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

Dear Shira


Dear Shira:

Belly Rolls: How Do I Get Them to Work?



The Question

Dear Shira:

I've been learning for about two years now and the only thing I just can't seem to get the hang of so far is belly rolls. Any advice for me?

--Desperate Down Under


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




Shira Responds

Dear Desperate:

When I was new to belly dancing, I too had trouble getting belly rolls to work! Now I can do them and walk and talk at the same time with a sword on my head! Here are the things that helped me master them — maybe one of these exercises will help you.

The reasons people have difficulty learning rolls often include one or more of the following:

  • Many belly dance teachers don't know how to explain them effectively.
  • Some people have weak abdominal muscles. A sedentary lifestyle can cause this. It's difficult to operate a muscle that is weak.
  • Some people don't have much flexibility in these muscles. The muscles need to be loose and able to flow when standing upright.
  • The person has only used the muscles to pull herself out of a chair, or to keep her balanced when standing upright. She doesn't know how to link her brain to those muscles to give them conscious commands.

The exercises below are designed to overcome the above barriers.


Discover Your Abdominal Muscles

Belly rolls are controlled by the abdominal muscles in your midsection. These are generally divided between your upper abs which are just below the rib cage, your middle abs which are behind the navel, and your lower abs which are below the navel, near the pubic bone. The first thing you need to do is build a relationship with these muscles, teaching your mind to instruct them. This is known as building neural pathways.

Put some lyrical mood music on your stereo system (a chiftetelli or taqsim is good) and try doing these exercises:


Exercise #1: Teach Your Abdomen To Respond To You, And Learn To Relax!

This is a simple exercise that everyone can do, that will help you get in touch with your inner self — or at least with your belly roll muscles!

Stand comfortably, in good belly dance posture. That means your feet should be directly below your shoulders, your knees relaxed, and your rib cage held high — imagine a puppet string attached to your breastbone that is pulling it up and separating it from the rest of your body. Put your hands anywhere comfortable where they can relax — I always demonstrate with my hands on my hips, but their exact placement isn't important.

Now, suck in your gut as far as you can possibly suck it in. Got it as far as it'll go? Now try to pull it in just a little farther! When I teach this to my students, I tell them to visualize pulling their belly button all the way back to touch the spine. Hold it as long as you comfortably can. Next, relax it thoroughly. Relax it so much that your stomach area protrudes as far forward as it could possibly want to. We're so conditioned by Western society to keep a flat stomach, that we often find relaxing the stomach area to be more difficult than sucking it in! Notice that I'm not telling you to forcibly push your stomach out — just relax it and let it ease into its relaxed position, which could include a gentle bulge forward.

Repeat this exercise several times each day. Try to do about 4 repetitions where you hold it in as long as you possibly can, then let it out for an equal length of time. Then try to do 8-12 (or more) repetitions where you repetitively pull it in for a second or two, then relax it for a second or two, and keep going. Good times to do this: while washing your hands after using the restroom, or while sitting in your car in traffic.

Be sure to breathe normally while doing this exercise!


Exercise #2: Build Strength In Those Muscles!

You already know how to do either situps or crunches. (Modern fitness thought is that situps are not good for you, crunches are much better.) Do as many of these each day as your abdominal muscles will tolerate. Try to do a minimum of 10 or 15 at first, and try to work up to 25 or 30 — or more! The stronger your abdominal muscles, the better your belly rolls will be! If you need help building strength in these muscles, videos that may help are Veena & Neena's Bellydance Fitness for Beginners: Arms & Abs, and the "Abs Only" workout that appears on Rania's Bellydance Fitness for Weight Loss: Daily Quickies.


Exercise #3: Build A Relationship With Your Diaphragm

Most belly dance abdominal work is controlled by the abdominal muscles, not the diaphragm. However, the diaphragm has its role to play, and it's wise to include it in your exercise program.

We all instinctively know how to use our diaphragms — every breath you take is controlled by your diaphragm, and if you find yourself breathing hard after exerting yourself, your diaphragm will be working hard on your behalf. Musicians (vocalists and those who play wind instruments such as trumpets) have learned to control their diaphragms more consciously, to inhale larger breaths and put more support behind the sound they produce.

When learning to do belly rolls, make your diaphragm your best friend. Consciously think about it. Breathe deeply and see if you can isolate the sensation of that muscle between your navel and rib cage. It will press downward as you inhale a deep breath, and it will return upward as you exhale.

An excellent time to do this exercise is while you are behind the wheel of your car or sitting at a computer keyboard. Hunch your shoulders forward over the steering wheel or keyboard, so that your abdominal area is somewhat compressed by the posture. If you never drive a car and never sit at a computer keyboard, then just sit in a normal chair and lean foward with your elbows on your thighs and your shoulders hunched as described.

Now, tug inward ever so slightly just below the rib cage, above the navel. You won't be able to pull it in very far in this posture, but the point here is to discover where that muscle is, and how to isolate control over it. You should feel a muscle rubbing gently against the bottom edge of your rib cage. That is your diaphragm. If you can tug it in even a small amount, you've accomplished the point of this exercise. Now, rhythmically pull that muscle in, then let it relax, then pull it in again.

Do this exercise as often as you can discipline yourself to do it--once you build a close friendship with your diaphragm, you'll be able to do not only belly rolls, but also beautiful flutters! Breathe normally while you do this.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by PixieVision, Glendale, California.



Exercise #4: Isolate Your Pelvic Muscles From Your Diaphragm

This is the advanced version of Exercise #1. Warm up using Exercise #1. Then transition to this one. Suck in the upper abdominal muscles and the diaphragm while letting the pelvic muscles relax. Then relax the diaphragm while sucking in the pelvic muscles. Repeat, over and over and over. Don't forget to breathe normally! If you have trouble with this one, see "The Sphinx" below under "Having Trouble? Try One of These!"


Exercise #5: 1/2 Roll

This is the advanced version of Exercise #3. Hunch over a desk or car steering wheel as described for Exercise #3. Pull in your diaphragm as described for Exercise #3. Holding it in, now pull in your navel, then your upper pelvic muscles. That is half of a top-to-bottom roll, which means that the movement originates at the top, at the diaphragm. Now, to get out of this position, let your pelvic muscles out first, then your navel, then your diaphragm. That is half of a different roll, the bottom to top, which means that the movement originates with the pelvic muscles at the base of the abdomen. Do this exercise 8 times per sitting to develop control over each of the two half rolls.


Now Try The Roll

Once the above exercises have helped you learn where your abdominal muscles are and how to control them, the next step is to turn the movement into a roll. The roll is the natural extension of Exercise #4 once you've become proficient with it. Just keep doing the exercise, but think about doing it gracefully with an undulating spirit. Flow from one position to the other. Listening to slow, sinuous music will help a great deal. When I teach this to my students, I suggest they visualize performing a circle with their navel or placing their navel on a Ferris wheel: either up / forward / down / in, or the reverse down / forward / up / in.

You may find that circling one direction is easier for you than circling the other. Both are correct — if you can master one, the general public will think you know what you're doing. If you can master both, you'll impress even your hard-to-impress fellow dancers. I tell my students that I will be satisfied if they can master one direction, I don't expect them to aim for both.

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



Having Trouble? Try One Of These Ideas!

Having trouble? Most likely, it's because you either 1) Haven't learned to isolate the diaphragm from the pelvic muscles, or 2) Haven't learned yet to relax the muscles in turn.

Different things work for different people. If the above wasn't enough to get your midsection muscles rolling, maybe you need to vary the technique or do the exercises in a different location from where you normally practice. Try some of these ideas:

  1. The Bathtub Trick. Put about 3-4 inches of water into your bathtub and lie down on your back. Now try it. Start with Exercise #1. Progress to Exercise #4. Then try to roll. The response of the water to your abdominal movements may help the movement come more naturally. Also, the warm bath water will encourage the muscles to relax when they need to. As a final bonus, lying flat on your back will help you discipline yourself to not involve spine movement in your undulation — it'll help you keep it isolated to the abdominal muscles.
  2. Anatomy Lesson. Look at a health textbook that shows the musculature structure of the abdomen. Look for the diaphragm, the abdominal muscles, and the transverse abdominal muscles. Envision that structure occurring inside of you. Now, do Exercise #1. Visualize the muscles you see in that diagram contracting as you suck them all in. Visualize them expanding as you let them relax. Now, move to Exercise #4 and repeat the visualization — can you isolate them? Can you relax them?
  3. Sauna or Steam Room. Try doing Exercise #3 while sitting in a dry sauna or steam bath at the gym.
  4. Jacuzzi, Hot Tub, Whirlpool. Try doing Exercises #1, #3, and #4 while sitting in a hot tub at your health club or standing in a swimming pool where the water comes to chest height. (The hot tub is better because the heat will help with the relaxation phase of the cycle.)
  5. Laying on of Hands, Part 1. While standing in the posture described for Exercise #1, physically place both hands on your abdomen — one at the diaphragm level, and the other at the pelvic muscle level. Now, do Exercise #1 while your hands try to sense what your abdominal muscles are doing. Shift to Exercise #4. Feel your hand come outward as the muscle below it relaxes, and feel it drawn inward as the muscle below it sucks in. At first, try not to use your hands to push or pull — they are there merely to observe. If you find that you just can't get the isolation needed for Exercise #4, try pushing in with your hand when its muscle is supposed to suck in, but don't do that any longer than necessary--you need to learn how to use the muscles inside to do the work.
  6. Laying on of Hands, Part 2. Ask a friend or your teacher who can do belly rolls to let you place your hands on her abdomen while she rolls. Place one above the navel; the other just below. Pay attention to how her muscles are moving. Now place your hands on the corresponding parts of your own body, close your eyes, and try to reproduce what you felt the other person doing.
  7. Belly Beads. Fasten a string of inexpensive plastic beads around your abdomen. Stand in front of a mirror. Watch the beads rise and fall as you attempt to move your abdominal muscles. It will exaggerate the movements of your muscles and encourage you.
  8. Mesh Midriff. Put a mesh body stocking in a color that contrasts with your skin color over your abdomen, and watch yourself in a full-length mirror as you do the movements. The play of light across the mesh of the body stocking should give you good visual reinforcement as you try to control your abdomen.
  9. The Sphinx. I find that having a weight on your abdomen gives feedback to your muscles, helping you feel when you're doing the move right. Lie on your bed, on your back. Place your pet cat on your stomach. Cuddle it to make it lie down on its stomach, sphinx-like. It doesn't matter which end (the head or the tail) is pointing toward your face. If you don't have a pet cat (or a small dog about the same size), try substituting an object such as a brick of similar size, weight (8-14 pounds), and shape. Now, using only your abdominal muscles, push the cat's head as high as possible into the air at the same time you bring its tail end down lower. Hold this position a few seconds, until your cat relaxes. Now reverse it, making his tail go up higher and his head lower. Again, hold it until the cat relaxes. Repeat until your cat becomes highly offended with the abuse and stalks away in disgust. If you keep cuddling him with your hands while you do this, you may persuade him to stay longer. Once you're able to alternate comfortably with the cat on your stomach, try it standing up. From there, the rolling motion should be easy to accomplish.
  10. Affirmations. Your issue may be psychological, thinking, "I can't." Affirmations may help overcome this. Sit in a comfortable chair or lie down, in a dimly lit or dark room. Repeat the following statements to yourself at least 10 times, and as you say each line, really think about what you're saying:
    "I love to move my belly."
    "I'm proud of what I can do with my body."
    "My body can do amazing things."
Shira's Cat


The primary trick to learning how to do belly rolls is to just keep trying, over and over. The more you work on those muscles with the exercises recommended above, the easier it'll be to take control of them and make them roll. It's partly a matter of connecting your brain to those muscles, and partly a matter of strengthening them.

If you've faithfully done all of the above and still can't roll your abdomen, maybe you've got a problem with self-fulfilling prophecy: "I don't think I can, therefore I can't." In that case, try doing something that will lower your inhibitions — try doing belly rolls after you've had some wine or beer to drink, stimulate your friends into joining you for an explosion of silly giggles, get yourself thoroughly drowsy through taking a nap, or do some kind of work that makes you so tired your brain can barely function any more. Also, before going to sleep at night, lie quietly in bed and visualize yourself dressed up in a pretty costume doing beautiful belly rolls effortlessly.

I've given you a lot to think about. But I promise that if you work hard at the various suggestions in this article, you will eventually learn how to do belly rolls! They are a technique that can be learned with appropriate exercise and attitude!

— Shira




About a year after I responded to Desperate Down Under, I received the following e-mail from her:

I wrote to you almost a year ago asking for advice on doing belly rolls and was absolutely delighted with your comprehensive reply. I just wanted to report that your efforts have paid off for me, and, while I still have a long way to go before I can count myself amongst the experts, I nevertheless have a roll happening!!! So thanks for your excellent tips and for your wonderful site which continues to be a source of much inspiration.

Best regards,

Delighted (formerly Desperate) Down Under



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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