Ten women flail their arms wildly, stick out their backsides and shake their hips to the rhythm of the rattling drums. Not only are these women performing a traditional mating dance from Africa, they are breaking a sweat to it during their class at the Greenpoint YMCA. On Meserole Avenue, the YMCA is spicing up the usual workout routine with its AfroCaribbean dance class, as well as its belly dancing and break dancing classes, which physically celebrate cultures abroad and in New York. Rose Marie Visconti, with dark black hair and a sparkly black tank top, said she has been coming to the Afro-Caribbean class since it began. “At first, I felt I couldn‟t move at all, and I didn‟t want to shake my booty,” she said. “But I keep coming and get comfortable with the moves. As a teacher and mother, I have to do something fun for me.” Samantha Colon, 15, said she wanted to relate better to her Puerto Rican family. Her grandmother, she said, used to wear a white dress and a wrap on her head, and dance in the traditional style in Puerto Rico. “I want to know what she‟s used to,” she said, admitting her grandmother thinks the class is silly. “She thinks working out means push-ups,” said Colon. Considered “exotic” by its 2,850 members, of whom 60 to 65 percent are white, the classes at the YMCA are offered 48 weeks out of the year, according to YMCA directors. Adults pay a membership fee of $39.60 a month, and $15 for a day pass. Fitness coordinator Porsche St. Hillaire, 36, originally from Trinidad in the West Indies, introduced the Afro-Caribbean class in Greenpoint in 1997. In black stretch pants and a matching handkerchief wrapped around a ponytail of dreadlocks, St. Hillaire said she fuses many types of dance into her class, including West African, Caribbean, samba, salsa and modern dancing. She makes sure to team the dance with music that motivates, like soukous, a type of Afro-jazz that inspires quick hip movements and gyrations. St. Hillaire said she does not want participants to feel like they are working out. “I tell them to visualize the Caribbean islands or the Ivory Coast,” she said. At first, members resisted the new style of dance at Greenpoint, St. Hillaire said. “Most were older Polish women at the gym and said the music was too loud,” she said. “They were used to Jane Fonda. At first, they were so hush-hush, I couldn‟t get them to yell.” But she said she used little tricks to gradually coax members into the dance form without knowing it. She used visual phrases, such as “stepping on hot coals” and raise one‟s arms and “shake the leaves.” She also makes yelling mandatory. While some members come for the allure of the culture, others come for the alternative workout, which is fun and helps them lose their inhibitions. The popular class has now spurred others, including Ranya Renee Fleysher‟s belly dancing classes for beginner and intermediate participants. One night at a recent class, a group of seven women in twinkling hip scarves shimmied up and down a rose-water perfumed room while fluttering sheer veils in shades of purple, green, royal blue and pink from their shoulders. “Imagine you are walking through a rose garden,” Fleysher said to the beginner class. Afterward in the intermediate class, eight women undulate their abdomens, snap together their finger cymbals, and move their heads from side to side to the accordion in a Middle Eastern song. “You are the accordion, pulling the music out of your body,” Fleysher said, as Karen De Luna, 32, with inviting dark eyes and a big smile responded with slow, snaky movements of her torso. Fleysher said belly dancing can be an effective way to lose weight. With long, curly brown hair, and in a purple and black whispery top cut above her midriff and a sparkly blue hip scarf, Fleysher said she used to be 20 pounds heavier before she started belly dancing 15 years ago. Jaime Cleland, 27, a graduate student at CUNY, said belly dancing has become her main workout. “The class is intellectual and physical. The dance really celebrates womanhood,” said Cleland, who seemed at home clicking away at her finger cymbals, and wore a blue sports bra and a glittering pink hip scarf. However, Cleland also admitted she sometimes practices her belly dancing moves to Michael Jackson‟s “Billie Jean.” Women of all shapes and sizes feel welcome here, Fleysher said. “People feel they have to apologize for being at the gym if they don‟t have the popular American gym body,” she said. “Here, you make the most with what you have.” Now a break dancing class is drawing the males as well. “Break dancing is all about who‟s got the best moves,” said instructor William Madera, 27. “It can be an alternative to violence. If I got beef with you, let‟s dance.” The Wednesday class gives participants an opportunity to learn more about break dancing‟s roots, which began in the 1970s with people dancing in the streets of New York, said Madera, a Puerto Rican from New York. Whether it began in Brooklyn or the Bronx is debatable, Madera said. Madera has been performing moves, such as the worm, an undulating maneuver on the street, since he was a child, and his class attracts a younger coed crowd from ages 12 to 25, said Madera. This Wednesday, a mix of five women in their 20s and four grade-school-aged boys stand in a broad circle, holding hands and practicing the wave. Then, participants split up to balance and spin on their heads, and work on freezes, where they hold up their bodies in the air with their hands. Emily Hwang, 25, in a baby T-shirt and pigtails, has attended for a month, and hopes with more practice, she can break into the circle at clubs, such as Red and Black in Williamsburg. St. Hillaire, instructor for the Afro-Caribbean class, said she is happy with the continuing popularity of her class and makes clear that she does not take “I can‟t” for an answer. “I always say, „If you walk in here, you can move, and if you can move, you can dance,‟” she said.
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