Belly Dancing: A Workout for Mind and Body

By Debbie Mandel, MA

Belly Dancing: A Workout for Mind and BodyIs your workout regime getting stale or are you just looking for something fun and out of the ordinary to keep you motivated? Then why not add some spice to your exercise program with belly dancing. When you see the results from this fun, low impact aerobic sport, you’ll find new resolve to eat healthy and exercise more.

Belly dancing exercises both the body and the spirit releasing a powerful female energy. It has been in existence for over 5,000 years, so there must be something to it! Originating in the Middle East where women were cloaked and considered a father’s property until she became a man’s possession, belly dancing enabled a woman to control her own space and express her full range of emotions in the small circle she controlled.

Because of the movies, many of us imagine belly dancing to be a sexual performance for the sheik or other men. However in reality, this was rarely the case. Mostly women danced together or for each other to communicate subtle female expression of the human condition. Older women would teach younger women about sensuality, celebrating their potential for creativity – the belly- the cradle of civilization.

Belly dancing is relatively easy to learn. It differs from a more technical dance like ballet which is angular and elongated, disciplined and carefully choreographed. Instead belly dancing is circular and impromptu, delighting in the roundness of the female form and natural self-expression. Curves are an asset. A wonderful byproduct: Women begin to truly feel their bodies to cultivate a positive self image – quite an accomplishment considering the idealized and unnatural cultural and media-driven images women have to contend with.

This dance presents a great workout opportunity for abdominals, hips, glutes, quadriceps, calves, back muscles, shoulders and arms. If you believe that belly dancing is primarily an abs workout and that you will achieve washboard abs, forget about it. Legs drive the dancing which is performed mostly with bent knees, known as the motorcycle position, in order to freely rotate the hips. Generally, the workout is low impact, but can be quite aerobic depending on the music.

To experience the power of this dance just tie a sash around your waist, turn on the music and feel the rhythm –the movement happens on the inside emanating outward. After a few lessons to learn the basics either in a class or by video, you might consider getting a costume or at least some accessories. When you wear the costume or add a belt which is decorated with sequins and chains, you will be transformed into a belly dancer- 90% success rate. I recommend taking a class as it is more gratifying because you will bond with other women and most likely your instructor will ask you to perform for each other. This will release your inhibitions and open you up to that hidden girl within who once had dreams and expressed herself naturally and spontaneously. You can find belly dancing classes in gyms and continuing education classes.

Most women want to know if belly dancing will help them lose weight. Like any physical activity, weight loss depends on factors like the frequency and length of the workout and the exertion level. If you move continuously like doing traveling steps and shimmies, you will obviously burn more calories. Belly dancing will give you two specific workout benefits: Cardio and toning specific muscle groups.

This workout is great for all fitness levels and because it is fun and not intimidating, research shows that participants keep it up. I have been belly dancing for years. After three or four sessions, I observed that all the twelve women in my class which grew to twenty, even two clinically obese women, started to feel more attractive, sensual and free to cut loose. Marie, a fit grandmother who strength trains and does cardio kickboxing, would come to belly dancing class because “it provides a great break from traditional gym workouts.”

An overview of a typical class

My classes would generally begin free style to three minutes of slower warm-up music. Then for the next ten minutes we imitated or attempted to imitate our instructor’s new move. Then the music would speed up for the next fifteen minutes and our teacher had us follow her in an entire dance routine based on movements we had learned in past classes along with the new move. We kept repeating these few steps. Sometimes we did them with our eyes closed to feel the move. This included creating a circle with our rib cage to give our upper abs and waist a workout. We made waves with our arms; we used our fingers, hands and arms to make snakelike movements. Each week’s repetition made us flow more gracefully. While the class was mirrored, we didn’t need the mirrors. Next we reached for our veils (sheer scarves) and did ten minutes or so of veil work, using our arms to reach up and twirl the long scarf or run across the room with our veils overhead. Sometimes we would cue up and do traveling steps across the room with or without our veils. At the end of class we would do faster shimmies at full strength and really let go in a drum solo with each of us performing in the middle of a circle of women. At last a cool down was followed by some floor work and stretches.

It is good to leave the straight lines of your personality from time to time. Liberate your hidden girl with joy and spontaneity, leading you on a lifelong journey to embrace yourself.

Debbie Mandel, MA is the author of Addicted to Stress: A Woman’s 7 Step Program to Reclaim Joy and Spontaneity in Life, and Turn On Your Inner Light: Fitness for Body, Mind and Soul, a stress-management specialist and lecturer. She is the host of the weekly Turn On Your Inner Light Radio Show on WGBB AM1240 in New York. To learn more visit her educational site:

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