Anyone who has visited the Middle East or even seen a movie set there will have seen belly dancers. This ancient art is enjoying a new lease of life as a gentle and attractive route to improved flexibility and fitness.
The origins of belly dancing go back beyond recorded history. Dances for fertility, temple ceremonies, weddings and other occasions were known in the Middle East long before contact with Western Europe. There is a particularly strong association with fertility rites, which is why it is still traditional in many eastern countries for a belly dancer to perform at a wedding. This is also the origin of the coins sewn into many costumes, which represent the wedding dowry. Traditional dancers were also paid directly by the audience, with coins thrown to her and collected in her costume.
The dance is also believed to have been performed by pregnant women to strengthen the stomach muscles and increase flexibility for the birth, and even to encourage a woman in labour.
The dance was first brought to the notice of the West by the French – ‘belly dance’ is a free translation of the French term ‘danse du ventre’ or ‘dance of the stomach’. It was first seen in America in the late 1890s where the movements and the shocking fact that the dancers did not wear corsets caused a sensation. From then on, belly dancing was firmly established in the west and was frequently featured in Hollywood films.
Belly dancing works many of the muscles of the body core, especially the stomach, back and hips. The basic moves of the dance are:
Belly-dancing does not recognise age restrictions, because the movements are those natural to the human body. Unlike ballet which needs to be started at a young age, belly-dancing can be started at any time as a leisure activity. Late starters have gone on to become teachers and even performers. Dancing can be continued into the senior years, taken at the pace that suits the dancer.
Another big advantage of belly dancing is that it is not just a pursuit for the slim. Traditionally the fuller-figured woman was considered more attractive in these cultures – a far cry from today where many have gone to the other extreme and try to achieve unrealistic slenderness. The movements are low-impact and can be adapted to suit the flexibility of the dancer. The costumes are also adaptable – some of the dances come from countries where women are expected to be more covered, so those who do not wish to expose their stomachs or cleavage do not need to do so. The flowing skirts and veils and the graceful effects of the coins and sequins are flattering to all sizes and all ages.
Belly dancing is a weight-bearing exercise, so it is very good for the bones. The movements exercise the hip muscles and improve their tone and flexibility, and promote flow of synovial fluid to lubricate the joints. There are also mental benefits from improved posture and self-confidence. Let’s be honest, those moves are a little alluring and everybody feels better for that.
Belly dancing can be performed at a very gentle level, but as with any form of exercise there are some risks. Attempting moves that are too advanced, or pushing an inflexible body in directions in which it does not want to go can cause injury. Incorrect moves can strain the neck, lower back and knees. Some of the more advanced wiggles and shimmies are definitely in the category of ‘don’t try this at home!’
So while there are plenty of DVDs and online videos available, as with all forms of dancing the best way to learn is to join a class. Belly dancing classes are held in many leisure centres and fitness clubs, and there are no age or fitness pre-requisites to join. The dance can be very addictive, and even the most reluctant may find themselves happily performing sooner than they think. There is plenty of scope for elaborate costumes, veils and sequins, but none of this is necessary to begin dancing. In fact, teachers find it easier if beginners wear leggings rather than a skirt as it is then easier to see how the student is moving. The dance is performed either barefoot or with thin-soled ballet-type pumps.
The final question – can a man belly dance? The answer is a qualified ‘yes’ – the traditional female moves do not work very well with the different pelvic structure of a man, and most men would probably prefer to take different roles in the dance. However there are male versions of the dance. It has to be said that most classes are geared to women, but a professional teacher should be able to find out if there is a class for men nearby.
While the basics are simple, there are always more moves to learn and ways to improve. Belly dancing can keep you fit, confident and happy for many years to come.