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story.lead_photo.caption Local Belly Dancer Cassandra Parks performs at Gulpha Gorge on May 25, 2020. - Photo by Grace Brown of The Sentinel-Record - Photo by Grace Brown

The pandemic may just be "prime time" to pick up a new, fun hobby like belly dancing, and local instructor Cassandra Parks is here to help beginners delve into this pastime that can help anyone stay "focused, centered and present" even during uncertain times.

Personally, this "health pick-me-up" provides Parks with "confidence and physical connection," and she recommends it to anyone; noting that "anyone" includes women, men and children. The art of belly dancing doesn't discriminate and can be modified to "accommodate any physical limitations."

How does belly dancing work?

CP: Physically, belly dance is a balance between muscle memory, coordination and isolation; style and transitions come after you have mastered these.

I always tell my students the first day of class that learning to belly dance is like going on a first date with your own body. It is a little awkward at first, but exciting! There will be things that come easily and then there will be things that you struggle to understand and must stumble through.

In class, I also refer to "The Little Book of Talent" by Daniel Coyle when he says, "Be willing to be stupid."

"Feeling stupid is no fun but being willing to risk the emotional pain of making mistakes is absolutely essential because reaching and failing and reaching again is the way your brain grows and forms new connections," he says.

In class we are doing just that: Forming connections. I may look polished and graceful, but there is always a great deal of misses before the hits start coming and that is OK!

Muscle memory is really the major key to all of this and that comes with practice. My teacher, Rachel Brice, employs what is known as interval training to help build muscle memory quickly and strongly, and I incorporate that into my classes. "Interval" is a term for alternating two or more types of work during one practice.

In my classes and personal practice, I use what is known as the 30-20-10 method that was pioneered by Jens Bangsbo, which I was introduced to by Rachel in my 8 Elements training. In class, interval training alternates between fast and slow movements working those muscles and building the muscle memory. Because it is done in smaller time increments, it also helps keep you engaged, and you can also build your own intervals to keep things fresh.

How did you get into belly dancing?

CP: I love telling this story.

I was attending Henderson State University at the time and visiting my parents in Mena. I was still operating on the college student schedule so I was up super late flipping through the channels, which were nothing but infomercials, and I stumbled across "American Bellydancer" on the Documentary Channel.

Since I was not in the market for a new waffle iron, I decided to see what this documentary was about. At the time, I was unaware that belly dance had multiple styles and deep, complex origins. When I began watching, the documentary was showing dancers doing what I later learned to be "American Cabaret" style belly dance.

Now, at the time I was not into being flashy in my appearance nor would I have considered myself an overtly feminine person in regards to my appearance. I had always struggled with how I looked and was bullied for it growing up, so seeing the American Cabaret style did not speak to me as a person at that time.

However, as I continued to watch, this dancer dressed in more darkly colored costuming with highlights of shimmer here and there slicked across the television screen. She moved like a snake; slow and confident with a slight smile on her face that was not like the big bubbly smile that I noticed from the American Cabaret dancers. She was also barefoot and not wearing the heels that I had seen other dancers wear.

In that moment, I stopped. I was in awe of this woman and her subtle, yet powerful confidence and I had to know who she was. I learned that this dancer was Rachel Brice and the style that she was doing was called "Tribal Fusion."

After that, I dove deep into research. I did not have internet at the time so I would visit my grandparents and watch hours upon hours of YouTube performances of these Tribal Fusion dancers, taking notes along the way and then I would go home and try to emulate what I saw. I would like to note the lack of quality camera phones to which I am forever grateful did not capture those first few years of my journey!

While I was at HSU, I was majoring in Communications, but minored in Dance, and that gave me a chance to re-explore my body and I was able to apply these techniques on my body while trying to recreate what I was seeing in these belly dance performances.

Years after graduating HSU, I had moved back to Mena and began taking American Tribal Style classes from Deb Weddle in Van Buren. Class was held each Sunday, so for about three years I would drive over an hour and a half, one-way, to learn this style of belly dance from her. ... To this day, she is a treasured teacher and mentor of mine.

Currently, I am in phase three of four of "Rachel Brice's: The 8 Elements of belly dance." ... In my classes and performances, I mostly perform fusion style belly dance but I am a certified American Tribal Style instructor, as well.

What is your favorite part about belly dancing?

CP: The confidence and physical connection that comes with learning it.

When I first began belly dancing about 13 years ago, I could barely look at myself in the mirror because I did not like what I saw. Years of bullying and trying to meet the "status quo" of what beauty is considered in our culture had taken a huge toll on me.

As I began learning the dance, I started gaining more confidence and felt more present in my body than I ever had before in my life. I realized that movement was the key to feeling present. I also gained a whole dance community of women and men from all walks of life that had similar experiences and found their place in belly dance.

When I teach, above all else, I try to convey the importance of movement and the benefits it has for the mind, body and soul. You do not have to be the best dancer, you do not even have to consider yourself a dancer, you just have to get up and move!

Who can belly dance?

CP: Anyone can belly dance! That is what I love and admire about this style so much.

I have seen women, men and children all doing belly dance and each person brings their own unique flare to it. You do have to be aware of your body and listen to it during practice. If something hurts, do not do it! Most often, there are modifications that can be made to accommodate any physical limitations.

What are some of the health and mental benefits to belly dancing?

CP: There are so many! What I have noticed most in myself is greater coordination and balance in addition to muscle toning and definition.

Anyone who has done arm undulations in my class can tell you how deceivingly effortless that movement looks, but it tones the arms in the process. When we work on faster movements, you definitely get some cardio in the mix and work up a sweat!

Mentally, I have personally experienced greater acceptance and compassion inward and outwardly. I have also seen many of my students gain more confidence and it shows in their body movement in and outside of class.

What are some challenges your students tend to have when learning to belly dance?

CP: Most often, it is simply overcoming fear.

Muscle memory and learning the names of the movements and combinations can be a daunting task and if you are telling yourself "I can't do this" or "I'm not a dancer"; that will hinder you from getting past that fear hurdle. I am a firm believer that talent does not overshadow hard work.

While you may not get something right off the bat, with consistent practice you can master anything. Anything!

There is also this perception of what a belly dancer or a movement "should look like," and those assumptions can and will hold you back; I know it held me back for many, many years. It was not until Rachel had our class record ourselves individually and critique ourselves did I begin actually watching myself and not another dancer. It was the first time I started to see how the movements looked on me and my frame. It was a game-changer!

Why is the COVID-19 pandemic a "prime time" to pick up a hobby like belly dancing?

CP: Because it will keep you centered, focused and present.

As someone who suffers from anxiety and depression, it has been a lifesaver time and again for me. I admit though, I have struggled to keep my consistency since all of this started, but the compassion I have learned to have for myself in learning this dance has helped me look at myself with kinder eyes and accept that sometimes, you need rest.

There are so many online options for classes and lessons that can bring it right into your home and that is amazing! I am considering online classes and private lessons as well. If you are interested, please contact me via Facebook at Cassandra Elyse, or email at [email protected]

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