RICHMOND -- Each week, Sharon Sherman's hips sway to the lead of her dance instructor. Along with a growing group of residents looking to get fit, Sherman works on the unique rhythms of belly dancing every Friday, thanks to the free fitness class downtown.

"I like the movement, the music, the women. It takes me a little while to get the moves, but it is really fun, and I've been losing weight," Sherman said.

Sponsored by Kaiser Permanente, the community-based Richmond Main Street Initiative began offering free Zumba classes in March 2012. But this year, participants requested less-intense classes that were more accessible for people from a wider range of fitness levels.

Etang Inyang teaches belly dance choreography to a room of 20 women. Inyang is part of a wellness group known as Your Body Raks, which celebrates bodies of
Etang Inyang teaches belly dance choreography to a room of 20 women. Inyang is part of a wellness group known as Your Body Raks, which celebrates bodies of all sizes through belly dance, classes and workshops. (Photo by Kevin N. Hume) ( mdufrene )

Many of the residents the initiative hoped to reach needed something inviting and nonthreatening to overcome their fears of physical limitations.

Up stepped Your Body Raks, a Bay Area belly dance duo that promotes wellness and movement for bodies of every size and shape. The appeal starts with co-instructors Etang Inyang and Tammy Johnson, self-described "full-figured black women," whose physical appearance helps put apprehensive newcomers at ease.

It's important that the women leading the class look similar to the women taking the class, to dispel fears and stereotypes associated with belly dance, Inyang said.

"I would have never tried belly dancing if I hadn't seen someone who looked like me teaching the class," Inyang said.

Belly dance, which originated in Northern Africa, was traditionally practiced by women and men of all ages and sizes. Your Body Raks uses this history to inform women against the Western stereotypes that the dance form has adapted.

"It is important for black women to appreciate belly dance as an African dance. It is connected to our history and culture," Inyang said. "Our bodies are bold and beautiful, and we should move them, instead of waiting to lose 10 pounds,"

In Richmond, which has large African-American and Latino populations and poverty rates double the national average, public health continues to be a challenge. Fresh food grocers are scarce, while liquor stores and fast food restaurants abound. An estimated 52 percent of elementary school students are overweight or obese, according to a Contra Costa County study. Class organizers say they hope their approach can succeed in a challenging environment.

The class is held at 5:30 p.m. every Friday at the BBK Health and Healing Center, 310 Ninth St. Each week, 15 to 20 participants of various colors and sizes have turned out for the hourlong sessions.

Etang Inyang teaches belly dance choreography to a room of 20 women. Inyang is part of a wellness group known as Your Body Raks, which celebrates bodies of
Etang Inyang teaches belly dance choreography to a room of 20 women. Inyang is part of a wellness group known as Your Body Raks, which celebrates bodies of all sizes through belly dance, classes and workshops. (Photo by Kevin N. Hume) ( mdufrene )

"Because of my health issues, Zumba is too much, but I love this class," Richmond resident Renee Parker said. "Years ago, we didn't have access to stuff like this, not in Richmond."

This article was produced by RichmondConfidential.org, a nonprofit news service based in the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.