Bellydancing for a Healthy Body, inlcuding during Pregnancy. Contributed by Keti Sharif.
Bellydancing 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 bellydancing.
The basis of the core moves is always the centre - 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 bellydancing, focus their energies on the 'centre' and the breath.
Physical fitness can greatly improve with regular sessions of bellydancing. It helps firm and tone the muscles in a gentle way, especially the abdominals, arms, upper back, hips and thighs. A more vigorous bellydance 'workout' lasting for at least thirty minutes, practiced 3-4 times a week, will certainly improve muscle tone and overall fitness, as bellydancing 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 bellydancing:
*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 *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
Bellydancing for suppleness and relaxation
The suppleness and fluidity of movement necessary for bellydancing 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 bellydancing. 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 bellydance course.
The relaxing benefits of bellydancing 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 bellydance are stimulating and fun, and either slow or fast bellydancing can be useful in cases of anxiety or mild depression.
Bellydancing 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 senuality being a desirable quality of bellydancing, the dancer feels safe to explore the soft, beautiful ways the body can move. Senual 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 senuality, 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 bellydancing often triggers an emotional response. Women with low self image begin to honour their bodies. Previously weight conscious participants relax and become comfortable with their bellies and hips. Voluptuous women appreciate their ample curves. Its possibly one of the most liberating arts, especially for the women of today.
Inner strength and positive transformation
Bellydancing brings a creative, transformative energy. As a teacher for over 17 years, I have seen hundreds of incredible transformations in my students in terms of self confidence and personal empowerment. Some treasured quotes I have gathered from students concerning their improved self confidence and poise through bellydancing are: "I walk with more dignity" "After years of slouching I have finally lifted my shoulders and walk proudly" "I feel like I walk like a Queen now" " My chest and heart have opened, I can love more"
The strengthening effects of the earthy shimmies and grounded walking styles used in bellydance have an empowering effect too. They bring out a primal assertion in the body expression - clear and independent. Some dancers have said: "My feet are more earthed, I feel stronger" "The strength that bellydancing has given me has flowed into my personal life" "As I dance better, I communicate more clearly in relationships!" Co-ordination, symmetry and spacial awareness are elements of bellydancing that help improve confidence. And here's a sentence I hear often and smile every time I hear it: "Since I've started bellydancing I feel so much sexier!"
Pregnancy and childbirth
Bellydancing 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, Polenisian dance, African dance and Braziian 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 bellydance is linked with birthing, mainly due to its focus on the belly and hips. As a pre-natal exercise, bellydancing 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 labour 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.
Midwives in the Middle East report Bedouin women birthing babies in a ceremonial way, where, in a tent with the elders, several women play tabla and breathe in unison with the mother. The communal drum beat and vocal breathing becomes part of the dance-birth process. The mother, supported by two other women, does not lie down, but rather alternates between standing and squatting, and uses hip circles and rolling motions to ease the baby into the world. Pregnant mothers find that bellydancing helps relieve them of back pain and keeps their bodies supple.
Many of my students who were second time mothers after taking up bellydancing reported much easier and relaxed births with the 'bellydance 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! Bellydancing 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.
Menstruation and bellydance
Menstruation comes from the Latin term 'menses' which means monthly. The lunar month of approximately twenty nine and a quarter days is also the approximate cyclic timing of the menstrual cycle, give or take a few days. In ancient times, the lunar cycle and a woman's menses were seen to be divinely linked. As in the ancient cult of Artemis (or Diana, Huntress of the Moon) which existed in Ephesus, near what is now Selcuk in Turkey. Artemisian legend from the matriarchal religion, tells that the woman's period fell on the dark moon and ovulation occurred on the full moon.
The priestesses and dancers of the Temple of Artemis would dance ecstatically on the four mountain tops of Ephesus at the time of the full moon - to celebrate their deiety and to celebrate with the men folk! The dance they did was the called the Chiftetelli - full of wild shimmies and abandoned movements danced as a fertility rite. This was the time when conception was most likely, and the dance became frenzied and trance-like with a communal ritualistic, sexual fervour. However at the time of the dark moon, the dancers would sway gently, alone and quietly rolling their hips in a meditative contemplation.
Gentle bellydance is a relaxing way to stimulate the blood flow, and for some women, to 'tune in' and enjoy their periods. Now days, the problem of PMS or pre menstrual syndrome affects many young women in their childbearing years. Physical and emotional blockages can contribute to the painful condition - and stress only serves to make the problem worse. However, soothing bellydance movements such as rolling the hips, figure of eights and undulations can help to alleviate congestion in the pelvic area. Circulation to the pelvic area improves and at the same time, the feeling of relaxation alleviates stress.
Bellydancing can help relieve PMS. My students have reported over the years that one of the most incredible benefits of bellydancing has been the relief of PMS, which some had suffered from quite severely. Many women wiith PMS, never again had to deal with painful periods thanks to bellydancing. Relaxed, slow bellydancing 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.