The Fitness Benefits of Our Dance
posted March 2010
Great news! A brand new fitness trend is about to hit the belly dance market! It includes revolutionary concepts; Fun with a capital F; easy to learn; safe; feels good and IS good for you; trims, tones and sculpts your body into womanly curves. So what is this hottest, latest craze called? Drum roll please… ta daaaah – Egyptian Oriental dance!
The past few years have seen innumerable changes, innovations, inventions and marketing trends imposed upon this ancient art form, most of which bear little, if any resemblance to anything Middle Eastern. One of the more recent and popular trends has been to sell belly dance as a fitness regimen.
This is a fabulous idea, except for the very important and primary fact that the majority of efforts in this direction have attempted to fit this archetype of feminine activity into the current prevailing masculine model of linear strengthening and tightening, complete with fitness speak, crunches, squats and sweat!
Drills replace simply dancing and practicing. Combinations have no relationship to any music –they just exist. Six packs aim to replace a smoothly curved abdomen. Do tight buns and 12 year old boy thighs really need to replace odalisque women’s hips? Should the magic diagonals that make every move and every body lusciously feminine and interesting be replaced by two dimensional step-it-out right, left, front, back? Plus, most contain no aerobic component or teach anything that could possibly make anyone sweat.
So why would anyone want to take all the innate fun and the natural beauty, sensuality and artistry out of our dancing and replace it with dry and boring repetitions of masculine movements? Isn’t that one of the primary reasons why belly dance became so popular in the first place?
Women wanted to get and stay in shape, but also wanted to have fun, be creative and artistic, stay motivated, develop refined and intricate new skills, celebrate the power of their femininity, feel proud of their accomplishments and perhaps even learn about another culture and open doors to a world of possibilities.
So let’s back up a bit and talk about what exactly is fitness? It would appear that there is no clear definition of fitness, other than an individual’s perception of this illusive quality or state.
According to Webster: the state of being fit, which is defined as adapted to the environment so as to be capable of surviving.
According to Wikipedia: These days, physical fitness is considered a measure of the body’s ability to function efficiently and effectively in work and leisure activities, to be healthy, to resist hypokinetic diseases (conditions that occur from a sedentary lifestyle), and to meet emergency situations. There are also references to the physical, mental and emotional fitness triangle with important consideration given to cardiovascular fitness, flexibility, strength, muscular endurance, body composition and skill training relative to age, lifestyle and gender.
Now, I would like to have a quick look at a few of the myriad of feminine fitness benefits of Oriental dance. Although all types of dancing are physically, mentally and emotionally beneficial in many ways, many can be very physically demanding or even result in injuries. However, if correctly taught and practiced, Egyptian style Oriental dance gently tones the body while being completely safe for all of our joints and muscles. It also improves posture, energy levels, circulation, breathing, digestive, elimination and reproductive systems plus it is almost impossible to do without smiling and having fun, which is one of the most powerful factors in maintaining good health!
Strong, Flexible and Fluid Spine
Today back pain is the most common of all physical problems. It is a well known fact that in order to maintain a healthy lower back, we must strengthen our abdominals and what better way than slow, self-resisted, diagonal undulations which strengthen and tone the massive and powerful abdominal oblique muscles in direct balance with the entire length of large erector spinae muscles of the back. This unique combination of lengthening and shortening contractions sculpt the torso into beautiful feminine curves while maintaining optimal length and flexibility. It is also important to keep all spinal joints healthy and free by doing movements in all directions. These diagonal movements keep all of our vertebral joints healthy by moving them through rotation, flexion and extension. We can add a side-bend of these joints with our full body lifting lateral figure 8s (so lovely!). Repeated short range and unidirectional abdominal strengtheners such as crunches can lead to joint compression, will strengthen the muscles in a bulky shortened position and often create strain on the neck and lower back (which is what they are supposed to be helping).
We have also heard a lot of references to core strengthening and its importance in maintaining a healthy back. Crunches, isometric V and C position, back extension machines, straight leg lifts, etc. also put major strain on the neck and lower back. These can also overwork and shorten the hip flexor muscle called the iliopsoas (which is a principal generator of lower back pain), over strengthening the back muscles and abdominus rectus and rarely balance the opposing sets of muscles or equalize muscle strength and length.
For an "alien adventure in inner space" – try this. Contract and lift the adductors up and into the pelvic floor, continue to lift the pelvic floor muscles up inside the body like an elevator and continue up the navel and beyond. Then slowly, VERY slowly, do a pelvic rotation, then focus it on one hip then the other (always moving from the focus hip front into the navel), then try up and in diagonal hip figure 8’s (Samia Gamal style), and very, very slowly do full torso diagonal undulations resisting your own movements, alternately lengthening and shortening the obliques, in direct opposition to your back muscles. Now this is “core work supreme” and as yummy as it gets.
In today’s computer oriented and sedentary culture, rounded shoulders and slumping posture has become epidemic. Although not usually as debilitating as lower back problems, nagging, tiring and painful upper back and shoulder pain is often difficult to correct. Chest lifts, rib circles and sways, take pressure off of the overstretched upper back muscles and create more freedom in the upper back vertebral joints. Large gentle shoulder rolls and gentle shimmies keep the shoulder joints free. Using our arms in a full range of motion with veil work, arabesques and long swooping elevated arm movements not only tones the arms but also adds important aerobic benefits to our dancing.
They also lengthen the pectoral area muscles to open the chest and allow the shoulder blades to move towards the spine to correct this rounded shoulder posture and restore healthy muscle balance. All of these arm and chest movements also dramatically increase our breathing capacity and depth. However, it is important to note that large “snake arms” done in a shoulder, elbow, wrist sequence will almost certainly create rotator cuff damage and frozen shoulder syndrome.
Healthy Happy Hips and Knees
Very few activities have such a direct and beneficial effect on the hips and pelvis as Oriental Belly dance. All hip push ups, pull downs, side tilts and shimmies are created and controlled by the large and powerful “yin” adductor muscles on the inside of the thighs. Strong adductors in turn maintain healthy and stable pelvic and SI (sacro-iliac) joints. The easiest and definitely the most fun way to get and maintain powerful adductor muscles is to dance with awareness of these muscles. It is that simple. Hip Figure 8’s in all directions are wonderful for toning the muscles surrounding the hips, as well as the waistline, provided that they are within the normal range and do not overstretch these muscles. Large downward mayas, large hip circles with straight legs and hip accents done with a large curve in the lower back will strain the hip muscles and damage both hip and lower back joints. Strong hip shimmies over a period of time, as in drum solos, are also a wonderful way to get the heart rate up without putting strain on joints and muscles. Hip shimmies and twists also keep our internal organs massaged and moving freely, while very slow pelvic rotations, undulations and inward Fig 8’s can strengthen both the gluteus maximus muscles as well as the pelvic floor muscles.
Another major advantage of our dance form is the fact that our movements are all no- impact and therefore avoid damage to joints, especially the knees.
Unlike many fitness practices or other dance forms, our dance does not include knee hyperextensions, squats, lunges, deep knee bends that either directly damage the knee joints or indirectly create knee problems by overloading and unbalancing the quadriceps. The knees simply and gently move between a very slight bend and a relaxed but straight knee position, staying healthy and keeping us happy and forever mobile.
In summary, I am sure that you will be very inspired to know about all of these fabulous benefits of our very special dance form and I can’t wait to send this on to you all, shut down my computer, put on my music and go get in shape while have fun, create moving art to beautiful music, play, breath, feel luscious and alive and inspire myself to explore the new, as well as the familiar, as I celebrate being a woman (with fitness thrown in at no extra charge)!
Ready for more?
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