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Belly dancing comes to Scottish Rite

Although belly dancing has its roots in early Egyptian history, there's still a certain stigma attached to it.

"A lot of people think we're like strippers or something," said Debbie Poldoski, director of Duluth's Desert Caravan Dance Troupe. "They just kind of look down at us. They think ballet is the top-notch thing and everything else is below it."

However, she said, despite all the misconceptions, belly dancing is steadily becoming more mainstream.

"It's getting better because belly dancing has more exposure now," she added, mentioning popular practitioners such as Shakira and the Bellydance Superstars -- a group started by Miles Copeland, founder of I.R.S. Records and brother to Police drummer Stewart Copeland.

Poldoski is sitting in the extravagant auditorium of the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple, fielding questions between rehearsal numbers. Her troupe is prepping for its sixth annual production, "A Night with the Caravan."

"This is a woman's dance. It is the essence of woman," she said of the art she's been mastering for more than 25 years. "... You project yourself, and it takes a long time to let yourself go in front of an audience.

"It's like baring your inner soul."

In addition to Desert Caravan, Poldoski instructs aspiring belly dancers for both Duluth Public Schools (through its community education program) and Jennifer Madill Hagen's Madill Dance Center in Lincoln Park.

"A lot of people come into belly dancing thinking all you have to do is shake your butt and your boobs, you know?" she said. "It's not just tightening up your body and wiggling your rear end. ... It's very hard with all the little nuances."

Poldoski said the activity, which utilizes muscles in dancers' legs, knees, thighs and "buns," requires more than an instructional video to learn.

"We do a lot of technique because if you don't learn the proper moves, you're gonna hurt yourself," she warned. "There's nothing wrong with learning from a video, but you need a teacher."

Karen Hapy, who studied under Poldoski for a few years before becoming a member of Desert Caravan, said the troupe's director is "very caring and inclusive."

"She never makes it about what you look like," she said. "It's about doing the movement technically correct and the individual expression of the dance and music.

"... Often in Middle Eastern dance there is a natural fluidity to it, and does truly suit a woman's body. There are a few male belly dancers, and they are technically good, but there is a different look to the dance when done by a man."

Lorraine Washa, who's been with Desert Caravan for nearly two decades, mirrored Hapy's sentiments about Poldoski, calling her an "excellent instructor."

"I have learned so much," she said, "and constantly am amazed at how much more there is to learn and perfect.

"Belly dancing is a beautiful art form and takes a considerable amount of time and energy to keep up with new techniques, practicing old ones and having fun in the process."

Although all the practice that goes into perfecting the art of belly dancing equates to burning calories, Poldoski said there's more to the dance's benefits than physical health.

"The mainstream of the belly dancers are older and larger," she said of the activity's building of positive body image. "While some are skinny and younger, it draws more women because it's for any body type, any age and any size."

Poldoski herself first got hooked on belly dancing in 1978, when she attended a workshop in Wisconsin.

"I didn't even want to go to the workshop ... but I found out my archrival at my dance school was going, and so of course I had to go," she joked. "When I went down there, I was hooked.

"I loved the music, and I loved the moves."

Poldoski's appreciation of the art blossomed from there, and she became one of the first belly dance instructors in Duluth. She said one of its only downfalls is the lack of financial return -- Poldoski holds a full-time "day job" outside of her Desert Caravan and teaching duties -- but she has kicked around the notion of making her troupe a nonprofit so they can put on more shows and stop sewing their own costumes.

Despite all this (and the snide stripper comments), Poldoski doesn't seem to harbor any regrets.

"It's fun," she said. "We like it."

News to Use

The Desert Caravan Dance Troupe will perform "A Night with the Caravan" at 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 28, at the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple, 4 W. Second St. Cost is $10 for adults and $5 for children ages 12 and younger. For details, call 723-1722.