090817 belly dancers �Tonawanda News

Aaron Ingrao/ContributorKenmore, NY �

Travelers down Delaware Avenue may have noticed there’s a new dance studio in the village, and it’s not producing your traditional jazz or tap routine.

Jill Nykkei, owner of the Bellydance Academy, said she initially opened Western New York’s first all-bellydance studio so her dance troupe Fleuron Rouge would have a place to practice and perform. But the storefront has become an offbeat alternative to the gym for women looking for fitness and fun rolled into one.

The place has been open since March, but the process of getting ready for the public started long before. After getting all the necessary permissions from village leaders, the process of turning a hair salon into a dance studio began.

“We had to gut the place, take down all the separating walls and put in a new floor to patch all the holes,” Nykkei said.

After that, it was all about putting together the right team of instructors. Nadia Ibrahim, who handles the traditional bellydance end, has been teaching the art since the 1970s. Her instruction comes in three levels and with plenty of the background from each culture explored. Despite all of the cultures that put their own spin on the dance, instructor Karen Innara said Ibrahim is sure to let students know where their newly learned move originated.

“When we do Egyptian hip movements, we know we’re doing Egyptian hip movements,” Innara said.

Cabaret, as the traditional form is called, has plenty of standardized moves that instructors in the Western world have named. But unlike other dance disciplines, bellydance routines aren’t particularly regimented affairs.

“It’s not something that’s a structured as, say, ballet,” Ibrahim said.

Nykkei and Samantha Shey both teach fusion bellydance, which combines the traditional moves with other styles, and Mandy Hoeplinger teaches tribal fusion classes that blend regional flairs into the mix. So whether students want to dance to traditional Indian Bhangra music or the soothing sounds of Nine Inch Nails, the instructors are able to accommodate.

“We’re fortunate enough to have true bellydance as well as all the offshoots of it,” Nykkei said.

In addition, Innara teaches a separate class for building the basic dance techniques required for bellydancing. That class focuses on the skills people need to be successful in any kind of dance, including improving balance, learning the ability to shift weight gracefully and strengthening the core muscles. As a bonus, the process of preparing to dance is also a fitness regimen.

“We’re building people to be a better bellydancer, but that will help them be healthier,” Innara said.

Fitness is the reason most women give for walking in the door, but Nykkei said while there are many ways to get fit, not all of them come with the mystique of bellydancing. That’s why those like Innara and Shey, who started in other forms of dance, are now teaching classes with hip scarves in hand.

“Bellydance makes me feel so sensual,” Shey said. “It makes me feel happy and confident.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s a less effective workout. In learning to do things like separate the movements of the top half of the body from those of the lower half or move only one hip in a figure eight, Hoeplinger said she discovered muscles she never even knew existed. Dancing also works just about every muscle group without being as high-impact as an aerobics class.

“Any class we teach is going to offer fitness and work your core,” Nykkei said. “Doing belly rolls is actually safer and more effective than a crunch.”

And while walking into a dance studio to take a class with no dance experience may seem daunting, there’s a spot for every person at every level. Nykkei said she’s successfully taught people who barely walked around the block before starting, and Hoeplinger added that she wasn’t much of a dancer before taking up bellydance. Once someone has a grasp of the basic movements, they can fall right in with a group, or even lead it at times.

“There are cues built in, so when I make a certain gesture or movement, everybody dancing knows what’s coming next,” Hoeplinger said. “It’s all the group, so you’re not really focused on one individual so much.”

Nykkei is confident that her studio has a place for everyone. The atmosphere is the final selling point, with a bunch of women — and at least one man — learning at their own pace, improving their dance skills and above all finding a relaxing way to work out.

“There’s really no downside,” Hoeplinger said.

Contact reporter Daniel Pye

at 693-1000, ext. 158.

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