It's sexy, it's fun and best of all, it's a great way to get fit. If you're looking for something that's exotic and energetic, but you just can’t stomach another gym class, this is the way to go.
Charlotte Blignaut is a mentor, choreographer, performer and teacher at The Jewels of the Nile dance studio in Johannesburg, and has been a professional belly dancer for many years.
"I first became captivated by belly dancing in 1989 when I saw an advert for classes and I thought since I needed the exercise and I don’t enjoy aerobics it would be fun to try it," she said. She has been hooked ever since.
The origins of belly dancing
"Many stories exist as to where this dance originated – some say women danced for women when a social with men was not allowed, others say women danced for themselves to express and release their inner spirit, and there are even suggestions that women danced around another woman during childbirth to assist the birth.
"The dance has naturally evolved from village/rural/desert groups to the more modern cabaret expression. I believe it is that it's the same all over the world, with different cultures influencing each type of dance," said Blignault.
The origins of this hypnotic dance, shrouded in debate, are as mysterious as the dance itself, and have baffled dancers and academics alike for as long as it's been around.
Some theorists believe that belly dancing can be linked to a religious dance temple priestesses once practiced in antiquity, ancient Egypt and the Romani people (gypsies).
Belly dancing for babies?
No, not belly dancing babies - belly dancing to make babies! The truth is that the dance has long since been associated with fertility.
It's not such a strange conclusion, since a woman's rounded belly is synonymous with fertility, and ultimately pregnancy, which is why belly dancing is often associated with the celebration of the belly itself.
On a more practical note, the physical and sensual movement of the belly during the dance also works the stomach muscles, said to enhance intercourse and make child bearing easier.
How does this happen? The hip-tucking movement of the dance is similar to 'pelvic rocking' exercises taught in prenatal classes, which are aimed at toning and strengthening the abdominal muscles.
Perfecting the moves
Charlotte said that if the dance is correctly expressed, it is a treasured and respected art form, but emphasised that it must be taught with the correct basic technique right from the start or it has the tendency to become a dance of fusion and it can lose its origins.
"Fusion in all forms of dance certainly has its place, but a student cannot call themselves a proficient belly dancer if the dance is so diffused that it loses its heritage and identity," she said.
What are the benefits?
One might think that a dance that's so sensual and rooted in gentle and flowing moves might not work up as much of a sweat as, say, an aerobics class.
Wrong, says Charlotte . She claims that while the moves are great for improving joint articulation and posture, they also ensure a cardiovascular workout and improve stamina, among other things.
"The psychological benefits are also important and include an enhanced sense of self-worth and appreciation. These in turn lead to dancers taking ownership and responsibility for their bodies, promoting body-mind cohesion and awareness. There is also a bond among all the women at all levels, without ego in classes," she said. So the benefits, in detail, include:
Aiding digestion: The movement of the torso and abdominal area can also assist the digestion process.
According to Charlotte, since the dance is essentially an art form, it's not easy. But, she added philosophically, "all new things are difficult until they become easier".
To start, all you need, says Charlotte, is the "desire to access one's inner sensual goddess and to want to have fun in the process - once you get past the initial hard work of learning the subtle technique required!" So classes cater for all – except men.
"The moves of the dance are really made for a woman's curvy body and although men certainly can do it, my opinion is that the classes should be separate until both men and women are more in touch with their own bodies, and how it feels to execute moves. Self consciousness is one of the challenges all face."
Sources: Wikipedia; www.wikipedia.org; Charlotte of The Jewel of the Nile, www.bellydance.co.za; www.atlantabellydance.com
(Amy Henderson, Health24, updated January 2011)
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