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Health & Wellbeing

Components of Fitness for Bellydancers: Balance

Compromising  your natural support structure requires balance

You probably already know that balance is one’s ability to maintain an equilibrium either while standing still or moving. Balance is actually linked to strength. It’s the strength of very small muscle groups needed to hold us in place when we disrupt our natural support structure (either by taking a foot off the ground or moving different sections of our body out of alignment). So how do we use balance in belly dance, and why is it important to develop this skill?

What a belly dancer with balance looks like: She appears solid, grounded, and in control of her body and movements. She can easily perform the transitions needed for level changes and floorwork. Movements that require shifting the weight to one foot or movements on relevé seem effortless. She can spin or turn while maintaining her position on the floor or while traveling around the room, stopping with ease and precision.

You know what the feeling of being off balance is like. If you experience that feeling during…

  • large isolation work (such as large torso circles or eights)
  • level changes
  • spins, turns, and arabesques
  • traveling steps
  • relevé (on your tip-toes)
  • movements with the weight on just one leg

… then you know it’s time to work on your balance.

A few tips for balance work:

  1. A lot of balancing in belly dancing relies on the calf muscles. To strengthen these and practice traveling steps, relevé, and level changes, try adding heel raises into your warmups. Lift your heels off the floor, balance on your toes for a few seconds, and then lower with control. Repeat for a minute or two.
  2. You can give yourself an even greater challenge by layering a shoulder shimmy or torso circle over the heel raise exercise. Or try performing a grapevine, or other footwork sequence, interspersed with heel raises.
  3. A lot of people avoid spins because of the unpleasant feeling on dizziness or nausea, but this actually fades with practice. Some people feel less effect focusing on a point turning with them (like their arm or shoulder), on nothing at all, or by spotting. Start with the style that works best for you and try to add a few turns to your practice.

Extra-curricular study: I really like Yoga for teaching body awareness (important for balance) and strengthening core and calf muscles. Standing yoga poses like Vrksasana (the tree) are great.

Check out the other components of fitness for bellydancers:

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Health & Wellbeing

Components of Fitness for Bellydancers: Coordination

Using props requires coordination

Coordination is our ability to integrate our movements into sequence, into what we call dance. It is actually a synthesis of the other components of fitness such as strength and balance.

What a coordinated belly dancer looks like: She is able to effectively layer. She can perform hip and torso movements in tandem, shimmy over circles and eights, or add level changes. Her movements are in sync to the music and form natural patterns to the rhythm. Her footwork is varied and she has an assortment of traveling steps, turns, and transitions to choose from when improvising or choreographing. She can gracefully integrate props such as a sword, veil, cane, or zills into her routine.

You should work on your coordination if you:

  • Feel like you ‘lose touch’ with your arms when you’re concentrating on other movements
  • Feel like you can’t connect to the muscles your instructor describes using for a particular movement
  • Would like to learn to travel with the circles, waves, and eights you already know
  • Would like to add a shimmy to the circles, waves, and eights you already know
  • Want to add more complex traveling steps and footwork to your practice
  • Would like to dance with props such as a sword, veil, cane, and especially zills

A quick note: What’s the deal with isolations? Isolations, as I refer to them, are small, highly focused movements. These include the circles, waves, and eights of the hips, belly, torso, chest, and shoulders. Isolations are a product of coordination (your brain knowing and connecting to the right muscles at the right time), strength (those very small muscles having the power to move large sections of your body), and flexibility (those same muscles being able to stretch long enough to produce a wide range of motion). You need all three to have clean, precise isolation work.

Recognizing the Signs

1.) You’re working on a new isolation but the body part you’re trying to move just doesn’t go where it’s supposed to. Your instructor has described what muscles to use and has maybe even shown you where they are located. You just can’t feel them though, and aren’t sure how to connect to them.

Why: Your brain and the muscle haven’t coordinated yet. You might use the muscle in your day to day without thinking, but haven’t discovered yet how to actively move it where you want it to go.

The Fix: First, try your best to identify the right muscle group. You might be able to see the muscle movement in your instructor, or even feel it with your hand. Ask your instructor to steer you through the movement with her hands, if you feel comfortable. Then try to incorporate a mind body connection into your practice. Imagine the muscle working, performing the movement correctly.

2.) You’re learning to layer, essentially trying to perform two movements at once. It might be as simple as circling your arms while moving your hips from side-to-side, or more complicated like layering a hip shimmy over a figure eight. In any case, you have that sensation of brain overload. When you concentrate on one movement the other loses its form or shape, starts and stops, or gets dropped altogether.

Why: It’s the typical pat your tummy while scratching your head thing.

The Fix: There are a few things you can try in your practice. Always start with one movement first (I like to start with the harder one), and then slowly add in the other. I also recommend varying the speed of one or both movements. The circle can be really large and super slow when you’re first trying to layer a shimmy.

3.) Fancy footwork is not your favorite thing. Your instructor occasionally throws in a few turns, crossovers, rock steps, cha cha chas… and it’s like showing a dog a card trick.

Why: We don’t always identify as strongly right and left with our feet as we do our hands. It’s difficult sometimes (especially when a mirror is involved) to tease apart footwork.

The Fix: Unfortunately, the only thing to do is practice! It’s good to slow things down occasionally, but a lot of times it can be easier to get things at speed. Don’t think, just try to move. Look for ‘anchors’ in the combination… one two three turn five six rock step… and try to hit these first, the filler steps will fall into place.

Extra-curricular study: I like to think that the footwork I use in my combinations is entirely a product of step aerobics and ballroom dance. From these I learned how to take ‘X’ number of beats and distance A to B and travel it gracefully. I highly recommend both as a supplement to your study, I think you’ll be surprised by how much you’ll learn about belly dance!

Check out the other components of fitness for bellydancers:

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Health & Wellbeing

Components of Fitness for Bellydancers: Flexibility

Check out these beautiful body lines, courtesy of good flexibility

With inactivity and aging our muscles tend to shorten and stiffen, in other words we lose our flexibility. Flexibility is needed for extending muscles through their normal range of motion to create the beautiful hip and torso articulations we use in belly dance. And it isn’t just for dancers, fitness experts now agree that being flexible is extremely important to preventing injuries both during exercise and in our normal day to day motions.

What a flexible belly dancer looks like: She always has good posture and alignment. Isolations of her torso, hips, arms, head, and wrists form complete shapes (like circles instead of ellipses) both small or large at her discretion. She has mobility in her spine to bend backwards or forwards, to twist or rotate.

You should work on your flexibility if you:

  • Have poor posture
  • Experience stiffness or tension in your muscles including hips, neck, wrists, arms, and shoulders while dancing (not your joints, that’s something else!)
  • Have trouble twisting or rotating one section of the body (like your torso) separately and away from another (like your hips)
  • Intend to perform backbends
  • Want to improve the range of motion of isolations
  • Want to improve your body lines, your ability to extend hands, arms, torso, or legs to form beautiful poses

A quick note: What’s the deal with isolations? Isolations, as I refer to them, are small, highly focused movements. These include the circles, waves, and eights of the hips, belly, torso, chest, and shoulders. Isolations are a product of coordination (your brain knowing and connecting to the right muscles at the right time), strength (those very small muscles having the power to move large sections of your body), and flexibility (those same muscles being able to stretch long enough to produce a wide range of motion). You need all three to have clean, precise isolation work.

Remember that when stretching aim for tension in the working muscle, not pain! Deepen your stretch slowly and with control while breathing. Never bounce or rock in the stretch. It takes 30 seconds of holding a stretch for the muscle to begin to relax and lengthen, so try to be in the position for at least a minute.

Recognizing the Signs

1.) Your instructor has shown you what good posture is supposed to look like, but it feels really awkward for you to try and hold that alignment. You tend to slump back to what feels normal and comfortable pretty quickly.

Why: You don’t have enough core flexibility to support good posture and alignment. Your muscles are used to being in a contracted state and have therefore shortened, now they really have to stretch to hold good posture.

The Fix: Concentrate on good posture throughout your day, both at work and at home. Supplement your dancing with stretching for the core muscles, especially the upper back, shoulders, and chest.

2.) You’re working on a figure eight or circle for your hips or chest. At one point in the movement you feel a lot of tension, and if you push it too hard pain, in the working muscle. Your circle or eight isn’t completely ‘filled out’ either, because at the same point you pull back inside the trajectory of the shape to prevent tension or pain.

Why: You don’t have enough flexibility in that muscle to execute a full range of motion.

The Fix: Add this circle exercise to your warmup. Perform fifteen circles in each direction for each section of your body starting with your hips, moving through torso, then shoulders, arms, wrists, and finally head. Add extra circles if one direction/side feels more tense. For the movement your working on in the scenario above, find that awkward point in the circle or eight and hold it. Push gently into the stretch aiming for tension not pain, and breath deeply.

Extra-curricular study: The best thing for flexibility is of course Yoga! But any general stretching program will help, too.

Check out the other components of fitness for bellydancers: