Belly Dance & Weight Loss
"Will it help me lose weight?" and "Will it give me a flat stomach?"
This is one of the most frequent questions I hear from prospective belly dance students. As with most questions in life, there's not a simple yes/no answer to this. It depends.
I've been belly dancing since 1981. When I started, I was slender. Then I graduated from college, started a new job, and gained a lot of weight from the lifestyle changes of reduced exercise, dietary changes, and stress. Then I lost 45 pounds and returned to that slim figure. I kept it off a few years, then a new job turned me into a frequent traveler and it all came back. In 1999, I lost 55 pounds. Throughout that whole time, I belly danced. Did it play a role in my weight losses? Yes. Did it prevent the weight gains? No.
So, what's the secret?
Simply put, belly dancing is a form of exercise. Like any form of exercise, much depends on how often you do it, and how aerobically you do it:
- The more you dance, the more exercise you get.
- Spend an hour belly dancing continuously, and you'll burn about 300 calories.
- Some belly dance classes give you a more vigorous workout than others. Some classes devote a significant amount of time to standing-in-place activities such as drills of slow hip circles and figure 8's, while other classes are designed to raise the heart rate and keep it going continuously.
- Some belly dance students practice at home between classes, while others do not, nor do they engage in any other exercise between classes.
Belly dancing can not compensate for food choices or drinking a lot of alcohol. It also can't compensate for the effects of medical conditions, medication side effects, environmental toxins, stress, or genetic predispositions that might affect how your body responds to its environment.
Body size and shape are affected by many factors. Exercise is one piece of the puzzle, but there are other pieces. This article focuses on how to use belly dancing as one of the forms of exercise that you might include in your lifestyle changes for a healthier body.
It is not my intent with this article to body-shame anybody or to insinuate that people "should" want to lose weight. I am not passing judgment on anybody's situation.
I am responding to a question I have been asked many times by people who have already made their own decision that weight loss is something they want to try for.
I respect the right of every reader to make the food and lifestyle choices that she feels are best for her.
Amount of Exercise
Attending a single one-hour belly dance class per week and then sitting on the couch watching television the other six nights per week will never help you lose weight. Most weight loss experts recommend getting no less than 15 minutes of exercise per day, and I've seen many that say you need at least 30 minutes.
So, if you attend a belly dance class one night per week, what exercise are you doing the other six nights?
If you're serious about losing weight, make the commitment to get at least 30 minutes of exercise per day. Even though some experts say 15 minutes is enough, why cheat yourself of the benefits of just a little more? This can take the form of attending belly dancing classes, troupe rehearsals, performances, or practicing in your living room.
Of course, your exercise doesn't all have to be belly dancing. On some days, you can go for romantic walks with your partner, attend an aerobics class at the gym, walk your dog for an hour, or play catch in the back yard with one of your children. Just spend a minimum of 30 minutes (more is better) exercising in whatever format you enjoy.
Type of Belly Dancing Class and Practice
In some belly dancing classes, you start moving the instant you walk in the door and don't stop until the end of the hour. In others, you spend a large amount of time standing still while you drill finger cymbal rhythms, wait for the teacher to correct other students, listen to explanations, practice isolations, or do stretches at the end of class.
If weight loss is a priority for you, choose a belly dancing teacher or class format that keeps you moving continuously throughout the class period. The class will be especially valuable if it involves traveling steps, because moving the large leg muscles burns more calories than moving other, smaller muscles such as those used in head slides. The time you spend in class or practicing at home doesn't help much for weight loss if you're standing still for most of it.
When practicing at home, you'll obtain maximum weight loss benefit by using either drum solos, medium-speed, or fast music and incorporating a large number of moves that engage your legs and hips. You'll receive less weight loss benefit from practicing rib cage isolations to slow, undulating music, but these dance moves are beneficial in other ways (building core muscle strength) and therefore worth doing. Standing still practicing your finger cymbals or sitting at your sewing machine making costumes won't give you any weight loss benefit at all!
Don't eliminate slow music and finger cymbal practice from your practice time — they're useful skills to have, they'll build core strength, they're fun to do, and they'll make you a better dancer. But if weight loss is an important goal for you, then ensure you devote enough time to dancing aerobic moves to fast music when you practice. My advice: spend at least 30 minutes on vigorous dancing to drum solos and fast music, then take however much additional time you wish for slow music and finger cymbal practice.
PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by PixieVision, Glendale, California. The dress goes with Saidi dance, one of the folkloric dance styles provides aerobic exercise.
Tip: In my "Belly Dance for Exercise classes", for the cardio segment of class I teach folkloric dance styles such as Lebanese debke, Turkish line dances, Khaliji (Persian Gulf), and Saidi dance styles. Why? Because:
- Many folkloric dance styles are aerobic (and therefore valuable for weight loss goals)
- Folkloric dances help my students see there's more to belly dancing than just "the movement vocabulary"
- Folk dances are fun to do (and done for the fun of it in the countries they come from)
- Learning these dances in my classes enables my students to know what to do if they go to a restaurant or party where folk dances are being done recreationally by patrons (particularly debke, Greek line dances, Israeli hora, and Greek line dances)
- For students who want to perform, folkloric costumes are flattering regardless of whether weight loss goals have been reached yet
- Knowing folkloric dances will make my students more versatile as they continue their dance journeys
If aerobic exercise is important to you, I recommend looking for a teacher who knows these folkloric dance styles and incorporates them into her classes.
I'm not a fan of "workout" classes such as Zumba that borrow some basic belly dance isolations (such as hip drops) and try to "rev them up" by doing them more vigorously. I think workouts should use hip drops and other isolation-oriented belly dance moves for the core toning and warmup/cooldown parts of class, and use folkloric dances (such as those I named above) for the cardio.
PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by PixieVision, Glendale, California. The costume is based on a Persian Gulf style of dance.
What You Eat & Drink
It matters what you eat and drink. Although getting your 30 minutes per day of exercise will improve your body's ability to burn fat, you also need to look at your eating habits. You are what you eat. There are a couple of bad habits that belly dancers can get into. Break these, and your weight loss efforts will be more successful:
- Snacking After Class. Do you fill up on snacks when you get home from class? Often when we feel like snacking, what we really need is something to drink, to rehydrate our bodies. To avoid this pitfall, take a bottle of water (at least one quart or one liter) with you to class. Drink the equivalent of a glass of water before class starts. At the end of class, before you get in your car or on the bus to go home, drink the equivalent of 2-3 glasses more. When you arrive home, before going into the house, drink another couple of swallows. This will help prevent you from snacking on high-carb foods when you finally walk in the door and settle in for the evening.
- Sipping Wine After A Performance. Do you sip a glass of wine at the end of a performance at the restaurant or nightclub where you work? Stop! Alcohol is very high in empty calories! Take a bottle of water to work with you. Drink the equivalent of a glass of water before you start your show. When it's over, drink the equivalent of 2-3 glasses of additional water as soon as you walk into the dressing room. Then change your clothes. By the time you emerge, you should feel less craving for that wine. If you find yourself still wanting to sit at the bar and drink something, try substituting sparkling water instead of wine.
Beyond that, I'll leave the advice on eating & drinking to your favorite health care provider or weight loss advisor. But don't just pay your money into the program and assume that will magically help you lose weight - follow their instructions!
I accomplished my 55-pound weight loss in 1999 through one of the commercial programs, but most of the others who joined at the same time as me didn't lose much. What made the difference? I kept the daily food diary they recommended, and every day I carefully added up the foods I was eating. The food diary taught me which of my typical foods were more fattening than others, so I could make knowledgeable choices about whether to eat them. It also taught me how I could still enjoy foods I liked by reducing portion sizes. It helped me identify bad habits that I could then work on breaking, such as cleaning my plate. I made a point of exceeding the program's exercise recommendations. The other people who did not faithfully keep their journals or increase their activity levels found themselves unable to lose weight.
Weight loss programs don't work if you simply pay money and attend meetings. Your wallet gets lighter, but your body doesn't. You need to follow their instructions regarding food intake and exercise.
That said, I found the program that I used in 1999 difficult to live with long term. Who wants to spend every day of her life keeping a tedious food diary and adding up numbers every night? Not me! So for my long-term weight maintenance, I prefer to follow the paleo diet. The guidelines are simple: no foods containing grain (ie, no bread, no rice, no corn, no oatmeal, no soy, no pasta), no refined sugar, no dairy. I eat meat, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and eggs. I minimize my use of processed foods, such as canned soups, and I try to hold myself to small amounts of non-grain starches such as potatoes, tapioca flour, etc. If there's a special occasion, such as someone's birthday, I'll allow myself to make the occasional exception, but I try to stay close to the paleo guidelines for my day-to-day habits. It works for me, though I acknowledge your body or your situation could be different.
Do You Really Need to Lose Weight?
The entertainment industry in the U.S. has been promoting a look that's very, very thin. It's no surprise — television stations and magazines benefit from selling advertising space to companies who peddle weight loss products and cosmetics. Although this thinness comes naturally to a few people with high metabolisms and petite bone structures, it's not realistic for the vast majority of us. Some ballerinas have publicly revealed that they relied on heroin to maintain their thin figures — that's a step that most of us are not willing to take, and rightfully so.
This subject could fill an entire article by itself. Please remember that healthy bodies come in many shapes and sizes.
I personally would suggest that instead of focusing on weight loss per se, just focus on eating healthy food and living a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise, and don't worry too much about what the scale says or what clothing size you wear.
So, How Did I Lose 55 Pounds?
Again, let me repeat, it's more important to focus your efforts on eating healthy food and changing your lifestyle to incorporate more exercise than it is to focus on what the scale says. But, I realize that by talking about my own weight loss, I may have made you curious about how I did it. So, I'll share what I did, but I'm not saying that this is the right path for you.
My doctor had told me to lose weight. In other words, I was not one of those women who was conned by the media into being dissatisfied with myself. I actually was overweight and needed to take it off for health reasons.
- I joined a commercial weight-loss program. I won't tell you which one, except to say it was not one of those that requires you to eat their food. The one I joined lets you choose what to eat, and provides you with guidelines on how to balance it, how much is allowed each day, etc.
- Each and every day, I carefully recorded everything that I put into my mouth in a food diary. Everything! Every tiny piece of candy or bite of cake. Each evening, I totaled up the food intake, item by item. This is how I learned which foods were fattening versus which weren't. This is also how I learned about portion sizes.
- I had been eating some foods such as white rice simply because the cafeteria at work included them on my plate along with what I'd ordered. I didn't particularly crave them; I just ate them because they were handed to me. When I discovered that these foods were fattening, I simply quit eating them. Why eat something you don't find particularly interesting when avoiding it will help with that weight loss goal?
- My daily food diary demonstrated that I was not getting enough fruits and vegetables in my diet. My program identified certain vegetables as being ones I could eat a lot of without weight gain — carrots, celery, jicama, spaghetti squash, zucchini, lettuce, tomatoes, and bell peppers, to name a few. I started using these foods as evening snacks. I found that carrot and celery sticks taste great dipped in salsa, which is also non-fattening.
Before my weight loss program, I averaged about 3 hours of exercise per week, which really isn't much at all. Through the following activities, I raised it to about 9-10 hours per week:
- I started taking 20-minute walks at lunch time. I set a general goal of doing this every day, but realistically I did it about 3 days a week.
- I attended an hour-long troupe rehearsal one night a week, and taught my own students for 2 hours one night a week. About half the weekends, I also had a Saturday troupe rehearsal. I made a point to keep moving myself in these classes.
- About 2 or 3 days a week, my husband and I would go to the gym together to work out. I'd use the treadmill at running speed for 20 minutes to boost my metabolism, then do other exercises the rest of the time.
- About 3-4 evenings per week, my husband and I would go for a walk to either eat supper at a neighborhood restaurant or even just to get a cup of hot chocolate. These walks were typically no less than 20 minutes each direction (40 minutes per evening total).
As the above points show, belly dancing played a role as one of the forms of exercise that I used in my weight loss efforts, but I also made changes to my eating habits and added other forms of exercise to my lifestyle.
Belly dancing is a form of exercise, which burns 250-300 calories per hour. In contrast, watching television burns 100 calories per hour. When you practice vigorous dance moves to drum solos or fast music continuously for 30 minutes or more at a time every day, this dance form can offer the same health benefits as other types of aerobic exercise. It can strengthen your cardiovascular system, build core strength, ward off osteoporosis, and improve your stamina. Combined with changes to your dietary habits and other possible changes suggested by your doctor, it might indeed help with weight loss.
But remember, if your sole exercise entails attending a single one-hour belly dance class per week, that alone help much with weight loss. You need to do some kind of activity every day, and you need to think about other factors such as your eating habits and other possible issues suggested by your doctor.
Other articles on this web site that you may find helpful include:
See also Shira's Bellydance Plus! web site, which is an entire web site dedicated to the needs of plus-sized dancers.
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