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Jheri St. James

Enhance your workout while learning new moves in this local belly dancing class.

By Jessie Dax-Setkus


Day after day of the same treadmill routine can get dull, but luckily there’s a remedy to help diversify your fitness regime and drop some pounds at the same time.

If you are looking for a unique way to get the sweat flowing that doesn’t require running shoes or weights, try signing up for Jheri St. James’ belly dancing classes through the city of Laguna Beach. Having already practiced yoga for 15 years, St. James took her first belly dancing class at the urging of a friend in 1982. After conquering the beginning and intermediate courses at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, she decided to try her hand at teaching in 1986 and hasn’t stopped since. Despite facing challenges like stage fright, cultural misunderstandings and female competition, she says there is always something new to learn and that the dance style provides her with a blissful feeling.

Here, she discusses what to expect during her classes at Laguna Beach Community & Susi Q Center, and how dance has mental benefits as well as physical.

How long have you been offering these classes through the city?

I started teaching in 1986. I got mad at a boyfriend, and a lady friend of mine said, “Why don’t you come to belly dance class?” I was so upset, I said I would do that and that I felt like being wild and crazy. So I started going to belly dance classes with her, and we gradually merged into a little troupe that performed at the Sawdust [Art & Craft] Festival. Then, someone … said, “Why don’t you teach belly dancing classes through the recreation department?” By then, I had four years under my belt and I figured I would try it out, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

What are the different levels of classes?

I have beginning and intermediate classes right now. At one point I had four levels, but I scaled it back a little. The beginning classes are fundamental movements and learning how to play finger cymbals. It’s also how to do veil dancing. Belly dance is a folk dance form, so we learn how to dance with a cane and how to dance with a sword, Egyptian and Turkish style. Choreography, recitals and costumes are all part of beginning classes. Intermediate classes focus more on repertory, rehearsing and learning more complex choreography with an eye toward performing. We dance at Soka University’s International [Festival] …, the Sawdust festival, the Orange County Fair, Irvine Global Village [Festival] and a lot of belly dancing events. We have shows lined up through March.

The Habibis, belly dancing troupe.

 Aside from physical benefits, how does dancing help keep the mind sharp and reduce the risk of dementia?

The way it helps is by keeping the mind-body connection going. Your mind tells your body what to do in a dance setting, and also [has] the ability to make quick decisions while you’re dancing. For instance, in a show, you might find yourself in a moment where you’re not remembering the choreography or something is happening where you have to make a decision about what you’re going to do with your body next. That is one of the key things about dementia prevention. It’s mind and body, in general, and making short-term decisions about what you’re going to do in movement. Those are the types of skills that get lost over time because people sit in front of their TV or something.

What should a first-time dancer expect?

They should expect to laugh, enjoy themselves and learn how to use their body in new ways because, if you look at the dance[s] of the world, most of them are only engaging the feet and the arms—other than salsa and maybe hula. However, belly dancing engages the whole body in a series of isolated movements unlike any other dance. So learning how to do that is often very challenging. Particularly for ballet dancers, tap dancers or modern dancers.

What equipment do you need to bring to class?

A lot of people dance barefoot. I know I prefer to dance barefoot, but I am wearing shoes more often [lately]. I also provide people with hip scarves, which are the little scarves with the coins on them that jingle and are very helpful for hearing what your hips are doing when you’re learning the movements. I mean, there … [are] 35 ways to shimmy, for example. I also have veils for sale and I sell finger cymbals. Those are the three things that beginners will definitely want to have.


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