The truth about bellydance as a workout

I've always been skeptical about the claims that bellydance alone can be the way to a toned and fit body. Now, there are a lot of producers of bellydance-based workout DVDs, and their ad copy tends to make the big claims: lose weight, be hot, and so on. The thing is, unless you're doing it at a very high level -- i.e., high energy performances, rehearsals and classes for hours a day -- bellydance is just not that intensive.

That's why I was delighted at the fresh candour of a video on the topic posted on Life is Cake, a WDNY facebook page with interviews and random thoughts:

In it, Neon, Tanna Valentine, and Andy Troy talk about bellydance as a workout program, and they all come to pretty much the same conclusion: it's wonderful as a way to get moving, but to get to a certain level of fitness, you pretty much need to be doing some extra exercise, to say nothing of watching your diet.

Now, I do think bellydance-based workouts can be intensive. I've occasionally broken a sweat or felt the satisfying results of serious abdominal work using DVDs. But, as Neon suggests, that often comes at the cost of some of the "danceyness" of the workout. Some DVDs also have a separate pilates or yoga component, as does one of the live classes I am currently taking. I think this is a fantastic way of getting two workouts in one, as it were.

The real point though, in my opinion, is that the light exercise offered by bellydance is just as, if not more important than hardcore gym ratting. Neon, Andy, and Tanna all note that it's better to get some movement done than none at all, and that bellydance is accessible and pleasurable to (mostly) women who might not otherwise do weights or heavy cardio. For one thing, there is some preliminary evidence suggesting that regular light exercise can be even more effective for weight loss than hard workouts, as it is energizing rather than exhausting. More importantly though, accessible exercise is the most realistic option for most people, and it's the most sustainable too. There are certain forms of movement -- yoga and swimming also come to mind -- that are gentle enough to do till ripe old age, and that can be varied enough to be maintained through many injuries or poor health. Bellydance can be done at a high level of professionalism, but it's also just a deeply pleasurable way of moving for all of us. And it has an advantage over yoga and swimming, namely, really good music.

Finally, there's an advantage that dance classes have over gym exercise. Neon seems to hint at this when she talks about incorporating the artistry of the dance into workouts. The thing is, the precise focus of a dance class makes it deeply absorbing. For me, at least, it makes the rest of the world disappear for 60 to 90 minutes. (Yoga has some of this precision of movement too.) If I'm on an elliptical, I can't really shut the rest of the world out. The best I can do is listen to some music or look around at usually rather hideous surroundings and try to ignore the pain. I love swimming laps, but the monotony of swimming makes it hard to escape my own thoughts. (Though I do think it's wonderful for achieving a zen-like attitude to my thoughts!)

But when I'm in bellydance or ballet, there is nothing outside the studio. Whether I'm focusing on pressing against the floor when executing a tendu, or on achieving the gooey, internal movement of an omi, I am exquisitely present, in the moment, and at one with my body. And this feeling is what makes me go back to class even when my body is tired from a long day, protesting that it doesn't want to move anymore. It doesn't get more sustainable than that!

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