ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) — Jenny Kroska is a little tired of being judged.
She’s a lot of things — a mother of two, a wife, an employee at St. Cloud Hospital — but as soon as she mentions the fact that she’s also a belly dancing instructor, that’s when eyes tend to roll.
“It’s just such a distorted image,” Kroska said. “(People) think a belly dancer is half stripper and half this Egyptian woman on stage, and there’s just so much more to it than that.”
So, one exposed midriff at a time, Kroska and a handful of other dancers in the area are trying to change minds and have a little fun in the process.
Kroska, who’s from St. Cloud, started belly dancing in 2003. It had always been a curiosity, so she joined a class. Things were going well and she grew close to her classmates, but when her teacher left the area, things began to deteriorate. The nearest classes were too far away for Kroska, who was juggling family and work.
“I was a single mom at the time. I couldn’t go to the Cities where these classes were offered … It was on a weeknight. Who can do that if it’s not local?” she said. “So I went online and tried to find whatever I could.”
After receiving certification from renowned California belly dancer Dolphina, Kroska took what she knew and started her own class. It began with a group of curious friends getting together and performing at Kroska’s wedding reception. Kroska and her group eventually formed the Radiant Moon Belly Dance troupe — the area’s only belly dancing troupe as far as Kroska knows — and went from performing for friends to dancing at different events around the area.
“For me personally, it was a way for me to find strength within myself,” Kroska said. “It really allowed me to feel free and powerful and find out who I was. I’m definitely teaching that to other women.”
Kroska isn’t the only person to feel the sense of empowerment when she dances.
St. Cloud’s Faye Lange also instructs belly dancing classes for women in the area. She said she loves the confidence dancing gives her, not to mention that it’s a good workout, too.
“What I really like about it is it makes exercise fun. That’s one of my little, personal things, I guess. If I’m going to exercise, it better be fun,” Lange said.
Lange moved to the area nearly five years ago and found herself in a similar situation as Kroska. After she learned from a local belly dancing instructor, the instructor left the area. Lange figured she could help fill the void by teaching classes.
For the past five months, Lange has headed six-week sessions for groups consisting of eight to 16 women. But the hour-long sessions focus on more than just choreography, she said.
“It’s fun to watch friendships form, and it’s also fun to watch women come out of their shell,” Lange said. “I’ve seen some people who are scared to move, scared to look in the mirror at themselves and by the end of a session you can just tell when someone is feeling better about themselves, that’s wonderful.”
Lange said she’d prefer it if people thought about the empowering side of the craft rather than any negative connotations.
“Sometimes I just cringe when I tell people I’m into this. I think that bad stigma might have come from bad press or from a few less-than-scrupulous dancers,” she said.
The Radiant Moon Belly Dance troupe is doing what it can to change people’s minds.
“When we first started out, it was really hard just to get the word out there. We would dance for family and friends’ birthday parties or any kind of special events going on,” Kroska said. “It just kind of took off from there. More people just kind of wanted to be part of it.”
For the past two years the troupe, which consists of seven women, has performed at St. Cloud’s Day of Dance. Kroska said that exposure has been pivotal for belly dancers in the area.
“You just try to get out there and show them. You can tell them something, but what they imagine in their head is completely different,” Kroska said. “It’s just a matter of trying to get out there and showing them. This is what we wear. This is what it looks like and you can do it, too.”
Kroska’s demeanor has rubbed off on her students.
“I like it a lot … I don’t care what people say,” said Renae Kelly of Clearwater.
Kelly — who said watching popular dancers like Shakira influenced her to give belly dancing a shot — has been in classes with Kroska for four weeks.
It’s something she’s always wanted to do and doesn’t see where all the negativity comes from.
“I’m sure there are people (who have a problem with belly dancing), but that’s their opinion,” she said. “I just encourage people that feel like they want to do it, to just do it … try something different.”
Kelly’s words resonate with a confidence Kroska hopes all her students eventually have.
Kroska knows belly dancing might not be for everyone, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad for anyone, either.
“It is about having (people) just be empowered from the inside out, knowing that no matter what they look like they’re beautiful,” Kroska said.
“You know if it helps somebody get through school or helps someone be a better mom, that’s part of it, too. Just helping them be a better person in whatever they choose to do.”
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