A Labor of Love
A Labor of Love
Performing professionally while pregnant was the most transforming experience of my life. The Dance to the Great Mother Project, which I did during my second pregnancy, opened me to realizing the range of hurtful and unfair psychological conditioning we women undergo.
During my first pregnancy, I danced in clubs until three months, retired for a while, taught a little, and basically hid out and waited. I returned to dancing six months after Laura Rose was born, putting dancing on hold psychologically during that time.
One day during the fourth month of my second pregnancy, I got a phone call to do a private party for an organization. Before hearing very much, I told the women I was on sabbatical due to my pregnancy; she got very excited and requested that I hear her out. I did, and in January, 1980, I was commissioned by her regional group of family planners to perform a Birthdance. I went on to perform the dance work at various workshops across the States, and then as part of a larger concert piece called “Phases of the Moon, Faces of the Mother” with Laurel Gray, Kathy Balducci and Tahia Alibec.
The experience was profound for me and for many women in the audience. After the performances they would seek me out with tears in their eyes and comments such as, “If I had only seen this dance before or during my pregnancy, I would have enjoyed being pregnant…Instead I felt fat, ugly…I wanted to lock myself away in a closet…I want my daughters to see something like this so that they will enjoy that special time in a woman’s life…”
I knew what they meant. I myself had hidden away to a certain extent during my first pregnancy in marked contrast to my later experience. The comparison taught me something important — my dance skills did not disappear when I became pregnant. Why should I stop dancing if there was no health hazard? Both my pregnancies were wonderful, but there was a psychological advantage with the second one. My entire pregnancy with my second daughter, Victoria, was spent masquerading around the country as Isis the Great Mother, doing what I was meant to do my entire life, celebrate life and dance! I felt fantastic! I felt like a Goddess!
The deep question that arose for me was why had I not felt free to dance in a professional capacity during my first pregnancy? Not that I wanted to be in a nightclub while I was pregnant, but there are other venues. What was this invisible social pressure upon us as women to hide away during the most creative and glorious position of our lives? What damage is being done to a society which has no images of pregnant women doing anything powerful, creative, or physical? Would our world not benefit from such healthy images of beauty and strength of Motherhood?
In the late 1980’s in the Los Angeles area, Suzanne McNeil had been pioneering classes that involved teaching pregnant women to use belly dance as a therapeutic aid throughout their pregnancies. She had become familiar with my work because of the “Dance to the Great Mother” video which I had produced while eight months pregnant. In exchange for some videos, she sent me an unpublished and in-progress manuscript with the working title, “Birthdance: A Labor of Love,” (a title which I borrowed for this article). It was a great trade.
Inside the blue binder were the lesson plans, copious notes of her class progress, and her findings, including the case notes on the actual birthing progress and experience of some of her students. There was a collection of reference articles on Oriental dance and its connection to birthing rituals. Most famous and fascinating was the article entitled “Roots,” by Morocco (ed. note: see Morocco’s article in this issue). There were references from yoga journals, personal profiles from belly dancers outside of her classes, medical and midwifery notes, recommended reading lists, and excerpts from published works on sacred dance, myth, rites, symbols, and goddesses.
The material focused primarily on how the movements of belly dance can be an aid throughout a woman’s pregnancy and in the actual birthing process. By documenting her work and findings, the larger goal was to teach teachers how to work with Birthdance as a viable practice for expectant women. In these classes, she worked exclusively with pregnant women. Although she would have loved to have worked with professional belly dancers and documented their birthing progress, since we are pregnant such a small percentage of time in our lives, that wasn’t in the cards. None of the case notes involved professional belly dancers who knew the movements prior to their pregnancy. The movements used were basic and carefully initiated, combining relaxation and breathing techniques, yoga, meditation and the basic hip circle, figure eight, camel walk, belly roll, and diaphragm flutter.
The following summarizes ten of Suzanne’s findings from her research:
1. It is easier for women to learn belly roll movements when they are pregnant. This was amazing!
2. The undulation, or camel walk, felt uncomfortable during labor for all the subjects. The motion made it feel like there was pressure downward on the cervix. After discovering this, she did not use it during labor. Otherwise, it did not affect anyone in class, except occasionally for some during the eight or ninth month.
3. The movements most useful during labor were in relation to the hips and lower back, i.e., the figure eight, the hip circle and the pelvic thrust (not from belly dance).
4. All the students wanted to learn these movements in their dance form because it is more fun. A teacher could teach them separately as a technique without the belly dance name attached to it if she were hampered by a conservative community.
5. The circular movements of the pelvis could be done during labor standing, leaning on a bed or table, or on hands and knees.
6. Pregnant women learned better when Suzanne placed her hand on the area of the body where the movement needed to be corrected. She would stand next to them, touching, to have them mimic the undulation. This seemed to accelerate learning.
7. Physical balance and energy increased.
8. Attitudes about their bodies improved.
9. Indigestion during pregnancy (a common occurrence) was almost always eliminated.
10. One woman reported that her baby would kick a lot when she laid down to go to sleep. She tried using belly rolls during the night and it did quiet the kicking.
Although Suzanne did not know me prior to sending me her manuscript, she thought that since I had produced the video, I would be an archival depository source for her researching efforts if she did not go on with this labor of love. I have lost contact with her, and I am not sure what the status of her work is at the moment. I choose to bring this to light because I think that this very important work that she and others in the field are doing needs to be continued.
I (and I am sure all of us who have worked in this area) encourage women to practice the dance as long as and whenever they are able. Encourage your fellow dancers to blossom in the fullness of their expression, to feel proud to display their pregnant countenance, and to share the special roots of our dance.
Partial reading list:
Bhallachayya, Nerendra Nath, The Indian Mother Goddess, Monohar, 1977.
Bonheim, Jalaja, Serpent and the Wave, Celestial Arts, 1992.
“The Cultural Warping of Childbirth,” in Environmental Child Health, Vol. 19, June, 1973.
Eliade, Mircea, Myths, Rites, Symbol: A Mircea Eliade Reader, Harper and Row, 1975.
Gaskin, Ina May, Spiritual Midwifery, The Book Publishing Co., 1977.
Gioseffi, Daniella, Earth Dance.
Kitzinger, S., Good Birth Guide, Fontana, 1979.
McLeans, Adam, The Triple Goddess.
Neumann Eric, The Great Mother, translated by Ralph Manheim, Princeton University Press.
Oesterly, W.O.E., “Sacred Dance: A Study of Comparative Folklore,” Cambridge Press.
Pinckney, Callan, Callanetics: For the Pelvis, Avon Books, 1987.
Delilah is an internationally recognized performer and instructor of bellydance. She is a partner in Visionary Dance Productions, which has produced her series of instructional and performance video tapes. Delilah holds an annual bellydance retreat in Maui. www.visionarydance.com