Back to the Belly
Awakening the Kinesthetic Sense
by Zahra Zuhair
As dancers we use our bodies to express our art. To allow the body to speak freely, a dancer must understand it as best she or he can. Proper body conditioning and developing good body awareness is a must for all dancers. But as Oriental dancers, there’s an education of the body internally that sets us apart from other dance forms.
Oriental dancers’ power lies in the center of their bodies, releasing energy down into the hips, while the upper body floats skyward. This is a natural process not only in human beings, but in all upright living things. The roots of a tree are pulled deeply down into the earth while the trunk elongates and spreads through the branches into the space around it. The deeper the roots penetrate into the ground, the taller and stronger the tree grows. This central point of the tree, where it touches the earth’s surface, corresponds in our body to the waist at the level of the 5th vertebrae, where the human spine moves in both directions. The ancient Egyptians knew this. You can see it in the dignity and poise of their statues, with their erect spines. Not only do we use this “total” action of separating heaven and earth energy in our bodies, but at the same time we utilize circular motion and curves pulling energy back into our center, then releasing it out again. Rounded movements are born from the spine, the body instinctively avoids harsh and aggressive motion when we learn to move from the center of our being. This concept of moving from our center, or “going back to the belly” (Raqia Hassan, Habibi, vol. 14, no.1),which is so characteristic of the modern Egyptian style, can be challenging for Western students of the dance, a challenge that keeps us hungry for more information.
A dancer practices a form that is external to oneself, that she or he tries to eventually master through practice. Oriental dancers struggle with movements that seem, in the beginning, impossible or, at best, unnatural. We hear dance instructors talk about “internal movements” and wonder, “Where does it come from?” We experience feelings of tension and stiffness in the body, but it’s this powerful sense of tension that can become our true guide. The grip of tension is often our first introduction to the kinesthetic sense.
The dictionary defines kinesthesia as “the sense whose end organs lie in the muscles, tendons, and joints and are stimulated by bodily tensions; the muscle sense.” Where we may first feel this tension is an individual matter. Some people feel it in their faces, some in their legs, others in the belly or the back. We may feel the tension as a gripping sensation that will not abate. At last we know something is very wrong and can actually feel the problem. Clearly, here is a sense that we know little about and that we rarely consider.
We are so seduced by every other aspect of learning a cultural dance, keeping our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch reeling with delight, that our basic inner conditioning is really deep in hiding. Granted, these sensory aspects are important to gain a greater understanding of the form. Yet when the kinesthetic sense does finally dawn on us, we begin to change as dancers.
Eastern cultures have not forgotten this inner life. Yoga in India and Taoism and T’ai Chi in China have preserved and explored this inner world of the kinesthetic sense for thousands of years. These Eastern-born practices characteristically call for a quieting of the mind and a turning in of consciousness towards the inside of the body. What has been called the id or libido in Western psychology is an attempt to intellectually explain the flows and blocks of internal energy that Taoism has studied for millenia.
As we turn inward, a different type of learning takes place. We begin to “feel” the music differently, and we begin picking up a “feel” for movements when it’s demon-strated or performed by a dancer. We develop a muscular empathy. I like to call it learning by osmosis. Learning any dance form takes many years of hard work. Learning the dance of another culture is especially hard because we have to learn to “feel” differently.
Our bodies are divided into three segments: head, thorax and pelvis. The head is King, the brain being the master control for the rest of the body. Our delicate and acute senses of sight, hearing, taste, and smell and balance are located in the head. Most people, if asked to place themselves in their bodies, would place their self in the head.
The thorax or chest houses the heart and lungs. The chest often symbolizes strength and feeling. A large opened chest communicates the impression of a pair of good lungs and a strong heart. Much emotion is localized within the region of the heart and is either expressed or restrained by the condition of the chest. Tension and stiffness in the chest and upper back suggests emotional repression.
The pelvis is our mystery segment. Located on the other end of our body away from our comprehending head we easily lose contact with this powerful and primitive section of our body (which has been the victim of centuries of repression from society.) Here in the pelvic and abdominal regions, sex and reproductive energies drive us in ways we hardly understand. Down in the colon and intestines the fires of digestion create the energy from food that fuels the rest of the body. This is where the first and second chakras are located. The pelvic segment represents functioning on a primitive level. Within the belly and the pelvis our oldest instincts and impulses are either expressed or repressed.
The pelvis relates us to the ground. The deep and powerful muscles that lie within the pelvis coordinate and create posture for us. Too much tension and shortening of the psoas and illiacus muscle within the pelvis will misalign the body to such an extent that no amount of standing up straight could ever help correct a poor posture. The iliopsoas muscles, part of the hip flexor group, can contribute to swayback by pulling the lumbar vertebrae and the flared part of the back of the pelvis forward and down. This can be distressing since many Oriental movements originate from this area. Our relationship to gravity and our alignment with the earth stem from the alignment of our pelvis.
In the process of awakening our kinesthetic sense and learning to release held, blocked energies, the lower segment usually cannot be approached seriously until much of the head and chest tension has been dealt with. Energy released from the pelvis and abdomen will tend to rise through the chest and head, and if the chest and head are too closed with tension, rising pelvic energy can be disturbing, even painful. Tension and stiffness become the cues we respond to so that our style of practicing internal dance movements is kind of an ongoing physical therapy. Beauty and ease of these movements are our reward. Increasingly, movement will be initiated deep within where powerful feeling and movement originate, from a source of natural wisdom.
One learns to move more smoothly; slowness can be a virtue. Furious, haphazard movement will appear, if not funny, then a little insane, and can even be injurious. The aesthetics of hardness and drive no longer dominate as these qualities become merely tools to express particular musical and emotional qualities. The capability and inclination to express more softness and smoothness naturally grows as a greater range of expression becomes possible. This softness should not be mistaken for the lack of strength and energy. On the contrary. Even an energetic dancer such as Fifi Abdo, while exerting her robust personality, has an ease of movement and muscular control few can match.
Over all, the inevitable good sense of becoming one’s natural self becomes increasingly apparent, even unavoidable. The whole fabric and style of our dance becomes an expression of our bodies as we “feel” the music and the sensations we have within our bodies, as we move within the music. There is a new order of things when the kinesthetic sense, the body sense, becomes our guide.
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Zahra Zuhair has been a featured dancer for almost twenty years, and a teacher for more than half that time. Performances at the embassies of Middle Eastern countries has led to an extended engagement in Europe. Zahra has directed and choreographed folkloric shows for the concerts of renowned artists, including Egypt’s Sayed Makawi . She has also choreographed music videos. Zahra has studied Ashtanga and Iyengar Yoga, and is certified by the American College of Sports Medicine. www.zahrazuhair.com