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Gilded Serpent presents...
Is Bellydance Good Exercise?
by Venus (Marilee Nugent), BSc, Kinesiology, BA Art & Culture

The short answer is this: anything that inspires you to put down the Dorritos and get off the couch is good exercise. Bellydance seems to appeal to many people who say they don’t like to exercise. Caught up in shimmying and undulating to the exotic rhythms of the Middle East, they don’t notice they are sweating and working out.

The fitness benefits of regular bellydancing include increased strength and endurance of particular muscle groups as well as the rewards that come from prolonged aerobic activity: improved cardiovascular conditioning, increased caloric expenditure, decreased blood pressure, improved blood composition and decreased stress.

One of the big advantages of this dance style is that bodies of every size and type can perform the movements. The movements are designed to emphasize feminine curves, grace and coquettishness. At the same time, the movements strengthen the leg and trunk muscles and improve posture.

Many women remark that after just a few months of classes they gain a new acceptance of and enjoyment in their bodies, discovering how skillfully and expressively they can move.

Increasingly, younger, fitter women are adding bellydance to their menu of activities. It’s a great way to improve mobility of the joints, use muscles in novel ways, and improve coordination of the trunk and hips. Once you’ve acquired some basic skills, the class can move at a faster pace, running through combinations and whole dances for more cardio as well as coordination challenges.

The improvisational and self-expressive aspect of bellydance provides an exercise alternative with an emotional and creative element, which could provide a refreshing change from the gym routine doldrums. Another bonus is learning hot new moves to add to your movement repertoire at the dance clubs!

Although bellydance may be an excellent start to becoming more active or adding variety to an exercise program, it should not be expected to comprise a complete fitness program. Being a dance discipline, the focus in classes is not on maintaining a certain heart rate or developing balanced muscle strength, but mastering technical skills and developing artistic expression.

Regular drilling of movements a few hours a week is crucial to learning the skills and will develop muscle strength, but rather than only using this movement form for strength building, it may be wiser to alternate with simpler strength exercises involving slower more controlled actions that don’t force the large ranges of motion and constantly stress tendons and ligaments.

Typically it is not an intense upper body workout so you may want to add that to your routine, although practicing veil work can be very challenging to arms, upper back and postural support muscles. As with any exercise regime, once your body adapts to the new level of activity it is easy to plateau, and you must increase the challenge by increasing how often or how intensely you practice in order to see continued improvements in your fitness level.

There are no standardized criteria for bellydance instructors and no widely recognized established training methods. Consequently, it is a bit of a “buyer beware” situation, since many instructors have no knowledge base in fitness, biomechanics or injury prevention, and often have poor teaching skills and provide inadequate warm-ups and cool-downs.

I regularly get students coming to me after “training” a few years with another instructor, and find myself in the uncomfortable position of informing them that since they received no correction or feedback, they have not mastered even basic technique, which now has to be completely relearned.

The movement style may hold certain types of injury risk, especially if taught or practiced incorrectly. Many of the isolations involve moving body parts in unfamiliar ways and trying to maximize ranges of motion in spine, pelvis and hips. Progress should be gradual and emphasize correct technique so that muscle strength is developed in tandem with flexibility to avoid creating weakness and instability in the joints.

Because of the nature of the pelvic movements, it is all too easy to adopt a poor posture of hyperlordosis (increased lower back arch) that can cause strain and fatigue in the lower back. Consequently, I begin all my classes with abdominal crunches and constantly remind students to engage abs to maintain a good neutral spine position. Certain popular movements—such as back bends and kneeling floor work—should be completely avoided by the general population because of the stress they put on back and knee joints, not to mention the high risk of sudden, traumatic injury from attempting them, so be very wary if a teacher uses these movements in lower level classes.

Other cautions relate to any previous injuries you may have. Twisting motions of the hips can cause some torque in the knees which may aggravate new or old injuries. Some people experience pain in the hip joints due to muscle tightness, imbalance, or simply pushing the movements too hard.

While technique is crucial to preventing back pain and strain, I have had reports from students of a decrease in back pain resulting from strength and mobility gain through bellydance.

Having specific aesthetics as the movement goals poses some injury risk when enthusiasm overwhelms common sense. Pain should always be an indication to back off. The desire to achieve certain exciting moves may encourage students to push their joint ranges of motion too far and strain muscles, tendons and ligaments. Above all it is important to remember that each individual has different limitations with regard to muscle flexibility and joint range of motion—forcing movements to look the way they do on another’s body can lead to strain and injury.

If something is causing continued pain, a student should get advice from a good teacher on how to modify their technique, consult a physiotherapist, or get into the gym and start working on a balanced strength program. Just as bellydance can be a complement to a fitness program, specific cardio and strength workouts will bring increased enjoyment and expertise to your bellydancing through improved stamina (you can practice longer, or in performing, maintain a higher energy, both physical and emotional) and increased control and coordination (through improved, balanced muscle strength).

As with any type of exercise, initially one should start slow and gradually build up frequency and intensity of practice. In a beginner class intensity will naturally start slowly and gradually build as over the weeks experience allows you to begin putting movements together and actually start dancing!

One last caution relates to a strong tendency amongst bellydance aficionados to use the notion of the Eastern ideal of feminine beauty as being more “voluptuous” as a legitimization for maintaining an unhealthy body weight.

While it is important to love and accept one’s body as it is today—and bellydance is a great way to get actively motivated as well as realize one can feel sexy and beautiful at any size—it is important to continue to move forward from that acceptance on the path of improved health and well-being.

While the majority of bellydance students try it for a while and then go on to the next fitness craze, many women develop a lifelong passion for the dance which leads to continued athletic and artistic development, education about foreign cultures, and development of new friendships with bellydancers locally and worldwide.

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Ready for more?
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