Finger cymbals clanking to the eerie music, the dancers begin. Hips swing out and dip in a shimmy. Hands, arms and shoulders soar with movements lithe and fluid as an ocean and billow with each turn.

This is danse orientale , and umbrella term for a variety of Middle Eastern dance forms estimated to be at least 5,000 years old and introduced to this country at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, when Little Egypt (Frieda Mahzr), fresh from Damascus, wowed them with her exotic sharp hip movements and undulations. Because her traditional costume exposed her navel, Americans dubbed it belly dancing.

"This term is an embarrassment to any professional Middle Eastern dancer and an insult to the culture," says Emar Gemal, a professional Oriental dancer.

"I've resigned myself to the term," sighs Linda Caldwell, Istanbul-trained and an instructor at the Fairfax YWCA. "If I say 'Oriental dancing,' people will think it's from Bangkok."

And some confuse this with many unorthodox dances performed in seedy clubs. "It's not burlesque, hootchy-kootchy or a '14th Street walk,'" Caldwell maintains.

For Pamela Jones (stage name Charissa Pappas), a computer systems analyst at HEW who studied classical ballet for 15 years, it's a way of keeping in touch with her Greek heritage.

The students are lawyers, doctors, nurses, housewives, artists, writers, policewomen and telephone installers. Some are just looking for something different to do, others are attracted by the allure of learning an exotic dance. Miller even gets an occasional psychiatric patient who needs to loosen up and become less inhibited.

Quite a few women come primarily for the exercise, which irks Miller, who has had years of classical ballet training and considers Oriental dancing an art form just as demanding as modern dance or ballet.

"fThey can take jogging, tennis or swimming if they want to trim down," she says.

Terry Cooper disagrees: "I was overweight and other exercise classes didn't work. In two months I lost 25 pounds and got hooked. It made me feel sexy and feminine." She became so taken with the dance that she now performs at private parties and teaches at the Fairfax YWCA.

Whatever the appeal, Oriental dancing is more popular than ever locally. Not only is it turning up on YWCA schedules, many park and recreation programs offer it and students are turning to professional schools in greater numbers. Miller, Gamal and Caldwell have their own dance troupes, which perform regularly at church functions and charity benefits and, occasionally, in Middle Eastern shows at the Kennedy Center or Wolf Trap.

No one can agree on the origins of belly -- er, Oriental -- dancing. It's not traceable to any one tribe or locale in the Middle East, though many countries in the region clami it as their own. As the nomadic tribes from the Middle East, North Africa and Asia conquered one another, cultures and customs intermingled.

There are some definite African influences, according to Adriana Miller, a professional dancer and instructor who has researched its origins. The African tribes -- among the earliest and oldest civilizations -- practiced a haunting and sensuous dance probably used in religious rituals. Miller says she has seen pictures that indicate that many of the earliest Oriental dancers were dark, and may have been slaves conquered in Africa.

The Egyptian influence can be seen in the snake movements and undulations, which Miller says represent the Nile River, harvest time and giving birth. The Egyptians believed that the body's center of energy lay below the navel, which may explain why many of the dance movements concentrate on the lower abdomen. The dance toned muscles, making childbearing easier. There was even a class of professionals who would chant, sing and dance in the presence of women in labor, inducing a hypnotic state to ease the pain.

Some of the subtle head and clasped-hand movements, Miller believes, are borrowed from classical Indian dance.

Watching it, Oriental dancing looks deceptively easy -- but just try it. One class will prove that it takes a seasoned dancer to make those movements look simple to learn and perform. Shimmying the hips, doing belly rolls and undulations, loosening the head and neck -- all mean many hours of muscle-isolating exercises. A good Oriental dancer's arms and hands have the suppleness of a long scarf being twisted and turned about in the wind. And the bones appear to dissolve.

Professional dancers say it takes at least three to five years of diligent practice for a naturally gifted dancer to go professional. Paula Daniels, a real-estate agent, highschool drama teacher and Oriental dance instructor at the Fairfax YWCA, disagrees. "Some pick it up fast," she says. "One of my students practiced six hours a day. After a year she was good enough to become professional."

Most of the students have no intention of performing on the stage, Daniels went on to say, but there's the advantage of improved physical condition and poise. Caldwell believes that Oriental dancing is one of the few movement arts that can be taken up by all age groups: If a back bend can't be mastered, there are other steps that can be.

But don't expect to learn the dance without getting a history lesson. "It's a fragmented dance form if they don't appreciate and understand the culture and music it comes from," says Caldwell.