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Belly dance studio fuses work out with Middle Eastern culture

Among storefronts of well-dressed mannequins and still displays, one window in the Avenues Mall is vibrating with movement.

Shoppers stop to watch colorfully dressed women shaking coin belt-clad hips to Middle Eastern beats, seductively shimmying their shoulders and twirling with their arms above their heads.

Anais Belly Dance and Fusions dance studio opened on the second floor of the mall near Belk Nov. 1. The low impact exercise that works you entire body from head to toe spun one UNF student into motion.

Two years ago, Christina Kanhai, a UNF building construction management senior, became friends with Rafaella Degracia, who had been belly dancing for seven years. Kanhai learned a few moves and immediately fell in love with the dance.

She began attending classes at Degracia’s belly dancing studio in Mandarin with the goal of becoming a teacher but didn’t have the time to complete the program. She started a belly dance troupe “Hipfinity,” choreographing group dances and performing them in the studio. Running this group gave her the idea of opening her own studio, but she had no experience running a business.

When Degracia started looking into moving her studio, Anais Belly Dance and Fusions, to a higher trafficked location, Kanhai saw it as the perfect opportunity to get involved. Degracia closed her Mandarin location and partnered with Kanhai to open their new studio in the mall.

Degracia said Kanhai and her make great business partners.

“Christina had a lot of skills that I really admired,” Degracia said. “She’s really good at being manager and managing other people. Our personalities kind of match up. She’s a lot more calm and collected.”

Kanhai had a busy childhood. She moved to the United States from England at the age of 13 and has worked since she was 15. She said there was a time when she worked five jobs at once, all while attending school full-time, which enabled her to save enough money to pay for her part of the studio. They invested a combined total of $15,000.

The studio offers belly dancing classes for all levels, from beginners to advanced dancers and also an array of other group fitness classes such as Bellyrobics, Zumba, Pilates and Bollywood Fitness.

Lacy Norman teaches Pilates and bellyrobics classes at the studio. She said she enjoys belly dancing because it is not only fun, but also a wonderful workout, especially for women looking for a low-impact exercise.

“It targets the entire body, head to toe,” Norman said. “It works on core strength as well as posture, balance, stretching and strengthening. You can get anything out of belly dancing that you need.”

Erin Castleman, a UNF chemistry junior, said she was first introduced to belly dancing a year ago when her friend invited her to go to a belly dancing group fitness class at UNF.

Castleman said she enjoyed the group fitness class but wanted more of a challenge. So in November, she signed up for the eight-week beginner course — Starlet I.

“It’s helping to tone some of my muscles, especially my abs,” Castleman said.

Kanhai said Anais is the only belly dance studio in Jacksonville and they would like to franchise Anais in the future but are focusing on raising awareness about the studio and getting the community interested in belly dancing.

The construction company where Kanhai is interning, Sauer Incorporated, offered her a full-time job after she graduates in April, so she plans to stay in Jacksonville and dedicate more time to the studio.

Anais is located on the second floor near Belk in the Avenues Mall and offers a free Belly Dance Basics class every Sunday at 4 p.m. For more information about pricing, class schedules and booking events and entertainment, visit anaisbellydance.com

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