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Davis, California

Monday, May 20, 2024

Column: Raqs Sharqi

What do eating at a Middle Eastern restaurant and one of Akon’s songs have in common? Belly dance! Chances are that the average American student’s exposure to this ancient art is limited to dancing to a “Belly Dancer (Bonanza)” remix at the club or seeing a dazzling performance during Whole Earth Festival. However, belly dance can provide rich benefits for both mental and physical fitness.

My first exposure to this art was in the form of a workout video in high school. Yup, that’s right, Veena and Neena’s Belly Dance Workout. Intrigued by its challenge and grace, I signed up for a class at the Experimental College, “Ancient Art of Belly Dance,” with a friend.

It was here that I was introduced to belly dance as a rooting, grounding art.

Delia, the instructor, described the art as having deep links to the earth as she stressed the connections between woman, earth and belly dance.

With each hip lift, figure eight and belly roll, Delia had us focus on grounding our feet into the earth.

Being able to ground feet into the earth is an important symbol. Strong feet pressing into the earth symbolize the dancer’s awareness of the strength of earth supporting her movements.

A dancer without connection to the earth simply dances atop the surface, solely focused on her body and moves. For example, hip lifts without awareness of the earth is like basketball’s point guard taking shots without awareness of the court.

Professional belly dancer Nyla Crystal, who teaches at FDF Studio on 915 Third St. in Davis, described the connection between earth and dancer in an e-mail interview.

“You use the earth to push off of, which gives strength to the legs to move the hips. Without the connection to the earth, you cannot dance.”

All this stuff about connection with the earth is not just new age-ish rhetoric. At the end of class, I literally felt that blood circulation all throughout my body had improved. It was like this amazing high – a rush of energy – which far surpassed that of any other physical activity.

Studies conducted by Dr. Bonnie Paul at Saybrook Graduate School indicate that belly dance classes once or twice a week results in improved body image and creativity, comfort with femininity, acceptance of self and others and of course, enhanced fitness.

It was a special feeling, being a woman and being in that class. Guys have their own means of expression and historically, men have also participated in belly dance.

“I teach the feminine form, but also offer ways to make the movements more masculine,” Crystal said. “There are famous male belly dancers like Tito and Horacio Cifuentes.”

But the beat of the drum combined with the hips taking on their own expression awakens something in the female body. The exact term or scientific explanation, I would not be able to pinpoint. It is simply the sense of being feminine and the ability to express that sensuality which is so liberating.

So what if my belly does not come close to resembling Veena or Neena’s? And the walking shimmie? Impossible. I am a woman just now realizing the unique shapes and proportions that we embody. Belly dancing has been essential in strengthening and allowing acceptance of my body. And it’s fun!

“Mental fitness” is that conscious acceptance of and comfort with the body. Accepting your body does not mean that it cannot change. Instead, it’s more about being comfortable with the fluidity of the body as it changes throughout the years.

With that said, a healthy fitness routine that emphasizes general wellbeing and preventative care can be rewarding. The versatility of belly dance is that it allows dancers to benefit from the strictly physical aspects, too.

Every movement in Delia’s class (and in the workout video) stemmed from the core muscles and not from the hips or knees. It’s basically like an hour of abs and back class. And the arms … Oh man, the arms have to be extended out in front the whole time! Might sound easy but it’s definitely one of the most challenging things. While the arms are extended, the elbows have to be slightly below shoulder-level and hands curved gracefully. (Arm positioning is a workout in itself!)

By the end of the hour-long class we were drenched in sweat. A lot of the movements, like kicks, require isolating specific muscles. Isolations are awesome because they strengthen muscles in ways that cardio and lifting weights cannot.

“The main purpose of belly dance is to have fun,” Crystal said.

I agree. The best part about belly dance is rocking out in the privacy of your dorm or room, door closed, with only your closest friends.

MEGHA BHATT will be shimmying to some belly dancin’ beats. Reach her at mybhatt@ucdavis.edu.


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