Belly Dance to Fitness

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When a woman starts belly dancing, she usually can’t get enough of the dance. There’s an element of intrigue about it.  It’s like chocolate – sweet, delicious and addictive.   But what’s even more wonderful about it is, anyone can belly dance.  Women of all ages, shapes, sizes and backgrounds train with me in dance.  Today, my youngest student is ten and my oldest, seventy-one.  In the past, I’ve taught at senior centers where my oldest student was eighty-eight!  Size doesn’t matter, either.  If you can move, you can dance.  All one needs is a desire to learn and to show up for class.  I’ve also trained disabled women at The Hospital for Joint Diseases in Manhattan.  Most of my students there were in wheelchairs.  From the first class on, these women were dancing.  Two of my students at HJD (one was ambulatory and the other in a wheelchair) became so proficient in belly dance that they performed in two of my dance concerts!  When I say anyone can belly dance, I mean it.

Origins of belly dance go back 5,000 years to North Africa.  Egypt is home to belly dance and I teach classical Egyptian style dance.  I began my studies in belly dance back in 1975 when I was a seventeen-year old senior attending one of the roughest high schools in New Jersey.  Belly dance saved my life.  It kept me positive and strong – both physically and emotionally.  I couldn’t wait for my next dance class and when not in class, I practiced dance every chance I could.  Upon graduation, I worked as a secretary and started training with the late Bobby “Ibrahim” Farrah, one of New York’s greatest Middle Eastern dance masters.  By the time I was twenty-one, I was performing in Greek and Arab nightclubs in New Jersey and Manhattan.  Back then, I lived to perform and I haven’t stopped belly dancing in thirty-two years!  Belly dancing is a way of life for me and every day I celebrate life through the dance.

What makes belly dance so exotic; so different?  Belly dance is muscle dancing.  Seven parts of the body (head, shoulders, arms, hands, rib cage, belly and hips) are isolated during the dance.  Shoulders and hips are the easier parts of the body to move in isolation, while the rib cage and abdomen are more challenging for most.  Some of the isolations are shimmies (shoulder and hip), hard accents or sinuous movements.  Basic steps are danced in conjunction with isolated body moves.  Advanced students dance with veils and zills (finger cymbals).  When a dancer performs on stage she wears “bedlah” which is the traditional beaded bra and belt over a circle skirt, harem pants or Egyptian panel skirt.  These costumes accentuate the clean, sharp movements and hard-driving shimmies.

From a fitness perspective, belly dance is an excellent cardiovascular and flexibility workout.  In my classes I open with a head-to-toe warm-up. Then, I incorporate functional, weight-bearing exercises using body weights (crunches, oblique twists, supermans and squats).  Therefore, one gets strength training in my classes, as well.  Every major muscle group is stretched and exercised before we even dance.  My dancers build a powerful core and strong body.  These ladies are ready for any stage.  Posture and body alignment are incorporated from day one.  Unless one has excellent body alignment, that person will never achieve maximum capacity of movement.  When one creates great posture, that person will excel in dance.  Another perk of terrific posture is (a) you look 5-10 pounds thinner, (b) your clothes look better on you, (c) you feel great and (d) have better range of joint movement.  When one incorporates proper body alignment, most times pain in the neck and lower back leaves.

Belly dance will get you fit, create a functional body (important especially as we age) and is fun.  And let’s face it; we don’t have enough fun in life!  When you’re having a blast belly dancing, you’re going to stick with the program.  How many of us have joined a gym or fitness club then dropped out because we were either bored out of our minds or weren’t given enough instruction on how to use exercise equipment?  The only thing lighter on our body was our purse! But there’s no major expense involved in learning to belly dance in my class. Come and try it!

Sandra Catena is a Middle Eastern dance master and the owner of Big Apple Belly Dance in Manhattan.  Check out Sandra’s web site for more information and belly dance classes.

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