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Got Strength?
Buffing up for Bellydance

by Aruna

One of the reasons I love bellydance is that, unlike ballet or jazz, it’s a dance most everyone can do. You don’t have to be born with a certain body type, you don’t need to have started at age 6 and it’s possible to do it for decades. Add the dress up part and what’s not to love?

Most bellydancers I know are in love with this dance. As in many a love affair, however, it’s natural to expect it to fulfill too many of our needs. What bellydance doesn’t supply in abundance, however, is strength. While it certainly makes you stronger, there’s seldom enough outside resistance to sufficiently strengthen muscles and bones, unless you’re lifting a heavy prop or partner or doing lots of floor work.

Muscles are like smart-aleck teenagers. If you ask them to do something, they do just enough to get the job done—and no more.

Muscles do this as a survival technique, a hold-out from our cave days. Once they figure out what’s required for a repetitive task, they recruit the minimum amount of muscle fibers so they can save their big energy expenditures for running away from danger. To coax the body into continuing to progress and get stronger, you have to surprise it: change your moves, the amount of time you do something, the order of the movements or the intensity. Otherwise the muscles virtually get bored and stop adapting! A sure way to keep muscles firing, especially if you’re not getting any younger, is to add strength training—at least that way you have more variables to change. 

Now before you say “blech! That’s why I dance, so I don’t HAVE to go to some smelly testosterone gym,”

you can do the following exercises at home or in a studio. Many years of teaching have shown me that these are the muscle groups both aspiring and experienced bellydancers most need to give outside attention. Of course, you shouldn’t do these or any exercises the same way all the time, because, as I said above, the body adapts to any routine and you get diminishing returns. But try mixing up your approach and add these and other strength moves to your workouts!

 Some tips for bellydancers on getting your mind right around strength:

  • Do the exercises like a dance, slowly feeling your way through each move. Take a minimum of 8 to 10 or more seconds per rep—that’s rep, not exercise! With a set of 10 reps, that’s over a minute and a half or more per exercise. For more fun, go slower.
  • Do it to music that opens your sensual door.
  • Consciously connect to the muscles you’re supposed to be working. After all, weight lifting is all about isolation—the same thing you do when you dance.
  • Maintain a strong vertical axis (i.e. don’t lean sideways while lifting).
  • Keep a stable S curvature in both your lower and upper back (i.e. slightly arch both).
  • Avoid any sharp nasty pain you might have from an old joint injury. Don’t work through it. Work around it!
  • Continue until you’ve built a slow burning fire in the muscles—and if possible do a little more by adding partial moves, change tempo.).
  • As for flexibility, do your longest deepest stretches after your body is warm (not as a warm up) and hold each stretch for 10 to 30 seconds to make lasting improvements.
The Abdominal Clock. This one move targets lower & upper abs, lower back and obliques. Lie on your back with knees slightly bent, toes pointed up to ceiling. You’re about to tell time with your feet! Straight up is the mid-point of your clock. Keep your lower back slightly arched at first, knees aligned over hips, though your back will change shape throughout the exercise. Just make sure you’re holding in the lower ab muscles in every position and avoid losing control of the torso muscles. Take toes to 6 o’clock, 3, 12 (overhead with lower back lifted off floor), and 9 – several times slowly around the clock face in either a diamond or circular shape. The smaller the circle the easier it is. Reverse. Add ankle weights for a bigger challenge.

Slow Gooey Chadaranga Pushup: There’s no way to look sexy, proud or happy while dancing (or in life!) with a sunken chest.

Yet this is one of the most common mistakes beginning dancers make. Besides using chest, this full body exercise also uses triceps, shoulders, lats abs & lower back. As you do this exercise, imagine you’re in the most lifted part of a chest circle the whole time!

The starting position: On hands and knees, press your shoulders down toward your hips (the opposite of shrugging), slightly arch your lower back and pull your navel up to your spine. Slide your body weight forward and down, keeping the butt slightly lifted. Circle your weight back and up, again keeping butt lifted. Take care to maximize your chest work and minimize shoulder involvement. For a good time, reverse.

Chest Circles, Lat Wings. More chest and lat work, yes, but from a different angle. FYI, lats (latissimus dorsi) are those big back muscles that run in a V shape from the shoulder blades to your lower back. As a dancer, you need strong contracted lats because they provide a bed for your shoulders to sit on.

In other words, with lat strength you can do snake arms for a long time without your arms falling off!

Although shoulders need to be strong for dance, it’s more important to learn how to position the lats & chest to minimize shoulder involvement (many of us have shoulder injuries anyway!).

Using light weights (from 3 to 7 lb. dumbbells), start with arms in an A shape, shoulders down, chest lifted. Raise arms slightly forward and up to a V shape, palms facing the ceiling, keeping shoulders down (as if making a ritual offering to the heavens). Lift the chest even more as you lower the arms slightly behind you aiming elbows into your back pocket.

You can apply this posture to your dancing: Lift your chest and hold your shoulders down and back while you dance. Slightly expand the lats outward while you dance (this isn’t dependent on your breath) and allow your arm motions to connect to your spine and not just the shoulders.


Deep 2nd Position Plie Quad & Butt Burner. You can’t move hips with straight legs—but you can dance for a long time and better, with your knees softly bent. Although holding legs bent makes them stronger, deep plies give you that extra strength you need to keep dancing longer. Plus as you get older, with strong legs you can do level changes in lunge positions rather than with the normal position of feet together, heels lifted (a precarious position for knees of any age).

Take a wide stance with toes turned to 2 and 10 o’clock, ankles over knees, hips directly under shoulders. Take several slow, simple deep grande plies. When legs are sufficiently warm, hinge torso forward from your hips, keeping lower back arched, pressing knees open with elbows. Here’s the fun part. Stay in deep plie with an arched back and hinge torso back into an upright position. Most people can’t do this without straightening legs a little. If you need to straighten legs, go back into deep grande plie before calling it quits and watch the steam rise off your thighs!

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