Putting the fun into fitness

It’s no surprise that exercise is important, but how can we keep it interesting? Belly-dancing is the answer, claims Maureen Paton, who shares with us its bountiful benefits

I came very late to the idea of exercise, having ignored it for decades until I reached an ‘interesting’ age and realised I urgently needed some elder-exercise to oil those madly creaking joints. Yet although strength exercises build up older muscles and increase your metabolism, which helps to keep weight and blood sugar in check, who wants to start pumping iron for the first time alongside driven young things at the gym? Me neither. So the challenge was to find an enticing alternative that offered specific benefits for older people. One obvious solution was dancing, since it’s a classic endurance exercise that increases the heart rate by putting the fun into fitness. But although I’m a huge Strictly fan, I’ve always been hopeless at the partnered kind of dancing after dreadful memories of stiff school ballroom classes (remember those?) with reluctant, sweaty-palmed boys. I also have arthritic knees, inherited from my mother, so lots of Latino stamping around in such emphatic dances as the uber-trendy salsa is a no-no.

But then I discovered the solo delights of belly-dancing… a revelation, since it lures you in with glamorous costumes and absurdly seductive music. Crucially, it exercises the whole body from top to toe, starting with the warm-up shimmying and then progressing to the waving “snake�? arms and fingers and the “camel�? dances that imitate the swaying movements of desert dromedaries rather more elegantly (you hope). As a non-impact, weight-bearing exercise, it’s excellent for helping to prevent osteoporosis and for improving flexibility, especially in the spine with a repertoire of full-body, undulating moves that lengthen and strengthen the spinal column. Who would have thought that something, which frankly looks so frivolous, could make us all so fit?

“You? Belly-dancing?�? scoffed an outspoken friend when she heard about my new passion. “But you haven’t got a belly to dance with!�? It’s true that I had managed to lose some excess tummy-weight, but boy, do I still have womanly hips; I’m the original hipster. And in fact belly-dancing is something of a misnomer for what is really the groovy art of hip-dancing. My boyfriend has nicknamed it “hip-chopping�? because of one particularly rapid up-and-down hip movement which fans out to emulate the cutting of a cake into slices – and which does wonders for the glutes, by the way. So all you really need for this highly addictive exercise is a functioning pair of hips (or hip replacements), which means that all shapes and sizes can have a go.

That’s the great thing about belly-dancing: it’s tremendously inclusive. Some of us look like stately galleons in full sail, while others are more like Popeye’s Olive Oyl; and that’s all absolutely fine. One seventy-something woman comes to our classes with her twenty-something granddaughter, so it can be a great activity for bringing the generations together. It’s creative enough to encourage improvisation, and I defy anyone not to get the giggles at one point – especially with some of the camper costumes. Whenever I’m guilty of a mutton-dressed-as-lamb fashion disaster, I know just where I can wear it without frightening the horses or offending the age police.

For belly-dancing is a great excuse to bring on the bling by wearing floaty hippie-style skirts and hip-sashes with those rows of tiny coins whose instantaneous rattle shows you whether you’re shimmying fast enough. I brought back some cossies from holidays in Spain and Turkey as well as from my local London market in Camden Lock, while one very tall and rangy English teacher in my class swapped her usual trackie bottoms for a magenta-coloured pair of harem pants with matching jewelled Madonna bodice like twin rockets, giving us a tantalising glimpse of a startling personality change. It’s a dance like no other: you really can reinvent yourself.

The beauty of belly-dancing was summed up best by my friend Sue, 55, who pointed out that it’s the only class in our gym where the participants socialise afterwards. And of course you’ll never be short of a conversational show-stopper when people ask what you do for a hobby… “It’s very free and very feminine – and it’s also very sensual in a controlled way without being sluttish,�? says devotee Eve, 60. “No one is judging you – and there’s a lot of camaraderie.�?