Review of Maha Al Musa's Dance of the Womb

As I near my due date, my thoughts turn more and more towards preparing for birth and labour, rather than just keeping fit and dealing with the aches and pains of pregnancy. For a while now I've been watching and working with sections of the Maha Al Musa's 2-DVD set, Dance of the Womb: A Gentle Guide to Belly Dance for Pregnancy and Birth (which I received as a review copy), and I'm happy that I've played with all of it just at the right time in my pregnancy.

In what sense? Dance of the Womb is much less a workout, and much more a guide to and meditation on connecting with your body to have the best pregnancy and birthing experience possible. To be frank, I don't think I would have appreciated it very much in my second trimester -- I did take some peeks into the program, but was not moved to work with it just yet. And I was lucky to have a pretty active third trimester, for the most part, which enabled me to take on more challenging prenatal programs and even normal dance DVDs. (Though I wasn't jogging or weight lifting or anything I probably wouldn't do anyway!) But working with Dance of the Womb as everything in my body is starting to get heavy and painful, and as labour itself approaches, has been just right.

Dance of the Womb has two very different components. One DVD contains a short film of Maha's home birth of her third child. Between beautifully-shot landscape scenes, photographs, and videos of the birth itself are interspersed interviews with Maha's midwives. This is an intensely personal film, and really, for lack of a better word, quite amazing. Again, I think this isn't something I appreciated so much earlier on in my pregnancy, but as I've come to see how many of the women I know wound up with cesarean sections recently (the vast majority), I've wound up more passionate about being able to labour naturally and with a minimum of interference. I would be too nervous to have a home birth, at least right now, but seeing that it's possible, and seeing Maha do it, is truly inspiring at this point in my pregnancy.

It's also inspiring in a practical way. Labour is a long process in many cases, and very different from what they show in the movies. Actually, it's also quite different from the movies I saw in the Lamaze class on dealing with pain naturally and in the hospital's prepared childbirth class. Those tend to be shorter and to focus on the last, most painful part of the first phase of labour (transition) and the birth itself. As astounding as all of those births are (both my husband and I are in tears when the lights go up), the videos themselves make the process look rather horrifying and unmanageable. The documentary in Dance of the Womb has a lot of shots of Maha walking and moving around, and as boring as this probably is to someone not currently with child, it's great to see how she manages most of labour, and that she can manage it. The video also inspired me in nitty gritty ways. While I don't live in the paradise of nature Maha inhabits, I do have a little bit of a park just outside my apartment, and only when I watched her video did it occur to me that I could spend some of my time outside instead of cooped up, communing with the carefully landscaped nature available to me!

Astoundingly beautiful

The first DVD contains the dance program itself. This is broken down into the following chapters:

Warm Ups (45 min)
The Circle (26 min)
The Spiral (9 min)
The Figure 8 (12 min)
The Cervix (4 min)
The Hands & Arms (13 min)
The Chest (7 min)

This is, as should be obvious, an enormous amount of instruction and practice time. What this means, practically, is that it was a little tricky for me to get started with it. I really had consciously to set aside a good chunk of time for it, and even then had to break it apart into two sessions. Again, this makes sense at the end of pregnancy, as I wind down from the usual pace of my work and more carefully take time to take care of myself.

The Warm Up is a program all on its own, comprised of a variety of yoga-based stretches and movements for improving bodily mobility. The instruction is incredibly precise, and the pace is slow. There is much focus on concentration and breath. Despite the fact that I've done what feels like a million prenatal workouts by now, I was still surprised by how many movements in this section were new to me. They effectively stretch every part of the body (every part), and are quite satisfying. I'll add that I was working with this during a pretty high anxiety week, and it really helped to calm me down.

The subsequent chapters are all dance based, but also all subtly different from each other. Each takes as its focus either a part of the body or a basic shape associated with bellydance, and each teaches bellydance movements. However, some chapters are structured like more typical dance instruction, and teach you movements and variations on them (like the figure 8), while others introduce a basic shape or idea and then have you move and improv freely (hands & arms). Instruction is detailed and from the ground up -- while I picked up some new things, a woman who had never bellydanced before in her life could learn to do these movements comfortably and safely. Moreover, Maha often gives tips on using the particular movement in childbirth, especially when the form would be different for labour than it would be in "proper" bellydance.

The key sections are the circle and the spiral, probably because those are the most elemental movements both for bellydance and for birthing. The focus here is really not on dancing in a performance sense, but on using the movements to enter a meditative, trance-like state. And it works, at least for me. Again, this is a quality of the video that I think makes it less suitable for an energetic early pregnancy, but fabulous for the end stretch. If I go into labour tomorrow (and this is not unlikely), I will probably play the circle and spiral chapters and move along with them.

You have to be creative to figure out how to suit the program to your needs. The 45-minute warmup would be enough for any day, and does incorporate some of the bellydance moves too. You could do the warmup and then a variety of chapters, or just some of the chapters on their own. The pace is slow and careful enough that I don't think a lengthy warmup is really necessary.

Dance of the Womb: A Gentle Guide to Belly Dance for Pregnancy and Birth is a valuable compendium of preparation, information, and inspiration for birth.

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