One is an activity that conjures up images of exotic beauties, swishing silks, aromatic teas and balmy starlit skies. The other involves nursery rhymes, nappy changes and nocturnal awakenings of the most unglamorous variety.
“Belly-dancing” and “motherhood” might at first sight seem as suitable a union as pneumatic drills and sleeping babies. Or so I thought, with wide-eyed bemusement, when I first heard that belly-dancing classes for mothers and their babies existed in Tokyo.
I soon learned, however, that the two activities are not quite as incompatible as they appear — for not only has belly dancing after giving birth been enjoyed by Eastern mothers for centuries, it apparently also burns fat, tones muscles and trims waistlines in the process.
This was particularly appealing, having indulged in countless emergency cake sessions with other mothers (instead of stomach-flattening exercises at the gym) since the birth of my baby daughter.
Seduced by the possibility of gaining a glimpse of my pre-baby belly — even if it did require leaping around to Arabian music in shimmery scarves — I booked a class.
And so on a recent sunny Friday morning, I lugged my 9-month-old, Kiko, to Mihikaru, a cosy two-floor space devoted to mothers and babies on a quiet lane in Jiyugaoka in Tokyo’s west.
It’s a clever set up: photography, yoga, massage and breastfeeding support are among a range of maternity-related activities available — with a team of trained childcare assistants on hand to look after their offspring in the same space.
Upon arrival, Kiko’s eyes widened in excitement as she spied a group of babies playing among a mountain of toys in one half of the room — and with a little shriek, she was soon crawling off to join them.
With slightly less enthusiasm, I headed to the other side of the room where five mothers were seated before belly-dancing teacher Sahila, an exotic vision in floaty sleeves, with a magazine-perfect physique and dark hair down to her waist.
Then, just as I was thinking that Sahila was so glamorous she couldn’t possibly have ever given birth to any children, the class began — to my relief, with some gentle stretches that resembled yoga more than exotic dancing.
After 10 minutes, however, the mood changed. Sahila stood up and grabbed a pile of brightly-coloured scarves emblazoned with jingly metal pieces, triggering a mini mummy scrum as everyone chose their favorite.
I picked a sparkly scarlet number, which I was still working out how to tie around my waist, in imitation of the other mothers, when the music started: loud Arabian music, with a deep drum beat and swirling vocals.
As the shimmying kicked off, Sahila first taught us to stick out a leg and swivel our hips in a circular motion in time to the music — something that initially felt as alien as patting my head and rubbing my tummy at the same time.
Wrist-flicking arms flailing up and down followed shortly after, along with little shimmying steps to the right and the left and, finally, at one particularly ambitious moment, a 360-degree swirl.
Unfortunately, I know for a fact that I looked as ridiculous as I felt, thanks to the wall of mirrors before me. I didn’t only look silly, I also found it physically challenging, with my hips and thighs soon aching from all the awkward jiggying.
But after making a mental note not to look in the mirror (or to care), it suddenly got a lot easier and I started to enjoy myself — as did Kiko, who crawled over to see what all the fuss was about before plonking herself at Sahila’s feet and chewing on a stray sparkly scarf.
She was not the only little person to interrupt: one young girl joined in at one point by enthusiastically jumping up and down in front of her smiling mother.
Another seasoned belly-dancing mom demonstrated her ability to multitask by feeding her baby a milk bottle in her arms while shimmying her jingly-scarved hips across the room in perfect time to the music.
By the end of the class, I was exhausted but smiling. Chatting to Sahila afterward, I also learned that I was completely wrong in my initial judgment. For despite her exotic glamour, Sahila confided that she not only has two young children but she belly-danced before, after and during — yes, during — both births.
“There have long been belly-dancing ceremonies for childbirth in the Arab world,” she added. “The dance moves undulate in waves, just like when you give birth.
“Belly-dancing is also a perfect way for mothers to get in shape after birth, as it helps tone the inner muscles in your tummy and your hips. And it’s fun.”
I’m not sure I’ll be giving up my emergency cake fixes any time soon, I thought as Kiko and I left the class. But belly dancing might just provide the perfect balance to such indulgences — particularly if it endows me with a Sahila-esque tummy in the process.
Belly-dancing takes place at 11.50 a.m. Fridays. Classes are in Japanese, although some staff can speak English. Classes cost ¥3,000 for drop-ins, or ¥25,000 for 10 class coupons. Other activities include baby sign language, baby massage, making scrapbooks, yoga and nutritional courses. Aoki Bldg 2F, 5-24-2 Okusawa, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo 158-0083. Call (03) 5731 0098 or visit www.mihikaru.com for more information (Japanese only).