Jill Nykkei wanted to take up adult ballet 20 years ago when friends encouraged her to try a 10-week belly dancing class instead.
“As a child, I did the regular Western New York things most little girls do: ballet, tap, jazz, riding lessons,” said Nykkei, a trained graphic design-advertising specialist who fell so hard for the dance form that she started her own studio a decade ago after becoming a certified belly dancing instructor.
The Bellydance Academy of Western New York (thebellydanceacademy.com) opened nine years ago in Kenmore and moved two years ago into the downtown Tri-Main Building, on Main Street.
The Academy this summer offers hourlong classes at 9 a.m. Sundays on the East Lawn at Canalside, between 716 Food and Sport and Courtyard by Marriott. She also will teach a children’s hula craft class from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday at Canalside before the Polynesian-themed Disney flick, “Moana.”
She also leads a dance troupe, Fleuron Rouge ("Red Flower"), which performs at special events.
Q. What is it that attracted you to belly dancing and Polynesian hula dancing?
They're fascinating, fun, celebratory dances. They can be serious but they don't have to be. They're very empowering if you're a woman. They make you feel good while you're dancing. You're exercising. Your endorphins pop up.
Q. What is the difference between Indian and Polynesian dancing?
Indian dances, some of them – a Bhangra dance and a male dance and a silk dance – are joyous. There's jumping and bouncing. There's also Bharatanatyam religious-style Indian dances where you're basically doing poses of the deities. It's a great discipline to study, through all the mudras. It's just so fascinating. There's thousands of years of background to study. You'll never learn everything.
Hawaiian dances, hula dances, are more hip-oriented. You're telling stories with your hands. They're very universal over the islands. The hip movements look similar to belly dance but the postures and accents are vastly different. And it's a different joyous occasion.
Q. If somebody comes out for a belly dance class at Canalside, what will they experience?
Belly dance is kind of like lyrical yoga. It’s kind of like a low-impact aerobics class pieced together in choreography. … I start moving and break down the moves into combinations. Most people would be able to follow it easily. You're getting aerobic exercise. You're learning, or perfecting, Middle Eastern dance moves through repetition…
It goes with the natural flow of your body and the natural posture of your body. There are no jarring moves.
Q. Is there anything that participants need to bring with them or wear?
Breathable, flexible clothing. Basically something you'd wear for a jog or run, or to a yoga class. Some people are barefoot. People don't want to wear flip-flops because they're dangerous to exercise in. I suggest people bring wrist weights for a little extra workout but they don't have to.
Q. Do people have to show their bellies?
That's a very popular question. It scares a lot of women – and men. No you don't. If they want to show their bellies, good for them, but most people do not. It's about the freedom of the movements. You don't even have to show your belly when you perform, although that's expected in America. In Egypt, you're not even allowed.
Q. So men can participate?
Yes. We had a male performer in our troupe for a while. I also know a wonderful male belly dancer from Pittsburgh who I brought here for a workshop. We've had male students come take belly dancing over the years. Currently, I have none enrolled but men are always welcome.
Q. Can you talk about the wellness benefits of belly dancing?
It's a gentle stretch, like a low-intensity aerobics workout. You can burn 300 to 650 calories during a class depending on what you're doing and what your heart rate is. There are adjustments if you have a back or shoulder issue. It really helps your core. It really helps with posture. You don't even realize you're working out as much as you are because the movements are gentle. For instance, belly rolls. If I do a 3- to 5-minute belly roll drill in the class, people are standing up or maybe bending over a little, they're doing the same exercise as if they were crunching. They're going to feel it the next day but there's absolutely no strain in the back because you're only using your muscles to do it and there's no spine involved. A lot of people cannot do crunches because of back or neck issues. Belly rolls are just as effective with absolutely no pressure on the spine.
Q. Aside from The Tri-Main Building, Canalside and special events, do you teach anywhere else?
I host a belly dance class the second Wednesday of every month except in July. It's really fun. It's almost like an open mic night. Dancers will come and perform and teach. It runs from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Gypsy Parlor (376 Grant St.). The core performances and group dancing is from 7:45 to 9:45. It's free.
We'll also perform during the after-party of the Salvation Army's Buffalo's Most Amazing Race on July 29. One of our dancers and her boyfriend were last year's winners.
Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon