March 30, 2005 - A group of girls, dressed in spaghetti straps and skirts, shake their hips. Some bear their midriffs. According to local school officials this is OK.
No, Ironwood Ridge High School doesn't have a new dress code, but a small belly dance club recently started at the school.
For the eight- to 10-member group, started in November, belly dancing is a way not only to display dancing abilities but also to embrace a new culture.
For president and club founder Katie Leonardi, starting the club was a way to bring students of all shapes and sizes together to dance and have fun.
"We wanted another place to practice," Leonardi said. She had been taking belly dancing lessons in downtown Tucson. "We thought, wouldn't it be nice if we had a club here?"
The here that Leonardi is referring to is Ironwood Ridge. In the past, the high school has come under attack for restricting the way students dance at school functions.
Morning announcements have been made reminding students that "dirty dancing" is unacceptable. Students at dances have had identification cards taken away for "freak dancing," which administrators said involves students rubbing against each other, particularly in the genital area.
While the girls in the belly dance club may dance in unison, there was no rubbing up against each other at the first fund-raising event held March 25. There were just two rows of dancers all wearing different outfits and dancing to the beat.
According to Leonardi, the club's style and type of dance is not regulated by the administration, because it is in a cultural arena.
"They are not applying dress code," she said. "It is such a cultural thing."
According to Assistant Principal Mike Brown, the club and its dancers have been deemed appropriate, and fall under the same codes as athletics, just like cheerleaders and track stars.
Brown said a dress code is designed to regulate appropriate dress for a learning environment. He said the girls in the belly dance club do not have to conform to the typical dress code, which does not allow midriff exposure, because they are not performing in front of the student body and because they are participating in a cultural art.
"The outfits are appropriate for teenagers doing belly dances," Brown said.
For any club to become established at Ironwood Ridge there must be a certified sponsor. For the belly dance club, that sponsor is a graphic arts teacher, Judy Hierstein.
Hierstein was all smiles as her girls shook their hips and twirled in unison at the Midnight at the Oasis fund-raising event, which was held March 25 in the high school cafeteria and also featured local professional belly dancers.
Hierstein said she is thankful the administration allowed the club to come to fruition, adding that if it weren't for Leonardi's drive there probably wouldn't be a belly dance club at the high school.
"She is everything behind this club," Hierstein said. "It is her passion."
It is easy to see the dedication from the girls, who practice weekly before school. As interest slowly grows from students on campus, 15-year-old Carolyn Cavalier said she enjoys the dancing for many reasons.
"It brings out a part of you," Cavalier said, adding that before she started dancing, she had low self-esteem but now she feels more confident in her own skin.
"You feel at peace, feel more relaxed," she said.
Numerous types of belly dancing exist, dating back centuries.
With platinum blond hair and arms filled with tattoos, the volunteer club teacher, Lucy Lipschitz, said at the fund-raising event that dancing styles in the United States tend to combine many different styles from many countries. "We have got our own style in the United States," she said. "We have made it our own."
Leonardi said she enjoys belly dancing for so many reasons and hopes after she graduates this year the club will continue at Ironwood Ridge without her.
"A lot of students have found it very interesting," she said. "It is just so much fun."
When asked why she loves the dance so much the full figured Leonardi replied, "Because you don't have to be excessively skinny."