If you feel like it’s time to shake up your exercise routine, Tamara Babun has the answer. The long-time Weston resident (her friends call her Tammy) has been teaching belly dancing classes since 2006 and recently realized a dream: she opened her own studio in Norwalk, the Belly Gobbah (pronounced Go-ba, which means “vault” in Arabic). Are you picturing exotic women donning veils, bellies undulating like cobras to twanging music? There is a little of that—some women dance in harem pants and belts with bright tassels to accentuate their shimmying hips; and the occasional Arabic song pops up in the cool mix of high-energy Top 40 hits—but Tammy’s “Tribal Fusion” style is more New Age fitness class than old-school Middle Eastern restaurant cabaret.
“My classes are a blend of belly dancing, hip-hop and modern,” says Tammy, whose dance training ranges from ballet to Zumba. Most of the hour-plus is spent learning choreography and repeating a routine to increasingly fast music. By the end, windows are fogged and the dancers have burned off breakfast. “Belly dancing is incredibly muscular,” says Tammy, “and this style will get your heart rate up.” It targets the back and arms (most of the time arms are held at shoulder level), the gluts and the core. “Twenty years ago, we’d work our abs on a mat on the floor, which now we know is really bad for your back,” explains Tammy, a certified personal trainer. “Belly dancing uses a lot of other muscles to train the abs. We’re not relying on the spine.” In fact, undulations strengthen the spinal column, and other health benefits abound: reduction in the risk of osteoporosis, improved posture, improved digestion, reduction in stress and depression, and weight loss. The Gobbah also offers weight training classes for dancers.
Tammy, who grew up in Tuxedo Park, New York, worked at the Renaissance Festival in her youth and “was mesmerized by the belly dancers.” She injected some moves into her strength-training classes and participants loved it. “I started taking workshops in New York and traveling to conventions. I just couldn’t get enough of it,” she raves. Tammy discovered Carolena Nericcio at Fat Chance Belly Dance, founder of American Tribal Style (ATS). “It’s an improvisational style that is community based. The dancers really engage with each other. You have to focus; you can’t be thinking about your grocery list. You rely on one another—I loved that aspect,” she explains. By 2008 Tammy had formed her own troupe, Tribalieve. The demographic of the dancers may surprise you: forty- to fifty-something moms.
Westport’s Karen Dellisola has been dancing in the troupe since its inception. “I had no dance background, beyond the Hustle in gym class! I fell in love with Tammy’s style,” she says. “Between her weight classes and belly dancing, I got in the best shape of my life.” She assures women who aren’t that they won’t be intimidated: “Tammy is so supportive. To her, everyone is beautiful.”
“I love that belly dancing makes you lose all shyness about your belly,” comments troupe member Nikola Freeman. “It doesn’t matter what size it is or what shape you are in. It’s almost better if it’s bigger.” Nikola has been belly dancing since 2000 and did a workshop in Marrakech in 2002. “It was unheard of then,” says the Westport resident. “Everyone thought I was crazy.” When she lists her reasons for belly dancing, she sounds perfectly sane: “Dancing makes me so happy and keeps me fit, and I love learning something at the same time that I’m working out.”
For a visual, Tammy suggests, “Google videos for Fat Chance Belly Dance and Unmata. My style falls somewhere in between the two.” The first class is free at the Gobbah, and baring your belly is optional. “Half the women keep themselves covered up,” notes Tammy, though midriff modesty dissipates over time. “Belly dancing attracts ladies who are non-judging,” she says. “We come together, let lose and dance for an hour, and then bundle up and go back out into Fairfield County.” Tammy also offers private classes and parties. Mom’s night out, anyone?
Try it: Classes from $14–$22, first class free, The Belly Gobbah, 36 Main St., Norwalk, 203-216-5947; tribalieve.com