form of exercise in as a part of your daily routine. It doesn't always have to be a long and intense workout, just move your body! Pick a form of exercise that you can really enjoy, rather than thinking of it as a chore.

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