Belly Dance as Birth Meditation
by Janice Olivia Dawn
Long ago, women trusted in their unique knowledge and skills in the art of growing and birthing their babies. Those with experience imparted their wisdom to first-time mothers, not just through verbal dialogue, but in their body language and with the use of their intuition in daily endeavors. Often, women’s pregnancies culminated in a birth circle “dance,” where the laboring mother, surrounded and protected by a circle of other women, danced her baby into the world. And women continued to stay in community, working and raising their children together, all at the same time. There was a synchronicity, a resonance with one another’s biorhythms and daily lives that no doubt gave them great comfort.
This unique connection was drastically undermined and/or undervalued in androcentric cultures as the rise of male “experts,” with their claims to superior intelligence, dictated separation and submissiveness of women “for their own good.” We women have struggled under this somewhat alien and alienating authority for long enough now. Things are starting to turn around. We are circling back to re-discover wisdom long forgotten. We are asserting our own authority, and challenging the “experts” to broaden their limited, left-brain thinking.
Belly dance plays a key role in this circle, as many of us well know. So does the profession of midwifery, once driven to almost complete extinction through the annihilation and defamation of thousands of women healers and midwives. Now it is happily being re-instated even in hospitals in our country. Trained, certified midwives are growing in numbers, and attending hospital as well as home births. Trained, certified doulas (labor coaches) are also part of the growing trend in re-establishing the ancient connection of women coaching women in labor.
My personal experience with midwives and doulas began when I hired one of each to assist me in my first home birth, 18 1/2 years ago. I was a professional belly dancer in the San Francisco Bay area in those days. I had started taking belly dance classes after my first hospital birth, some five years earlier. That birth was one of those awful experiences involving being strapped flat on my back, injected with an hallucinogenic drug, and feeling body, mind, and spirit raped by people I supposedly trusted. My baby was pulled from me with forceps because I, under the influence of “Twilight Sleep” (such a nice name for such a nasty drug), forgot who or where I was and only felt I was being tortured by some demonic force. I wish I could say the nightmare ended when I woke up and found I had a “healthy baby and that’s all that counts,” but scopolamine’s long term side effects and the grief I experienced over that birth did not go away that easily. (Watch out for those drugs, they’re not as innocent as they sound.)
That experience taught me not to allow myself to be so disempowered, so completely out of touch with my body’s natural process again. I felt instinctively that there was a better way to give birth. That’s why I learned to belly dance and discovered what an important women’s yoga it really is. Not only can it it teach incredible insights about oneself, it is a great vehicle for connecting and networking with other women. And why not, when its origins can be traced back to those ancient, matrifocal cultures — artistic, peaceful civilizations that date back to over ten thousand years!
Belly dance taught me far more about endurance and intuition in labor than had my years of being a modern dancer or a runner. Like birth giving, its about circles, and waves and the natural flow of energy. It taught me how to meditate, and how to be more present in my every waking moment. With that I learned discernment in my choice of environment and support persons for childbirth. The next time I was far more prepared. It, too, was a hospital birth, but at least it was drugless, except for the local anesthetic they gave me when they stitched up the episiotomy, the cut they administered so freely in those days. So the third time I made careful plans for a home birth. Not wanting any more drug scenes (what a sad way to introduce your baby to the world), nor another knifing at the hospital (episiotomies were still “routine” then), I chose to have a home birth even though many people warned me of the “dangers.”
“Could it be as dangerous as the hospital?” I wondered, and decided it couldn’t. Naturally, I hired a female midwife and a female doula. I had wonderful prenatal care which included them listening to what I wanted, for a change. I danced through a three-hour labor, proud of myself for flowing with the energy of the birth waves so well. The experience was such a world apart from my first experience that I’m still on a natural high from it 18 years later!
I had to express what I’d learned about belly dance and the woman-to-woman bond in childbirth preparation. In 1978, I wrote an article about my birth experience in Habibi (“Water Babies,” Vol. 4, No. 9), describing how I had danced through my labor at home, hoping to share with other dancers and women how useful our craft was in giving birth. At that time people were skeptical, even though the traditional five part belly dance routine was already known to be related to ancient childbirth rituals. The publisher, Bob Zalot, bravely stuck by me and allowed me to write other stories on this topic. Today, through the Internet, there are hundreds of belly dancers and midwives worldwide who trade ideas and stories about this very connection.
As a birth counselor I have had further opportunity to share my knowledge, which has blossomed over the years with my involvement in the ancient arts of belly dance and meditation. I have taught prenatal classes that included belly dance techniques, and have taught belly dance to children and young women as a certified teacher in public schools. In sharing my experience as a dancer with laboring mothers, I have witnessed the sense of synchronicity and ease that happens when a first time mother trusts her birth coach enough to keep close eye contact and harmonize breathing and body movements. The amazement and ecstasy even new mothers experience when they effectively utilize the circular, wavy techniques of belly dance for easier, shorter births is what keeps me dedicated to what I do. There is a certain kind of power which cannot be imparted through machines, drugs or product-oriented thinking. The process of birth is an example of an instance when this power can be experienced and documented. Like other ancient arts, it is more of a vibrational experience that flows in waves of energy gleaned through close, personal encounters with one skilled in those maneuvers. This is something our ancestors knew, and we can still access this knowledge through our own genetic memory.
Since I began my formal training as a birth counselor twelve years ago, and later when I became an assistant to a nurse-midwife, I have worked almost exclusively in home births. Through two more pregnancies (I can attest to the belly dance’s fertility-enhancing powers!) and home births, I experienced the greatest ease of labor at home myself, and so I chose to continue in that atmosphere. While continuing my career as a professional belly dancer, I also taught the belly dance techniques I’d perfected for myself to our pregnant clients and I coached them to “dance” through their labors. At first I was surprised at how readily women who weren’t particularly dancers took to the basic exercises I gave them, and at how well they used them, with my guidance, during labor.
I saw that many pregnant women craved a more active role in giving birth and would readily utilize tools for enabling this. Perhaps this is not true for everyone. Some women have never felt that in touch with their bodies and are terrified of the physical challenge of labor. These women tend to have a harder time, and more difficult obstacles to overcome in preparing for birth. They need tools for transforming their self-image from passivity to empowerment. And we know the power of belly dance as such a tool. There are so many ways to express our empowerment through the dance!
Two years ago, I joined a group called “Co-Creations for a Joyful Birth,” based in Ashland, Oregon. I began to venture back into the hospital to coach women in labor who have come through Co-Creations. It wasn’t easy at first. The negative memory of my own hospital birth experience haunted me now and then. But many nurses and doctors have also become attuned to the positive changes in consciousness about birth giving. There is more respect for the laboring mother.
What I learned from belly dance and meditation has brought much personal healing as well as the completion of a circle for me. And that’s what this ancient dances teaches, the power of the circle in all its amazing manifestations.
Janice Olivia Dawn (formerly Janice Feldman) has been belly dancing professionally for over twenty years. She currently dances with Troupe Shalimar and belongs to Oasis Mideastern Dance Guild of the Rogue Valley, Oregon.
She has a BA in History from UCLA, a teaching credential, and an MA from Oregon State in History and Writing with a Women’s Studies emphasis. She has written articles for Habibi since 1978.
Ms. Dawn has worked as an assistant midwife, and two years ago joined Co-Creations for a Joyful Birth. She is currently working on certification by DONA (Doulas of North America), and is employed as a birth counselor/doula.
She is co-author of You, Your Right Brain and Birth, a soon to be self-published book that incorporates the ancient art of belly dancing as a childbirth preparation technique.