"I hate the self-loathing thing," Lahara says. "I just want women to have an environment where they are uninhibited -- self-aware, but not self-conscious."
In class, Lahara gracefully extends her hand in the air and skillfully rattles the glass beads and metal coins draped about her midriff. She recognizes belly dancing's sexual mystique, but she says her focus is on helping women become comfortable with their curves and with themselves. "Middle Eastern dance was originally the dance of women for women," she explains. "It's intended for women to commune together. It's a big bonding thing."
That's what Lahara tries to recreate in her studios, regardless of any misconceptions. "You can't force people to respect it or to respect women," she acknowledges. But people may gain respect after attempting to mimic Lahara's intricate undulations. Trying to rotate a single portion of the stomach is like driving a loaner car -- everything that should be familiar seems misplaced.
Though difficult, the tricky movements come with benefits, Lahara says. They massage internal organs, release tension in the spine and increase flexibility. "Using your entire body, you're going to find out what you're really capable of doing," she explains.
However, belly dancing's greatest health benefit may be psychological. "It is great to hear grown women giggle on the way out of class. I've never wanted to go home and do aerobics some more. They go home and shimmy when they Swiffer or when they're doing the dishes."
Eyes twinkling, Lahara adds, "I've never heard a husband complain about his wife going to a belly dancing class."