Belly dancing provides a full body workout
In Lacy Dickerson’s Introductory Belly Dancing Class at Zanzibar Studio at 600 Georgia Ave., students are of all ages and sizes.
The students are dressed in different styles. One has a fringed scarf wrapped around her waist. Another wears a long necklace that chimes like wind chimes. Others are dressed in sports clothes.
Dickerson begins with yoga-style warm-ups, focusing on the breathing.
“Notice the sensations you feel in your body,” she says.
She leads the group through stretches that accentuate elegance and engage the abdominal muscles.
“Your body is pulling towards Earth and your lower abdomen is engaged,” she says.
According to various sources, belly dancing has roots in Middle Eastern dance, in particular the 19th century gypsy Ghawazi dances and the early 20th century Arab raqs sharqi dance. The term “belly dance” is derived from the French “belly dance”, literally “belly dance”. The popularity of bellydance increased in the United States in the 1920s with the West’s growing fascination with Middle Eastern and Far Eastern culture.
After the warm-up session, some students wrap scarves around their waists. The tradition of hip scarves is derived from Egyptian street performers Ghawazi who sewed the coins they won into their clothes and hair. A few take off their outer tops to train with bare midriffs.
As Dickerson guides the students through the basic movements, she counts the rhythm of the music: “Doon doon tek a tek. Doon tek a tek.
Class members move their hips – right, left, right, left – straightening one knee and then the other. Dickerson demonstrates how to articulate movement with muscle isolation.
“You want to squeeze your glutes,” she said. “Your booty.”
Belly dancing may indeed benefit the buttocks, but it has benefits for the whole body, according to experts.
“We really use all the muscles, from the abdominal muscles to the back and upper body muscles, tweaking and isolating… we definitely use everything from head to toe,” said Jillanna Babb-Cheshul, owner of Merrybelies Dance. Studio. “I was really surprised that the arms and legs are also used by belly dancing.”
Arm and leg training comes from the posture and arm position that dancers perform. Even standing, she says, can create a workout.
Stacy Nolan, owner of Emerald Hips Belly Dance in Chattanooga, said belly dancing helped her overcome pain caused by hip dysplasia in childhood, while also being generally positive for her body.
“You get a lot of muscle toning and strengthening,” she said, “while doing very low impact exercise. So there isn’t a lot of strain on the joints.”
Belly dancing can have great benefits on the core muscles and can strengthen the back, glutes and thighs. It also strengthens the lower abdominal and pelvic muscles, which can have a very positive effect on menstruation, labor and delivery.
Nolan and Babb-Cheshul both offer prenatal oriental dance classes.
“It aims to teach women how to stay active during pregnancy and how to use dance to prepare their bodies for childbirth,” said Nolan, a certified Dancing for Birth instructor. “People have discovered through dancing that women who stay active have faster jobs and often softer, easier jobs.”
She compared childbirth to running a marathon and said staying active during pregnancy can have a similar effect to jogging while preparing for a big run.
“For many women (childbirth) is the most physical event that will happen in their life,” she said.
Belly dancing has traditionally been a female dance, performed by and for women, and many studios maintain this tradition by maintaining a women-only policy. Men, however, can also reap the rewards of belly dancing. Strengthening the lower abdominal muscles and pelvic floor not only helps in natural childbirth, but may also have sexual benefits, according to Nolan and Babb-Cheshul.
As Zanzibar dancers practice their shimmies, the coins on their hip scarves make a sort of metallic tinkle. Dickerson pulls up her long skirt to show how the movements of her legs connect with the movements of her hips. Her stomach also moves, almost like water, as she dances.
“Be gentle with yourselves,” she reminds her students. “Let your knees do the work. Let the stomach go.”