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

Dear Shira

Shira

Dear Shira:

How Can I Learn to Do a Backbend?

 

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The Question

Dear Shira:

First I'd like to say "THANK YOU!" I adore your website and I truly appreciate all the work you put into it.

For about a year now I've been attempting to deepen my backbends, and I've seen very little improvement. I've been working with several yoga poses, and when I feel warmed-up I attempt a backbend; however my torso is far from horizontal. Your help would be greatly appreciated.

--Backbends or Bust!

Shira Doing a Kneeling Backbend

Photo by John Rickman, San Jose, California.

and

Dear Shira:

I have tried unsuccessfully to do back-bends on the floor to no avail. I also have not been able to find a video instruction for doing them. I can only go back so far then the front muscles of my upper legs pull like huge ropes. I should mention that I weight train and have done so for 3 years, therefore the muscles are highly developed and won't strentch much more. Any advice? Thanks.

--Buff but no Backbends

Shira Doing a Standing Backbend

Photo by Bill Corwin, San Jose, California.

 

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Shira Responds

Dear B-or-B and B-B-N-B,

What a great question! And thank you for your comments about my web site!

This is an oversimplification, but there are two types of backbends frequently used in belly dancing:

  1. Kneeling Backbend. Begins in a kneeling position. This type is sometimes called a Turkish fold. It is also the ending position for a Turkish drop.
  2. Standing Backbend. Begins in a standing position. This type is particularly common in the tribal fusion style of belly dance. Often, dancers will do a standing drop from this position into a kneeling backbend.

Many of the same muscles are used in both types of backbends, so no matter which type you'd like to learn, the instructions here should bring you closer to your goal.

 

Are You A Good Candidate to Learn Backbends?

Consider these questions:

  1. Do you have enough patience to do daily strengthening and stretching exercises over a period of several weeks?
  2. Do you have enough discipline and commitment to set a goal and then do the work needed to achieve it?

If you can answer "yes" to the above questions, then you may be a good candidate for backbends.

Now consider these questions:

  1. Have you ever had spinal surgery such as insertion of a rod, fusion of vertebrae, removal of ruptured discs, or other such issue?
  2. Do you have a history of knee, ankle, or foot problems?
  3. Are you currently pregnant?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then you might not be a suitable candidate for backbends. Check with a qualified health professional to find out what kind of activity is safe for you.

Buff, the reason you are having difficulty with backbends is that you're failing to cross-train with stretches to promote flexibility. Even couch potatoes feel a pulling sensation in their thighs when first learning backbends. With the right stretches, however, you too should be able to do backbends. I encourage you to try my suggestions in this article and see whether you are able to achieve some level of backbend.

When I first started out as a belly dancer, I couldn't do these backbends. But with the help of certain exercises, and helpful guidance from Farouche (one of my teachers), I eventually learned it and I'm sure you can too.

 

Assemble Your Supplies

Any job is easier if you have the right equipment, and the same is true for exercise. For learning backbends, I recommend:

  • Kneepads. You'll definitely want to wear these while practicing kneeling backbends, especially at first when you're new to it. I've even known some dancers to wear kneepads for performances, hidden discreetly under opaque pants.
  • Some kind of padding on the tops of your feet. Kneeling backbends place pressure on the tops of your feet as you lean back, and can press them hard against the floor under you.
  • Padding underneath you. Kneeling backbends are easier to practice if you do them on a padded exercise mat, a carpeted floor, or a folded towel.
  • Legwarmers large enough to fit over your thighs. These are helpful for both kneeling and standing backbends. It's ideal if you can find some that go almost all the way up to your crotch. You probably won't find them at stores specializing in aerobics supplies. Try stores that cater to ballet dancers.

 

Dance Conditioning

The term "conditioning" refers to doing exercises that build strength, flexibility, and control in the muscles needed for dancing. Ballet dancers use a variety of barre exercises to conditioning their bodies for their dance form, and similarly there are exercises that you can do to condition your body for belly dance moves such as backbends.

Start your workout with a good warm-up by either walking briskly or dancing for 5-10 minutes. Pick medium-speed music and do a variety of shimmies, traveling steps, and hip articulations. This will stimulate circulation throughout your body, and prepare your muscles for the workout to come.

Many people mistakenly believe that learning how to arch your back is the only thing you need to know for doing backbends, and then they're surprised when they work on that but still can't do them. The muscles you need to tone and sculpt include:

  • Thigh muscles. These will be stretched as you lean back, so you'll need to develop flexibility in them. They will also need strength, to support the weight of your body as you hold the backbend, and that strength is crucial to bringing you back upright afterward.
  • Abdominal muscles. Along with your thighs, the abdominal muscles are key. They stretch as you lean back and offer control. When you're ready to return to the upright position, these muscles need to be strong in order to bring you back..
  • Back muscles. You'll need to develop the flexibility and control to arch your back. Your back muscles help draw your body slowly backward, supporting you along the way.
  • Buns. Your gluteus maximus muscles support your back, help your balance, and provide stability as you lean back.
  • Ilio-psoas. Tight hip flexors can restrict how far back you are able to bend. People who spend a large amount of time at a desk job, behind the wheel of a car, or otherwise sitting often are tight here. Stretches will help these muscles develop the necessary flexibility to lean back.
  • Pelvic floor. A strong pelvic floor is important for good health for many reasons. It also brings strength and stability to your backbends, supporting your back muscles.
  • Pectoral muscles. Many belly dancers don't realize that a great backbend begins with the upper body. The pectoral muscles need to be flexible enough to stretch as you lean back in the upper body.

Start With Your Thighs

Whether you aim to learn standing backbends or kneeling backbends, you need to start with developing strength and flexibility in your quadriceps muscles, which are in the front of your thighs. These muscles play a major role in bringing you back upright after your backbend.

Exercise #1: The Lean-Back

To develop good thigh muscles, kneel upright as shown in the drawing to the right. From this position, slowly lean back just a little from the knees, with your thighs, torso, and head continuing to make a straight line. You don't have to lean back very far--just 6 inches (about 15 cm) should do. Hold that pose as long as you possibly can. When you feel a burning in your thighs and can't hold it any longer, return to the upright position. Relax a moment, then try again. Repeat this exercise a couple of times a day, every day to build strength in the thighs.

Exercise #2: Dance While Kneeling!

Kneel as shown in the drawing to the right, then practice hip dance moves in that position. Do hip slides, hip circles, hip bumps, hip drops, and hip figure 8's.

Kneeling

Exercise #3: Leg Extension Machine

If you belong to a gym, spend some time doing repetitions on the Leg Extension weight machine. On this machine, you sit upright and place your ankles underneath a weight. Then you raise your legs upward to straighten them. This exercise is excellent for strengthening your thighs. Ask the gym's staff to teach you to use this machine.

Exercise #4: Stretching The Thigh and the Ilio Psoas

Stand with your feet about shoulder width apart, toes pointing straight forward. With all your weight on your left foot, slide the ball of your right foot straight back behind you as far as it will go. Your left knee should remain at a 90-degree angle. If needed for balance, place your hands on the floor to steady yourself. Keep a straight line with your right leg, the knee off the floor and the foot on the ball. In this position, reach toward the floor with the right-hand side of your pelvis. Feel the stretch in your thigh. Hold for 30-60 seconds.

Next, allow your right knee to come down to the floor and your right shin to lie on the floor. Once again, reach toward the floor with the right-hand side of your pelvis and feel a different stretch in your thigh. Hold for 30-60 seconds.

Finally, reach behind you with your right hand, grasp your right foot, and raise the foot off the floor as high as you can. Hold for 30-60 seconds. You will really feel a stretch in your thigh with this exercise!

Repeat all of this on the other side. Then do the entire exercise on both sides a few more times.

Exercise #5: Yoga Poses That Can Help, Hero Pose and Reclining Hero Pose

If you have access to a certified yoga instructor, ask that person to coach you in learning these poses:

  • Hero pose
  • Reclining hero pose

I don't recommend trying these on your own - they can put stress on the knees and it's important to work with someone who can help you use yoga blocks and modifications to help your body build the flexibility to do them. For example, such an instructor might at first have you sit on a yoga block until you can do hero pose comfortably without it, then remove the block and do that way. The same would apply to reclining hero - perhaps initially doing it with a block under the hips, then eventually removing the block after a few weeks. In selecting a yoga instructor to work with, it is important to choose someone with a certification specifically in yoga based on 200 hours or more of training from Yoga Alliance or a similar organization. Be wary of working with someone whose certification is in group fitness, with only a weekend workshop of yoga training.

 

Abdominal Muscles

Abdominal muscles are very, very important to supporting you as you lean back, and pulling you back to an upright position after the backbend. It is crucial to develop both strength and flexibility in these muscles.

Exercise #6: Build Those Abdominal Muscles

To develop your abdominal muscles, use the classic gym exercise of crunches. These are the modern-day fitness replacement for sit-ups. If you don't know how to do crunches, ask a friend who is knowledgeable about fitness programs to show you.

Additional Abdominal Exercises: Learn To Do Stomach Rolls & Flutters

You can also practice stomach rolls and flutters to build abdominal strength. In another "Dear Shira" article, I've offered advice on how to do this, along with several exercises that will not only help you learn rolls and flutters, but will also help develop the strength and control you need for backbends.

 

Flexible Spine, Stretch in the Abs

Exercise #7: More Yoga, The Cobra

This is a yoga exercise for developing flexibility in the back. Lie flat on your stomach on the floor, body and legs fully extended, arms at your sides. Draw your hands up to just below your shoulders, and slowly straighten your elbows, raising your head and upper torso off the ground. Keep your groin pressed to the floor the whole time. Straighten your elbows as much as you can without letting your groin rise off the floor. Hold this position, then slowly lower yourself back to your stomach. Repeat a few times.

If you have difficulty working your way into the full cobra pose at first, try the yoga pose called the sphinx. It is a less extreme version of the stretch. Once you can comfortably do the sphinx pose with confidence, then you can work your way up to the cobra.

 

Buns, Buttocks, Gluteus Maximus

Strong glutes will support you while you are in the backbend. The gluteus maximus muscles are some of the largest muscles in your body. People often call them glutes, butt cheeks, buttocks, or buns. The German term is Popo.

Exercise #8: Pelvic Thrusts

Thrust your pelvis forward, then relax it to neutral position, then thrust forward again. Repeat a few times. As you do this, pay attention to your glute muscles. Notice how they clench as you thrust forward, notice how they relax as you allow the pelvis to return to the neutral position. Do this enough times to become very familiar with how these muscles feel as you clench, relax, clench, relax.

Exercise #9: Hip Bumps

Allow your knees to be soft and flexible, not locked. Now that you know what your glutes feel like when you clench them, it's time to learn how to do one at a time. Clench just one, while leaving the other relaxed. You'll notice that the hip on the clenching side lifts up and out slightly to one side. Now relax that hip and make sure your knees are still both soft and flexible. Also make sure you have allowed your anus to relax. Next, clench the glute on the other side, allowing your hip on that side to lift and bump out to the side slightly, then relax it. Again, make sure the anus relaxes too. Do several repetitions of this exercise regularly to build strength and control.

 

Working All The Muscles Together

Exercise #10: Thigh Control, Back Flexibility, & Balance

You'll also want to build strength and flexibility in your back muscles. Here's an exercise I learned from my teacher Luceen that I found was very helpful in building my backbend ability.

From a standing position, stand with your feet widely apart in a straddle stance, bend forward, and touch the floor in front of you with your hands. If possible, place your palms on the floor and bend your elbows as much as you can to get a good stretch in your back. If you're not flexible enough to put your palms on the floor, go as far as you can and make it your goal to expand your range of motion. Hold this position for about 30 seconds or a little more, then gently roll up through your spine into a standing position.

Now, still holding your feet apart in the straddle position, bend backward as follows:

  • Engage your abs.
  • Produce most of the effort coming from your knees and thighs.
  • Clench both buttocks for stability.
  • Touch your fingers of one hand to the floor behind you while holding your other hand outstretched in front of you for balance. If you can't quite reach the floor, go as far as you can for now and make it a goal to aim for over time. Hold this position for as long as you can.

Return to a standing position with feet still apart by using your abdominal muscles, pelvic floor, and thigh muscles to bring you back up. Once again place your palms on the floor in front of you. When done, roll up through your spine. Now bend backward and touch your other hand to the floor behind you.

Repeat this sequence several times in your workout, every day.

Exercise 11: Another Useful Yoga Pose, The Camel

There is a yoga pose called the camel which can be useful in conditioning the muscles you'll need for backbends. As with the hero pose mentioned above, I don't recommend trying this one without the help of a yoga teacher who possesses a yoga-specific certification based on 200 hours or more of study from an organization such as Yoga Alliance. There are several techniques used by experienced yoga instructors to help you achieve the strength and range of motion in gradual steps, such as using a partner at first.

In doing this pose successfully, you will need to:

  • Engage the abdominal muscles
  • Clench the glutes
  • Engage your pelvic floor muscles (Kegel muscle, anus)
  • Allow your abdomen, your ilio psoas, and your chest to stretch
  • Control your head, easing it back instead of letting it flop

This pose promotes spine flexibility, stretch in the quads (thighs), stretch in the hip flexors (ilio psoas muscles), strength and stretch in the abs, strength in the glutes, and strength/control in the pelvic floor.

 

Next, Start Learning The Backbend Itself

After starting your workout with all the muscle-strengthening and flexibility exercises I described above, you're ready to start working on your backbend.

  • Kneel or stand with your body upright.
  • Now, do something that may feel counter-intuitive to you: pretend a puppet string is attached to your chest at the sternum (breastbone), and lift your chest high. Doing this will help avoid injury, so don't skip this step!
  • Starting with your upper back, near the shoulders, slowly start to lean back.
  • If you are kneeling, try to get far enough back to brace your hands on the floor behind you.
  • Proceed gently.
  • Pay attention to the response in your thighs.
  • When you've reached your limit, hold that position as long as you can. A good goal would be to hold it for 60 seconds.
  • Then use your abdominal muscles to help you return to the upright position.
  • Repeat several times.

As you become more experienced with this, quit bracing your hands behind you (if you've been doing the kneeling style of backbend) and instead hold your hands in front of your chest for balance as shown in the photo above. Also, if you're not balancing anything on your head, work on arching your back as you lean back so that your head touches the mat before your shoulders and buttocks.

Don't be discouraged if you can't go very far at first. Just take it as far as you can, work on all these exercises daily, and eventually your muscles will adapt.

Shira Doing a Kneeling Backbend

Photo by John Rickman, San Jose, California.

 

If You're Sore Afterward

If you find that your thigh muscles are stiff and sore after one of these workouts, take a nice hot bath or shower to ease them and keep them warm. If you have access to a hot tub, use it! Snuggling under a warm blanket or using a heating pad is also helpful. Of course, a massage targeting the sore muscles is also wonderful therapy.

However, if you feel pain in your knee joints or spine after one of these workouts, that's a sign that you're putting your knees or spine at risk. If that happens, you should reduce the number and duration of actual backbend attempts in your workouts.

It may be a good idea to consult a medical professional for advice on whether to continue. The knee or spine pain may be a sign that you need to stop learning backbends altogether - they look great, but your long-term health is more important! Some people are not good candidates to do them due to health issues.

Shira Doing a Kneeling Backbend

Photo by John Rickman, San Jose, California.

 

Once You Know How, Then What?

Make Sure Your Backbends Are Tasteful

Wear pants whenever you plan to perform backbends in public. Or, wear either pants or leggings under your skirt. It's okay if the pants have slits to show off your shapely legs. A skirt can easily drape in a way that would be indelicate if you didn't have pants on. So wear those paints to maintain the "suitable for the whole family" image that most belly dancers in the U.S. strive to portray.

Whenever you perform a backbend in a show, avoid pointing your knees directly at any audience members. Before descending into your backbend, choose a suitable angle. Giving the audience a straight-on view of your crotch is not the most ladylike pose, if you know what I mean. The men in the audience who thrive on sexual fantasies about belly dancers would probably enjoy it, but more family-oriented audience members may be uncomfortable or even offended. It's okay to point your knees toward the band - they've seen everything!

Do Maintenance Exercising

Once you can do backbends like the ones in the photos on this page, continue your daily workouts to stay in practice. When preparing for a performance, use the exercises described above to warm up your muscles before your show begins.

I have discovered that my knee joints are just fine as long as I do the exercises regularly, take my dietary supplements, and warm up properly before I dance. However, if I slack off on these important maintenance activities, my knees do hurt after I've performed a backbend in a show.

 

Have Fun!

I love doing backbends myself, especially with a sword on my head (as you might have guessed from the photos). Audiences are always impressed by the strength and flexibility backbends require. It takes work and dedication to learn them, but for me, they were worth it!

 

Did You Enjoy This Lesson?

If you enjoyed this lesson in dance technique, please consider asking dancers in your city who sponsor events to bring me to your town for a full-length dance workshop!

 

--Shira

 

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About this Column

Shira has received many questions from readers over the years related to various aspects of the dance. In this column, she picks some of the more interesting ones to answer publicly. Details contained in the questions are sometimes removed or disguised to protect the anonymity of the person who asked the question.

 

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