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At 74, Gypsy Phillips is still belly dancing

Gypsy Phillips, center, and students Wendy Cheung (left) of Marlborough, and Judy Daubney (right) of Upton.

John Swinconeck

Gypsy Phillips, center, and students Wendy Cheung (left) of Marlborough, and Judy Daubney (right) of Upton.

On certain mornings at the Northborough Senior Center, an interesting mingling of sounds echoes through the dining area. Music that’s a combination of early American hip-hop and Middle Eastern beats is punctuated by jangles from belly dancers shaking their hips.

This is a class for seniors led by 74-year-old Gypsy Phillips, a Northborough resident who began teaching belly dancing shortly after taking her first lesson decades ago. Phillips said she was 36, and needed exercise after the birth of her last child. The instructor was 40 years old.

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“I thought, ‘Oh my God, she’s still dancing and she’s 40!’ I thought that was amazing,” said Phillips. “I just loved it, and I ­haven’t stopped.”

These days, Phillips (who says she reveals her actual first name only to the IRS) teaches belly dancing through Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School’s adult education program, as well as at local churches, and senior centers in Shrewsbury and Westborough as well as Northborough.

She charges $10 per lesson, $3 for seniors. A 10-week class through the high school’s Assabet After Dark program is $100.

Although she took formal lessons in her 30s, Phillips said, she has been dancing informally since she was a little girl.

“My parents used to go to a restaurant, and there would be a jukebox playing, and I’d be out on the dance floor, and people would be throwing money at me,” she said.

She can also remember times when her parents would have guests over at their Hudson home. She said her father would put a record on the turntable as her mother encouraged her to put on the curtains she wore as a make-shift costume, and dance.

“That’s how I started,” she said.

John Swinconeck

Gypsy Phillips, 74, danced with a veil Thursday.

Today, Phillips heads the Gypsy Moon Dance Company, which brings together dance elements from Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin and urban America.

And while Phillips has also dabbled in ballroom, swing, and Argentine tango, belly dancing is something special, she said.

“What better thing to do? You don’t need a partner. You can just freestyle if you want,” she said.

Phillips will be showcasing her belly-dance students in Gypsy Moon’s next semiannual recital, slated for May 17 at Assabet Valley Tech, 215 Fitchburg St. in Marlborough.

The recital, titled “Illusion,” will be held at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $7 at the door.

Phillips said that her class is not limited to “the young Playboy model — it’s real people. Real people dancing and enjoying what they’re doing.’’

Phillips said older people can benefit from belly dancing in several ways. “I think it helps their memory — learning steps, learning choreography, gets them to think. Second of all, they keep their body moving. You’ve got an ache or a pain, you work it out.”

Anna Connors, 59, of Shrewsbury, knows something about that. Connors, who has multiple sclerosis, has been belly dancing under Phillips’ tutelage for four years.

“I always loved to dance, but this is different,” Connors said. “I was a little unsure that I could do it, but I can, and I enjoy it so much. When I dance, I forget about the pain. It’s the best drug ever. It’s my passion.”

For Maria Kelley, 35, of Ayer, belly dancing has been more than just a hobby — it’s been a way of meeting new people with the same interests and passions.

As a member of the Navy, Kelley has found herself stationed across the country and abroad. She began belly dancing about seven years ago while stationed in New Jersey.

“It’s an opportunity to meet people that you already have something in common with,” Kelley said. “It’s a great workout. I love to exercise, but exercise can get very boring. Here, you can find someone to bond with.”

Kelley said Phillips shows her students that they don’t have to have a “super-model body” in order to dance well.

“When I walked in, and I saw her I said, ‘Yes — this woman is going to teach me something,’ ” Kelley said. “She is very mature. She is in very good shape, and her movements are so precise. She’s the type of person I want to learn from.”

Kelley said her fellow students in the class range in age from early 20s to late 40s, and she said she wouldn’t want it any other way. The range of experience, she said, is invaluable.

For her part, Phillips said she will keep dancing as long as she can.

“When I turned 45, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m still dancing,’ ” she said. “Then I turned 50, and I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’m still dancing.’ And when I turned 70, I said, ‘I can’t believe I’m still dancing.’

“And I’m going to say it when I’m 75: I’m still dancing.”

John Swinconeck can be reached at johnswinc@ gmail.com.
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