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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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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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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:

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Components of Fitness for Bellydancers: Endurance

Shimmies take a lot of muscular and cardiovascular endurance!

In the world of fitness “endurance” can be either muscular or cardiovascular. Muscle endurance is your ability to repeat movements without fatiguing, cardiovascular refers specifically to the strength of your heart. Amping up your endurance means aerobic exercise and lots of repetitive movements… in other words, drills, drills, DRILLS!

What a dancer with good endurance looks like: She can perform moderately strenuous dance moves such as traveling steps and shimmies for at least ten to twenty minutes without tiring. She isn’t always out of breath; most of the time she could talk while dancing if she wanted. She doesn’t run out of shimmy power by the end of class. She maintains good posture and alignment, even when she’s been dancing for awhile.

You should work on your endurance if you:

  • Notice your arms and posture tend to ‘deflate’ by the end of your practice
  • Feel out of breath while dancing or practicing drills
  • Always feel sore the day after a class or a performance
  • Tend to lose a lot of power to your movements after awhile (your shimmies run out of steam!)

Recognizing the Signs

1.) It’s hard to hold your arms up for too long. By the end of class, you look pretty deflated and your arm position might best be described as ‘chicken wings’.

Why: Your chest, shoulder, and arm muscles fatigue pretty fast if they are not regularly trained.

The Fix: Don’t let arm positions and movements take a backseat during your dance practice. Try to always be doing something with your arms, even if it’s just holding them in position. Switching positions, if you can, is better than dropping armwork completely. When your arms get tired take a break, but don’t forget to re-introduce them again a few minutes later. Want to kick up your arm strength even more? Introduce a veil to your practice. You don’t even have to dance with the veil, just holding it will be enough to make arms and shoulders work really hard!

2.) You do an awesome _______ shimmy… for about thirty seconds. Then it’s gone and your body feels kind of like Jell-o when you try to shimmy again.

Why: A shimmy is a very localized, but still very intense, demand on your muscles. They’ll fatigue quickly when you’re just starting to learn a new movement.

The Fix: Try cycling shimmies through several speeds to build muscle endurance. Start with a slow and large movement, refine to slightly smaller and faster, then return to slow and large. When you feel yourself getting tired try slowing down instead of stopping. It’s slightly less demanding for muscles, but they’re still engaged and therefore becoming stronger.

3.) Ten minutes or more or non-stop dancing to the music is certain to leave you out of breath.

Why: Your cardiovascular fitness, the ability of your heart to pump oxygen to your muscles, could be improved.

The Fix: You need aerobic exercise! Try to practice at least two or three times a week. Make a playlist of your favorite songs, ones that really get you pumped up, and dance without stopping for at least ten minutes. Incorporate moderately strenuous shimmies and traveling steps as often as you can.

Extra-curricular study: Aerobic exercise featuring repetitive movements is perfect for working on your endurance. Other forms of dance, such as Bollywood, can be really fun additions to your routine. My favorites? Walking/hiking and step aerobics!

Check out the other components of fitness for bellydancers:

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Components of Fitness for Bellydancers: Strength

This modified side plank requires lots of core strength

Technically speaking, strength is the capacity of a muscle to exert force against resistance. In belly dance we don’t hold weights (although I have a pair of zills the size of tea cup saucers that might count); the ‘resistance’ is often gravity or even the weight of our own bodies. Belly dance is therefore only light strength training, but having strength is important for maintaining good posture and for clean isolations.

What a strong belly dancer looks like: She always has good posture and alignment. Her isolations are clearly defined and she can perform them equally well slowly or quickly. Her core muscles can support movements with a large range of motion. She can easily transition from standing to floorwork.

You should work on your strength if you:

  • Have poor posture
  • Experience back pain during or after dancing
  • Want to be able to perform more advanced floorwork technique
  • Intend to perform back bends, especially transitioning to floorwork dropping through a back bend
  • Want to improve the precision and range of motion of isolations

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.) Your body seems to just deflate by the end of class. Your instructor is constantly reminding you to keep you chest lifted and your shoulders back. You experience lower back pain often while dancing, or perhaps even the next day.

Why: You don’t have enough core strength to support good posture and alignment, and to compensate other muscles are stepping in to do the work where they shouldn’t.

The Fix: Concentrate on good posture throughout your day, both at work and at home. Supplement your dancing with light weight training, yoga, pilates, or other core strength fitness routines (see below).

2.) You’d like to achieve greater extension with your torso movements (slides, circles, camels, back bends), but when you try to make your movements larger you feel off balance. Or, you can extend much further on one side than on the other.

Why: You don’t have enough core strength to support the movement (on either or both sides).

The Fix: Practice extending the movement to the point where you feel tension in the opposing muscle groups. Make sure you’ve maintained good posture and alignment. Hold in the extended position for ten seconds or until the muscle fatigues. Take a break and repeat.

3.) You’re working on an isolation that’s difficult for you. You vaguely feel like you can connect to the right muscle, but it just doesn’t seem to go anywhere when you ask it to move. It feels weak and heavy, like there’s an invisible wall preventing you from moving it.

Why: The muscle group you are trying to move is not strong enough to carry the weight you’ve asked it to carry (or you’re still having trouble connecting your brain to the right muscle, a coordination issue).

The Fix: The one’s the hardest to deal with, but as always practice can help. Visualize the muscle you’re trying to move, imagine it working. You might be able to place your hand on that muscle group to feel it when it contracts and releases. You might also try “isometric” (squeeze and release) contractions to help locate and strengthen.

Extra-curricular study: My favorite fitness programs to better my posture and and rev up my floorwork are yoga and TRX suspension training. Light weight lifting, core and abdominal exercises, and Pilates will work, too.

Check out the other components of fitness for bellydancers:

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Components of Fitness for Bellydancers: Introduction

A physically fit person can do more than just lift weights. There are actually several components of fitness including strength, endurance, flexibility, coordination, and balance. The good news is that belly dance (at least in some small ways) can be used to target them all!

Components of Fitness for Belly Dancers

Why should you care? So this is actually important! Not convinced? Okay, think of a move that you find difficult to execute. Maybe it’s a shimmy that you just can’t keep going (endurance). Maybe you have trouble getting your torso or hip movements to go where you want them (strength or flexibility). See where I’m going with this? In fact, often when we think we understand how to do a movement but our body just doesn’t seem to want to follow, it’s because we’re missing some component in our fitness.

What does this mean? Well, it means if you understand this process you can practice more effectively using techniques to target that component of fitness. Essentially, you can change the way you dance to rev up your strength, to be more flexible, etc.

A small disclaimer: There are often lots of reasons why we can’t successfully execute all the movements we’d like. This includes previous injuries, failure to locate the proper muscles, misunderstanding how to produce the movement, psychological resistance… the list goes on. I’m not presenting this as the silver bullet to all of your belly dance movement woes, but I have seen this theory work wonders when applied to my students. It can’t hurt to try!

Each component has it’s own page with an explanation of how to use it in your study of the dance:

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8 Benefits of Belly Dance You Didn’t Know About

There’s a reason that dance is found in every culture. Modern science has only begun to examine the physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual benefits that have held intuitive value in human society throughout all history. In short, dancing makes you a better human being in body, mind, and soul.

The benefits of belly dancing you didn't know about!

The General Benefits of Dance

The Physical. You probably know that dance, like many aerobic activities, is great for burning calories and toning muscles. Unlike a standard gym equipment workout, however, practitioners also work on balance, coordination, and flexibility. These forms of conditioning are essential to creating better body awareness, improving posture, and preventing injury. This powerful fitness combination is an effective booster for heart health, immune system response, hormone regulation, and blood circulation. That is why…

1. Dancers have brighter, clearer skin. A benefit of better circulation and enhanced oxygen to skin cells. Maximize your skin’s potential by drinking lots of water especially before, during, and after dance class. Slough off dead skin cells regularly in the shower with a loofah and gentle exfoliant.

2. Dancers sleep better. Whole-body health and wellness is associated with an increased ability to follow natural cycles. For the best sleep, try for at least a half hour of dance or other physical activity every day. Do not dance just before bedtime, though.

The Mental. Dance is mentally stimulating, as well. Having to synchronize the movements of different muscle groups improves motor skills. The aesthetics of the art are tied to spatial geometry, and the practitioner must be aware of and learn to create shapes and lines with their bodies. This is why it’s hard to be bored in dance class, and it’s also why…

3. Dancers have good memory. Mental alertness and functioning is stimulated during a time when increased oxygen is being delivered to brain cells. Be sure to challenge yourself both physically and mentally with your dance practice and change up your routine as often as you can. If you normally improvise, try creating a choreography (and vice versa). Take apart your go-to combinations and create some new ones.

The Emotional. Dance is a well recognized form of psychotherapy used primarily for its ability to promote healthy body image, positive social interactions, and confidence. It is also a notable form of stress relief and management. These benefits are especially important to the modern woman, who is bombarded by unrealistic standards of female beauty by mainstream media. Moms are the new unsung superheros of today, expected to fulfill roles both within and without the domestic sphere. Many women are drawn to dance for its social and emotional benefits, and it’s also why…

4. Dancers make better decisions. Stress is linked to procrastination and impulsiveness, both of which can lead to making poor choices. A person of healthy mind is better able to weigh the facts and consequences, and is more likely to give up immediate satisfaction for long-term benefit. For dancers this is especially true with body-related decisions such as wearing a seat belt, choosing not to smoke, and practicing safe sex.

Did you know… that there are ‘dancer’ genes? A study published in the American Journal by psychologist Richard P. Ebstein and colleagues revealed that dancers consistently differed from the general public at two key gene locations. Interestingly enough, these genes had little to do with physical ability. Instead they were associated with a personality that tends to communicate through symbolism, and to attach a ceremonial or spiritual connection to this communication.

The Unique Benefits of Belly Dance

Within the spheres of different dances there are unique benefits. Belly dance emphasizes fine articulation of the core, pelvis, and gluteal muscle groups. These are stimulated in several ways. Movements like shimmies utilize a rapid contraction and release mechanism, while circles and eights tend to elongate and strengthen muscles simultaneously. This is why..

Ananke with a assaya (cane)5. Belly dancers digest better. We move muscles of the abdominal and pelvis region which massages deeper internal organs. The result is better intestine and colon health. Remember, though, to leave at least an hour or two after eating before you practice. Having food content in the stomach while dancing can make one nauseous!

6. Belly dancers have less intense menstrual cramps. Strengthening of pelvic muscle groups and improvements in blood circulation help prevent cramps over time. However, practicing belly dance can also relieve cramps when they occur. It’s even recommend by the Kotex brand.

7. Belly dancers experience less back pain. Back pain is now reported by over 80% of adults, and the numbers continue to increase as our lives become increasingly sedentary. Relief can be found, however, by strengthening the deep core muscles that cushion and support the spine. This is why it is especially important to always practice with good posture, otherwise dancing may instead aggravate an existing back condition.

8. Belly dancers experience easier child-birth. Belly dance has been used in Arabic cultures to condition women for child birth for hundreds of years. Studies now confirm that belly dance, through its strengthening and lengthening of the pelvic floor muscles, is in fact great pre and post natal exercise. Increased blood circulation to these regions also delivers more oxygen to the developing fetus. Women who are pregnant, or who plan to become pregnant, should consult their doctor first to make sure belly dance as a prenatal exercise is appropriate for their body.

 


Ananke Professional Belly Dancer

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Disclaimer: So you might have noticed that I made a few generalizations in this article. It’s important to remember that the benefits of ‘movement therapy’ can only be experienced with a commitment to regular, continued practice. While most people will certainly experience some of these benefits, they are not likely to experience them all. This guide is meant to alert you to many of the potential benefits of belly dancing, allowing you to create a practice that serves your needs best.

References and Further Information:

  1. al Musa, M. (2011). Birth preparation using belly dance. Women and Birth, 24, S29-S30.
  2. Belly dancing can help beat back pain. (Aug2010).Dance Dynamic, 11.
  3. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2006, February 13). Are Dancers Genetically Different Than The Rest Of Us? Yes, Says Hebrew University Researcher. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 6, 2011, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2006/02/060213183707.htm
  4. Moore, C. (Spring2005). BELLY DANCE & BIRTH. Midwifery Today, (73), 28-29.
  5. Moreside, J. M., Vera-Garcia, F. J., & McGill, S. M. (2008). Neuromuscular independence of abdominal wall muscles as demonstrated by middle-eastern style dancers. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology, 18(4), 527-537.
  6. Orecklin, M. (2002). SHAKIN’ ALL OVER. Time, 160(18), 56.
  7. Shephard, R. J., & Balady, G. J. (1999). Exercise as Cardiovascular Therapy. Circulation, 99(7), 963 -972. doi:10.1161/01.CIR.99.7.963
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The Belly Dance Weight Loss Myths

Does Bellydancing Really Help you Lose Weight?

I hear this question all the time:

“So will belly dance make me lose weight?”

It’s a complicated response, the answer is both yes and no.

Unfortunately, I think a lot of women are drawn to the dance by the weight loss marketing schemes adopted by many popular DVDs. The message is this: Shapely women with all the right curves belly dancing… buy this and join their ranks! So how come dancing to the video twice a week hasn’t made you lose weight? No wonder so many come to the conclusion “belly dance for weight loss just doesn’t work”.

But it does.

Belly dance is cardio and gentle strength training exercise. If you want to lose weight belly dancing, you’ll need to treat it like a proper workout regiment.

How to Belly Dance to Lose Weight:

  • Practice for at least three hours a week (that’s six half hour sessions, if you like!). The average woman will burn approximately 300 calories per hour, so this will add up to about 900 calories for the week or about 1/4 pound.
  • Make a playlist of your favorite dancing tunes. Hit play, start dancing, and don’t stop until your time is up. In a workout, you’re not necessarily practicing your technique in front of the mirror. The goal is to keep moving!
  • Traveling steps and layering your movements will burn more calories.
  • Don’t forget to use your arms! Keeping them up and switching positions means a better workout. For extra resistance, add a veil or heavy pair of finger cymbals.
  • Try a belly dance fitness or aerobics class. These are usually geared towards getting students to move and use large muscle groups. Technique classes often have a lot of down time.
  • Can you belly dance and do chores around the house? Hey if you have to vacuum, do dishes, or dust, why not add a shimmy to these activities? Workout + housework = more time to soak in the tub afterwards!
  • Try to reduce your calorie intake by about 300 calories per day. Make yourself aware of the serving sizes on the back of the packaging. Keep a food journal to keep track of your intake if necessary.
  • Supplement your belly dance workout with other exercise training. Light strength training with weights and yoga are great compliments.

What You Can Expect:

  • With a calorie reduction and regular practice, about one to two pounds of weight loss a week. Remember that weight loss over two pounds a week is not recommended by doctors.
  • Some toning in the abs, arms, and glutes, as these are the muscles used to produce the movements. Additional strength training, however, is needed to produce significant results. Belly dance is more effective as a cardio (think lose fat) rather than strength training (think tone muscles) exercise.
  • Better posture, coordination, and flexibility.

Including belly dance in your weight loss routine is a great choice. It’s fun and exciting, and can make sticking to a workout much easier. Remember that regular practice is necessary, and that the most effective plans will incorporate diet and other forms of exercise.

Some Related Myths:

  • Bellydance does NOT make your stomach stick out or make you gain weight.
  • You do NOT have to be thin, or young, or curvy, or (fill in your body image issue here) to belly dance. Women of all shapes and sizes can and do participate professionally.

What do you think? Has belly dancing helped you lose weight? Do you have some tips of your own? Please comment below!

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