Alison Lee dusts off her bedlah and pulls her best Shakira moves

Until recently, the term “dance class” served only traumatise me with flashbacks to myself as a clumsy eight-year-old, weeping after my first disastrous Irish dancing lesson. That hour of torture made it painfully clear that my lifelong dream of starring in Riverdance just wasn’t going to come true – so I joined a taekwondo club instead. After about a decade of getting the crap kicked out of me, I felt that perhaps it was time for a change – yet it was with some trepidation that I signed up for my first bellydance class. It’s an art form I always saw as being reserved for smoky-eyed, exotic, Oriental beauties – not pale, bespectacled Vet students from Shankill. But I plucked up my courage and arrived at the decidedly unglamorous St. Thomas’ College Of Further Education in Bray to learn how to be sexy, how to be seductive, and how to hopefully avoid pulling too many muscles in the process.

‘Bellydancing’ is a rather misleading name. Professional bellydancers don’t have ‘bellies’ at all – flat, toned, perfectly-formed abdomens, yes; ‘bellies’ in the Homer Simpson sense of the word, most certainly not. But thankfully the class wasn’t composed entirely of nubile young women who work part-time in Leggs – in fact some of the women present were middle-aged, along with a few studenty types like myself. Some of my classmates were so ancient that I wondered if they had gotten lost on the way to bingo and wound up bellydancing entirely by accident. The class was devoid of males but once all the gyrating commenced, I realised this was definitely for the best.

Our instructor Claire turned out to be a native of Bray herself – a petite, pale professional dancer who insisted we get dressed up in proper bellydancing gear to get in the mood for our first lesson. The power of sparkly things should never be underestimated: within a few minutes we were dolled up in Claire’s jingly coin-belts and long embroidered skirts, warming up enthusiastically to traditional Indian music. One of the sweetest, sunniest people this hard-bitten journalist has ever come across, she gave a little speech about how we were to support each other, take part, and above all not worry about embarrassing ourselves in front of our classmates.

This pep-talk was essential, because, in a beginner’s bellydancing class, you have to embarrass yourself roughly every thirty seconds – and keep a big smile plastered on your face while doing so. Claire’s mantra (“feet shoulder width apart, knees bent, pelvis tucked under, ribcage raised, chest open, shoulders back, chin up, and SMILE!”) gave us a lot to concentrate on. But we tried our best to keep it in mind as we shimmied, pivoted, and massacred the most elusive of all bellydancing moves, the bizarrely-named “camel”. Thankfully Claire was always there with a smile or and a word of encouragement no matter how daft we looked. After a while I came to terms with the fact that despite looking like a complete twat, I was enjoying myself.

The verdict? Despite initial misgivings, I will most certainly be returning to bellydance class. You don’t have to be super-fit and scarily flexible to take part, and there’s plenty of opportunities to indulge in the guilty pleasure of playing dress-up. Not to mention that bellydancing, when done well, is beautiful, hypnotic and graceful – maybe even more so than Riverdance.