Often new students will inquire as to what type or style of belly dance I teach. My simple reply is “Canadian”, not out of flippancy, but out of respect for the traditions of classic middle eastern dance.
Many countries have produced very specific styles of dance that can be identified by natives of those countries or cultures. Whether Egyptian in style, Turkish, Lebanese or Tunisian, all are steeped in a rich history and background that led to the development of certain moves that are found within each of these varied types of dance.
I have always had great respect for the teachers who have focused their research on maintaining the classics. I have found for myself, my attention was better directed towards discovering the abilities of our bodies to move, balance, and express control through a beautiful form of dance.
I am a dancer trained in an assortment of traditions, some that I am aware of and some that have come to me through observation or self-discovery. My teachers have had various backgrounds themselves, and with the love of dance being in the forefront, the style I have personally embraced is not specific to any one culture. It would not be appropriate for me to claim to be a “middle eastern” dancer, when my style represents a love of certain moves, coming from many sources, and interpreted by me in a very Canadian fashion. Besides the fact that I am from the Ottawa Valley with an Irish heritage mixed with folk from the Jersey Isle!
My teaching style reflects the openness of my previous teachers along with the many discoveries I have made through my own journey into belly dance. Posture, muscle control, awareness of what your body is doing while isolating certain parts, these are as important for the student as learning the classic moves and correct combinations to create an amazing performance.
Why “Belly Dance”
Many prefer to not use the term “belly dance”. While I understand their reasons – feeling the term is demeaning, it conjures up images of less than elegant dancers, I myself have chosen to empower the phrase by giving it the respect it deserves. Some would say that the dance does not really use the belly as a main component of the dance, but I am finding every day that without strong core muscles ( the “belly” muscles, the abdominal -front, back and side ), one cannot control the movements with the same grace and elegance as one who works at building those stabilizing muscles. I don’t have a “six pack” by any means, but I know those muscles are working with every class and performance.
Things to keep in mind….
While I would prefer it if everyone came to my classes and were guided by me specifically, it is not always feasible to make the trip to downtown Ottawa for lessons! So, here are a few guidelines to keep in mind when you are practicing belly dance or even checking out a class for the first time. Many teachers are already fully aware of the following, even if they express it in different terms. These are important things for you to consider when doing any physical activity and will help in a general way to protect your back and joints from excess strain and injury.
Of course, if you have difficulties with certain moves, you should discontinue doing them until you have the chance to consult with a professional who can indicate the best course of action for your body and situation.
Posture and belly dance
As with any kind of movement, maintaining good form is very important for both ease of achieving the desired look as well as using one’s body in the most healthy fashion. Whether it is out of lack of awareness, or simply a badly arranged desk and computer setup, we all spend some part of the day using bad form.
There are many professionals who now exist to help alleviate many of these problems — from ergonomics specialists to chiropractors, to massage therapists, along with many other sources of valuable information. If you feel pain, your body is sending you a loud and clear message that damage is being done to it. There is good pain as in those first moments of a good stretch or the pain that occurs during a good massage as lactic acids are being forced out of the muscles. Most people can tell the difference between good pain and bad pain. The bad pain, is your signal to stop what you are doing and evaluate the situation. Have you pulled a muscle? Are you getting a cramp because you have forgotten to breathe? Is a joint popping and grinding when you move your hips or arms in a certain way? Do you have an existing injury that needs to be considered before performing a certain move? Only you know your own body, and it is your job to pay attention to it and to how you are using it.
Using belly dancing skills correctly can increase body awareness and create an environment where you can practice developing good form or good posture to help prevent injuries. Good form or posture has always had an important role in fitness activities, this is why it is so important to have a trainer of some sort when you are beginning a new activity. A good instructor/trainer will keep your body positions in mind with you, reminding you what to adjust to help with injury prevention. Always remember that you are also responsible for making sure you understand what you need to do.
Belly dancing has its own form and positions to create the flowing, flattering lines that make this dance so beautiful. These alignments will carry over into your everyday walking, standing and moving, if you let them. Many are common sense when you think about it, and some need a bit more information to explain how and why they are the best body position.
1 Keep your body stacked above itself.
Starting at your feet, center your weight over your arches. Your knees should always be slightly bent, to prevent hyper extending or locking them straight.
Your pelvic area should be slightly tilted under so that your lower back vertebrae are “open” (not scrunched as they would be if your butt was sticking out).
Your rib cage is lifted and centered over your hips, not leaning forward nor back.
The shoulders are pulled back and down to open up the upper chest.
Your neck is in line directly above your chest and
Your head is held to line your ears up with the centre of your shoulders.
Your chin is tucked down towards the chest to open up the vertebrae at the top of the neck.
2 Keep your eyes on the horizon.*
Looking down the entire time does not actually help as it may help you to slouch forward with the shoulders. This does take some practice as we like to see what we are doing, but it becomes easier to feel what you are doing in time.
* There may be times when you will look up or down based on the movements and interpretation of the dance you are performing, but the best place to look for most occasions is the horizon!
3 Keep your girdle/ core muscles strong.
These muscles are your set of abdominal muscles. By consciously holding your stomach in and being aware of how those muscles play a major role in maintaining good posture, you will help prevent lower back problems.
By keeping aware of what your body is doing, you will not only find the movements of dance easier, but your everyday movements will flow better and you will gain untold benefits. And always keep in mind -if it hurts, stop doing it until you find out why it hurts, and how to keep it from hurting!
Core Training and belly dance
As we walk, lift, move, drive, do all of our everyday activities, we use our abdominal muscles more than we know. This complex set of muscles works in mysterious ways to we lay people, but physiotherapists, sports therapists and fitness experts have been trying to increase our awareness of the importance of these trunk muscles for years.
I have begun in my classes to have students practice hip lifts and drops while standing on one foot (butt tucked under into a neutral position, supporting knee not hyper-extended, abs held strong). What fun! Lifting the hip on the side as high as possible, and then stretching it down as far as one comfortably can will give you an indication of how high and how low you can perform lifts and drops. And it definitely helps increase ones stability and balance.
Using those workout balls (the big inflatable ones) will also help develop stronger core muscles and better posture – which in turn reduces lower back pain, and neck strain. There are many sources of information online for exercises to strengthen the core muscle group, and of course it is advisable to take a class where a professional is there to make sure your form is correct and that you will get the most benefit from the work-out.
Isolating muscle groups plays a big role in belly dance. Try practicing upper body moves while sitting down – ribs stacked above the pelvic area, head up and chin tucked down – arms relaxed will help get some idea of how much movement can be achieved.
The basic things to keep in mind are never hyper extend your knees and always keep your posture strong. Even when just walking, this can help you feel better. And save the high heels for special occasions!