Every Tuesday at 7 p.m., the lights are on in American Legion Hall on Piermont Avenue in Nyack. If the door is open, you might hear the tinkle of coin belts and the distinct laughter of a regular group of ten or so women who are there for belly dancing.
It’s a dance that conjures up images of scantily clad women and the earthy sounds of Middle Eastern music, but for many people, and this group of women in Nyack in particular, belly dancing helps them ease the pain. stress, gives a boost to their self-esteem. and their body a total workout.
“You feel so beautiful when you put on this costume; there is a mixture of sensuality and strength in belly dancing,” says Theresa Mahon. The 68-year-old Valley Cottage resident has been a professional dancer for 30 years and has been teaching in the Hudson Valley for over 20 years.
Mahon says belly dancing is often misunderstood in American culture, and calls it an empowerment dance for women by women. “Belly dancing is about using every part of your body; your head, neck, shoulders, fingertips and toes – not just shaking.”
But the shake is part of that ancient form of dance – it’s known as shimmy. And can be one of the hardest moves to master.
Belly dancing has its origins over 3,500 years ago in North Africa. Egyptian women danced for each other and older women taught the younger ones. The goal was to develop the strength and flexibility to prepare these women for the physical rigors of being a woman; from premenstrual syndrome to childbirth even by strengthening the pelvic floor; these women believed they were preparing young girls for life.
Fast forward to the present day and the benefits and camaraderie in Mahon’s class are the same.
For class, Lisa Dill gets rid of her corporate gear and puts on her favorite purple / gold top, belly dance skirt, and foot jewelry. She describes the group as “such a melting pot of ages and ethnicities. When we are in class we are just learning and it is fun; women can really let go of their insecurities and learn. No one judges.
This sentiment is echoed by others like Lisa Maresco from Bardonia. “Terry is connecting with his dancers, and she connected with me,” explains the 56-year-old ballet dancer who started taking lessons with Mahon in 2005. She credits her teacher for developing her skills. level of technical expertise and self-confidence. that she felt comfortable performing in public.
Like many of his students, Mahon came to belly dancing in search of something new. She was 38, recently divorced and worked full time with a 5 year old son.
Nyack belly dance class
Theresa Mahon conducts her last belly dance class after 20 years of teaching in Nyack. (Video by Peter Carr / The Journal News)
“I hired a belly dancer for a party and was fascinated by what she was doing with her body,” says Mahon. “I couldn’t copy his movements so that’s when I decided to take lessons.”
Her teacher told her she was natural and encouraged her to start playing. After a year of private lessons, Mahon had his first performance in Tarrytown.
“I was the last one to play and I was nervous. When I got out the audience went crazy when they saw my beautiful costume, and I started to move and that was it,” Mahon says. Later, another instructor convinced her to teach belly dancing.
For 20 years, Salacia (her stage name) has taught Egyptian belly classes between performances over a thousand times. “Belly dancing kept me healthy, focused and alive,” she says.
Mahon’s free class has all dance levels. Beginner belly dancers wear comfortable clothes and attach a lap belt with coins, which makes a noise when you move around. This low-impact dance is a great way to train with isolating movements that strengthen the core and help with balance and flexibility. The benefits of this dance can range from weight loss to stress reduction.
Lori Gale, a 54-year-old engineer and mother of two, says belly dancing cured her lifelong sleep apnea. The Valley Cottage resident found Mahon’s class in 2006 and goes there weekly. “Until Terry, I never really stuck with a class. She inspires you to take it,” said Gale, who overcame some initial nervousness and appeared in four performances. “I got applause in the middle and it was really good,” she says.
Dill, a 49-year-old clinical trials manager, started dancing with Mahon in the 1990s and learned what real dancers look like. “I thought belly dancers had flat stomachs. The first time I didn’t want to show my stomach. Then I learned that Egyptian women were shapely women,” she says.
And although Dill has left the area to work, she returns to Nyack for Mahon’s class. “It’s a great workout for the whole body; I had bad cramps and found it helped relieve the pain.”
Mahon, a breast cancer survivor herself, says there are health benefits to putting on a lap belt and putting on your shimmy. She says it strengthens your abdominal muscles and requires you to practice deep breathing, while all movements from hip circles to belly rolls strengthen your pelvis and lower back. “From teenage girls with low self-esteem and poor posture, to older women who feel their life is over, belly dancing can help.”
But after teaching 300 students, Mahon ends his Nyack class. “It’s bittersweet; belly dancing has opened up a whole new world to me,” she says.
It’s a mixed blessing, but Mahon says she’s ending her teaching career to be closer to her out-of-state grandchildren. For students like Maresco who are looking forward to the weekly class, she will be missed. “It’s just a small family; we met every Tuesday; we were so uncompromising. It just showed our love for it.”