Alternative fitness: Bellydancing

by Siobhan Pestano
Could shimmying your stuff on the dancefloor translate into an effective workout? We sent our guinea pig to find out!

Jacqueline Chapman - Britain's best-known belly dancer

Bellydance (or Raqs Orientale, to use its classical name) is considered the oldest dance form, originating in the Middle East and now combining influences from Egypt, Turkey, Greece and Lebanon. Although it has strong 'nudge-nudge' associations as the dance where women shake their bazookas at leering men, it was in fact, traditionally performed by women for women, and is a sensual, not a sexual dance, which unashamedly celebrates the female form.

Feeling that my humble form would rather like being celebrated, I took myself off to try a class with 'the doyenne of bellydance', Jacqueline Chapman (pictured). I found myself participating among approximately 40 women and the class was divided in two, with beginners (anyone dancing for up to 18 months) on one side, and intermediate to advanced (many of these wearing beautiful sparkly costumes) on the other. Obviously popular.

We started off with breathing exercises, Indian head pushes, stretching, and lots of posture checking including an exercise involving vaginas and imaginary pencils to illustrate pelvic alignment, as you do... The majority of the class was spent working through a number of moves, each first demonstrated by Jacqueline, and then practised to music, while she moved round the class giving individual advice. Just when I thought I'd distinguished my Egyptian hip drop from my Turkish hip lift it would be time to practise some figure-of-eights or the camel walk (which looks better than it sounds honest!).

Theoretically easy enough, but for a beginner in a large, fast-paced class it seemed quite daunting. This is one case where I'd definitely recommend getting the accompanying DVD to help your progress it gives you plenty of opportunity to scrutinize and practise moves in detail and helps you get the most out of the group session, as well as providing a fun workout at home if you can't get to a class.

Bellydancing is great if you get bored with repetition, as there are many different moods and rhythms. It's non-competitive and there's no limit on age or fitness level As workouts go, it didn't seem too punishing (although my thigh muscles were positively screaming at one point), but I'm sure if I'd spent less time standing around looking bewildered it would have felt more strenuous! My thighs felt fine the next day, and I was quite pleased to see a slightly firmer-looking tummy after all my undulations!

Bellydancing works the whole body, particularly the legs and the area between breastbone and knees - waist, hips, abdomen and pelvic floor, helping the body gain suppleness and flexibility, and toning thighs, stomach and bottom. Unlike many other forms of exercise, it works the pelvic bowl, which can improve a variety of conditions including period pains, lower backache and slack pelvic muscles. The abdominal rolls and pelvic tilts are also believed to massage and stimulate internal organs.

While bellydancing can be particularly good during and after pregnancy (but always consult your GP first), it's not suitable if you're in the first six weeks of pregnancy the bearing down against the pelvic floor is the opposite of what your body should be doing at that time.

Bellydancing is great if you get bored with repetition, as there are many different moods and rhythms. It's non-competitive (the atmosphere was very social and supportive) and there's no limit on age or fitness level, as you can pace yourself. The dance really complements fuller figures, and regular dancing will enhance feminine curves rather than giving you a gym hardbody.

No special gear needed just loose, comfortable clothing. Anything tied around your hips to emphasize the movement really helps - bellydancing belts are wonderful (but not essential for initial outlay).

Those keen to 'shake their shimmy' in front of friends or lovers can expect their dancing to take form within three to six months, although accomplished dancing takes three to four years. It's not that easy but it is gorgeous... I shall be persevering!

Siobhan tried bellydancing with Jacqueline Chapman. For information on other classes or instructors, contact http://www.bellydancer.org.uk/ or call 0208 300 7616.

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