The Power of Belly dance

(reprinted from "One" magazine (July/Aug. 2001 [unedited version])

by Anthea Kawakib Poole

Belly dance can CHANGE YOUR LIFE!

That's the message I got loud and clear when I interviewed my students before writing this article.

  In fact, I was amazed at the OVERWHELMINGLY positive response I got to my question, "Has belly dance made a difference in your life?" I mean, I know belly dance has changed MY life, but then it's practically CONSUMED it because I've made it my career.

So I wanted to know "How? How has belly dance made a difference in your life?"

Some of the answers surprised me: only two said they had lost weight (a combined 70 lb. this year), though many did talk in terms of exercise; but no one said anything about it heating up their love life! (Perhaps they're too shy? Maybe I'll interview their "Significant Others" next...!)

Grace, beauty, strength

  Several students said belly dance had increased their "body awareness" - probably because our dance focuses on parts of the body that don't get a second thought in everyday life. (When was the last time you moved your ribcage sideways? or in a circle?!) The spine gets freer, energy flows easier, after practicing belly dance isolations for a month or two.

  All this energy flowing up and down the spine, through the chakras or energy centers of the body, can release lots of pent-up emotional or mental "material". People who stick with it really do seem to "open up" after being in class for several months. Sometimes I wish I had taken "before and after" pictures, the transformation is so remarkable.

  I'll relate what else I learned from my students (their years of belly dance is in parentheses):
- Linda (6 years), an artist, sees belly dance as an affirmation of her feminine strength and beauty. We always laugh about how strenuous veil work is, when it looks so airy and effortless! We're talking biceps here! And how lovely to take a symbol of oppression and use it to create beauty instead. Other students mentioned how belly dancing increased their grace, co-ordination, and muscle tone; and is just more FUN than ordinary exercise.

  • Gayle (1 year), a psychologist, loves coming to class for the emotional and physical uplift it gives her; and the music recalls her travels in distant lands.
  • Donna (25 years), retired but now in a second career as a dancer, spoke of becoming more confident and outgoing through belly dance; and said it developed her artistic self-expression while also making her more appreciative and tolerant of other's artistic efforts.
  • Leslie (one of our drummers), enjoys the historical link to dancers of ages past (belly dance is often called "the oldest dance"). The movements are derived from indigenous folk dances of the Mideast and Mediterranean region, some even resembling dance movements described in ancient Greek texts. Our drum & dance group, Pearls of Rhythm, uses frame drums (and other instruments) which are among the oldest known musical instruments.
  • Jill (1 year) says practicing belly dance has been an important tool, an empowering process, in her personal growth; and that it's smoothed the flow of energy between her and her patients (she does animal massage). She takes private lessons with me in which we also do drum work, which she says has helped develop her hand strength.

A personal experience

Maya (10 years), a friend and former student who now lives near Winchester, had a lot to say:

"Indeed, it was life changing for me. First, you made belly dance seem accessible, something anyone can learn. If it weren't for that, I probably would have always thought of it as something a "performer" does.
  "And your sharing the 'moves' came at a time when I really needed it. I was in a healing crisis, realizing that I needed to release old sadness as well as heal a back so messed up that my chiropractor said it was an example of how 'God makes mistakes!'
  "Most every morning, I would dance and it would dispel my habitual depression and allow my higher, brighter spirit to
express itself. My stiff, aching back normally restricted my body's movements, but the gentle undulations of 'the dance' allowed my body to move in a joyful expression of life, thus healing me emotionally and physically.
  "As a part of a daily practice of meditation, prayer, and good nutrition, belly dance helped me re-create a damaged body and psyche. As time went on, my pain lessened until I was totally free of it. I came to embody more of
the joyful being that is my higher self, my true self. Belly dance was my physical therapy and my emotional therapy. It was my connection with the Goddess energies flowing from earth to me and from me into the world. It helped the kundalini to flow fluidly through my body.
  "These days, I dance in ritual, celebrating the Nature Holidays and teaching belly dance 'moves' to anyone who is open to them."

Increasing energy awareness

  In belly dance we learn to develop and control our focus of energy as it manifests in the body. First the student is made AWARE of the energy, then works on remembering to CONTROL it. I say "remembering" because it's something natural we can all do, but usually we don't think about it or realize we can affect it. This is why students feel they've become more graceful and co-ordinated - it becomes a habit to move in this centered, focused way.

  The belly dance posture is naturally-aligned, with bent knees - this lowers the center of gravity and allows energy to flow freely from head to toe. With the ribs lifted up out of the waist, every body part has room to move and "breathe" while internally-focused movements massage and tone the inner organs.

  Underneath the prosaic classroom material emphasizing "tempo" and "technique", one of my goals in teaching is to help people create aesthetically-pleasing space/time sculptures, using the body to create visual shapes and patterns that correspond to the music or rhythm. One of my favorite things is the shapes and patterns of the movements - to me they evoke the intricate swirls and geometric designs of Oriental rugs.

  Feeling the movements' momentum is also very pleasurable (to me) not only physically, but psychically, as it echoes the vibrating rhythm of the cosmos. I love re-creating the patterns of the universe in my dance. Belly dance is all about the balance between expanding/contracting, give and take, push and pull.

  Establishing a relationship with the body's momentum, being able to let go in anticipation of regaining control, is KEY in a student's mastery and enjoyment of the dance.

A feminine experience

  One phenomenon we've remarked upon at our shows is what a magnetic attraction the dance has for women. It's not unusual for women to make up 90% of the audience at belly dance shows (not restaurants). And when our group plays for open audience dancing, it's usually only women who get up and dance! We wish it were otherwise - we'd love to see men dancing too!

  Apart from the socializing, another favorite aspect of mine is experiencing the community spirit that grows among us.
Our new studies in Improv Tribal Style Belly dance* (synchronized group improvisation) also evoke a "tribal" camaraderie because our focus is centered within the group instead of outwards toward the audience as it is in "regular" belly dance.
  Working together as a group, creating "blessings" of positive energy for ourselves and our audience, is of ultimate importance to me. I believe this interactive, positive experience is a TANGIBLE, if unseen, phenomenon with lasting side effects, helping to tip the balance of "good" in the universe a little bit at a time. So belly dance is still changing my life, for the better, one little move at a time!

*Tribal Odyssey (see link below)

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