Belly dancing offers whole-body workout

Thursday, March 17, 2011

In Lacy Dickerson's intro to belly dancing class at Zanzibar Studio at 600 Georgia Ave., students come in all ages and sizes.

The students are dressed in different styles. One has a fringed scarf wrapped about her waist. Another wears a long necklace that tinkles like wind chimes. Others are dressed in workout clothes.

Dickerson begins with yoga style warm-ups, focusing on breath.

"Notice the sensations you're feeling in your body," she says.

She leads the group through stretches that accentuate elegance and engage core muscles.

"Your body is pulling to the Earth, and your low belly is engaged," she says.

According to various sources, belly dancing has roots in Middle Eastern dance, particularly the Ghawazi gypsy dances of the 19th century and the Arabic raqs sharqi dance of the early 20th century. The term "belly dance" is derived from the French "danse du ventre," literally, "dance of the stomach." The popularity of belly dance grew in the United States in the 1920s with the growth of Western fascination with Middle and Far Eastern culture.

After the warm-up session, some of the students wrap jingling hip scarves around their waists. The tradition of the hip scarves is derived from the Egyptian Ghawazi street performers who sewed the coins they earned into their clothes and hair. A few remove their outer tops to practice with bared midriffs.

As Dickerson leads the students through basic movements, she counts the rhythm of the music: "Doon doon tek a tek. Doon tek a tek."

Members of the class move their hips - right, left, right, left - by straightening one knee then the other. Dickerson demonstrates how to articulate the movement with muscle isolation.

"You want to squeeze your glutes," she instructs. "Your booty."

Belly dancing can indeed benefit the bum, but it has advantages for the whole body, experts say.

"We really use every muscle from the abdominal muscles to the back muscles and upper body, fine tuning and isolating ... we definitely use everything from the head to the toe," said Jillanna Babb-Cheshul, owner of Merrybellies Dance Studio. "I was really surprised that the arms and legs got such a workout from belly dancing."

The arm and leg workout comes from the posture and the arm stance dancers execute. Even standing in place, she said, can create a workout.

Stacy Nolan, owner of Emerald Hips Belly Dance in Chattanooga, said belly dance has helped her to overcome pain caused by childhood hip dysplasia, as well as being generally positive for her body.

"You get great toning and strengthening of the muscles," she said, "while doing a very low impact exercise. So there's not a lot of strain on the joints."

Belly dancing can have great benefit 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 childbirth.

Nolan and Babb-Cheshul both offer prenatal belly dance classes.

"It focuses on teaching women how to remain active during their pregnancy as well as how to use dance to prepare their bodies for childbirth," said Nolan, a certified Dancing for Birth instructor. "People have found through dancing, women who remain active have quicker labors and often smoother, easier labors."

She compared childbirth to running a marathon and said remaining active during pregnancy can have a similar effect to jogging while preparing for a big run.

"For a lot of women (childbirth) is the most physical event that will happen in their lives," she said.

Belly dancing is traditionally a women's dance, performed by and for women, and many studios uphold that tradition by keeping a ladies only policy. Men, however, can also reap the rewards of belly dancing. The strengthening of the lower abdominal and pelvic floor muscles not only assist with natural childbirth, but can have sexual benefits as well, according to Nolan and Babb-Cheshul.

As the Zanzibar dancers practice their shimmies, the coins on their hip scarves make a sort of metallic tinkling sound. Dickerson hikes up her long skirt to show how the movements of her legs connect to the movements of her hips. Her belly moves too, almost waterlike, as she dances.

"Be gentle with yourselves," she reminds her students. "Let your knees do the work. Let the belly go."