When Rita Bates told her father she had joined Read My Hips, a belly dance troupe, he said she might as well be stripping.

“It’s kind of creepy what people think when you say belly dancing,” says Stephanie Barto, the group’s director and founder. “So many times belly dancing is sold as something less than a dance form.”

That’s why the troupe’s audiences are often surprised. For Barto it’s part of the fun of performing. “I won’t put anything demure on my stage, nothing stereotypically flirtatious. I won’t put anything that says peekaboo up there.”

Barto discovered American Tribal belly dance–which combines elements of Middle Eastern folk dance, East Indian kathak, flamenco, and American modern dance–after studying with Carolena Nericcio, the founder of FatChanceBellyDance in San Francisco. And for the past five years she’s tried to add to her movement vocabulary–one that is quite different from traditional Western dance. “People aren’t used to controlling the torso. It’s about isolating and controlling small movements.”

“Just like everything American, everything gets melded together,” says Jessy Daniels, an original member of Read My Hips. “It’s people learning and changing it, just like language.”

The five core members improvise each dance on the spot. Barto teaches the dancers to have “ruthless confidence in the basic moves,” so that they can communicate silently with one another while in motion. “The communication doesn’t come across as an agreement on what we’re going to do next but as a really nice rapport,” she says.

The dance’s foundation is then embellished by the personalities of the performers. “It is very in the moment,” Barto says. “It’s not thinking like choreography where you’re spitting out something that’s memorized….We would never choreograph a single thing that we do.”

“Our goal is not to stand out but to think about the exchange between the dancers,” says Elizabeth Rothkopf, who, along with Eliza Perry, rounds out the quintet. “It’s so fresh. We know who we’re going to dance with and what we’ll dance to and that’s it.”

While dancing, twirling, and bending to the recorded music that plays during a performance, the women accompany themselves with small finger cymbals known as zils. In appreciation of another dancer’s moves they’ll often let out the Gypsy version of a “You go girl!”–a shrill, trilling vocalization called a zaghareet.

Bates, a dance therapist who has been with Read My Hips for over two years (but has been replaced by a member of a secondary troupe while away on honeymoon), knew when she first saw the group perform that she had to give it a try. “It’s my own dance therapy,” she says. “This teaches you to be more fluid and free in your movement.”

Since the troupe’s focus is on mood and movement, body type isn’t an issue. Rothkopf, for example, is pregnant but continues to perform. What is important is one’s willingness to move hips, shoulders, chest, and, of course, belly with confidence.

“I think we’re communicating that we’re happy and comfortable with our bodies,” says Bates. “It’s the freedom to move and to be feminine.”

The dancing is intended to celebrate women’s spirit and strength, Barto says. “It’s not flirtatious. It’s very powerful.”

Read My Hips performs at 8 and 9:15 PM on the last Sunday of every month at Kan Zaman, a Middle Eastern restaurant at 5204 N. Clark. Call 773-506-0191 for information.