The Why and How of Belly Dancing

Belly Dancing for Body, Mind, and Spirit

Belly dance (by whatever name it is called) is poetry of the body expressed in ancient meaningful gestures. It is a symphony of moving pictures and framed poses, a revelation of the human soul, and a sensuous feminine art. It is a celebration of womanhood, a dance by women for women's purposes.

Why Belly Dancing?

It is excellent for any age; it can be practiced in preparation for childbirth, to deepen the connection with the baby inside, through a deep concentration on the miracle of new life. After childbirth, the dance can be practiced as a way to tone the abdominal muscles and to recall the depth of your female sensuality, a sense of self as an individual that is often lost to women postpartum. This dance has also helped many women who have suffered from PMS and menstrual discomfort because the movements bring about better circulation and blood flow in the pelvic area.

Performance of this dance by women in a circle around a girl as an initiation when she begins her menstrual period is an empowering way of welcoming her into adulthood and the community of women. It alters the prevailing attitude of the menstrual period as "the curse" and instead tells the young woman that she is growing into her spiritual power, into the ability to form her own rituals, to look to experiences of everyday life as her initiation ground. What a powerful difference it would make if girls were raised with a consciousness of their future roles as priestesses for the children they may have. Such a ceremony would be just as beneficial for a woman moving through menopause, a positive initiation into the freedom of the postmenopausal Crone phase. From our vantage point today of having scientific research data and from our ability to compare information carried forward from ancient centers of knowledge, we might conclude that our ancient Grandmothers were practicing an esoteric and holistic approach to health, harmony, and spirituality in this enduring dance, WomanDance.

How To Belly Dance

Belly dancing consists of several basic moves: hip shimmies, hip rotations, serpentine arms, snakelike head movements, and abdominal undulations. Each of these moves works in concert with the others and can be used in any combination.

The hip shimmy is the most familiar belly dance movement, but actually it is the abdominal undulation that is the foundation of belly dance. To learn this abdominal undulation we focus, surprisingly enough, not on moving our muscles but on our breath (see Using Your Breath to Create the Dance, below).

Once you have mastered the basic undulation of your pelvis and abdomen, you can extend this wavelike motion to your chest, ribs, shoulders and arms, and head and neck. A classic belly dance will often include head movements in a straight line from shoulder to shoulder in a snakelike motion, or "doddling" -- a shaking motion with index finger to chin in rhythm with the music. It will also include undulating movements of the hands and arms, again snakelike; soft shoulder shakes; and circular movements and raising and lowering of the rib cage to accompany the undulations of the chest and abdomen. Stomach muscles are flexed and contracted with great control or are fluttered rapidly as the pelvis moves forward and backward. Altogether, these movements present an incredible flowing or wavelike motion.

The specialized hip and rib cage undulations and rolls that are done in a belly dance should form a figure eight. Often the extensive shimmying or vibration of the hips is sustained while other parts of the body are moved at a different pace. Sometimes the entire body is caught up in a minutely controlled trembling. Additionally, your head, shoulders, hands, or hips can thrust forward or back with a dramatic accent as the music demands.

Beyond these basic belly dance movements, there may be other movements you'll want to try to complement them, according to your skill or mood and depending on the music. I recommend swirls, turns, backbends, or even dropping to the floor. The belly dance, despite its name, is a full body dance. You will find, however, in belly dancing that the feet and legs are not emphasized. One might say they are simply utilitarian, moving you from one spot to another for variety and to enable all of your audience to see you from several angles and distances. Some have even said that a belly dancer resembles a serpent in being "all torso and no legs."

Using Your Breath to Create the Dance

Probably the most important thing I can teach or emphasize for belly dancing, as well as for your physical wellbeing and spiritual clarity, is how to breathe. As babies we breathed naturally into our belly. As we grew up and were schooled to hold the belly in, our breathing became shallow. In belly dancing there is great emphasis on the breath, and you will need to reteach your body this "natural" way of breathing -- the same breathing technique used by singers and those who play wind instruments.

Stand with your feet flat, about hip width apart, knees flexed, pelvis pushed slightly forward. Head, neck, and shoulders remain relaxed. Because the pelvis is shaped like a bowl, when you push forward, the pelvis actually tilts backward. As you breathe out, pull in the belly, allowing the pelvis to tilt forward and upward, tightening the buttocks, as you drop the rib cage. Now breathe in, allowing the belly to expand, as you begin raising the rib cage; this lengthens the back, giving more room for the belly. Raising the rib cage will give you a lifting feeling through the torso, causing you to straighten your legs. Pause.

Breathing out again, allow the rib cage to relax back into place, as you release the pelvis and the stomach. Give a little extra push of the pelvis forward to complete the arch and contraction movement. (Martha Graham's famous and dramatic contraction-and-release dance technique was based on this same pulsation of breath and pelvic thrust movement.) You might hold your hand in front of your stomach and practice pushing the abdomen out to meet the hand.

Repeat these two movements in succession -- inhaling: raising rib cage up, belly out; exhaling: rib cage releases, belly relaxes. By swaying slightly back and forward, this arch and contraction becomes the beginning of an undulation -- a wave -- the motherwave, the movement essential to the belly dance form. As you practice you may want to place your hands on your hips to counterbalance your movement; in the dance, however, the arms are extended. By sliding one foot forward with each undulation, you can begin to move forward or turn in a spiral. Practicing in front of a mirror keeps you coordinated. At first, you may not feel comfortable doing the movement at all, but once you get the different elements synchronized, you will begin to feel a rhythm develop. The head and neck are relaxed, the spine is liquid channeling energy in this undulating serpentine movement, and it becomes one of the most freeing things you can do for yourself.

Opening the First and Second Chakras

For the purpose of a Birth Dance ritual, the undulation can be practiced by itself, with attention to opening the first and second chakras, at the perineum and the pelvis, respectively, in order to encourage "stuck" energy to flow freely through these channels. You also can undulate the rib cage itself by swaying slightly forward as you raise it in response to air intake and dropping it again with the out breath. This small movement on its own can be extremely reenergizing and also tremendously effective as a breathing meditation technique. Personally, I have always found that sitting still in meditation or doing breath techniques in a prone position doesn't work for me. My body needs to move, and I dislike the dizzy feeling and numbness of my hands from just pulling lots of air into my lungs. I discovered that if I move in these undulations, either sitting or lying on my side, I can receive much better results and can perform the meditation for a much longer period of time.

When doing the movement as a breathing meditation, breathe with your mouth open, slightly rasping the throat as the air moves in and out. Pull the breath in enthusiastically and just let it go by dropping the rib cage.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher Inner Traditions International.
©2000, 2013.

Article Source:

Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance: Awakening Spirituality Through Movement and Ritual
by Iris J. Stewart

 Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance is the first book to explore women's spiritual expression--women's ways--through a study of dance. It describes sacred circles, birth rituals, ecstatic dances, and dances of loss and grief (in groups and individually) that allow women to integrate the movements of faith, healing, and power into their daily life. Shows how dance, the highest expression of spirituality in cultures and traditions all over the world, is being integrated into the lives of women today

Info/Order this book
 (newer 2nd edition)

About The Author

Iris J. StewartIris J. Stewart has taught dance and lectured on women's subjects for over twenty years. She is the founder of WomanDance, a troupe which performs interpretive dances that explore women's spirituality. To research this book, Steward visited archaeological sites throughout Europe, the Middle East, and South America. Visit her website at

Video/Presentation with Farima Berenji | TEDxYYC: Connecting to Traditional Sacred Dance


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