Health Benefits of Belly Dancing

Belly dance also called Raks Sharki, is a form of dance that many are familiar with but few understand the effects it has on the human body. The graceful hip drops, rolls, and pivots of this dance form, utilize muscle groups in the abdomen, pelvis, trunk, spine, and neck, working with the body instead of against it, unlike ballet which can potentially alter and deform the skeleton, or other dance forms that work against rather than with the body's physical inclinations. Belly dancing is based on movements that come naturally to the female form. There is a wealth of health benefits awaiting those who practice belly dancing.

Improved posture and muscle toning:

Our spinal column contains more bones and ligaments than any other part of the body. Its 33 vertebrae are stacked one on top of each other in a column joined together by cartilage and ligaments and almost every movement of the torso depends upon its flexibility and function. Muscle groups that attach to the ligaments and vertebrae create movement in the trunk and pelvic areas. Belly dancing tones these muscles and maintains flexibility in a safe and effective manner.

During the dance, the movements of hip drops, circles, figure eights and shimmies put the joints and ligaments in the lower back and hip through a full range of gentle, repetitive motion. This movement helps increase the flow of synovial fluid (nature's lubricant) in these joints. When movements are done properly, the pelvis is tipped forward, or tucked somewhat; a neutral position that can help prevent lower back problems. Belly dancing can help relieve stress to the back, counteracting the almost constant compression of the disks that occur from sitting and a sedentary lifestyle

These toned muscles improve posture and help prevent back pain that can be caused by the unnatural curving forward of the spine that occurs when muscle groups are weak (lordosis). Small muscle groups deep in the back that are normally under-exercised are used and strengthened. The muscles surrounding the hip, the largest joint in the body, are used and exercised during hip drops, and figure eights, enhancing flexibility and suppleness. Improved hip flexibility can lead to improved balance when walking as well.

Arms and shoulders are exercised when doing lifts, circles, or the rippling motions of snake arms, thus toning muscles. This toning effect is often evident early on, since holding the arms aloft are an important element of the dance, even for beginners.

Because a woman is on her feet, moving during the dance, it is considered a weight-bearing exercise. Weight-bearing exercise can prevent osteoporosis and strengthen bones, and the overall toning can lead to an improved self-image, as the dancer becomes more balanced and poised. Belly dancing is considered a low-impact exercise, meaning the risk of injury is minimal when movements are done correctly. However, the benefits of belly dancing are tremendous and can be enjoyed by women of all ages, shapes and sizes, men and children. It is common to find men in the Middle East and Eastern Europe belly dancing. This is partly because of the health benefits the dance provides.

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Weight loss:

Belly dancing can burn up to 300-400 calories per hour. This estimate may vary, of course, depending on the intensity of your dancing. Combined with a healthy diet that involves sensible eating, belly dancing can without a doubt be part of a sound weight loss program. Even though many dance classes take place only once or twice a week. Your entire body will feel the benefits as the exercise works large muscle groups and the dance enhances strength and coordination of small muscle groups in the trunk, hips, and arms. Many exercise physiologists recommend doing such a routine to increase energy and total body wellbeing.

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Preparation for childbirth:

The movements of Belly dancing make an excellent prenatal exercise regimen that strengthens the muscles used during the childbirth process. The toned abdominal muscles and natural hip tucks, which are similar to the "pelvic rocking" taught during prenatal classes, teach the expectant mother how to move her pelvis. For women who desire natural childbirth, this form of exercise through dance, with its emphasis on muscle control not only facilitates natural childbirth but also makes an excellent post-natal exercise that helps encourage abdominal tone. During those first weeks after giving birth, even while healing from the birth process, these movements work the muscles gently and effectively, if done very gradually. (See also Melek’s personal comments on this).

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I’m pregnant
- Is belly dancing harmful?:

On the contrary – it is a very helpful exercise.

Melek stated “Belly dancing is a useful tool and it aided me in delivery of my children. I remember when I was 7 months pregnant with my first child – in those days, a woman was supposed to be under cover, not showing any body parts and most definitely not considered a decent woman if she publicly performed a belly dance while pregnant. Well, thank goodness times have changed because back in my day…….when…….! The bathroom, bedroom and the landing where our apartment was situated was my dance floor and my audience was a pile of bears waiting for their owner to arrive!

The biggest two hurdles I had to jump was making myself practice no matter where I was or what condition I felt I was in. One of my darkest hours came when I found the biggest size costume I had ever bought in the other closet. I tried so hard to get my exploded belly into that slinky costume. I cried and cried realizing I was fooling myself and splitting the seams on a very expensive costume. Constantly, I had to remind myself – this is temporary, I am not going to be like this forever after all, I am not an elephant that would be pregnant for 3 years – it’s only going to be 9 months, 40 weeks and that is only approximately 280 days! Of course, it wasn’t even that long - I was already in my 3rd trimester of pregnancy and being 7 months pregnant there were only 56 day left. I would constantly joke myself into some really magnificent thoughts - my shape was just proof that the Sultan, my husband, chose me ……….!!! Eventually, I was crossing the days off the calendar with great enthusiasm not only for my baby’s birth but for my body to get back into shape (my body shape before I was pregnant). Delivery was easy. I had exercised all the necessary muscles to enable a smooth birth and I was in control.

I certainly was blessed with my body shape after pregnancy it had become more voluptuous! Yes, I had breasts and they had a dual purpose in my life then – they fed my baby and I was able to shop endlessly and buy new bras with “c” or “d” cups. Wow, what a difference in my bra size! As I mentioned before, being pregnant was temporary so was breast feeding. My son was then 6 ½ months and had teeth, he liked to clamp his teeth down on me, ouch! My bare flesh soon became a warm teething toy and that was painful as any feeding mother will tell you. This assured me, I needed to step up the pace and introduce him to natural cow’s milk. The phase of being the feeding mother also came to an end too and I was then able to get a better routine going on my own exercise program, of course that was “belly dancing. My son soon learned that sitting on my hip gave him some roller coaster experiences earlier in life! He just loved them. He was soon in the crawling phase and would crawl from one side of the room to the other, pushing whatever came in his way even our dog. As he got closer to me he would roll over, gurgle and giggle and up went his arms in a motion of “I’m here and I want a daring ride on the roller coaster!” All 3 of my children had the same experiences – rides on my hips into never-never land of fun on the roller coaster! When my children were able to walk we would have a dance routine going, they would skip around me while I took over practicing my undulations and hip routines. As they grew up they became more and more independent and the memories they gave me during those times have had a lasting impact in my life.

To make one more comment, I worked a full time job up to the day of each birth. I also continued with belly dancing routines through every pregnancy and almost immediately after each birth. Belly dancing had no negative impact on me or my babies. I produced 3 wonderfully healthy children who are still my pride and joy today.

So, can you belly dance while you’re pregnant? Most definitely you can! If you still have doubts please contact your doctor.”

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Does age matter:

Melek says “I don’t think so. I was 28 with my first pregnancy and almost 40 with my last delivery. Obviously, you need rest no matter what age you are so when you get home from work or after your exercise program, take a little time for yourself and put your feet up.”

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Stress reduction/Depression reliever:

In this day and age of almost continuous stress, the subtle rhythms of Belly dancing are extremely calming. The repetitive movements of the dance and the concentration needed to do them can help a mind filled with daily stress to "let go" for a while and relax. It's hard to worry about deadlines at work when you are thinking about getting that next hip drop just right, or while making sure that you are in time with the music.

One effect of stress is that our bodies tense up, causing contractions or spasms in muscle groups, such as those in the neck, shoulders, or back. When a muscle is contracted, lactic acid builds up, causing the "soreness" or pain that occurs. Blood flow to the effected muscles decrease as well and cause more serious complications later in life. Belly dancing, on the other hand, gently stretches and uses these vulnerable muscle groups and as they are utilized, blood flow increases and lactic acid is flushed away. Stressed muscles relax as they are gently exercised, relieving the "clenched" muscles. The body becomes supple and limber and medical practitioners frequently report that pain diminishes in the back and neck areas. Belly dancing is a fun, healthy way to exercise. It can be a creative outlet that conditions, tones and allows a woman to relieve stress and depression by using the natural movements of her body. It can refresh, relax, and exhilarate her mind, body and soul.

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Seasonal Affective Disorder:

Many people get up early in the morning and drive to work in the darkness during the shorter lighted months and sometimes return to their home in darkness too.

An article written by Milena Miklos (1 Nov 06) is worth addressing: Many people report being sadder in the late fall or winter and this is due to shortened daylight hours and colder temperatures are often to blame. Some people, however, develop a more intense sadness known as seasonal affective disorder or autumn-winter depression. It recurs in episodes, usually beginning in October or November and ending by February or March (possibly later if you live in the Pacific Northwest). Seasonal affected disorder is more common when the winter season is felt to be longer. Some people also get very depressed around holiday time, Christmas and New Year.

Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include a steady decline of interest in usual activities, withdrawal from friends and colleagues and feeling constantly tired, sometimes oversleeping and overeating. These same symptoms sometimes return in the spring. However, some affected people experience a rapid swing with marked reversal of symptoms, also known as spring-summer hypomania.

The most effective treatment for seasonal affective disorder is the use of artificial light. However, other studies have found that breaking out of ones cocoon, home, routine and joining a dance group is most beneficial to empower one’s self with the ability of overcoming. Once again, getting out and about, meeting new friends, learning a useful hobby can most effectively overcome one of those “blue” moods. Of course learning a new talent like belly dancing, will give the feeling of control. Belly dancing can refocus the mind and give that mental lift to get through those hours of depression and despair.

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What if I don’t have the figure for belly dancing?:

Who said you had to have a perfect body? I heard one student say “I need more breasts so I will have implants.” That is not necessary and what an expense you are burdening yourself with. We have the great invention these days of padded bras and also the additional type of removable padding, besides the good old Kleenex technique! Melek shared a story: “I remember once, an experienced performer shared with me in my early days of being a belly dancer, that she had her costume bra filled with crumpled tissue. She did her usual routine and in one movement her costume bra released itself and fell to the floor with endless tissue flying everywhere and pieces of tissue attached to the ends of her nipples. Instead of being embarrassed, she just picked up her bra held it in front of her breasts and turned to the audience apologizing profusely and said “At times like these I do need a good box of tissues to wipe away my tears!” At that moment, she bent down and picked up the rest of the tissues. The audience applauded her and asked her to continue dancing for them with or without her extra padding! They didn’t mind in the least because they thought she was an excellent performer with a talent of arousing amusement in her audience.”

It’s not the amount of breasts a dancer has that makes her an excellent performer it is her attitude with her audience. The same holds true if a dancer is smiling during her performance – it is far more appealing for an audience to see the performer happy and smiling than to see one that is looking like doom and gloom!

Belly dancing students – enjoy your dance, enjoy the very breath you are breathing and enjoy your audience.

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Belly-Dance is good for you:

Many people are surprised to learn that Middle-Eastern Dance, commonly known as "belly dance," involves much more than the belly! In fact, belly dance can benefit many parts of the body. Here are some of the health benefits of Middle-Eastern Dance:

A belly dancer uses her quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes to hold her steady as she performs hip movements or travels smoothly across the floor. However, even though she gets a great lower-body workout, the amount of impact to her knees and ankles is minimal. Impact is measured not only by how hard our feet strike the ground, but by how much stress is placed on our joints. Using this measure, most of Middle-Eastern dance is considered non-impact; some tribal and folk dances are low- impact. Belly dancing is considered to be the most healthy and beneficial of all exercise routines.

Building the back muscles evenly:

Belly-dancers use their torsos much more than ballet or tap dancers. Only jazz dancers come close to our use of rib movements and undulations. These movements with shoulder movements, exercise the back muscles and exercise the muscles evenly. Strong back muscles prevent back injuries and promote good posture.

Exercising the arms:

New belly-dance students are always surprised by how much they have to use their arm muscles. Belly-dancers have to hold their arms up for long periods of time and it actually takes quite a lot of strength to perform arm movements slowly and gracefully incorporating the hand and wrist movements. New students will notice their arms will be tired but with increased practice the tiredness will soon decrease and enthusiasm replaces it when they find the movements aid with toning the underarms.

Aiding digestion:

It's true! Exercising the abdominal area, not just by rolling the belly but also by swaying the torso, helps move food along the digestive system. Any form of exercise will have this effect to some degree but belly dancing is considered especially good for this purpose.

So why wait? A good instructor that will keep you on the move!

Come and join in this centuries old dance! Many doctors have suggested belly dancing classes as part of rehabilitation from injury or an alternative medicine for arthritis and stress; it is, however, important to check with your own medical provider before starting if you have had any serious back injury or if you are pregnant and have serious medical problems. Most injuries related to "overdoing" for the beginner can be avoided by warming up the muscles first and by remembering to do some basic stretching afterward. A good instructor will incorporate these in her lesson plan. Belly dancing is a wonderful and gentle way to condition your body, your mind and your spirit

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