"Bellydancing not only strengthens your body but your mind as well—you learn to interpret and feel the rhythms of the music connecting your mind and body to the universal language of dance." So explains Fanina Padykula, a Portland-based pilates instructor and bellydancing pro who recently launched a dance workshop at Southeast Portland's reFORM Pilates, thanks to the studio's recent remodel providing a larger space for classes. Pilates and bellydancing may seem like an odd couple, but Padykula is inspired by their similarities: "We connect breath to movement, like yoga or pilates, cleansing out places in our bodies that are stuck physically—and often emotionally."

According to Padykula, bellydancing can improve posture and alignment, provide core strength and stability, as well as increase mobility and coordination, "but most importantly, it's a fitness class where you are having fun and forget that you are exercising."

Now a "Miss Bellydance USA" champion and competition judge, Padykula was introduced to bellydancing in high school as a self-described shy, introverted girl who felt uncomfortable being the center of attention or speaking up in class. "I was drawn to it for some reason, and when an outgoing friend of mine talked me into going to a class I was immediately hooked." She remembers loving the music and the way her body felt both fluid and strong after class, and after a few years worked up the courage to perform in front of a crowd of strangers. "The experience of putting myself out there for something that I love and feel passionate about really changed the way I approached life from there on out. My confidence level and sense of self became much more positive, changing the course of my life dramatically!"

Jenny Breed, before and after her bellydance-inspired transformation. Photo credit: Michelle Taylor and Dennis Glisson of Glisson Imaging-PDX

Padykula's students have experienced similar transformations. Jenny Breed (pictured here with an inspiring before and after) has lost nearly 100 pounds since 2012 and says that, while bellydance wasn't the only helpful factor, it was certainly a huge one. "I attribute my ability to finally make better health choices as much to my greater sense of body awareness as I do the actual exercise the dance brings. This form of movement is so internal, so precise, you can't help but be brought to a heightened state of body awareness. You're encouraged through dance to really listen to what is going on inside and it is just plain fun and addicting to move your body in this way—so you just keep on moving."

After years of teaching and dancing, Padykula and her students have developed healthier body image and self-confidence, and enjoy the meditative effects of the artform. But is it for everyone? Padykula certainly believes so. "It is the one form of dance that truly is all-inclusive and open to all ages, shapes, and sizes. I have seen dancers sharing their art on stage from 8 to 80 years old. The curvier the better!"

Jenny Breed adds that the inclusivity and diversity of the American bellydance scene is a huge factor in inspiring healthy changes in dancers. "Bellydance has been there through all of my stages of personal change. A decade ago when I was very overweight, I was still a bellydancer. And I was as accepted as a bellydancer as any of my 'more fit' colleagues. I can't emphasize enough how valuable it was for me to find myself immersed within such an inclusive community."

And it's not just for the male gaze, Padykula insists. "Some people think of bellydancing as a sexual type of dancing, something that is not a respectable form of dance. I hope to educate the public that while bellydancing does have an innate sensuality to its movements, it is an art form that throughout history has been danced by women for other women to guide childbirth, initiate young women into adulthood, and create community in cultures that tend to be very male dominant. By the way, there are also lots of male bellydancers out there who are amazing!"

Want to get involved? The reFORM Pilates classes take place Mondays at 7:30 pm and Wednesdays at 7:30 pm ($18 for a drop-in or $90 for a six-week series pass). Visit Fanina Padykula's website or the studio's website for more information. The Portland Bellydance Guild also hosts Monthly Hafla's (gatherings) where beginner and advanced students can dance with live Arabic music and get to know others in the community.
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