Monday, 11 May 2009

Belly Dance as a Means of Dance Therapy

Published: February 03, 2007
Writer: Nadia De Leon

The Healing Powers of Middle Eastern Dance

The concept that Belly Dance can be healing, that it is a fine form of exercise and that it fosters the general well being of women, is and has been widely accepted, since its origins in the Middle East all the way to contemporary dance studios in the
U.S. This fact is easily confirmed through many lines in books about the history and sociology of Middle-Eastern Dance, as well as by the vast number of websites that talk about Belly Dance as a healing tool for today's women.

There is not a single book completely dedicated to Belly Dance's therapeutic qualities, in fact there are not many books generally dealing with Belly Dance at all. Nevertheless, there are plenty of the materials on the Internet with anecdotic information in the form of journals or casual articles. These sources talk about personal experiences of how practicing Belly Dance brings many physiological and psychological benefits. The scope of all these sources only goes as far as Belly Dance's healing powers, but it does not address Belly Dance utilized as Dance Therapy. By this I mean that although Belly Dance is used widely as a form of informal therapy, I have not been able to find material regarding its use in a strict format of physical or psychotherapy, by a therapist, much less following the parameters and foundations of professional Dance/Movement Therapy. Even so, I did find enough material to confirm many aspects of said "healing powers" of Belly Dance, which I explore in detail below.

Physiological Benefits

Because Belly Dance is an aerobic exercise, practicing it regularly burns calories, helping dancers regulate body weight, and improves cardiovascular fitness, which in turn prevents respiratory complications, as well as heart disease. Belly Dance is a strength-and-conditioning exercise for many muscles, such as the quadriceps and hamstrings, and all the muscles of the shoulder, arm and wrist involved in arm movements. Belly Dance especially strengthens the muscles of the torso: the abdominal, pelvic, lumbar and gluteus muscles, which in turn improve the dancer's posture. It is well known that good posture is the first step for a chain of many physiological benefits for the human body. Because Belly dance improves both cardiovascular fitness and posture, it also develops appropriate circulation and regulates breathing, which in turn augments the oxygen levels in the blood, and prevents circulation and digestion complications.

The stretching and strengthening of all the muscles involved in Belly Dance, as well as the cardiovascular work out, help relieve muscle tension. Mastering the complex and layered isolation movements of Belly Dance constitutes an intense training of neuromuscular paths, which in turn improves the dancer's coordination. There are many testimonials that affirm that the frequent practice of Belly Dance eases and prevents menstrual pains, as well as strengthening the muscles and improving the fitness endurance of women in preparation for giving birth.[1][2] Finally, I must refer to the very interesting testimonial of a woman who found Belly Dance to be the best therapy to help her deal with Hypothyroidism helping her feel "fully alive and healthy" [3], as well as a Belly Dancer who was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and found the dance helpful to her physical condition[4].

Psychological Benefits Because Dance/Movement Therapy is a form of psychotherapy, I focused my research on the inherent psychological benefits of Belly Dance. Many of the psychological benefits of practicing Belly Dance often are both cause and consequence of the holistic approach of Belly Dance's philosophy, theory and techniques. Belly Dance is an art that blurs the solid and somehow arbitrary lines that Western culture and society places between mind and body. Belly Dance helps the women who practice it to experience harmony by overcoming the polarity of thinking about themselves as fragmented pieces of spirit versus flesh, and thoughts versus emotions, by seeing themselves as "whole women". Interestingly enough, the science of Dance Therapy also shares this holistic approach, by blurring the lines between mind/language and body/movement, by uplifting movement as a valid form of expression, and by showing that not only neurological maturation, experiences and learning cause change in movement behavior, but that change in movement behavior can also change the psyche. Consequently, practicing Belly Dance, and the whole of its movement vocabulary, so foreign and novel for Western women, "rewires" women into a state of all-encompassing emotional well being. It connects the core of their identities in womanhood, in loving their bodies, and in being comfortable with their femininity and sensuality. And it does all this collectively, with a group of other women who shower acceptance on each other.

In my opinion the first and foremost benefit of the practice of Belly Dance is the fact that it cultivates a positive body image and boosts self-esteem.[5] From that fact stem many other psychological benefits. The positive body image built through Belly Dance is based on the acceptance of the image of ourselves in the mirror, on the courage to dance in front of other people, and on the milestone of revealing our bellies. This is all possible because Belly Dance is a dance that reveres the female body in all shapes and sizes.[6] The personal appreciation of self-identity and enhancement of self-esteem has roots in the Dance/Movement Therapy concept that asserts that people must be comfortable in their bodies in order to move their bodies. I found that many Belly Dance instructors, who are not therapists, unknowingly and instinctively apply the Dance/Movement Therapy method called Body-Ego Technique, a predominantly nonverbal educational and therapeutic approach to establishing, reestablishing and/or maintaining body image and self-identity by learning and experiencing a variety of goal-directed physical movement patterns.[7]

Another important psychological benefit of Belly Dance, often underappreciated, is stress relief. The benefit of practicing Belly Dance periodically may lay in the simple fact of dedicating some time to ourselves. Belly Dance is an exercise and art particularly suitable to fulfill the role of a space and time to look for inner peace and harmony, such as that of meditation, and other currently popular options such as yoga and taiji. Many women who practice Belly Dance affirm that after a class they feel completely cleansed, with renewed energy and patience, grounded, and that Belly Dance class is the one time in which they can leave all their worries outside the door and rejoice in an activity they personally enjoy. This particularly helpful in today's Western society were women are expected to rise to the expectations of professional success without undermining their roles as nurturers, wives and mothers. Stress is the cause of many psychological and physiological afflictions women suffer today, and Belly Dance's value to counterbalance life's stress cannot be overestimated.

In my research I found articles, quotes, and anecdotes of women who experienced Belly Dance as emotional healing while recovering from breast cancer or uterine cancer. I found it fascinating because all these women from the U.S. to Australia, who had very different personal experiences with cancer, all shared something in common: they had undergone either mastectomy or hysterectomy surgeries.[8] There is some information regarding dance therapy being used all over the world to enhance the recovery of cancer survivors in plenty of oncology centers and hospitals all over the world.[9] Nevertheless, something distinct stands out: when the type of dance being used for this healing therapy is Belly Dance, the survivors/dancers are almost always women who went through a surgery that makes them feel "less of a woman", a surgery that undermines their personal feelings of femininity and their identity as women. No wonder these women choose Belly Dance over other dance forms to help them heal from such experiences!

Belly Dance is also used as a means of therapy for eating disorders. The reason for this is very obvious: most people suffering from eating disorders have a distorted body image with which they are not satisfied. As explained above, Belly Dance is an optimal art and exercise to build a positive body image and befriend our own bodies. Additionally, Belly Dance is not an art form that venerates slim bodies, or demands uncommon extraordinary abilities from the dancers' bodies. It is a dance that not only values, but also needs and longs for curves. It is a dance built with movements that come naturally to women, and that run smoothly through the human body. I have not been able to find information on Belly Dance utilized as the main therapy form for the treatment of eating disorders. Nevertheless, there is plenty of information about women who found Belly Dance helpful in healing from and overcoming anorexia and bulimia.[10]

Like many other enjoyable forms of exercise, Belly Dance is an exceptionally useful therapy to help treat depression.[11] The release of endorphins affects the brain chemistry, improving the dancer's mood. Practicing Belly Dance also heightens creativity, lowers stress, and helps regulate metabolism and sleep patterns, all factors that affect clinical depression.[12] Belly Dance is practiced in a comfortable non-threatening environment. A proficient Belly Dance instructor is supportive and puts little pressure on her students. All of this results in student's feelings of fulfillment and improvement of self- confidence.

The last topic I would like to address is the usefulness of Belly Dance as a healing process for survivors of sexual abuse. Belly Dance teaches women how to embody their sexuality, how to overcome shame, and how to love, celebrate and be proud of their bodies. Belly Dance is a reaffirmation of the beauty and sacredness of love, sex, passion, pleasure and fertility. Additionally, Belly Dance, as any other art form, can be a way to express anger and other inner feelings.[13] Although it may take years for the healing process to occur, Belly Dancing has helped many women resolve their issues with sexuality and their own bodies.[14]

Belly Dance is a valid means of therapy through movement. It obviously has the power to touch women's emotional core, and generate change, evolutions and revolutions in our psyche by connecting us to a higher archetype of femininity. Getting in touch with this inner power through Belly Dance starts a healing domino effect that runs like the fertile overflow of a river, gently running through the dancer's body, mind and spirit, flooding them with well being and strength.

[1] Vargas Dinicu, Carolina (Morocco), Belly Dancing and Childbirth, Sexology Magazine, 1964.

[2] Vargas Dinicu, Carolina (Morocco), Giving to Light- Dancing the baby into the world, Habibi, Winter 1996, Vol. 15, No. 1.

[3] Stricklin, Pat. "Belly Dance to Inspire Healing" Column #4, Belly Dancing as Healing Dance, June 2002, http://www.visionarydance.com, as of October, 2005.

[4] Amy. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Belly Dance. http://www.dreamingofjeannie.com.au/chronic%20fatigue%20syndrome.html, as of November, 2005.

[5] Stricklin, Pat. Belly Dancing and Cultural Influences on Body Image. http://www.visionarydance.com/cultural_influence.html, as of November, 2005.

[6] Delilah. Reviving Ophelia Through Belly Dancing " Can belly dance offer young women a more positive self image?" http://visionarydance.com/ophelia.html, as of November, 2005.

[7] Salkin, Jeri, Body Ego Technique; an educational and therapeutic approach to body image and self identity, Charles C. Tomage Publisher, Illinois, U.S.A., 1973.

[8] McAghon, Monica. "Danse Orientale for Mastectomy Recovery". Healing Dance Testimonials,http://www.tahya.com/danceheals.html, as of October 2005.

[9] Clay, Jean. "Danse Orientale aided my recovery and renewed my joy for the gift of life". Healing Dance Testimonials,http://www.tahya.com/danceheals.html, as of October 2005.

[10] Izzo, Kim; Marsh, Cere, Belly Dance- Overcoming Bulimia, Filmakers Library, NY, 22 min. video.

[11] Lafata, Lorraine. "Belly Dancing as a Healing Dance", 2000, http://www.visionarydance.com as of October, 2005.

[12] Lara (Clinical Psychologist), Psychological Benefits of Belly Dancing, http://www.dreamingofjeannie.com/psychologicial.html, as of November, 2005.

[13] Maria, Anna "Embodied Sexuality & Female Power" Column #3, Belly Dancing as Healing Dance, March 2002, http://www.visionarydance.com, as of October, 2005.

[14] Lipschitz, Lucy. How Middle-Eastern Dance gave me recovery. http://www.lucylipschitz.com/medrecov.html, as of November, 2005.


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