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

Belly Dance for Healing the Body



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. This article, 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. Part 2 addresses how Oriental 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. 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! If you have a medical condition or mental health challenge, you should be very careful in how you select a belly dance teacher, and you should ask your doctor for guidance in how to add this new form of exercise to your life.

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




How Belly Dance Helps

The Israeli Study in 2011

In 2011, Clalit Health Services in Israel published a study in the Israeli Journal of Family Practice which looked at the health benefits to women of belly dancing. Directed by Dr. Clara Friedman at the Lichtenstein clinic in Kfar Saba, the study covered 129 participants whose average age was 49, who danced for 2 hours a week. The teacher was a female doctor who herself studied belly dance. At the beginning of the year-long program, participants underwent a general health assessment, rating their health on a scale of 1-10. A follow-up assessment was done at the end of the study.

According to this study:

  1. Participants decreased the frequency of going to see their family doctors. Before belly dance, half had gone to see their doctors about 4 times a year. After a year of dancing, 92% saw their family doctors only twice a year.
  2. Assessment of general health on the scale of 1 to 10 rose by an average of 5.54, for an average total of 9.09 out of 10.
  3. About 70% of participants experienced a small amount of weight loss. Average body mass index dropped from 25.34 (which is in the "overweight" category) to 24.65 (just below "overweight"). At the start of the study, the average participant weight was 151.5 pounds (68.7 kilos), and at the end of the study the average participant weight was 147.4 pounds (66.84 kilos).

The researchers concluded, "According to the researchers, belly dancing is “a safe and pleasant form of physical exercise that has a positive effect on both physical and mental health."

More information on this study can be found at these links:

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


As Gentle Aerobic Exercise

The great thing about belly dance is that it is body-friendly. Unlike some other dance forms, pure Oriental dance does not require leaping, hyperextension of joints, or abrupt movements. Admittedly, there are some artists who have incorporated ideas from ballet, modern dance, hiphop, or other forms into their own interpretation of belly dancing to create a type of fusion, but at its heart Oriental dance uses gentle, natural movement. Like most forms of aerobic exercise, dance can promote good health in the following ways:

  • Better Circulation. When you exercise, your muscles need more oxygen, and your circulatory system works to bring it to them. That's why your heart beats faster and you start to pant. The increased blood flow throughout your body cleanses your cells of toxins, delivers life-giving oxygen to your cells, and speeds up your metabolism promoting healthy weight loss.
  • Reduced Blood Pressure. Studies have shown that exercise is a useful treatment for high blood pressure. Exercise also reduces stress, which is one of the causes of high blood pressure.
  • Joint and Muscle Health. Exercise encourages your joints to remain mobile, and feeds them with the natural lubrications of your body. Exercise also promotes continued muscle strength and mobility. When you sit still all day at work, followed by sitting in front of the television at night, your body is no longer promoting this natural process, and you can start to lose your mobility. The concept is similar to that of a machine that can seize up if it is left standing still for a long time. This can lead to pain and a feeling of stiffness.
  • Bone Strength. Women in particular are urged to pursue regular weight-bearing exercise to build strong bone density, reducing the risk of osteoporosis.
  • Burning Calories. Burning calories helps maintain a healthy weight, which in turn helps helps avoid developing Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other illnesses related to obesity. Belly dancing burns 250-300 calories per hour. In contrast, watching television burns 100.



Conditions and Solutions



A medical study in Brazil was published in Clinical and Experimental Rheumatology in September 2012 which concluded that belly dancing can reduce pain, aid in sleep, and 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. Researchers concluded, "[Belly dancing is] a safe, effective therapeutic strategy for women with fibromyalgia."


Preventing Dementia

On June 19, 2003, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study by Dr. Joe Verghese titled "Leisure Activities and the Risk of Dementia in the Elderly" that showed that leisure activities could potentially play in preventing dementia in the elderly. Some of the leisure activities that appeared to help were "thinky" in nature - reading, playing board games, and playing musical instruments. Only one physical activity showed potential to protect against dementia, and that was dancing.

Dr. Verghese's study employed ballroom dancing rather than belly dancing. According to a WebMD article about his findings, he identified three possible ways that ballroom dancing helps the brain:

  1. Increased blood flow to the brain from the physical exercise
  2. Less stress, depression, and loneliness from dancing's social aspect
  3. Mental challenges (memorizing steps, working with your partner)

If we compare these characteristics of ballroom dancing to belly dancing, it seems reasonable to conjecture that belly dancing could also help. The physical exercise of belly dancing would help drive blood flow to the brain. Our belly dance community offers many social activities enabling students to make friends with other troupe members and other dancers in the area at dance festivals, workshops, performer showcases, dance parties, and other events. And our dance certainly can pose mental challenges, with memorizing choreography, maintaining formations in ensemble pieces, and improvising.


Helping Prevent & Heal from Breast Cancer?

In July, 1997, the Harvard Health Letter reported a study in Norway which concluded that women who exercise at least 4 hours per week are 37% less likely to develop breast cancer than those who don't exercise. The higher the amount of exercise, the lower the likelihood of cancer. The study doesn't address whether exercising after a diagnosis can lead to speedier healing.

Doctors have known for some time that exercise reduces the levels in the body of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone, which is why young girls who are top competitors in gymnastics, ice skating, and other sports often experience delayed onset of puberty. Cancer researchers know that certain forms of breast cancer feed off of these same hormones. Regular exercise, which could take the form of belly dancing, can help the body regulate the levels of these hormones.

Following mastectomy, women have difficulty raising their arms because of the damage the surgery causes to the skin and muscle in the chest and armpit area. Physical therapists work with patients to do exercises for restoring range of motion to this area. But once the woman leaves the therapist's office, then what? One option could be to adapt belly dance arm movements to explore the same range of motion as the therapy when practicing at home. This offers an opportunity to explore gradually increasing range of motion, with the bonus of enhancing graceful arm technique when dancing.

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



Scoliosis & Other Back Issues

Scoliosis is the medical name for curvature of the spine. Different people have differing levels of curvature, and in different parts of the back. One example is shown to the right.

Scoliosis can lead to back pain in some people, because the back muscles are pulled into positions they were never intended to occupy, and they hold tension rather than finding their ease. Muscle spasms can form.

Exercise is one of the treatments that doctors recommend for scoliosis and some other sources of back pain to keep the back muscles supple and flexible. Belly dancing is a form of exercise that is particularly helpful for back health, because it employs muscles throughout the entire back. Hip work exercises the muscles of the lower back, while arm movements exercise muscles in the upper back. This exercise can be very beneficial in people with scoliosis.

Ever since an accident in her mid-teens, Karen has had back problems. The doctors treated it by recommending bed rest, which occurred for 1-2 weeks every year. She tried swimming, but that didn't work because her scoliosis caused her to do the moves improperly, and sometimes led to straining something else. In her late 40's, she tried belly dancing, and discovered it helped! The hip circles and shimmies seemed to relieve pain, even during an attack. As an additional benefit, dancing also relieved menstrual cramps which often occurred simultaneously with the disk pain. It took about 2 years before she became comfortable enough with doing the moves to relax and enjoy the dance. Now, when her back starts to hurt, she turns on the music!

PHOTO CREDIT: X-ray by Dr. Mark Gray of Bell Plaza Chiropractic, Sunnyvale, California. Photograph of the x-ray by Pixie Vision Productions, Glendale, California.


In 1975, I discovered I had scoliosis when being treated for a back injury suffered in a rollover car accident. Doctors believed (and I agree) that the scoliosis was already there before the accident. My upper back has a 26-degree curve, and my lower back has a 40-degree curve. The X-ray above was taken of my back in 2000.

Over the years, I've experienced a great deal of back pain, particularly in the area injured by the car accident. My job, which involves spending several hours per day looking at a computer screen, creates additional risk of pain for my back.

I usually dance 2-3 times per week, either in rehearsals, teaching my dance class, or performing. I've learned over the years that dancing frequently is the best thing I can do for my back health. I've noticed that if I go for several weeks without dancing, I develop back pain, but as long as I dance regularly, I manage to stay reasonably pain-free.

I also discovered that rib cage circles were particularly helpful for relieving my back pain, considering the location and shape of the curves in my back. Different dance moves might be more useful for other people, since there are many variations in location and degree of curvature.

When I went to a chiropractor for some upper back issues unrelated to my scoliosis, he took me through a series of range-of-motion tests for my back. He was very surprised to discover that I was able to move my back freely and fluidly. He was accustomed to seeing people with scoliosis at my age who had difficulty moving, with a great deal of stiffness in their backs. When I told him that I belly dance, he smiled and said that explained my freedom of movement! He emphasized that dancing regularly is a very beneficial for my back, and he encouraged me to do so for the rest of my life.

Hover your mouse over the photo on the right to see it without the x-ray, or click on it to see more detail. (Note: I'm doing a hip slide in this photo, so my hips are to the left of center. I allowed for this in positioning the x-ray.)

PHOTO CREDIT: X-ray by Dr. Mark Gray of Bell Plaza Chiropractic, Sunnyvale, California. Photograph of x-ray by Pixie Vision Productions, Glendale, California.

Scoliosis, Seen from the Back



High Blood Pressure

Medical studies have found that exercise helps control high blood pressure. Regular physical activity, which can include belly dancing, makes the heart stronger. A stronger heart can pump more blood with less effort. This reduced effort places less pressure on the arteries, and therefore results in lower blood pressure.

One of my students reported that her doctor had ordered her to take up some form of exercise, so she signed up for my belly dancing class. In just 4 weeks, her blood pressure had dropped significantly and her doctor had praised her progress. She hadn't made any other changes (medication or otherwise) during that time - she simply added my dance class to her lifestyle.


Hip Prosthesis

Doctors often urge patients recovering from broken hips to engage in weight-bearing exercises to speed recovery. For most people, this means walking. But Eva from Brazil decided to try something else! In 1998 she fell and broke the bone that joins the hip to the femur. After several surgeries, her doctors determined she needed a hip prosthesis. With permission from her doctors, she decided to enroll in a belly dancing class. After only a month of belly dancing, she was walking normally!


Rickets and Failed Surgery

Daniela in Australia was born with rickets, a condition in which the bones don't contain enough calcium. Doctors told her she couldn't pursue her dream of becoming a dancer because it could harm her ankles and hip joints. Between the medical condition and the results of a failed surgery, her mobility was limited and she endured stiffness in her joints. When a cousin suggested belly dancing, she decided to give it a try. Her doctors feared it would lead to pain in her legs, and advised her against it. However, the dancing has never led to any pain, and it in fact has actually improved the flexibility in her hip.



Movements to Avoid

The most important rule: if your doctor advises you to avoid doing a certain dance move, then you should follow that advice.

Beyond that, there are a few movements to avoid if you have a medical condition that limits your movement today:

  • Backbends and Turkish Drops. Don't do these if you have a history of weakness or injury in either the knees or lower back.
  • Hair Tosses. Certain Persian Gulf dances, as well as the zar, incorporate head movements that toss the hair from side to side. Don't do these if you have a history of whiplash or other neck injury.
  • Floor Work In General. This can be very risky for people with a history of knee problems.

For more information, see the article Avoiding Injury from Belly Dance elsewhere on this web site.

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




How to Try It For Yourself

Would you like to explore healing through dance yourself? Here are some suggestions on how to get started:

  • Talk To Your Health Care Provider. First, ask your doctor or other health care provider whether there are any medical reasons you should not pursue dance at this time. This is particularly important if you plan to use dance as part of recovering from injury, surgery, or other physical condition. Find out whether your doctor believes belly dancing is safe for your particular situation.
  • Find A Knowledgeable Dance Teacher. Some dance teachers 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.
  • 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.



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. Here are some ideas on how to choose. If you have an acquaintance who dances, ask whether s/he can recommend a knowledgeable teacher who focuses on proper technique for exercise safety. Otherwise, if you need to hunt for a teacher, see the article titled How To Find A Belly Dancing Class In Your Community. 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:

  • Focus on the needs of the students, not on showing off how wonderful she is.
  • Discuss and demonstrate correct posture.
  • In a helpful tone of voice, offer correction on posture and technique with an explanation of why the correction is important.
  • Provide instruction that agrees with the advice I provided in Avoiding Injury From Belly Dance. If the teacher disagrees with what that article says, ask a qualified health care provider whether that teacher's instructions are safe for you to follow!
  • Praise students when appropriate.
  • Make everyone feel welcome, even if they have physical limitations.
  • Support you in modifying moves when your body's limitations prevent you from doing them exactly as taught.

Remember that your belly dance teacher is not a health care professional.

If physical healing is your goal, be wary of teachers who never talk about correct posture or technique. 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.

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




Related Articles

Other articles here on related to this topic include:

Avoiding Injury from Belly Dance. By Shira.


Articles on other people's web sites related to this topic include:

  • Salubrity. This article from the Belly Dancing For Older Women web site talks about how belly dancing helps promote more healthy muscles, internal organs, and flexibility.
  • The Goddess Is Dancing. 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.
  • Dancing For Health. This article on Columbia University's web site talks about the physical health benefits that dancing in general (not just Oriental dance) has to offer.
  • Bellydancing? Absolutely! Lady Barbara talks in a series of articles about her experience in using belly dancing to get back into shape after recovering from a bout with Lyme disease.



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