More Belly Dance Moves – Beyond The Hips

Belly dancing chiefly focuses on the hips and movements by the hips, and we covered some of them in our previous post. There are so many movements made by the hips that you could almost call this dance style “hip dance” rather than belly dance. I guess that’s why other names for this style exist.

Today, I’m going to talk about more basic belly dance moves. Once again, simply reading about these moves is no substitute for watching them being done and definitely isn’t a substitute for giving them a go. We’ll start with a few more hip moves that we didn’t cover last time, then move to other parts of the body.

Hip Rotations

Belly Dance Hip Rotations

What is it? Hip rotations involve one hip rotating in a circle that moves forward and back. If your hips were drawing circles on a wall with a laser pointer, the wall would be to the side of you.

How is it done? To do a rotation on your right hip, put most of your weight on your left leg, keeping a soft bend in the knee. Use your lateral abdominal muscles to bring the point of one hip up, forward, down and back. To keep your balance, you should keep your right toe on the ground and your right heel raised, but the primary driver of motion should be your abdominal muscles (belly dancing is so good for toning this part of the body).

Variations: You can either do multiple rotations on one side, then the other, or you can alternate one hip then the other; this is sometimes called the Moroccan shimmy.

Hip Camels

What is it? The pelvis rocks back and forwards, smoothly and subtly. Note that hip camels are not twerking – the idea is to be gentle, smooth and subtle with equal emphasis given to forward and backward motion, whereas twerking is sharper and jerkier with more of a focus on the butt and the backwards movement.

How is it done? This move looks most elegant when you have one foot in front of the other. Step one leg forwards (say, your left) but keep your weight equally distributed on both legs. Smoothly rock and tilt your pelvis forward and backwards. This is a very sensual and, yes, sexy move, but keep the motion smooth and flowing to keep it elegant and classy.

Variations: The hip camel can be alternated with the chest camel (see below) for a full body camel move. The hip camel can also easily be combined with steps or little hops forward or backwards to turn this into a travelling step.

Belly Rolls

What is it? Belly rolls aren’t what happens when you’ve overdone the doughnuts! This is one belly dance move done with the actual belly. In this move, the muscles at the top of the abdomen contract while those at the bottom stretch and expand; this reverses so the top expands while the bottom muscles contract. It should look like your belly is rippling or undulating.

How is it done? It takes a LOT of practice to isolate the separate abdominal muscles. You can start by simply practising expanding and contracting your whole abdomen to get an idea of how it feels. Then try separating the top and bottom sets of abdominals separately, perhaps with one hand resting on each set. Keep practising! Rumour has it that Shakira practised flipping a coin in her navel to perfect this move while lying on her back. This certainly works to help you isolate and tone your abdominal muscles. I also know one dancer who used the time spent at the sink washing dishes to practice this move.

Chest Camels

What is it? The chest camel sways the ribcage back and forth while keeping the rest of the body still.

How is it done? Stand up nice and straight in a neutral position, keeping a soft bend in the knees while keeping your legs and hips still. Now push your chest – and everything that’s on your chest – forwards as far as you can with your chest and shoulder muscles. The muscles across your shoulder blades should squeeze together while your chest muscles open up. Then bring your chest back as far as you can so your shoulder blades open and your chest muscles squeeze together. If you have mastered the cat–cow yoga move, you should find the feeling familiar.

Variations: As described above, the chest camel can be alternated with the hip camel. The movement can be big and dramatic, or softer and more subtle so that your body looks like a silk curtain rippling in a soft breeze.

Chest Slides

What is it? The ribcage moves left to right while the hips stay still.

How is it done? Keep your hips still during this move – it may be handy to use a mirror to check what is and isn’t moving. Use your lateral abdominals to push your ribcage to the left, then to the right. Put on a sparkly bra top with lots of fringing or coins (go on – you know you want to), as the movement of the coins or fringes will show you what’s moving.

Chest Circles

What is it? This combines the chest camel and the chest slide, so the ribcage makes a circle. If your body were tracing the move with a laser pointer at the bottom of your ribcage, the circle would be on the floor.

How is it done? Keep those hips still, then push your chest out to the front, then to the right, to the back and to the left. Try to make the movement as big as you can. Use your abdominals, your chest muscles and the muscles across your shoulder blades.

Shoulder Shimmies

What is it? The shoulders shake back and forward, creating that shimmying motion but at the top of the body, not at the bottom.

How is it done? Punch one shoulder forwards and bring it back, then do the same with the other shoulder. Keep your shoulders down and try to release tension across the top of the shoulder while making this move. Although this move will result in your breasts shimmying and shaking gently, the action should be driven by the shoulders – merely shaking your boobs shouldn’t be the focus. It’s a subtle difference but a difference nonetheless.

Variations. You can pop one shoulder forwards and back multiple times – or once as an accent – rather than alternating.

Snake Arms

What is it? The arms move and flow in a smoothly undulating wave. If done right, it should give the impression that your arms are as mobile and many-jointed as a snake.

How is it done? Start by mastering the move on one arm. Bring one arm up to the side, lifting from the triceps as if you were trying to make room for a rolled-up blanket between your elbow and your body, letting the gentle curve work down into your fingertips. When you have drawn your arm up as far as possible, start to drop your upper arm while your lower arm and fingertips keep travelling upwards. Practice in a mirror to ensure that you’ve got the undulating motion correct. Once you’ve got the hang of it on each arm separately, add them together so that one arm is moving upwards while the other one is travelling downwards.

Variations. Both arms can move in sync, both going up and down at the same time, like a bird in flight. Snake arms can be done alone or can be combined with hip moves and steps – although you might like to watch some belly dance videos, a teacher or just look in the mirror to work out which hip moves work best with snake arms (hint: shimmies and hip circles are always a safe bet).

Continue reading More Belly Dance Moves – Beyond The Hips

Know Your Belly Dance Moves Part 1: Hip Movements

The Basics – Hip Movements

When you begin any new exercise, it’s good to know what some of the basic terms mean. After all, if you’d never played football before, you might be puzzled about what dribbling meant, and when you start playing cricket, you need to know what they mean by googlies, fine legs and inswingers. The same is true in belly dance. All the characteristic dance steps have been given names. Knowing these names can help a lot if you’re trying to learn belly dance online or through books, and it can also help if you’re trying to plan some choreography. It’s also great if you’re dancing in a group extempore, as you can call out moves to each other and you all know what you mean.

Here, I’ve put together a list of some of the more common names (in English!) used to describe the different key moves of belly dance – along with a few tips and pointers that may help you learn how to do them (although it’s great to know what they look like as well). This article just looks at the hip moves (remember Shakira’s awesome hip moves?) – which are the most important ones to master in belly dance, but not the only ones.

Hip Circles

What is it? Also known as hip rolls, this is one of the first moves to master. Your pelvis makes a circle on the horizontal plane (as if you were drawing a circle on the ground). Think of powering a hula hoop.

How do you do it? Keep your feet grounded (for the basics) and your knees with a soft bend rather than locked. Now use your hip, thigh and abdominal muscles to shift your centre of gravity (which is in your pelvis) to the right, then forwards, to the left and back (or left–back–right–round). Once you’ve got the general feel of it, make those movements bigger and don’t be shy about it.

Belly Dance - Hip Roll/HipCircle

Variations: As the hip circle is such a foundational move, it has lots of variations. Add some vertical movement by bending the knees as you rotate your hips round and round. You can also keep one foot grounded and shift the other so you spin on your axis to face in different directions.

Basic Shimmies

What is it? A fast-moving shake of the hips from side to side.

How do you do it? Again, start with the knees soft rather than locked and both feet grounded. Keeping your feet grounded, bend one knee more and straighten the other. Notice how the hip opposite the bent knee pops out to one side. Now reverse, bending the other knee and letting your other hip pop out. Once you’ve mastered the basic feeling of popping your hips left and right, increase the speed. It gets intense! Wearing a coin belt helps you hear how fast your shimmy is going.

Variations: Advanced belly dancers can layer a shimmy over another move such as a hip circle or figure eight.

Belly Dancing Shimmy

Hip Pistons

What is it? Also known as hip pops or hip bumps. A hip piston drives one hip out sharply to one side.

How do you do it? Feet grounded and knees loose, as usual. Now bend one knee and straighten the other, letting your hip pop to one side (yes, just like when you start with the basic shimmy). Imagine that you need to push a door closed when your hands are full and you can only use your hips. You can do this sharply (think of closing a car door) or smoothly (sliding a drawer closed)

Variations: You can play around with the size of the piston, and sharp versus smooth movements, or you can try to go out smoothly and make the return to the centre sharp.

Hip Lifts

What is it? These are typical of the Turkish belly dance style. One hip bounces up sharply.

How do you do it? Let’s say you want to do a hip lift on the right. Keep your left foot planted and shift all your weight onto it. Now, raise your right hip sharply – do this mostly using your side abdominal muscles rather than the muscles of your right leg (although your right heel will rise off the floor).

Hip Drops

What is it? These are the reverse of the hip lift, and involve one hip lifting slightly then dropping below its normal level – or just dropping.

How do you do it? This time, let’s try dropping the left hip. Shift your weight onto the right leg. Gently use your side abdominals to lift the left hip slightly, then drop it down heavily, as if you’re trying to use your hip as a hammer.

Variations: Add a little kick forward to the hip drop – or every second drop. This looks best if your body is angled side-on or three-quarters to the audience – or the mirror. If you’re dropping on your left hip, start with your left knee bent and your left heel raised. As your left hip comes down, kick your left foot forward with an elegantly pointed toe.

Figure Eights

What is it? There are three types of figure-eight hip movements, known as Turkish figure eights, Egyptian (inward) figure eights and Maya (outward) figure eights. The Turkish ones are the easiest, and the figure-eight is made on the horizontal plane. For the Egyptian figure eight, the top of each hip travels diagonally downward to the centre. For Maya figure eights, the motion moves diagonally upwards away from the centre. These last two are easier to picture if you see someone doing them!

Belly Dancing Figure Eight

How do you do it?

Turkish figure eights: Imagine that you can draw with the centre of your pelvis (if it helps, you can picture your vajayjay as a laser pointer or sparkler on bonfire night – works for some dancers, I know!). Now draw a figure eight or an infinity symbol on the ground by shifting your weight from hip to hip. If you’ve mastered hip circles in both directions, this should be straightforward, as it’s a combination of the two directions.

Inward figure eights: For this, let’s imagine that you have two sparklers or laser pointers facing the wall in front of you, one on each hip bone. Start by taking your weight on your left leg, then shift your right hip to the side. Bring that hip up, then imagine you’re drawing a circle with your laser pointer that curves from the top of the circle then down anticlockwise towards the centre. Once you complete the circle, shift your weight to your right leg and draw a clockwise circle with your left hip.

Maya figure eights: This movement is similar to the inward figure eight, but your right hip will draw a clockwise circle and your left hip will draw an anticlockwise circle. One dancer I know suggests imagining your pelvis as a goblet or cup. Now imagine honey or melted chocolate welling up spilling out of that goblet to the side. Trace the flow of that sweetness with one hip, then the other. Mostly use your abdominal muscles for this, but let your legs do some of the work from below.

Variations: The first variation is one you can use while learning the inward and Maya figure eights: just doing half of the move and drawing one circle on that wall with one hip. When you get more experience under your belly dancer’s coin belt, you can try doing the Maya without lifting your heels from the floor, or layering a shimmy over a Turkish figure eight.

Three-Quarter Shimmy

What is it? This is a cross between the classic shimmy and the hip lift. It’s considered to be an intermediate level to advanced move, so make sure you can do these two moves first.

How to do it? Start slow and break the movement down without music when you’re learning it, then speed up to the music’s tempo as you get the feel of it. Start by bending your right knee to pop your left hip out to the side. Now lift and drop that left hip. Then bend that left knee to shift your weight and let your right hip pop out. Right hip up and down. The lift and drop should be very quick. It’s tricky to master, but once you’ve taught your muscles how to do it, it becomes instinctive.

Continue reading Know Your Belly Dance Moves Part 1: Hip Movements

The History of Belly Dance

Understanding the history of belly dance can be difficult. This is partly because the word “belly dance” isn’t particularly ancient. In fact, it was introduced into the English language back in Victorian times as a direct translation of a French term, danse du ventre… which was coined by French art critics after many painters began exploring Middle Eastern traditions and culture as the subject of their paintings. The painting in question is known as Dance of the Almeh, by Jean-Léon Gérôme, which shows a woman with a bare midriff, her hips tilted and zills on her fingers as she sways to the music of a drum and a string instrument.

Dance of the Almeh by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1863

However, belly dance is older than that, as one can guess from the Egyptian name for this dance style, namely Raqs Baladi, which means “folk dance”. This hints at ancient origins and a long tradition.

Belly Dance Has More Respectable Origins Than You Think

In movies and books, it’s common to think of belly dancers as decadent dancing girls, titillating a king or sultan and his (male) guests when they’re not hidden behind the walls of the harem. We can’t just blame Hollywood for this one, as the image of the seductive dancing girl doing the Dance of the Seven Veils was made popular by Oscar Wilde in his drama Salome way before Hollywood came along. Western entertainment moguls of the early 20th century were happy to play up the saucy, sexy, salacious side of this dance style, much to the annoyance of traditional dancers.

However, traditional belly dance was a lot more respectable than that. There are even hints of this in the Biblical account of Salome – not the Oscar Wilde play). Here, we see not a scheming seductress (unless you count Salome’s mother, who wasn’t the one dancing) but a little girl who hadn’t reached her teens performing at her wealthy uncle’s birthday party. The modern equivalent would be a pre-teen ballerina giving a recital. This nicely illustrates the context where belly dance was practised for centuries: gatherings, festivals and family parties. No wedding in the Middle East would have been complete without a belly dancer performing. This is still true today.

Did the women of the Middle East perform their dances in the harem (literally haram, the forbidden space or the women’s quarters)? Of course, they did – often for fun and entertaining each other. Traditionally, in many parts of the Middle East, women and men would be separated during a gathering or festival, and the women would dance together. This would be a good place for many mothers to meet and evaluate the local single women so they could start arranging marriages for their sons with women who were strong and supple and likely to be good mothers in the physical sense.

Quintessential Feminine

Weddings, evaluating prospective brides… there are strong elements and associations with fertility in the traditions of belly dance, and this gives a hint of where and how these dances originated. It’s not for nothing that the Hebrew root word meaning “to dance” can also mean “to writhe in labour and childbirth” and “to shake or tremble” (that’s obviously belly dancing!).

Many of the movements that are characteristic of belly dance involve quintessentially feminine parts of the body: the pelvis, the hips, the thighs, the abdomen and the buttocks. This has led many to believe that the dance style had its origins as exercises to strengthen and prepare women for labour and childbirth or motions to assist during childbirth itself, or possibly as rites to honour goddesses of fertility – or both! The truth is that nobody really knows for certain. However, it’s certainly true that belly dancing is very good exercise for pregnant women, and celebrates the feminine parts of the body. If belly dance has been interpreted as sensual, spiritual or scandalous, depending on the times, this probably reflects the way in which women were viewed, as it’s such a feminine dance.

There are also references in various ancient sources to various goddesses as dancers. The most famous of these is Ishtar, who had to remove a veil at each of the seven gates of the underworld as she sought to free her lover Tammuz from the clutches of her sister, the death goddess – that’s the origins of the Dance of the Seven Veils. And we can’t forget Aphrodite’s famous girdle or belt, which is very reminiscent of the coin belt worn by many dancers.

Dancing In The Coffee Houses

The two main centres of belly dancing, Turkey and Egypt, had traditions of professional performers who would belly dance for a paying audience – and these audiences were often exclusively female or mixed gender. In Turkey, there are records of the chengi dancers performing in Istanbul as early as the 1400s. Meanwhile, in Egypt, the ghawazi would also perform in coffee-houses and for hire at weddings and the like.

The Ghawazi dancers of Egypt weren’t exclusively women. In fact, men had their own dances, often involving work with sticks or canes and involving plenty of leaping and skipping, rather than the hip rolls of the women. Egyptian belly dancing style has been called earthy and grounded. The traditional costume was not, as you might think, the sparkly bra and the swirling veil. Instead, it was often a full-length dress of striped fabric that covered most of the body.

In Turkey, belly dance was heavily influenced by the Romany (gipsy) people, and their style was brought from India. The style is described as “lighter” and more “airy” than the Egyptian style, and the coin belt and the veil come from this tradition. Turkish belly dance also uses floor work, where the dancer drops to her (or occasionally his) knees; the authorities once banned this in Egypt.

Belly Dance’s Introduction To The West

The fascination with Middle Eastern culture, known as Orientalism, became widespread in the late 1800s and in the early 1900s. This is where belly dance as we know it today really came to be. Many of the glamorous costume elements that we consider to be typical of belly dance were introduced during this time, and were adopted in both the East and the West, and in both Turkey and Egypt. We could debate for ages about whether this was a contamination of the tradition by Western expectations, but there’s no denying that it’s a lot of fun to wear and make these costumes, and dancers around the world embraced them. This is where we see the two-piece outfit consisting of the sparkly bra and the swirly skirt being introduced – and the bare midriff became de rigueur. Veils became more popular, as well as the practice of dancing in high heeled shoes or on tiptoe (but not as high as a ballerina); traditionally, belly dancing was done barefoot or in flat-heeled sandals. Other elements were introduced to belly dance during this period were introduced for increasing the drama and spectacle, such as wings (which are a lot of fun to dance with) and balancing elements such as swords and trays of candles.

Of course, today, a belly dancer has options. A dancer can pick from traditional or modern Egyptian belly dance style, traditional or Turkish belly dance styles, or the style known as Tribal Fusion. Tribal Fusion belly dance mixes traditional and modern styles from numerous countries, and also throws in elements from elsewhere and other styles – this is where you find dancers mixing in pois from the Pacific, or elements of Indian and Indonesian dance. Dance is, above all, an artistic expression that reflects the individual dancer’s style, so there’s no shame if you prefer modern fusion styles over pure traditional forms. The important thing is to find the style that suits you best and to have fun!

Continue reading The History of Belly Dance

All The Questions About Belly Dancing

Belly Dance Oriental

Once, I didn’t know much about belly dancing. I’d seen a few scenes in various movies featuring belly dancers, and I’d seen Shakira’s music videos from the early 2000s, and I was fascinated. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but something captivated me about that dance style. It really reached into my heart and called to me – something that quite a few women in the belly dancing scene have reported, as I found out later. I saw what those women could do with their bodies and I thought I want to do that too!

At the start, I had questions about the dance style. So many questions! If you’re just starting out taking your first few baby (dancing) steps in belly dance, then you’ve probably got some of the same questions. I found the answers to my questions after a fair bit of research, trial and error, but to save you some of the hard work, I’ll give you the answers I’ve found.

Is Belly Dance The Real Name For This Style?

One of the first things that hit me was that although this dance style is Middle Eastern to the point of being stereotypical, the name we give it is in English. So what was the original name? This turned out to be a bit of a tough question to answer, as this dance style has quite a long history and it’s danced in countries with different languages. However, what I found out pretty quickly was that the name “belly dance” was just a translation from the French term danse du ventre, (or danse orientale) which was coined in the mid-1800s. However, the dance style is a lot older than that.

Belly Dancing Group

Another name for this dance style that better reflects its origins is Raqs Baladi. This is an Arabic term that can be more or less translated as “folk dance”, reflecting its rural origins. This is the preferred term for this dance in Egypt, which is one of the countries where this style is popular and celebrated. Another term is Raqs Sharqi, which is the Arabic for “eastern dance” or “oriental dance”. These Arabic terms are respectful and reflect the true origins – something that can’t be said about one of the other names for this dance style that was popular in the USA in the early 20th century, namely hoochie-coochie.

Where Did This Dance Style Come From Anyway?

This dance style is quintessentially Middle Eastern, although it’s been influenced by other cultures over the years (a bit from India here, a bit from Latin there, a bit from Loie Fuller’s modern dance, even a bit from classical Western ballet). There’s a distinct possibility that what we know as belly dancing was practised in the earliest days of human civilisation in the Fertile Crescent. Certainly, two of the main centres of belly dancing today are Egypt and Turkey. The style of belly dance that you’ll see in a lot of classic Hollywood films is the Egyptian style of dance, and the Egyptian film industry had a strong influence on the way we view belly dance and belly dancing. The earliest written records that we have access to in the West describe belly dance as being characteristic of Egypt.

Arabic Belly Dancer

In fact, the history of belly dancing is long and complicated, and probably deserves a post of its own.

Isn’t Belly Dancing A Bit Sleazy?

When I saw belly dancers for the first time, and as I explored this style more, I was struck by the beauty, the glamour and the essentially feminine energy of the style. That’s what captured me so much. However, belly dancing has picked up something of a sleazy, skanky image in both the West and the East, but it wasn’t always that way. The fact that in the early 20th century, belly dance was something found in burlesque shows and nightclubs, billed as hoochie-coochie didn’t help this. However, in its original setting, despite what some movies would suggest, belly dancing was considered family-friendly. A dancer traditionally performed at weddings in Egypt and the Levant (Israel and Palestine), and when a family celebration took place, somebody (or several somebodies) would dance in this style.

Traditional Belly Dancer

Once you start watching and dancing, you soon realise that there’s a subtle difference between belly dance and skanky, exploitative dance styles. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what the difference is, but it’s definitely there. It’s as if belly dance says “I am a woman. I am beautiful. My body is strong and supple as well as sexy,” but the sleazy sort of dances say “Come and get it.” Belly dancing can be done for a woman’s own private enjoyment by herself, it can be used as an expression of spirituality, it can be enjoyed by groups of women having fun together, and yes, it can be sexy as well.

Will Belly Dancing Get Me Fit?

Belly dancing is great exercise! Because it’s focused on the torso and the pelvis, it works core muscles, along with your hip and thigh muscles. Add in some of the steps and some of the arm movements – and veil work – and your arms and the rest of your legs get a good workout. Because belly dance doesn’t involve heaps of jumping and leaping (it’s very grounded and earthy), it’s a low impact exercise that’s easy on your knees, hips and ankles. A woman can do it if she’s pregnant – in fact, some experts suggest that some belly dance moves developed out of movements to help with giving birth. It’s good for flexibility and for cardio. It’s particularly good for your lower back, and it’s good for people of all ages. What’s more, because it’s a lot of fun, it’s likely to be something you keep coming back to.

Middle Eastern Belly Dancers

Do I Have To Be Concerned About Cultural Appropriation?

There’s always a fine line between appropriation and celebration. The golden rule is to be respectful of the culture where the dance style originated and to learn as much as you can. It’s important to respect the traditions and realise that if you’re European, it’s something you’ve borrowed. If you’re not actually Middle Eastern, don’t do a Mata Hari and claim to be “exotic” when you’re not. Avoid mockery and parody. But don’t be afraid of giving it a go, even if this dance style comes from a culture that isn’t yours. If it helps you learn about another culture and admire it, and if it helps you form a connection with another culture, then it’s a good thing.

However, there’s no need to drive yourself crazy trying to be as “authentic” and true to the original as you can, feeling like an impostor if you want to, say, blend a few Turkish-style moves with Egyptian dancing. Modern belly dancing is an evolving style, especially the Tribal Fusion style, which gleefully uses and celebrates elements of dance from around the world.

Do I Have To Wear All The Costumes?

Egyptian Belly Dancing

The costumes are a very fun part of belly dancing, but you don’t have to buy or make a belly dance costume to get started. If you’re trying it for the first time, then any suitable exercise clothing will be fine. After that, you can start playing with the coin belts, the swishy skirts, the harem pants, the veils… Be warned: it’s addictive!

Here is a belly dancing instructional video to get your creativity going:

Passionate Belly Dance
Continue reading All The Questions About Belly Dancing