Belly dancing classes are Monday and Wednesday evenings at Open Door Family Medical Center in Ossining. It’s part of a comprehensive wellness program that the Federally Qualified Health Center offers to patients, at no cost.
Studies have shown that while physical activity can help mitigate or prevent multiple chronic diseases, most people in the U.S., especially high-poverty minority groups, engage in insufficient levels of physical activity. And while Westchester County can boast one of the nation’s highest median incomes, it also has a high level of income inequity. For the nearly 57,000 low-income patients treated annually at Open Door, a gym is well beyond their means. At Open Door, 85 percent of patients fall 200 percent or below the Federal Poverty Guidelines, which the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services defines as an annual income of $25,750 for a family of four.
“Since we prioritize wellness as a critical component of overall health,” said Andrea Ruggiero, Vice President of Community Health at Open Door, “we give patients the opportunity to take exercise classes as an extension of their medical visits.”
In providing such classes as Pilates, yoga, Zumba, and circuit training, in addition to belly dancing, Open Door has seen remarkable improvement in the overall health of patients participating in its wellness classes – including significant weight loss and dramatic improvement in hypertension scores and A1C levels (for patients with diabetes). In fact, 73 percent of Open Door patients with high blood pressure have it under control, as compared with the national average of 44 percent. In 2019, Open Door was awarded Gold Recognition for excellence in hypertension control from the American Heart Association.
“All of our patients are first cleared by our primary care providers to determine what they can and can’t do,” said Ruggiero. “Our patient navigators push them along and, when necessary, provide transportation to classes. We want to give them a sanctuary where they can take advantage of classes and meet other people in a supportive and collaborative environment.”
Many of Open Door’s patients lack health insurance and/or speak little English. Lack of health insurance has been found to decrease the use of preventive and primary care services and is associated with poor health outcomes. Furthermore, a study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that Hispanic individuals who did not speak English at home were less likely to receive recommended preventive health care services for which they were eligible.
The belly dancing classes are taught under the direction of Solarah Delphi, a Westchester County emergency services employee, who as a child was drawn to dance. Eight years ago, while taking her daughter to a salsa class, she saw a performance of belly dancers and fell in love at first shimmy. According to her website, “the sounds of the Middle Eastern music resonated in her soul and the serpentine movements grabbed her attention.”
“I love belly dancing, it really resonates with me and gives me peace,” she said. “It frees people, helps their memory, releases endorphins and stress, and leaves them feeling good.”
The dancers move and clap to the somewhat soothing, somewhat seductive rhythms of the percussion music, as their leader shouts out encouragement and directs them through such moves as the hip bump, the hip shimmy, the shoulder shimmy, and the chest lift. Many of the dancers, ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s, and in all shapes and sizes, don hip scarves made of chiffon attached to jangling coins. They jiggle with little inhibition and wear big smiles on their faces, seeming to relish the moment.
At the beginning, most of the women (and the occasional man) in her classes at Open Door, said Delphi, feel self-conscious and intimidated. Soon, however, they lose their shyness and begin to realize the benefits.
“It’s low impact and offers a great workout,” she said. “Patients can burn as many as 500 calories in a session.”
Over time, she teaches them new moves, making sure they maintain the proper form. Before long, they learn entire routines.
“If they come in upset, they leave feeling fantastic,” she said. “I always tell them, ‘you look beautiful doing what you’re doing. Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing.’”
Open Door Family Medical Center’s mission has remained consistent since 1972: to provide high-quality health care that’s affordable, accessible and efficient.
Today, the Federally Qualified Health Center cares for nearly 1,000 adults and children every day in Westchester and Putnam counties – with more than 300,000 patient visits and 450 babies delivered annually – regardless of ability to pay. In addition to primary medical care, Open Door offers dental care, pediatric care, women’s health care, behavioral health care, and podiatry in its Ossining, Sleepy Hollow, Port Chester, Mount Kisco, Brewster, Mamaroneck locations. School-Based Health Centers are in Ossining and Port Chester and a dental-only practice is in Saugerties.