Dance instructor reveals mystique behind a Middle Eastern art

NEIGHBORS

August 11, 1999|By Heather Tepe | Heather Tepe,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

FULL-FIGURED women, take heart. There's a dance form designed to highlight our unique gifts: belly dancing.

"It's very positive for women," says Alix McDonough, who runs the Raks Noor School of Middle Eastern Dance in the Village of Dorsey's Search. "You don't have to have a perfect figure. In fact, it's better to have a little to shake. In some Middle Eastern cultures, the more, the better."

McDonough teaches belly dancing classes at the Meeting Room, the Dorsey's Search neighborhood center on Columbia Road.

"I got started like most people," she says. "I thought it would be neat to do and I got hooked."

She has taught students as young as 5 and as old as 60. She's even taught a few male students.

Most of the people in her classes are looking for a different form of exercise, McDonough says. "It keeps you flexible and for the most part it's pretty low-impact," she notes. "It strengthens your back and abdominal muscles so you'll have better posture and less back pain."

In some Middle Eastern cultures, belly dancing is performed during religious ceremonies and during childbirth.

"The mothers actually dance their babies in," McDonogh said.

Miranda Pakulski, a student at the school, took up belly dancing after years as a ballet dancer. She says she prefers this form of dance because "it's not as constrictive creativity-wise as ballet dancing."

Pakulski says she gets mixed responses when she tells people she is a belly dancer.

"Some people don't realize it's actually an art," she says. "They look at it as the equivalent of stripping."

McDonough teaches the Egyptian style of belly dancing.

"In a nightclub, people usually see Turkish or Egyptian style belly dancing," she says. The Turkish style is very energetic, involving more hopping, and is a little harder to learn. The Egyptian style is characterized by less bouncing.

"The Egyptian style of belly dancing pays attention to the isolation of smaller movements and is more lyrical," McDonough says.

In the beginners' class, students learn to perform moves McDonough describes as "stand and wiggle steps": the belly roll (a vertical undulation of abdominal muscles); undulation (making a vertical circle with the rib cage); the shoulder shimmy (an alternating shoulder press); and the head slide (shifting the head from side to side) "like in the show `I Dream of Jeannie,' " McDonough says.

Students also learn to twirl with veils, balance baskets, swords and candelabra, and play zils, which are finger cymbals.

A six-week session of belly dancing classes begins Sept. 20.

The hourlong beginner class costs $38, or $36 for Columbia residents.

The intermediate-advanced class lasts 1 1/2 hours and costs $57, or $55 for Columbia residents.

Information: 301-596-2715.

Dixieland boogie

The Starvation Army Band, an offshoot of the Columbia Concert Band, was founded in 1987 in response to requests for a Dixieland band in Columbia.

"We only perform eight to 10 jobs each year but enjoy every one of them to the fullest," says Maurice Feldman, the clarinetist, who describes himself as the band's "head honcho."

Drummer Mike Cushner, a resident of Longfellow, remembers when the band played at a wake -- for a man who wasn't dead.

"The man was dying of cancer in the hospital," Cushner recalls, "and he wanted to have a band play at his wake. But he wanted to be able to see it."

The wake was held in a Greek restaurant in Baltimore, in Highlandtown on Eastern Avenue.

When other members of the band enlisted Cushner for the gig, he says, "I was rather shocked, but only for a second and then I thought, `What a great idea.' "

The man was close to death and couldn't go to the restaurant, so his family had the event videotaped for him.

"The whole evening was very upbeat and relaxed, which was how he wanted it," Cushner says.

A few weeks later, the band was hired to play at a funeral (for another man) in Fells Point.

"It started off like a typical New Orleans funeral," Cushner says. "There's a dirge you play when it starts, and then after the funeral you play a piece called `Oh, Didn't He Ramble.' "

"The band gets real upbeat, everybody gets up and dances around, and then it's a party from then on," Cushner says.

It's a little-known fact that members of the musicians' union have the right to have a band play at their funeral, paid for by the union, he says. He'd like to take advantage of the offer when his time comes, he says, but "my wife says no."

Dixieland appeals to all ages, Feldman says. "It's fun, it's relaxing music, and it's historic," he said.

Jazz can be traced to New Orleans Dixieland music, Feldman notes.

Other band members are Jerry Fleg and Brent Mathew (trumpet); John McVey (trombone); Rip Rice (tenor saxophone); Ray Jaworski (banjo); Louise Carlson (piano); and Tom Harwick (tuba and bass guitar).

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