Belly Dance: Exercise or Embarrassing Exhibitionism?

Photo courtesy of Mike Lawrence

Belly Dancing makes me feel like an atheist in church.

In other words, I don't fit in and I figure if I speak up I might offend somebody. But since this place is called Cranky Fitness, I figure that it's okay to get a little ornery now and then.

Remember when you were a kid and exercise used to be fun? That's how I felt when I tried a belly dance class. I am sure that I looked extremely silly, but it didn't matter. It felt fun. Then the instructor moved away and I tried DVDs instead, and ran into the atheist-in-church phenomenon.

I dislike belly dancing because:

- it's like a country cousin that's gone to the city and had its head turned by the bright lights and glitter. In other words, when you see someone performing belly dance today, it's a faint distant echo of the dance's original roots
- people are so damn serious and solemn about it! It's dancing, for Nijinsky's sake. Lighten up a bit.
- far too often, the outfits are not really that flattering and get in the way, sometimes literally, of the dancing itself

I like belly dancing because:

- it's a whole lot more fun than situps
- it's easy to move when you've got a good drum beat
- dancing is fun
- it teaches isolation of muscles as well as balance (see the video below)

All right, that's freaky. But it's incredible muscle control, too. And it's the kind of control you can learn through belly dancing.

[Text for the bandwidth-impaired: What Delilah is doing is moving three coins on her stomach. Without using her hands, she moves them one at a time down her abdomen. She tells you which coin she's going to move, and then she uses her stomach muscles to move the coins. Now that's control. (Okay, you could also say that's insane. I think both apply. Fascinating, in a weird way.)]

I love the idea of anything that works the abs without laying down. Especially first thing in the morning, lying down tends to make the body think I'm being really cool and nice and letting it go back to sleep for awhile. It's not inclined to work out in the a.m. anyway, why encourage it to be sloth-like?

Belly dancing also teaches balance

While I'm not a fan of the outfits in general, the hip scarves or coin belts that dancers wear do serve a purpose. Belly dancing deals with isolation of muscle groups. If you're shimmying your shoulders, the hips aren't supposed to follow along. The jingly scarves will tell you if your hips start jiggling along with the upper body when they shouldn't.

When dancers become more adept, they show off how well they've mastered the trick of isolating moving the hips as opposed to the upper body.

[Text: this dancer is swaying her hips while squatting down and then kneeling ... all the while keeping a sword balanced edgewise on top of her head. Other dancers have performed while balancing a tray of glasses, or a lit candelabrum on the head while dancing. That's balance.]

If you want to try belly dance

The best way to learn is of course to find an instructor you like. But if that's not an option, there are a whole lot of DVDs that purport to teach belly dancing. Some are pretty damn silly. There are also a lot of DVDs that use "belly dance" in the title but are actually aerobic videos designed to give you a workout. Nothing wrong with that, so long as you don't expect instruction.

Below are a list of my most and least favorite DVDs out there.

Instructional Belly Dance DVDs

Warning: these videos are designed to teach you how to dance. So there's a lot of learning the movements, practicing them, then doing a bit of choreographed dancing. In other words, don't try these DVDs if you're looking to work up a sweat in 20 minutes. Try the Aerobic DVDs below instead.

For learning to belly dance, I love Delilah's DVDs. (The woman who did the coin trick video.) And I say that in spite of the fact that I find the music annoying, the warm up excessively New Age, and her hairstyle pure 80's. (I can get really persnickety sometimes. Probably because I do these DVDs first thing in the a.m., when I am at my most cranky.) None of those snippy little drawbacks matter a damn compared to the fact that Delilah is good at getting a concept into the brain.

Also, not that I'm getting paid for this, if you live near Portland (OR), Delilah is performing live at the end of the month.

If you want to ease into belly dancing, you might try the "belly dance twins" Neena and Veena's DVDs. They teach authentic belly dance, but they ease you into it gently so if you're not sure what you're doing, you never feel overwhelmed.

Jillina is a good teacher, if you're already a dancer or in good shape. Bit of a steep learning curve if you're not used to dancing or to working out.

Learn to belly dance with Rania. After I started this DVD, I went back and checked to make sure the title really was Learn to belly dance. It feels like a DVD geared toward people who already know how to do it. Get the feeling of being thrown in the deep end and expected to keep up. The pace is too fast if you're a newbie trying to wrap your brain around a concept and persuade your muscles to move in unusual directions. Probably this would work for someone who is already a dancer and who has had some experience with belly dance, and wants to try something different. Would not recommend it to a beginner.

Aerobic Belly Dance DVDs

While I'm not fond of her "Learn to Belly Dance" DVD, I love Rania's personal trainer DVD. (If you haven't tried her earlier aerobics DVDs you'll feel thrown in the deep end when it comes to the cardio portions, at least at first.) What I love is the variety of workouts that are on this DVD. I can look at the menu and decide whether I want a hard workout or a maintenance-level workout, or whether I just want to spend 10 minutes working on my abs. Rania excels at designing a workout that can get my blood pumping in only 10 minutes.

Again, if you're new to belly dancing or not really fit, I would recommend the belly dance twins' aerobic DVDs. Unlike their instructional DVDs, these are not really useful for learning the dance, but they're good for a beginner who wants to do some aerobics. I wouldn't recommend them if you're in good shape, as the routines are repetitive and not that fascinating. Good for getting your breathing rapid, but dull. On the other hand, even if you don't like the workout these women are very good dancers and they include sample dances that are the best I've seen.

Oh dear... I did say I'd include some of my least favorite DVDs... okay, here goes.

The Goddess Workout with Dophina: Bellydance with Veils. The cover and the title kinda tell it all. Do not pick up this DVD unless you have a very strong tolerance for the color pink, and also the ability to listen to a lot of talk about "your inner goddess." Do not expect a great workout. Based on the Amazon reviews, I thought that at least I would be able to give my arms a workout with this DVD. Nnnnnnnope. Though I did admire the way that a fan off-camera blew so that the veil the woman was holding was always artistically draped behind her.

Photo credit: Franco Folini

When you see people dressed up in gauze and glitter, it's hard to take this seriously as exercise. All the same, you ever have trouble getting moving, try a drum solo -- the beat bypasses the brain and goes straight to the feet. Need to get your heart rate up? Try doing a shimmy, tiny little controlled movements, for 20 minutes. While your upper body is doing entirely different movements. When you're doing lateral figure 8s with your hips and vertical figure 8s with your ribs, come back to me and tell me how easy this is.

Me? Defensive? Well... maybe a bit.

I'm kind of embarrassed to tell people I do this. Frankly, I think drug trafficking is considered more reputable. Prancing around in a silly skimpy outfit like an outsized reindeer?

The whole point of doing these exercises, it seems to me, is to be able to work your muscles in isolation. I love the idea of having such control over my body that I can control my stomach muscles to the point of moving coins separately down the body. Or of being able to be performing a side to side motion with the upper half of the body while the hips are following the shape of a vertical figure 8 at the same time. Trying to figure these sorts of movements out occupies the mind wonderfully, so that I can get a whole hour's worth of exercise and not spend half my time watching the clock.

Have you ever tried belly dancing? Or some other form of exercise that made people look askance at you? It's okay, you can tell me. Whisper it. I won't tell.

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