Women of the Middle East have 'hip circled', 'shimmied' and swayed their way through pregnancy for centuries. Belly dancing is one of the earliest surviving dances and with its ancient connections with pregnancy and childbirth it is no wonder that this dance is experiencing a revival in the West as a unique form of prenatal conditioning. The gentle circular and rolling motions of belly dance have long been associated with the intuitive movements that many women have found to ease the discomfort of pregnancy, and even the pain of labour. Belly dancing is an especially good form of prenatal exercise because it is low impact, promotes good posture, and improves the abdominal control and awareness needed during pregnancy, childbirth, and in the postpartum recovery period.
Since the late 19th century the American film industry has single-mindedly emphasised the seductive elements of belly dance . In fact, the idea that
it is designed solely for the eyes of men is a myth that is still very much alive in the Hollywood film industry today– if you've seen Sex and
the City 2 you'll know what I'm talking about. But in the privacy of the dance studio - in an all-women class - belly dance can be sensual, feminine,
wonderfully liberating, and not to mention just great exercise. Now, more than ever before, women are taking up the ancient cultural traditions
of belly dance in very personal ways – in particular, as a way in which to experience the changes of pregnancy and to ultimately prepare for childbirth
Gone are the days when pregnant women were expected – and encouraged – to treat their pregnancy like an illness. Instead, women with low risk pregnancies are being urged to get out of the house, stay fit, and enjoy the experience of being pregnant. When I fell pregnant with my first daughter (who is now 3 ½ years old) I continued to teach my classes at Cinnamon Twist School of Belly Dance and perform throughout my pregnancy. I've since given birth to another gorgeous baby girl and throughout all of the ups and downs of having two babies in under 3 years my love of belly dance has been my foundation. I am fortunate that I was able to dance throughout both my pregnancies and feel that dancing offered me the chance to bond with my daughters before they were born in a very focussed and special way.
Belly Dance for Fitness
Contrary to popular belief belly dancing doesn't just utilise the mid-section but works the entire body. The graceful pivots and hip circles improve
core strength, the gentle dips and rolls strengthen not only the legs but also the lower back and gluteus muscles, and soft shoulder shimmies and
chest lifts work to tone the muscles in the arms, chest and upper back. Additionally and perhaps most importantly for pregnancy, the movements
and postures used in belly dance are extremely effective in strengthening the pelvic floor. Pregnancy can place great strain on the pelvic floor
but with the correct exercises many women may avoid common discomforts (such as incontinence) during and after pregnancy.
Health benefits of belly dance during pregnancy:
- Mobilises and strengthens the pelvic floor
- Eases lower back pain commonly associated with pregnancy by encouraging a neutral spinal position and maintaining lower back strength
- The safely grounded nature of belly dance means it is low impact on joints but with mild to medium cardio-vascular benefits
- Increases core body strength, improves flexibility and aids circulation
- Faster return to pre-pregnancy fitness and healthy weight
- Belly dance techniques include muscle isolation exercises that may be useful during labour – the labouring mum has increased awareness of how different abdominal muscles feel when relaxed or contracted
- Moderate regular exercise has been shown to boost the release of beta endorphins which can provide an overall sense of well-being
Apart from the important physical benefits of exercise during pregnancy, belly dancing also promotes a feeling of well being and offers our mums-to-be
a fun and social way in which to experience their changing bodies. Pregnancy is a time of great joy and discovery – I still recall the sense of
awe I felt when the tiny baby inside me made herself known through those first fluttery movements. For many mums though pregnancy can also be a
time of high anxiety – after all, you are growing a baby! That's bound to bring out the worry-wart in the best of us. It's therefore valuable to
spend time with other pregnant women as well as to get some much needed downtime before your little one arrives. A belly dance class is a perfect
way to do this.
Emotional & Mental Health Benefits:
- Promotes creative self-expression and provides stress relief
- Encourages a sense of connection with the baby through dance, movement, and rhythm
- Helps to focus on the pelvis and visualise the baby
- Encourages a positive body image and celebrates the changing bodies of women during pregnancy (and in the postnatal period)
- It has been well documented that dance helps to promotes a general feeling of well being
- The social aspect of belly dance classes and talking to other pregnant women may help to ease anxieties, especially for first time mums
I am thrilled when my students tell me that coming to our prenatal belly dance classes have had a lasting and important effect on the way they view themselves and the baby growing inside them. Leonie, one of our mums who recently gave birth to a healthy baby boy wrote to me "prenatal belly dancing helped me feel closer to my baby". "Especially", Leonie writes "the intense focus on my belly created a special bond between me and my baby, I'm sure the love generated had a positive impact on my bub before he was born".
We all have busy lives and becoming pregnant needn't be the end of all that. In my many changing (and sometimes challenging) roles as a teacher, academic,
professional dancer, the principal of Cinnamon Twist School of Belly Dance as well as mum to two wonderful girls I am also reminded that we all
need some 'me time' now and then. Dance can be a great way to escape the chaos of everyday life, to share a laugh, to learn something new, to soak
up the rhythm of the music.
Author: Virginia Keft-Kennedy, PhD
Virginia is the director and principal of Cinnamon Twist School of Belly Dance, Wollongong, NSW Australia. Virginia has a PhD from the University of Wollongong where she studied the history and cultural significance of belly dance. Virginia's teaching philosophy is based on the notion that dance is a community endeavour as well as a personal journey. In all Virginia's classes she is strongly committed to providing quality instruction in a supportive, fun, and encouraging environment. Cinnamon Twist continues to be dedicated to the public presentation and preservation of the folk dance and contemporary dance culture of the Middle East. Virginia continues to study, teach and learn the art of belly dance in all its forms both nationally and internationally.