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It's Wednesday night at the Goddess Store in Hollywood, and there's enough shimmying, twisting, and plain ol' ass-shaking going on to rival any South Beach club. Think Shakira on crack. The women dancing, however, are not concerned with superficialities like makeup, shoes, or impressing some guy across the room. They're focused on their instructor, Jeri Beaucaire.
"Free your inner goddess!" Beaucaire encourages the class, "Yes! That's it!" By the end of the hourlong session, my inner goddess -- and my ass -- are tired. The dance is doing for Middle Eastern music and culture what salsa did during the Latin music explosion a few years ago. Belly-dance videos now share shelf space with Richard Simmons tapes, and even hip-hop artists are borrowing from Middle Eastern influences. So it should come as no surprise that belly-dancing has helped Goddess Store owner Carmen Garson and a host of local dancers strut their way into Hollywood's artsy Harrison Street scene.
Born in Ecuador and raised in New York City, the 49-year-old Garson says the open, pedestrian-friendly atmosphere in Hollywood perfectly fits the ambience she wants for her store. The place is a girly-girl's dream, stocked with lotions, incense, stationery, candles, and of course, goddesses. There are statuettes, portraits, and even wind chimes with representations of the Egyptian goddess Isis, the Greek goddess Gaia, Venus of Willendorf, and others. Garson, an accountant who opened the store in July 2002, says it is a reflection of her identity. "Everything in here is what I like to do when I'm not working," she says. "I've combined my passion with my work life. We sell goddesses from places like China and Egypt. I love dancing and I love all the goddess spirituality, so when I decided to have my own business, this was natural."
Garson's biggest sellers are belly-dance videos, CDs, veils, and crepe skirts that jingle with beads and metallic doodads. Though the Goddess Store's front end is cramped, packed with statuary and chachkas, the store is large. There's a spacious studio in the back, where belly-dance, yoga, and flamenco classes are held. There is a staff of four instructors including Beaucaire and Maja, "the girl from the Nile," a fixture on the South Florida belly-dancing scene. Born in Cairo, Egypt, Maja, responds sourly when you ask her age ("Not relevant," she says). She has been dancing since 1990.
"People prefer other arts like ballet and flamenco, and they don't always have a clear idea of what belly-dancing is," Maja says. Indeed, the biggest misconception about the form is that it is performed exclusively by young, slender women solely to entice men.
Though the exact origins are mysterious, many historians agree that the art of belly dance dates back to around 4000 BC. Dance styles that involved isolated hip, chest, and abdominal movements originated separately in countries such as India, Egypt, and Turkey; the Western name "belly dance" became a blanket term for the varied styles. Movements, costumes, and dance vary depending on the origin of the style. Tribal costumes are much different from cabaret-style dancing, which features a flashier, beaded costume, like the outfit Rita Hayworth wore in Salome as she worked her seductive magic before a leering Charles Laughton.
According to historians, belly dance, created for women by women, is the oldest form of childbirth preparation. The key lies in the rhythmic tightening of the abdominal and pelvic muscles, which strengthens the back and thighs. It's been said that belly dance works out around 600 muscles, challenging the myth that it requires little work.
It's the health benefits that have attracted Christine Coward, a marketing manager from Coral Springs. After suffering from severe arthritis-related back pain for years, she took the advice of a friend who suggested she try belly-dancing as a way to improve her flexibility and stretching. That was two years ago. At a recent recital, the 53-year-old performed a mix of tribal and cabaret dance styles she had choreographed herself. It was obvious from watching her sinuous, hip-swaying movements that poor flexibility was no longer an issue.
"I had never done anything athletic, and I know I'll never be a professional, but I don't care," Coward says. "I have a lot more motion than when I first took the class. For me, this is better than yoga because you never push past your limit."
Whether it's feminist camaraderie or the ever-popular tone-up-and-slim-down lure that draws them, the women come. Impressively, these are not all hot, beautiful young chorus girls (though some qualify) but a lot of ordinary-looking women who come in a variety of shapes. Middle-aged ladies, young career women, blasé pre-adolescents, even a few septuagenarians -- they're all wriggling rhythmically at the Goddess Store. When you can see your lawyer or your bank clerk making like Salome on a sidewalk, it's more than an exotic exercise regimen.
Stroll past the store on a Friday evening. If it's not too hot or rainy, you're liable to find them right there, on the sidewalk in front of the store: a dozen or more belly-dancing students. Hollywood streets offer an eclectic mix of musical styles. There's a rhythm-and-blues club down the block and jazz and Latin venues around the corner, all of them serving up distinctive sounds. Still, at the sight of women undulating on the sidewalk to the sound of sitar and flutes, dumbfounded passersby often freeze, like travelers stumbling upon some exotic Saharan scene that could be a mirage.
On one recent Friday, a core of elementary-school kids did lilting arabesques, a half dozen women danced with billowy veils, and Beaucaire herself, in a silky costume and stiletto heels, did a nightclub-style belly dance, with an astonishing variety of thoracic shakes and grinds. Then a circle of drummers unleashed a hypnotic beat, and a couple of women did uninhibited Senegalese dances.
Passing couples, friends of the dancers, and a few members of Hollywood's homeless people spilled from the sidewalk out into the street. A passing pair of Harleys briefly drowned out the music, and frustrated motorists shouted out warnings. But the performers continued unperturbed.
One man, apparently engrossed by the sight of so much femininity, pursed his lips suggestively, making lewd kissing sounds and jerking his head. He had absolutely no effect on the dancers. "C'mere, c'mere, c'mere," he muttered. Then, suddenly looking around as if he had awakened from a sweaty dream, he plunged back into the night.