It's sexy, it's fun and best of all - it's a great way to get fit. Belly dancing is for those women who are looking for something that's exotic and classy, but they just can’t stomach another gym class. We unravel the mystery around this ancient dance and get the expert's opinion.
Charlotte Blignaut is a mentor, choreographer, performer and teacher at The Jewels of the Nile dance studio's in Joburg 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 and has not looked back.
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 woman danced around another woman during childbirth to assist the woman in give birth!
"The dance has naturally evolved from village/rural/desert groups to the more modern cabaret expression as we know it today. My opinion is that it's the same all over the world with different cultures influencing each type of dance," she said.
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 (also known as "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 make intercourse and child bearing, easier.
How does this happen? The toning and strengthening of the abdominal muscles through the hip-tucking movements of the dance is similar to 'pelvic rocking' exercises taught in prenatal classes. And since the dance style places emphasis on the control of these muscles, it can actually make natural childbirth much easier.
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 they perpetually fuse it with other forms so much so that it loses its heritage and identity to the viewer," 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.
Yet Charlotte claimed that the moves are great for improving joint articulation and posture, can ensure a cardiovascular workout and improve one's stamina, among other things.
"The psychological benefits are also important and include an enhanced sense of self-worth and appreciation. These in turn can lead to the dance taking ownership and responsibility for their bodies, promoting body-mind cohesion and awareness. There is also an unspoken bond with all women at all levels without ego in classes," she said.
The benefits, in detail include:
- Improved posture and muscle toning: Moves such as hip drops and circular motions of the torso engage the joints and ligaments in the back and hips through placid, repetitive motion which increases the flow of synovial fluid in the joints.
This can help alleviate back pain and tension wile also toning the muscles - which allows for a better posture. Hip flexibility gained through the hip movements may also lead to better balance.
Also, as the dancer is constantly on her feet for the duration of the dance, it is considered to be a weight-bearing exercise – which is useful in preventing osteoporosis through strengthening of the bones.
- Hello weight loss! It is estimated by some that one hour long class can burn up to 300 calories – depending on the intensity of the dance. This, combined with a healthy eating-plan is a safe and effective way to lose weight and keep it off.
- Bye-bye stress: Since the movements of the dance are generally soothing, repetitive and need a fair amount of concentration, this can reduce stress.
When the body is stressed, the neck and back muscles tense up, and the neck and back can spasm in response. Belly dancing eases the pain by increasing blood flow to the affected areas while also gently exercising away the knots and pain.
- 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 the technique is rather difficult, but added philosophically that "all new things are difficult until they become easier."
As for experience before you attempt this colourful dance, she said that all one needs is the "desire to access one's inner sensual goddess and a need to want to have fun in the process - once you get past the initial hard work of learning the subtle technique required!"
Nevertheless, the classes cater for all walks of life – except men in this case.
"The moves of the dance are really made for a woman's’ curvy body and although men certainly can do it, very effectively, my opinion is that the classes should be separate until both men and women are more in touch with their own body and how it feels to correctly 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, November 2007)