Colorful lights flash and Middle Eastern beats pound as almost 20 bare-bellied women seductively move their hips from side to side.
The belly dancers of the Memphis Raqs twirl around the stage of the Bartlett Performing Arts and Conference Center during a recent performance, incorporating canes, finger cymbals, and veils.
But the best prop of the night — and the reason the Memphis Raqs began — is a 15-year-old, 8-foot boa constrictor named Sandy.
Liz DiMaggio, Sandy's owner and the founder of Dance Oasis, became interested in belly dancing when she was a student at the University of Memphis.
"I started an anthropology class in 2003, and one of our assignments was to research an element of a foreign culture," DiMaggio says. "Someone jokingly said that I should belly-dance with my snake."
DiMaggio enrolled in a belly-dancing class and liked it so much that in May 2008, she opened her own studio in Bartlett.
"Belly dance is unlike any other style of dance," she says. "The movements and philosophies of belly dance appeal to everyone, no matter your lifestyle. Every woman can belly-dance."
Onstage, the Memphis Raqs show off the skills they've learned from DiMaggio and pose for pictures. In pairs, they smile at one another and seem unconcerned about the extra jiggle that happens with some of the shimmies.
"Belly dance is definitely a great workout," DiMaggio says. "You're using muscles that we don't use in our everyday life. You'll feel the burn in your glutes, abs, thighs, and even upper body as we add arm movements."
DiMaggio offers several classes each week. Newcomers are welcome each Thursday at 6 p.m. and classes cost $15.
The Memphis Raqs' next performance is October 24th at a secret location, revealed only after a person has bought a ticket. "We're hosting a side-show-style event called 'Pandora's Box' with Desert Rose Dance," DiMaggio says. "We'll have fire, snakes, swords, pirates, burlesque, and all manner of things fun and freaky."