Perhaps a concept foreign to many, belly dancing — characterised by sensuous hip and waist movements — actually offers specific health benefits for senior and menopausal women, says belly dance teacher Ruby Tan.

The movements of the dance, she believes, primarily exercise the gut, therefore minimising the risk of urinary incontinence as well as hip fractures.

The dance also works different body parts, even the fingertips.

There is another reason why Ms Tan champions the Middle Eastern dance.

She explains: “Whenever senior female dancers are mentioned, the first thought that comes to mind is the popular line dance.

“I want to show that belly dance involves the isolation of different body parts and hence, it is most suited to women who prefer a more feminine movement as opposed to the more neutral and non-gender-specific body movements in line dancing.

“Belly dancing is all about following the natural flow of the female form. Dancers should have some fat at the abdominal area as it provides for a more feminine movement and experience.

“But contrary to popular belief, you do not have to expose your belly if you do not wish to.”

Ms Tan, who is in her 40s, performs the dance herself occasionally at private and community events, where she is also the master of ceremonies.

The belly dance choreographer and teacher is also a corporate trainer championing work-life balance and women’s health.

Never too old to learn

Her work as a belly dance teacher extends beyond the dance studio.

Ms Tan coordinates dancing engagements with different organisations and plans dance routines and course outline suited to seniors.

She also sources for musical instruments, such as the djembe, or African drums, to incorporate them in the dance, and selects appropriate costumes and music suited to her students’ age and physical limitations.

She even helps to create suitable hairstyles for the women for their performances.

Her classes — offered at the Women’s Initiative For Ageing Successfully (Wings) and other corporate organisations — are held weekly and for an hour each.

She has nearly 90 students, all of whom are above 40 years old. The oldest is an 83-year-old grande dame!

On what she enjoys most about her job, Ms Tan says: “I get my students to perform unique movements, and when they get them wrong, the whole class bursts into laughter — but all in good fun!

“And although the actual class lasts only an hour, what people do not know is the many additional hours spent preparing for these lessons.”

One of her challenges lies in communicating accurately to students in various languages. She uses both English and local dialects to ensure each dance movement is understood and performed correctly.

When tricky moves are involved, she demonstrates them by holding up the students’ arms or waists, or both.

And to encourage a natural performance with unfettered emotions, she gets her students to practise without mirrors, at least for a while.

“When their attention is not on the mirrors, they have to focus on their movements and even mirror one another’s smiles, ” she explains.

Dancing the talk

To keep the classes interesting, she constantly comes up with new ideas. All this planning sometimes leaves her with very little time to prepare for performances.

She recalls: “There was once when I choreographed an Indian wedding dance routine for a predominantly Indian audience within 16 hours. This despite me being the only Chinese choreographer and not knowing a single Indian word.”

Not that it mattered in the end, for the performance was well-received.

She constantly keeps herself updated in the field of belly dancing by attending local and international belly dance performances, exploring the latest dance techniques and networking with other trainers.

In the days to come, she sees herself teaching in as many centres for seniors as possible, with an eponymous tailor-made syllabus named “Ruby”.

She says: “One of my greatest accomplishments is to be able to break away from the stereotype of a career woman working from nine to five.

“And perhaps my greatest achievement is waking up every morning and living my dream of being paid to do what I love!”