BY KETI SHARIF
Belly dancing is both a relaxing and enlivening dance that can help tone the body and improve body confidence. Its physiological benefits include improved fitness, better circulation, suppleness and correction of postural alignment. On a body confidence level, many women feel they have regained their ‘feminine self’ and become more comfortable with their bodies through belly dancing.
The basis of the core moves is always the center – just below the navel – or in esoteric arts the place known as the hara, second chakra or simply “the cente.” Yoga and Pilates are two popular exercises that like belly dancing, focus their energies on the ‘centre’ and the breath.
Physical fitness can greatly improve with regular sessions of belly dancing. It helps firm and tone the muscles in a gentle way, especially the abdominals, arms, upper back, hips and thighs. A more vigorous belly dance ‘workout’ lasting for at least thirty minutes, practiced 3-4 times a week, will certainly improve muscle tone and overall fitness, as belly dancing can be a fun and energetic form of aerobic dance.
Working out to fast paced, repetitious music with spicy tabla rhythms will make the exercise more enjoyable. A series of constant stepping moves, lifting and alternating arm poses and shimmies is the basis for a safe, low impact workout. As with all aerobics safety precautions, it is advisable to begin with a warm up consisting of gentle movements, in this case shoulder rolls, arm lifts, basic step/points and circular moves. Then gradually increase speed and repetition of moves, and after the workout remember to stretch and cool down.
Here are some physiological benefits of belly dancing:
Improved circulation; improved suppleness; increased joint flexibility; deeper breathing, better oxygenation of blood; relaxing and calming; reduces stress; possible aerobic exercise workout – burns fat, raises metabolism and improves resting heart rate.
Belly dancing also tones all major muscle groups – legs, thighs, calves, gluteals, abdominals, upper arms, back; reduces cellulite; eases PMT symptoms; prepares major muscle groups for pregnant women to assist the birthing process.
Belly dancing for suppleness and relaxation.
The suppleness and fluidity of movement necessary for belly dancing can help relax and lubricate joints and can be helpful in cases of arthritis, particularly in the wrists and shoulders. The dance, practiced gently in the beginning stages, usually produces beneficial results for muscle and joint conditioning. Participants, who had suffered uncomfortable back pain or shoulder stiffness for years, have reported improvement after several weeks of belly dancing. It is becoming a popular form of rehabilitation exercise, now advised by doctors and therapists. Of course, if anyone has chronic back or knee problems, they are advised to see a doctor first before embarking on a belly dance course.
The relaxing benefits of belly dancing calm the mind and assist the focus required to learn new movements. Repetitious swaying, circular and flowing movements are likened to a state of dance-meditation. The dancer often finds that a session of taqsim or slow, graceful dancing will clear the mind and induce a state of mental relaxation. The faster forms of belly dance are stimulating and fun, and either slow or fast belly dancing can be useful in cases of anxiety or mild depression.
Belly dancing boosts self esteem in a gentle yet powerful way. The movements are artistic and feminine, creating a positive feeling of sensual expression and freedom. With sensuality being a desirable quality of belly dancing, the dancer feels safe to explore the soft, beautiful ways the body can move. Sensual taqsim (slow circular dance) is emotively charged and deeply felt, inspired by the haunting melodies from the east. In our western society, bombarded with mixed messages about sexuality and self expression, many women find this extremely liberating. In the act of dancing with sensuality, the dancer frees herself in physical and emotional ways.
The body, which becomes increasingly supple and graceful through practicing the dance, literally learns to move more beautifully. Dancers feel a heightened sense of elegance and poise when they dance, and this delightful confidence remains long after the class or performance is finished. The body awareness that comes from belly dancing often triggers an emotional response. Women with low self image begin to honor their bodies. Previously weight conscious participants relax and become comfortable with their bellies and hips. Voluptuous women appreciate their ample curves. It is possibly one of the most liberating arts, especially for the women of today.
Pregnancy and childbirth
Belly dancing originated as a fertility rite thousands of years ago – the movements celebrated and birth process in the form of mimicry, and many of these circular hip moves can be seen in other dances evolved from birth-rites and celebrations of sexuality and fertility – Hawaiian hula, Polynesian dance, African dance and Brazilian samba and Latin lambada. Often associated with religious rites and celebration, the primal elements of both divinity and sexuality are central to the evolution of these forms of dance.
Today, the belly dance is linked with birthing, mainly due to its focus on the belly and hips. As a pre-natal exercise, belly dancing in its gentler forms is strengthening for the pelvic muscles and relaxing for the mother-to-be. Many Arab women say shimmies should be avoided during pregnancy, but the figure eights and rolling circular movements are good preparation for childbirth. This makes sense, as the rolling movements not only feel natural, but assist with the normal pelvic relaxing process to prepare for birth and at the same time, helps firm the pelvic muscles for labor and post-pregnancy recovery. Indeed, the dance can be a comfortable exercise that not only gets the mother ready for the birth process, but connects her to the unborn child through a series of movements which focus her attention on her belly.
Many of my students who were second time mothers after taking up belly dancing reported much easier and relaxed births with the ‘belly dance baby’. The body also gets into shape quickly, the pelvic floor is toned, incontinence is avoided due to strong pelvic floor muscles and the general condition of health is better with regular dancing sessions. Baby often likes swaying in mother’s arms when she’s doing figure eights and dancing to soft music! Belly dancing and birthing have been inextricably linked for thousands of years – since the days of ancient female deiety worship, to tribal fertility ceremony, to the harem, to birth customs in today’s Arabian villages.
Belly dancing can help relieve PMS.
`My students have reported over the years that one of the most incredible benefits of belly dancing has been the relief of PMS, which some had suffered from quite severely. Many women with PMS, never again had to deal with painful periods thanks to belly dancing. Relaxed, slow belly dancing can be beneficial in the reduction of the pain and pelvic congestion experienced several days to a week before periods. Practicing a deep belly breath whilst dancing is also helpful.
Permission to reprint by Keti Sharif www.ketisharif.com