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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Belly Dance for Emotional Healing



Table of Contents





People decide to try Oriental dance (often called belly dancing) for a variety of reasons: seeking new friends, a new hobby, a new way to exercise, a chance to explore their sensuous side, etc. But they often stay for other reasons. And one of the reasons that some people stay with the dance is because it brings them healing. We all occasionally need healing of one kind or another: sometimes it's emotional, sometimes it's physical. Belly dance is a unique pursuit that can promote a healthier mind and body. This 2-part series explores how it has helped some people:

  1. Part 1 of "The Healing Effects of Oriental Dance", explores how the dance form can help eliminate pain, speed recovery from injuries, and contribute to overall physical health.
  2. This article, Part 2, addresses how belly dance can promote emotional healing from such deep-rooted issues as bulimia, breast cancer's psychic scars, and rape or sexual abuse.

It seems obvious, of course: dance is a form of exercise. And health professionals are always telling us that exercise is a Good Thing, for many reasons, both emotional and physical. But sometimes it's not easy to motivate ourselves to do it. And sometimes we're afraid of exercise because we fear it may make our condition worse.

Of course, it is very important to realize that the typical belly dance teacher is not a health care professional! It's very important to seek care from a licensed professional who possesses the training and expertise to assist you with your needs. If you are suffering from a medical condition or mental health concern, you should be very careful in how you select a belly dance teacher, because the wrong teacher might hurt more than she helps, and you should ask your doctor for guidance in how to add this new form of exercise to your life.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision, Glendale, California.




When a Therapist Suggests Exercise...

There's a limit to what psychiatrists and counselors can do when working with patients who have deep emotional issues. Although drug therapy and talk therapy can be very helpful, these professionals are most effective when they can help patients discover inner tools to help heal themselves. Sometimes therapists will suggest dance classes — either for purposes of helping the patient connect socially with other people, or for purposes of the changes exercise can make to brain chemistry. A belly dancing class, on its own, is certainly not a guaranteed therapy for mental health. However, if a qualified therapist recommends exercise as part of one's recovery, then belly dancing may have a role to play.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo of Shira by Kaylyn Hoskins, Solon, Iowa.


Overcoming Isolation

Therapists sometimes encourage their patients to seek out social environments where they can make friends and enjoy regular contact doing something enjoyable with other people. Belly dance classes may fulfill this recommendation.

It's very important to choose a class whose culture is warm and inviting rather than selfish and competitive. Assuming the student can find this fit, the right teacher and class situation can help overcome feelings of isolation and loneliness. By working with the teacher and classmates to create costumes, rehearse for performances, and travel together to out-of-town events, it's possible to form a social circle that can last a lifetime.


Setting & Achieving Goals

The process of learning to belly dance offers an opportunity to set goals and measure progress, which can be helpful to someone who feels that her life is on an aimless path. It provides one small thing that can be controlled while coping with stresses that are outside the person's control. Achieving these goals can be empowering and help with self-image.




Releasing Tension

Movement, particularly if repetitive, can sometimes help release inner tensions. In the book Dancing In the Streets, author Barbara Ehrenreich proposes that the decline of festive ecstatic dancing that occurred in Europe following the Protestant reformation may have contributed to the rise of depression that occurred during the same time period.

Repetitive movements can help participants take their minds out of the cycle of gnawing on their worries, helping them feel oneness with their dance companions. In fact, dervishes from Turkey think of their whirling ritual as representing the "death of the ego", a references to the focus on self.

Many traditional folk dances from throughout Europe and the Middle East involve line or circle dancing with other people. Examples from the Middle East include debke, Turkish line dances, and the Israeli hora. The movements of such dances are repetitive, and can be almost hypnotic when done as a recreational dance rather than as a performance.

In addition, these folk dances usually involve vigorous movement, can be especially valuable for relieving stress as they engage the muscles, increase the heart rate, and promote heavier breathing. Additional dance styles that promote these physical effects could include dancing to drum solos or practicing Saidi style dancing.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision, Glendale, California.

The zar is an ancient ritual from Africa that is used to perform a cathartic sort of emotional healing or "exorcism" on behalf of someone, usually a woman, who has been "possessed" by stress. Although technically forbidden by Islam, it continues to be an essential part of some cultures. It appears mostly in Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, and Ethiopia. In Tunisia, it is called stambali. The musical accompaniment to the zar consists of strong drum rhythms, each being specific to a certain spirit. A critical part of the zar is finding the rhythm required to drive out the particular spirit possessing the individual. Sometimes the zar leader sacrifices a chicken, pigeon, sheep, or other animal as part of the ritual.

Of course, most of us don't have access to zar experts or sacrificial sheep, so we need to seek alternative ways of using movement to heal. Vigorous exercise generally offers value in burning away stress, so why not choose belly dance as that form of exercise?




Looking At the Studies

The body of scientific literature that specifically examines belly dancing is very small. Still, it opens the door to an interesting discourse, and may inspire additional researchers to dig into the subject more in the future.


The Brazilian Study in 2012

A medical study in Brazil was published in Clinical and Experimental Rheumatology in September 2012 which focused on the health benefits belly dancing could offer people with fibromyalgia. One of the results found by researchers was that belly dancing can improve self image in women with fibromyalgia. Researchers studied 80 women. Half attended 1-hour belly dance classes twice a week for 16 weeks, while the other half were the control group. The classes were taught by a physiotherapist with 8 years of experience in belly dance.


PHOTO CREDIT: Photo of Shira by Pixie Vision, Glendale, California.


The Australian Study in 2014

Marika Tiggemann of Flinders University in Australia led a study that was published in the journal Sex Roles, published by Springer Science+Business Media that examined the body image of people who belly dance in their spare time. The study, titled "Belly Dance as an Embodying Activity? A Test of the Embodiment Model of Positive Body Image" asked over 200 Australians to complete questionnaires in which they rated their own bodies, how they think others view their bodies, and what attention they attract from men. Approximately half the participants were belly dancers, and the other half college-aged women.

The results showed that the belly dancers held a more favorable opinion of their own bodies than the college women did, and are more likely to be satisfied with how they look. They showed fewer self-objectifying attitudes. Tiggemann says that belly dancing gives women more sense of ownership over their own bodies.





Real People, Real Benefits

Still, despite the lack of formal research, you generally don't have to look very far to hear anecdotal stories about how specific individuals have found healing through Oriental dance.

Although dance has played a role in helping many people cope with their psychological issues, it is very important to seek the care of a qualified mental health professional as the primary source of healing. Dance teachers can teach dance, and dance has helped some people. However, belly dance classes should not be seen as a substitute for a skilled counselor or psychiatrist.

Below are stories shared with me by real people describing how belly dance has played a role in their own journeys.


Rape & Sexual Abuse

Lucy Lipschitz, whose web site addresses how belly dancing has helped her emotional recovery from rape and threatened murder, reports, "Over the years, as I have danced, I am slowly getting over basic issues about having a woman’s body." She had been stalked by a man who found her "irresistible", and afterward she was shocked to find she wasn't believed because she was a female. The horror of that experience led her to self-destructive behavior such as drugs and illicit sex.

She initially took up belly dancing when still a teen-ager, and at the same time fell into a wild lifestyle. The dance became her passion, her only reason to live. In fact, she made it through some suicidal episodes by clinging to her classes and the occasional performance opportunity. Life then took her in other directions for a time, but 20 years after wandering away from belly dancing, she came back to it. By then, she had managed to overcome her self-destructive lifestyle through the help of a 12-step program, and was successfully embracing a new life of sobriety. The dance taught her to love her body, and helped her understand that every size is a good size. She now reports, "The more I dance, the more centered I am."

Cheryl (not her real name) was sexually abused as a child. She started belly dancing around age 20. Although she started dancing because she loved dancing, she found it helped her recover from the need to hide her body from attack, from the terrible vulnerability she felt whenever she felt at all attractive.



Mary (not her real name) struggled with bulimia for 4 years as a teen-ager. Although she began doing Oriental dance after her recovery, she has found that the dance has helped her maintain her healthy attitude through a number of ways. She found it eye-opening to see many beautiful, full-figured, over-40 women at home in their curvaceous bodies, and realized the media's standard of beauty isn't the only legitimate one. Dance has put her in touch with what her body wants. It also serves as a meditation for her, exorcising the demons and stress of everyday living. The dance has also helped her discover a social network of women who accept different cultures and possess an inner strength. She summarizes what the dance has done for her as follows: "In short, Middle Eastern dance makes me happy. And when I am happy, engaging in self-destructive behavior is the furthest thing from my mind. I am more content with my body image now than I've ever been in my life. Discovering this dance form has been a true blessing."

A video from Filmakers Library titled Belly: Overcoming Bulimia tells the story of Katherine Bruce Laing's struggle with bulimia. Eventually, she joined a belly dancing class and through watching her classmates discovered that even a full-figured body can be beautiful through the sensuous moves of this dance form. While performing for friends and family in her first belly dance recital, she experienced an epiphany and discovered that she could love her own body.


Coping with Breast Cancer

Carol originally started to belly dance just for recreation. Some years later, she suffered botched reconstructive surgery following a mastectomy for breast cancer. She observed, "Dancing for myself only and listening to and really feeling the music made me feel so much a woman again. The rhythm and the movements are so feminine that they couldn't help but help me heal. I was even able to make my now-ex think of me as sexy once again." Then severe injuries from a bad car accident forced three years of surgeries and inactivity on her. She started belly dancing again for exercise and weight loss. Again, it helped her heal. She said, "It is almost inexplicable - unless to others like you who share the joy and love of the dance and music - how it makes you feel a oneness, a wholeness, almost a completeness that is so therapeutic and so self-healing to both the mind and soul, and therefore also the body."

In the Belly Dancer Breast Cancer Survey that she used to have online, Diana DeMille reports that 85% of the respondents said yes to the question, "Do you feel belly dancing is healing?" One of the people who responded said, "Belly dancing restores physical, emotional and spiritual health to the cancer survivor. It has great exercise value, gets those 'feel good' endomorphines stirring, enhances the results of the range of motion exercises. It helps you feel better about yourself. In most cases it brings you a special bond with other dancers whether they are cancer survivors or not. And it expresses your joy, gratefulness and celebration that you are alive!"


Inner Strength for Physical Recovery

Natasya suffered a horrible back injury at work. She used yoga to regain her range of motion, but it was her love of dance that gave her a reason to work toward a full recovery. Sometimes she would even lie flat on her back on the floor and practice finger cymbals! Despite her doctor's predictions, she recovered to the point where once again she can perform professionally.

Before Dunya's whiplash injury, she was very athletic. In addition to dancing, she worked out at the gym 4-5 times per week. The injury robbed her of these activities that were an important part of her life. She was still able to play Middle Eastern music with her band, but her activity level was curtailed. A few weeks later, her band played for a troupe performance, then moved on to music for everyone to get up and dance. Dunya reports, "I slipped onto the floor to move a bit, and found myself surrounded by beautiful, undulating women with soft smiles and shining eyes. They were obviously sending me their love and support for my healing. I was very touched by the experience, and I will always remember the fantastic feeling of being in the center of that circle of dancers."



Gamila in Brazil says, "Last year I was very depressed, went to the hospital, had to take medicines, but dancing was the main thing that made me become healthy again."

Scylla from Oregon emerged from childhood with such low self-esteem that she avoided most social interactions. Eventually depression led her to the brink of suicide. One evening, while doing ceramics at a local art center, she heard wonderful music coming from elsewhere in the building and followed the sound. Upon finding the belly dancing class in progress, she was enthralled by the music, the costumes, and the personalities of the three teachers, all named Judy.

Scylla recalled, "The dance class helped me to explore physically the places in myself my psychologist (another wonderful woman) led me to explore emotionally. In therapy I was learning that I had to love myself, and to listen to my own needs and feelings and value them. In trying to dance I discovered I did not love myself, and much of my pain came from my own anger towards, and dislike for, myself. Slowly, painfully I began to enjoy moving to the music. I allowed myself to move and discovered I could like my body in movement; that it was strong and limber and could "fly" when I did not freeze up with rejection of self. The dance was a place where I had no history to haunt me. It was entirely new, and gave me a chance at beginning all over again to grow up and explore and learn who I was; just like a child just starting out. Dance is a gift that I received from from three women which literally saved my life." For Scylla, the "three Judys" brought to mind the triple goddess of ancient tradition who presided over her initiation into a new and joyous life.


Maintaining Well-Being

Mishaal, a dancer in Japan, reports, "I certainly feel that dancing contributes to my physical, psychological, and spiritual health. At times it's been for healing, but mostly I think of it more as ongoing preventive health care. I can say for certain, when I don't take some time away for myself to dance, I do start to feel sick. I don't mean performing, or even 'practicing'. I mean taking a little time each day to dance for 'me'. It's not that I do it 'for my health', but because it does feel so good! When I'm in need of answers, psychological or spiritual, I dance, and I feel the healthy answers come to me from, I can say, a higher source."



How to Try It for Yourself

First, please remember that belly dancing is not a sufficient substitute for getting professional help from a licensed counselor or psychiatrist! If you have deep issues, please, please seek appropriate assistance from these trained health care professionals!

Assuming you're already under the care of a competent health care professional, here are some suggestions on how to get started exploring whether belly dancing can be helpful to your own journey to emotional health:

  • Find A Dance Teacher. Dance teachers are like the population as a whole. Some are warm and caring. Others are selfish and spiteful. Some are aware of the importance of dance technique in avoiding physical injury, while others are clueless. A good teacher can help you achieve your goals. A poor one might do more harm than good. See below for suggestions on how to choose the right teacher for you.
  • Videos Are Not Enough. Many people first try learning from video. Although there are some quality videos out there, they can't take the place of a safe, well-run classroom environment. Part of the healing experience can come from interacting with classmates: seeing people of all ages, shapes, and sizes beautifully interpreting the dance, and forming new friendships with them. Getting to know your classmates can expand your support network of people who encourage you on your healing journey.
  • Find Out Whether There Is A Dance Therapist In Your Community. Dance therapists do not teach belly dancing technique, so they won't teach you the wonderful trademark shimmies, undulations, and hip articulations that you'll get in a belly dance class. But let's assume you've already enrolled in a belly dance class and now you'd like to explore the healing power of dance in more depth. A licensed dance therapist will help guide you in using your movement vocabulary to release your emotional pain and tap your inner strength.
  • Get To Know Your Teacher and Classmates. It will be easier to stay with your classes if you start forming friendships with the teacher and other students. You'll look forward to the time you spend with them. It's also possible that some of them will have insights on how dance has helped them heal, and you may be able to learn from their experiences.

PHOTO CREDIT: The above right photo was by Pixie Vision Productions, Glendale, California.



Choosing the Right Teacher

As noted above, the right teacher can help you reach your goals, while the wrong one can make things even worse for you. It is essential to choose carefully when you pick a teacher. Here are some ideas on how to choose.

If you have an acquaintance who dances, ask whether s/he can recommend a teacher who provides a loving, supportive environment. Otherwise, you'll need to find out who teaches in your community. An article here on this web site How To Find A Belly Dancing Class In Your Community may help you find a local class.

Before settling in long-term with a particular teacher, try a sample class or two. Note how the teacher behaves in class. A good teacher will:

  • Make you feel good about yourself, and good about being there.
  • Focus on the needs of the students, not on showing off how wonderful she is.
  • Praise students when appropriate.
  • Foster an environment of encouragement and cooperation, not gossip or competition.
  • Make everyone feel welcome, regardless of age, body shape, etc.
  • Behave in a way that is emotionally mature.

If emotional healing is your goal, stay away from teachers who say catty or gossipy things about other dancers. Such teachers often don't provide a wholesome emotional environment in their classes.

Lucy Lipschitz advises, "Rejoice in your life!! That is the most important. Your life is your victory! Next, follow your heart, go where you feel welcome, leave when you don't feel honored. This includes dance class, other dancers, troupe dancing, whatever. If you feel it is a toxic situation, leave it. Look for other venues. And don't be afraid to use as many avenues as possible to heal."

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by William M. Smith, Iowa City, Iowa.

If you can't find a local teacher who suits the above criteria, you can still start learning to dance through video and other resources. The article What If There's No Local Teacher Or You Need More Than Your Local Teacher Can Give? offers suggestions on how to proceed.




Related Articles

Here On


On Other Web Sites

  • Survivors Of Rape And Sexual Abuse. Lucy Lipschitz, a survivor of rape, tells her own story of healing through dance, and encourages her visitors to share their own stories.
  • Creating Inner Peace With Oriental Dance. This article on the Magical Motion web site offers reflections by Atea, producer of the Magical Motion video series, on using dance to create a healthy body and harmonizing the emotions.
  • The Goddess Is Dancing. In this article on the Magical Motion web site, Christina Sophia discusses how the creative process of Oriental dance can help heal the physical, mental, emotional and psychic wounding experienced by women over the past several centuries.



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