The beat of a drum echoes through studio B at the District's Joy of Motion Dance Center. At the first heavy thump, the students step forward and thrust their hips to the right. Next come a step to the left and another hip thrust.
Following the lead of their teacher, Elizabeth "Artemis" Mourat, the female students begin a slow roll of their abdominal muscles. Their arms move through the air like snakes.
As they dance, each student stares at her reflection in the mirror, reveling in the way she's slinking across the hardwood floor. Some of the women have full, hourglass shapes. Others are smaller. Each has a fringed scarf tied around her hips.
Farewell to workouts aimed at attaining a Cindy Crawford body. Welcome to belly dancing–a class women are taking to tone their muscles and to embrace their bodies, regardless of size.
Since their brief popularity in the 1970s, belly-dancing classes had been rare in Washington. But in the past year, dance studios from Joe's Movement Emporium in Mount Rainier to DC Dance Collective have begun scheduling classes.
Joy of Motion Dance Center at DC's Dupont Circle offered its first class in 1997; it filled with 28 students. More than 100 beginners are currently enrolled.
"It's a rediscovered art form," says Doug Yeuell, artistic director at Joy of Motion. Part of the allure, he says, is that the dance, while intricate, isn't overly strenuous.
"It is a dance that works with the body as it is supposed to work," says teacher Autumn Leah Ward. It does not require the intense flexibility of ballet, for example.
Another perk: A committed belly dancer can expect to lose an inch or two off her waist in six months.
Belly dancing, with its pelvic thrusts and jiggling stomachs, isn't for the shy. It's all part of getting in touch with your body.
"You'll learn to move your body in ways that are very different from the American cultural vocabulary," says Mourat, who has been teaching belly dance for 20 years.
Beginners start slowly, learning to isolate and develop specific muscles. The abdominals, pectorals, and quadriceps get the most work.
Movements unique to belly dancing include the shimmy, which requires quick shakes of the hips and shoulders. Another is the undulation, a tightening and rolling of an isolated muscle.
The intricacy level rises as students progress. An intermediate student will learn to play the zills, or finger cymbals. Advanced students incorporate the veil into their movements.
Most belly-dancing classes are offered on a semester basis. The studio Dancer in Clinton has the least expensive introduction, $60 for nine weeks. For the self-conscious, Soroya School of Belly Dance in Springfield offers private lessons for $25 an hour.
While the roots of belly dance lie in the Middle East and North Africa, American belly dance has evolved from a mix of cultures, says Leah Ward. For example, Egyptian belly dancers stay grounded to the floor, while Turkish dancers value energy and jump around more.
Though the popularity of the dance has picked up in this country, belly dancers say there are still misconceptions about the art form. Because a dancer's traditional costumes show off the body, some have confused it with exotic dancing.
"Belly dancing is sensual, but it is not sexual," says Mourat, who dances for audiences filled with both men and women. "In Middle Eastern countries, men belly dance too."
WHERE BELLY-DANCING CLASSES ARE offered locally: DC Dance Collective, 4908 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-362-7244, www.dcdance. com. $132 for 12 weeks.
Dancer, 8010 Old Branch Ave., Clinton; 301-856-2144. $60 for nine weeks.
Joe's Movement Emporium, 3802 34th St., Mount Rainier; 301-699-1819, www. worldartsfocus.org. $90 for ten weeks.
Joy of Motion Dance Center, 1643 Connecticut Ave., NW, 202-387-0911; and 5207 Wisconsin Ave., NW, 202-362-3042; www.joyofmotion.org. $143 for 13 weeks.
Soroya School of Belly Dance, 6800 Iron Stove Ct., Springfield; 703-569-1080. $75 for six weeks. Private lessons, $25 an hour.
Studio Artemis, Woodstock Ave., Silver Spring; 301-565-8891, www.serpentine. org. Ongoing classes, $10 an hour.