Romantically and spiritually, the belly is the core of a woman's being, her femininity, her center of power. Historically, a soft, round womanly shape was considered beautiful, and a curving belly symbolized both wealth and position. It seems most men still prefer a woman with those curves, but modern society has influenced the opinion of most women. In the Western world, the least favorite part for most women is the lower abdominal, affectionately referred to as the belly. Why? It is in that area of the body where you feel muscularly lazy and find it too easy to collect a pouch of fat. True, it is natural for girls and young women to have lower abs that form a lovely flat surface. But with age, regardless of the endurance of pregnancy, women's bellies tend to become larger and rounder. The result: most women give their bellies the evil eye, especially when they are in front of the mirror. I don't know how many times I have seen this in dance class, and can personally say I have felt the same way! Especially at that certain time of the month, when we feel bloated to begin with, the gaze reveals a lack of desire to look like the jolly Buddha.
Webster's Dictionary states the noun "belly" is the abdomen and the verbs "bellied" or "bellying" mean to swell out or bulge. (Well, that's not exactly promising, is it?)
Let's take a closer look at what muscles make up the belly, how it works, and what we can do to make us look and feel more satisfied with its size and shape. The belly itself is actually made up of four (yes, four!) layers of muscles. They wrap the entire abdomen in vertical, horizontal and diagonal directions. The connection between the abdomen and the back is a close and vital one because these muscles work together to support the column of the spine. If either one sags forward because of weak muscles and/or improper alignment, the spine is pulled too far forward in the small of the back. The spine curves there naturally, but it should form only a slight curve. The short, deep curve that occurs without proper support is called swayback. Merely by slightly lengthening your spine and shortening the lower torso between your hips and your waist, keeping your pelvic level, you will be able to change the shape of your midsection from formless to more defined and slender. As your lower back lengthens, its curve will become shallower, allowing your belly to flatten back against your spine instead of sagging forward. Think about pulling in the lower abdominal muscles as if you could pull them against the inside of the small of your back while your pelvic adjusts upward a bit. Be sure not to lock your knees in the process nor exaggerate any lift or tuck. Proper alignment and posture is a key element for every dancer. It sounds simple enough, but will take conscious effort on your part until it becomes a habit.
Awareness of your belly and its proper alignment is only the first step towards a "better" belly. To make it look beautiful, you have to do two things: 1) remove excess fat which lies over the belly and 2) strengthen the abdominals and lower back to show muscle tone and to provide the control it takes to do all the wonderful belly movements found in belly dance. Removing fat means reducing the amount of chocolate and other goodies you consume, as well as adding aerobic exercise to burn up what fat is already there. Dance classes are often anaerobic in nature, never sustaining a heart rate high enough to sufficiently provide an aerobic workout. That doesn't mean you are not getting a workout, but you will burn more fat if the class specifically is geared towards a sustained higher heart rate. How about trying a dance aerobics class? Especially one that mixes belly dance and an aerobic fitness workout? I offer one at my studio and it is very popular. If there are no live classes in your area, you could use a DVD with this theme, and there are several easy-to-find, excellent choices on the market today.
Several movements are useful in strengthening the abs and muscles of the lower back. Let's first take a look at exercises such as the sit up, the roll down, and leg extensions. Most of the time when I ask my dance students to do sit ups, they moan out loud and grudgingly comply, but admit to me that if I did not make them do it, they probably would not do sit ups on their own. A proper sit up keeps your lower back firmly planted into the floor and uses an exhale as you rise. You don't have to curl up very far to feel the abs working. Just roll up slowly and smoothly as far as you can, contracting the abs with steady pressure, and then roll down. The neck must remain relaxed and loose. As you gain strength, you can add a number of variations to work on all the layers of muscles and add interest to your workouts.
Roll downs are actually the reverse of a sit up. You start with an upright back and slowly and carefully roll down. The slower, the better as it is your abs that are working hard to control the descent. Again, you need to take care not to strain the neck and to press.
Leg extensions are great, especially for the lower abs. From a lying position, pick up your knees so that shins are parallel to the floor. Then slowly extend both legs to full length, hold and slowly draw in the knees to the starting position. The lower you hold your legs to the floor, the more you will work your lower abs. However, take great care to press the lower back into the floor because otherwise you risk injuring your back. Personally, I prefer a variation of this exercise in which you alternate your legs, in a bicycle motion. Keep your head up and supported, which also helps to hold down your lower back.
Ab exercises take time for you to see results. Yet the abdominal wall is very strong, and you can build up the number of reps quite quickly. It is recommended to do ab work 6 days a week, but hey, you've got to start somewhere, so even if you do it once or twice a week for a while, your abs will be heading in the right direction.
Within the realm of belly dance, the book The Belly Dancer in You, written by famous dancer Ozel Turkbas, claims that it was the Turks who added belly movements. She states that the dance became a fixture in Turkish wedding celebrations as part of the awalem, a non-verbal dance that taught women which exercises to do to enjoy painless childbirth without stretch marks. Ozel feels that belly dancing brings women the closest to the status of goddess. The stomach symbolizes the center of all community, which is a very appropriate place for civilization to be based. She even points out that the Japanese have a whole philosophy based on hara, a point just below the navel which must be kept loose and mobile if tjhe individual is to have a spontaneous and fulfilled existence. That hara point is the belly dancer's abdomen.
There are technically only two movements that the belly can perform, namely contraction and release. The entire abdominal wall can be used, or different parts in different series, to create various interesting and challenging dance movements. The Stomach Flutter is a great movement that uses the entire abdominal wall. Release the control of the stomach as you let it out, then grab it back in. Do it at an even tempo. As you gain control, increase the speed to create a fluttering effect. At first, you might want to use your breath to find the movement in the abdomen. Inhale as you pull the stomach in and exhale as you release. As you work into the flutter speed, you may want to stop relying on the breath. Why? Because at that tempo you will appear to be panting, and hyperventilation is not a pretty accessory to your belly dancing!
The second most common movement done with the belly is the Undulation. First, try to separate your ab muscles in two parts, the upper portion over the stomach and the lower abs. Practice contracting and releasing each half separately. Speed is now unimportant. In fact, the slower you practice, the better. Once you get confident with the separate movements, try this sequence: contract the upper half, hold it in and then contract the lower half (so the entire abdomen is held IN), then release the upper half without releasing the lower (that's hard but not impossible!), then release the lower half (so the entire abdomen ins relaxed OUT). Repeat. This will create a Belly Roll, the core of the undulation. Once you have the Belly Roll, you can reverse it or build upon it by incorporating it into a roll that uses the whole torso and spine to make a full Undulation. Traveling with the roll and undulation creates a Camel Walk.
Belly dance wouldn't be belly dance without belly movements. As you work to improve your dance technique, take special time to develop your abdominal muscles. Not only will your dance technique improve, but you'll love how your belly looks and will dramatically improve your long-term health. Go ahead, search for that better belly. It's only a win-win situation. You might find that Ozel was right, you are a goddess!