Saturday, 31 January 2015

Pelvic floor: The secret to posture, balance and grace in dance, that no one wants to talk about.

Grace in dance is achieved by strength and particularly core strength

I had been dancing for several years before finally someone (Yasmina of Cairo in fact) talked to me about pelvic floor.

As I am a perinatal yoga teacher, I am pretty pelvic floor focused. Pelvic floor control and strength is a big part of my remit and I am very aware of how little understanding most people have of this important structure.

What is the pelvic floor?

When I mention pelvic floor, most people think of the sphincter muscles, but actually, they are at best a part of the pelvic floor and potentially not the pelvic floor at all. So let's get rid of that preconception now. Toss all thoughts of kegels and stopping mid-wee away right now, this is not what we are talking about.

When I refer to the pelvic floor in this context, I am referring to the pelvic diaphragm, the sling of muscle that supports your abdominal organs by creating a hammock in the base of your pelvis, it looks like this:

This is a pelvic floor, all that muscle, let's use it.
It's made up of 2 major muscles (which in turn are made of smaller muscles) the coccygeus and the levator ani. You don't need to worry about what they are called, you just need to know you have them.

And you do have them, they are holding your insides up right now! In my perinatal yoga classes, women are often surprised to find out that pelvic floor weakness is not a consequence of birth, but of pregnancy, it is the strain of carrying the extra weight, while simultaneously not "using" the pelvic floor in a positive, strengthening way that causes the weakness; it has little to do with the delivery of the baby.

So what has this got to do with bellydance?

Well... your pelvic diaphragm is actually a really important core muscle. You know when you are told to "engage your core" or to "keep your core strong"? Well this is your pelvic floor's call to arms! Your "core" is essentially all the muscles that keep your posture strong, it includes muscles around your spine, deep abs etc, but also your pelvic floor.

Engaging the pelvic floor essentially condenses your insides a bit. It kind of solidifies your "centre" and keeps everything stable. When you turn, travel or balance (say, in an arabesque) lifting your pelvic floor and engaging your core keeps you steady and graceful.  Try it out in your next practice or dance class.

Finding your pelvic floor

Once you know that you need to use it, finding your pelvic floor and applying it to your dance is pretty easy. Try standing in dance posture, and visualise a trampoline of muscle in the base of your pelvis, like in the image above. Now imagine drawing it up from the centre, like your perineum is taking a day trip up to your belly button. There you go, now your pelvic floor is engaged. Practice this while waiting for the bus. That gives you an extra incentive not to let it show on your face.

That's awesome, how do I cross train my pelvic floor to make it even better?

OK, so first stop doing kegels.Your pelvic floor pretty much takes care of itself by being used properly. That means engaging it when you engage your core, not just dancing, but standing, sitting tall etc. Yoga squats are brilliant for pelvic floor training. Apparently bouncing (on a trampoline or gym ball) is also good. Like any muscle, challenging it gently keeps it in shape.

This is me doing a yoga squat at 39 weeks pregnant.
I make all my pregnant yogis do squats.

There is a theory amongst yoga people that our lifestyle (comfy sofas etc) has led to a weakening of the pelvic floor. Watch how a toddler moves and plays, constantly on the move, never slumping in their seat, squatting with naturally good form, often for very long periods while playing.

So keep active, keep healthy, and don't leave your pelvic floor behind.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Footwear for bellydance

Taking care of your body is an important part of being a dancer, and taking care of your feet is a good place to start.

When I am feeling a bit ethereal about such things, I talk about dance in terms of your relationship to the floor. Much of our basic movement vocabulary can be explained, or at least better understood in terms of where the weight is borne through the feet, or the force exerted (or not) when a part of the foot is pressed into the floor. At an intermediate level dancers learn to separate their hip movement from their feet, in order to layer and travel freely, but at a grass roots level, hip lifts, figure 8s, even camels can be broken down to the way your feet interact with the floor.

Many beginner bellydancers are advised to dance barefoot. The constriction of the feet (especially at the toes) by shoes affects your basic posture, and the ability to freely flex your foot and feel the floor can be very helpful. Good foot placement and weight distribution is literally the foundation of good posture. Get it right and the knock on effect protects your ankles, knees, back and even your neck while you dance. It is also the cheapest option, as beginning dancers often don't want to invest in specialist shoes. Many dancers choose to remain barefoot for all of their training and performances.

Barefoot is a healthy way to be, I rarely wear any footwear around the house. I find that the exercise barefoot walking gives my feet keeps them strong, and stops my flexible arches from falling.

So why wear shoes to dance?

Culture and etiquette

The lovely Samia Gamal,
who did dance barefoot often,
demonstrates the perils therein
It seems to be a common misconception that it is somehow "authentic" to bellydance barefoot. This is quite untrue. Dancing with dirty feet (and they are bound to become dirty) is very much frowned upon, and although it is not unheard of to dance barefoot, shoes are generally worn by dancers in the Middle East. Baring the sole of the foot deliberately "at" someone is an offensive gesture in the Arab world, although an accidentally visible sole mid-dance is unlikely to offend.

A few years back I was in a workshop taught by one of the great matriarchs of Egyptian dance, a fierce and formidable lady, she had a very angry rant about Western dancers assuming that it was authentic to dance barefoot. Her offence at how we "assumed" that her people were some kind of "barefoot primitives" was made clear to us all!

In a Western setting, unless you are dancing for an Arab audience (or instructor!), you are unlikely to bother anyone else by being barefoot.

Protection from the floor

It would be fabulous if every dance space we used, for class, practice and performance as a lovely clean, polished sprung wood floor, but that's never going to happen.

Sometimes we dance outside, sometimes in restaurants with dirty floors and possible shards of broken glass or crockery, so we need to protect our feet. In my dance career I have trodden on thistles, glass and broken a toe mid-performance when it caught in an uneven surface. Even a small cut can seriously effect your ability to bear weight evenly on your foot, if it becomes inflamed and sore, and that is going to inhibit your ability to dance for several days. A small injury on the sole of your foot can also affect how you bear your weight, causing knock-on effects on your posture and damage to your ankle, knee or back.

Sometimes it's not the state of the floor, but the floor itself. Dancing barefoot on carpet can make turns treacherous, as the grip wrenches your knees and the friction can literally tear your skin apart. Equally some dance studios have very slippy floors and good dance shoes will give you that extra purchase you need to keep you on your feet.


When you are in costume, just as much as out, your footwear is part of your outfit. Glitsy shoes can finish your look and many dancers wear some variant of high heels when they are performing. Wearing heels also adjusts your centre of gravity and posture, which in turn alters the overall style of your dancing.

Select your shoe

Below is a summary of some of the most common shoes worn by bellydancers. All dancers have their own preferences, and may wear different shoes for different circumstances. I've tried to put some pros and cons for each type, but this is based on my own experience, your mileage may vary.

Ballet flats

There are several different types of shoes that might fit into this category. Standard ballet shoes, from dance suppliers are usually split sole, that is they have a hard leather pad on the toe and another on the heel.  Some have a single sole, that runs the length of the foot. These tend to be a tight fit. Personally I find the small sole (which is far narrower than my foot) unstable, and the narrow toe does not allow me to spread my toes into a stable base.

You can also get soft soled dance shoes, and many bellydance suppliers sell something similar with added bling. These are a great budget option for beginning dancers, they work well with costumes and protect the feet without restricting them too much. On the other hand they aren't very supportive and the sole is no good for outdoor performance. They do wear out, but they'll last long enough and they aren't too pricey to replace. I keep an old pair of these for performing on surfaces I don't really want to subject my more expensive shoes to.

For performance, or even class, you could try a soft pair of the ballet flats that are now commonly sold for fashion purposes. They often come in sparkly or decorated versions and they can be quite cheap. An advantage with these is that they have a good sole for outside the studio or stage. Decorated slippers of various other kinds are also available, beaded slippers from Egypt or India are a common choice. Make sure they are a good fit, and practice in them, properly, before you try and perform in them.

Dance paws/lyrical shoes

If you like the barefoot feeling, but would like to improve your traction on the floor for smooth spins and perhaps protect your feet a little, dance paws are an excellent option.

They come in full foot options, that have a light suede sole on the ball of the foot and the heel, or a half foot option that only covers the ball. There are various designs but generally the toes are left free and the pads are held in place with mesh fabric, like a partial sock, or straps. They are usually flesh coloured, to give the illusion of dancing barefoot, although some funky colourways are now available, including prints, mehndi patterns and diamanté.

In my experience, dance paws are a consumable piece of kit. Over time, sweat and use will harden the suede sole, and eventually they crack and rip, or the straps holding them in place tear.

Jazz shoes

Jazz shoes offer good support for the foot, and dancers who need insoles or arch supports often wear them to train in. Generally the aesthetic isn't right for performance.

My favoured shoes are actually a kind of jazz sneaker from Capezio, in a style that look more like a lyrical shoe, but a lot more durable than dance paws. I have these in flesh colour and I have added hotfix gems to them, they are subtle enough to wear on stage but very supportive. The downside is that the fabrics absorb a lot of sweat and they are not pleasant scented to say the least. I've been wearing the same pair for 2 years now and they are showing minimal wear, which has made them a worthwhile investment.


This is more for performance than training, though if you perform in heels you will have to practice in them.

Many dancers like the aesthetic of  high heeled shoes with a sparkly costume. They work best for Oriental styles where you dance on your toes a lot regardless. They don't work for earthy styles. Wearing heels shifts your centre out of your pelvis, up and forward which compromises your gooey hipwork, but looks elegant for graceful travelling.

If you are dancing in heels, it is best to buy shoes specially designed for dancing. Tango shoes are structurally spectacular, but very expensive. Character shoes are slightly less dainty looking, but more stable and less expensive.

Ballroom shoes often have suede soles, which is great for dancing on clean, dance-specific floors, but if you plan to dance outside, or on a potentially dirty surface, you might want to consider something more durable.


Flat sandals such as Grecian sandals or ghillies (the shoes worn by Irish dancers) are also popular amongst bellydancers for performance and training. Personally I've never felt confident enough to try a pair as you need a good shoe with a good fit for security and safety, but it's worth being aware that the option is available to you.


Sometimes students in my classes want to wear socks to dance. As a point of safety I generally advise against this as socks are very slippery on the studio floor and put you at risk of injury. If you are practising at home, on carpet however, socks might be a reasonable option.

Slipper socks, with grips, are sometimes suggested for those who want to dance in socks, but in general they tend to have a very sloppy fit and either the foot slides around inside them, or they start creeping off the toes.

Some contemporary dancers wear socks on their toes, rolled down to allow traction on the heels smooth spins on the toes. I'm not convinced even by this option for bellydance however, especially Oriental style which involves a lot of dancing en releve where using the heel for grip is not an option.

If you have poor circulation or just get cold feet when you dance, then you do need to find a way to keep your feet warm. Dancing with cold feet can lead to discomfort and injury. In this case I would suggest either wearing thin socks (or tights) with dance shoes, or wearing yoga socks, which are tight fitting, with separate toes, and have a fine, even grip pattern over the whole foot and toes. Don't wear yoga socks to dance on carpet though, it rips the grip nodules off. Another option is leg warmers, the ones that cover the instep but leave the toes and heels out.

Most bellydancers experiment with different types of shoes until they find something that works for them. I have been through several shoe "phases", but ultimately your choice needs to be based upon what is comfortable and safe for you. If you don't feel confident on your feet, you are not getting the most out of your dance.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

More great news for Bridgwater bellydance

So my lovely Bridgwater class - Tuesdays at Bridgwater College, 7.30pm - is going really well! I'm so pleased to have met a brilliant bunch of dancers, some new, some not so new, who are gamely throwing themselves into the class and catching on really well. We have plenty of space still, and I'm still welcoming newcomers who would like to join us.

I've been asked about running a daytime class, as I do in Glastonbury, so as of February, that's what I am going to do!

The Bridgwater daytime class will run on Monday afternoons, from 1.30 to 2.30 at the YMCA and, like Glastonbury, is an open level class - although my expectation is that most will be beginning level dancers at first. It will be running in term time, with breaks in the school holidays.

If you purchase classes on 5 lesson vouchers (5 lessons for £25, no need to book specific sessions), your vouchers will be valid for any of my bellydance classes, so you are free to attend any or all of the sessions on that. Covenstead's Curious Cottage on Glastonbury High St are also offering a generous discount to dancers who pre-pay for my classes, so take your voucher with you when you go to check out their range of coin belts, skirts, tops and jewelry.

I'm looking forward to meeting even more fabulous new dancers.

The year is definitely up and running now, with workshop and performance bookings starting to come in. It's all looking very exciting, so keep watching this space!

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Cross training for bellydance

We often talk about bellydance as being complete exercise in its own right, and in many ways it can be. Depending on your style and how you train, bellydance can provide you with cardio, core strength, flexibility and endurance.

Fit for dance

Most higher level dancers however, supplement their dance training with other kinds of fitness training, for a number of reasons and it is likely that at some point (as I reported back here) you will feel like branching out a little.

Improving your cardiovascular fitness and stamina is generally helpful for any physical activity. The ability to dance an energetic 20 minute set without becoming noticably out of breath or sweaty is a useful part of the professional dancer's toolkit. Just practising your dance all out is helpful; but it is always worth training at a higher intensity than you would perform, so performance feels effortless.

Drilling your basic movements will help with range of movement, muscle strength and control, but you can support this process and improve your dance skills with targeted conditioning. There are also some advanced moves that are difficult or dangerous to attempt without a prerequisite of fitness that goes beyond the norm. For example level changes, backbends and turkish drops all require strength and flexibility at the outset and attempting the move without it can lead to bad form and injury.

Keeping a balance in your fitness is also important. If you are dancing a lot then you can end up with muscle development geared towards dance. That's not always a bad thing, but it is really important to be mindful of your body's alignment and balance. Releasing that tight psoas muscle, making sure that both sides of the body are equally strong (very important for ATS dancers) and supporting good posture will improve your health as a whole.

Exercise options for bellydancers

There is a huge range of fitness training that can be beneficial for bellydancers. Within reason it is worth considering what you enjoy and go for that, however it is important to consider your ongoing health and avoiding injury. There was a time when I trained WTF Tae Kwon Do, but full contact martial arts means lots of broken feet, which isn't something I can risk as a dancer. Here are some examples of cross training that is common amongst bellydancers.


Let's blame Rachel Brice for this one, although I'm not sure she was the first bellydancer to train this way, Rachel's background as a yoga teacher coupled with her impressive strength and flexibility and her extensive influence in the Tribal Fusion community (and beyond) has made yoga a popular choice for bellydancers. Vinyasa flow yoga, an offshoot of Ashtanga that primarily consists of sequences based on an expanded sun salutation, is popular among dancers and great for core strength, alignment and good posture. Restorative yoga is also blissful for those times when you have trained a little too intensively and need to take care of yourself.


Pilates is also great for dancers and there are a lot of bellydance specific pilates workouts available by bellydancers who also happen to be pilates teachers.

A pilates workout can be fairly gentle or very intense. It might involve weights and I really like it when it involves things like fitness balls for really good core conditioning. As with yoga there is a strong focus on alignment and good form to get the most out of the exercises whilst minimising the risk of injury.

With pilates you can focus very strongly on areas that you need for dance, like legs or abs, or go for a whole body workout.


Another great option for a whole body workout that doesn't put too much strain on the body. The lack of load bearing is gentle on the joints and can be helpful for dancers who are rehabilitating from injuries. It is also a great way to get your upper body working.

Weight or resistance training.

I do very much enjoy lifting things. There is something immensely satisfying about lifting dumbells, and it is easy to slip a few reps in for 5 or 10 minutes now and again. If you like to train in company, you could try a kettlebells class. The upper body is often neglected, but it's important to remember that grace and fluidity in your arm movements will come through strength. Weight training can also be great for core conditioning and posture.


Cardio is really important, but it's up to you how you do it. If you are sweaty and breathless you are getting there. Some dancers run regularly, some go to the gym, some do classes. I love a good intense 20 minute shimmy drill to combine cardio, stamina and technique.


For a convenient and no nonsense way to combine cardio, strength, endurance and plyometrics, circuits can be a good option. If you don't really enjoy working out, the exercises happen in short bursts and change often, so you don't get too bored. Mixing up the exercises means you get to work on different muscles and you are not putting too much strain on particular areas for too long.

Some circuit exercises can be tough on the joints, but there are usually modifications or alternatives which a good trainer or class facilitator can help you with.

Keep dancing

So there you have it. See what you fancy and give it a try. Keep listening to your body and going back to your dance practice, see what makes the difference for you. It is immensely satisfying to see the results of your hard work manifesting in the quality of your dance!

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Breaking the myth of the hippo in the tutu

On grace and the larger dancer.

I'm not sure how it happened, but apparently I am a "larger dancer". I'm not plus sized, but in a roomful of professional oriental dancers, I'll be tipping the scale a bit.

I'm finding peace in this. I have never been a delicate flower, even when I was "skinny" the bulk of muscle on my thighs wouldn't fit comfortably into my size 10 jeans. I am strong, powerful, curvy, and I'll never be slight or petite, I'm just not built that way.

There are stereotypes around bellydance that suggest we should look a certain way. They are all wrong.There is no "should" in the way anyone looks, and dancers, as artists, are human, and part of the beauty of art is seeing the humanity in the performer. The individuality in aesthetic should be celebrated as much as the individuality in musicality or costume design.

I love seeing how movement looks on different bodies, and I love seeing a dancer who has learned how to refine her movements so that her body and technique come together to produce something uniquely beautiful.

But what I want to talk about today is almost the opposite of that, because although it is true that we can take advantage of our shape and size to enhance our dance, it is really important not to build walls for ourselves, or assume that our body size excludes us from any aspect of our art. While today I am considering bigger dancers, the spirit of this can apply to any dancers, that bellydance is for every body, all of it. Not conforming to the stereotype for a particular style, shouldn't be a barrier to learning and performing.

Blueprints and assumptions

My first teacher was a lovely dancer, she was 6 foot tall, slim, blonde and graceful. When I, as a baby dancer, watched her dance I was mesmerised and I wanted to be able to be like her, but put us side by side and I clearly wasn't.

Her favoured style was Classic Orientale, elegant, graceful, it suited her willowy form and at the time, I mistakenly assumed that her grace came from her height and her long, lean limbs, and therefore was not something that I could ever achieve. She was always very encouraging, but I had it set in my mind, that wasn't the style for me.

Our cultural blueprint for grace in dance is strongly influenced by ballet. So perhaps it is reasonable to assume that to dance gracefully one must have the figure of a ballet dancer. In truth however, ballet schools restrict their intake to girls of a particular body type, not because that is the only figure that can accomplish grace, but because of a traditional aesthetic that has little to do with skill.

I decided to focus on earthier styles. I could put my juicy hipwork to good use in Baladi, and the costumes are more flattering, I love the style and I stayed comfortable in the assumption that I could never be graceful.

Facing the demons

It was when I was about 20 weeks pregnant with my first child, that I found myself facing the elephant in the room. I was going to Shona Hagan's monthly advanced class. It was brilliant, 4 hours worth of drills, performance skills and great feedback from Shona and the rest of the group. Every month we would prepare 1 minute of performance, for critique. This month, Shona had asked me to prepare something in the Orientale style, because she hadn't seen me dance it yet - for reasons explained above.

I prepared a dance, but I hated it. I was not only now a stocky dancer, I was a pregnant one. I imagined that when I danced I looked like the sterotypical hippo in a pink tutu. Half an hour before I was due to leave for class, my husband came in to find me sat on the floor in tears.

To be fair, the sitting on the floor crying stage is fairly vital in the creation of any decent performance of mine. If I haven't come to a point where I believe everything is awful and I should just give up dancing and go live in a cave, I'm not trying hard enough. This episode actually helped me become more mindful of this, and overcoming it, but that isn't the point here, so we move on.

So he gave me a hug, and told me that simply, if I didn't want to do it, I didn't have to. I could skip class, I could go and not perform, any of those things would be fine. However, now I knew that, why didn't I take a deep breath, and give it one more try, no pressure.

So I did just that. Then I realised it was actually OK and I decided to go to class, and you know what? It was OK. I got good feedback, I learned that maybe Oriental style wasn't off limits to me. Maybe the barrier was just something I imagined.

Why grace belongs to every dancer.

It's easy to assume that if you are bulkier, that you are going to have a harder time being graceful, but that's rubbish, let me tell you why.

Grace is not the result of a lack of bodyweight. It is not determined by height or dress size.

Grace is the result of strong and controlled muscle movement. Graceful arms come from correctly engaging your strong upper back muscles, freeing your shoulders and arms to move as if your arms are actually weightless. Graceful footwork comes from balance, which comes from core strength and fine control.

So you don't have to be light to tread lightly. In fact I would be more inclined to suggest that grace is the product of good technique and a high power to weight ratio. If a slight person can be clumsy, then a stocky person can be graceful.

If you are fit and heavy then you are already strong. You can move your bodyweight,you train for this all the time, so you are not disadvantaged merely because your bodyweight might be greater than the next dancer.

So let's lose that barrier, and remind ourselves that like anything else in dance, grace comes with practice and training. There are no absolutes, allow your limits to be defined by your own ability and drive, not a stereotype.

I'm not willowy, but I am strong, powerful, I have gooey hips, explosive shimmies and yes, I have grace.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

There's a dance brewing

Reflections on the birth of a performance

When I select the same track every time I go to my iPod.

When I unconsciously start building combinations for key parts of the music.

When I start thinking about what I should wear to dance to this.

I know there is a dance brewing.

I have a playlist especially for songs I would like to dance to someday. Some tracks stay there for years, sometimes because I don't have an outlet for them, sometimes because I am waiting until I am technically good enough to put my vision into action.

This one took about 3 years, and a 20's themed hafla, before I braved the choreography notebook with it.

Sometimes a dance is created because I need material for a show or a booking, and I have nothing suitable in my repertoire. So I have to hunt out the right music for the occasion, but that often feels forced. I much prefer the organic performances, that grow out of the music I love when the time is right.

My playlist of potential performances is where I go if I feel like spending half an hour randomly improvising, so by the time a song is called up to be turned into a polished performance, I know it well, but I'll start listening to it more and more, so that I know it intimately, not just the words, or the tune, or the changes in tempo, but the little nuances, the small drum embellishments, the tiny details.

Nevertheless, whether I am choreographing or improvising, I will sit down and map the music.

First I make a note of the sections, or verses, what they sound like and how much they re-occur. Which of the Arabic rhythms are being used, what kind of mood they convey.

Then I go back and count. I work out how many bars are in each section. I tend not to choreograph to a count, unless it's for a group dance, but it helps me to be clear about the length of the sections. After that I start deciding what goes in them.

If I am choreographing I tend to improvise a section over and over, differently every time until I find something I like, then I polish it.Then I write it down. If I am improvising then I do much the same, but more, and I don't really settle on a final favourite or write anything down.

After that there will be a whole load of dancing, videoing, watching back, refining, working on the arms, the feet, adding in extra layers and embellishments when I want to be flashy, all that stuff.

But the best part, is the beginning, when I barely realise that the tiny idea that made me add that song to my "potentials" is starting to grow. When I keep going  back to the song, then catch myself and think "yes, this could be something".