The Unique Contributions of Middle Eastern Dance
Benefits to health — physical, psychological, wholistic — can be achieved through many forms of activity, of which dance is only one, and Middle Eastern dance in particular is an even smaller subset. In fact, any aerobic exercise an individual finds pleasing enough to continue on a regular basis may, given an appropriate regimen, confer increased aerobic fitness and conditioning; increased muscle tone or even muscle mass, with a concurrent increase in strength; increased endurance and even increased coordination and/or balance. Some activities will also increase body awareness, and many weight-bearing activities are especially important to women in terms of increasing bone mass and thus opposing osteoporosis. In addition, many kinds of physical activity can have psychological benefits: increased confidence, increased comfort with the body,1 resultant increased self-esteem and even social support. Middle Eastern dance, properly executed, can contribute in all of these ways, but also has some singular characteristics which result in unique contributions to the general health of the performer or practitioner — contributions not available in many other Western dance forms. My intent is to delineate these unique characteristics. For the purposes of this article I have chosen to discuss primarily physical benefits of Middle Eastern dance. Exploring more psychological, or even some physiological benefits (ie., the biochemical changes that occur in trance dances such as the zar) of this dance would engender at least one other long article!
One of the things that defines a style of dance is its aesthetic: What is valued? What do you look for? What is the ideal? The aesthetics or ideals of a dance form are visible not only in the movements of the dance but in the most basic “body language”: the posture. For example, as an excellent article entitled “The History of Flight,” in the journal Somatics2 indicates, ballet greatly preferenced an upward, airy direction over an earthy one. This in turn created a sylph-like, airborne ideal. In addition, as the article indicates, ballet was performed at court, where you dared not turn your back on the king. Because of these things ballet came to place far greater emphasis on the front of the body than the back. This aesthetic is still visible today, though less emphasized in modern styles than it used to be. As a result, ballet dancers without proper training — either in ballet or in something like Alexander technique — are at great risk of compressing their backs as they seek to lengthen their fronts.
However, Middle Eastern dance’s aesthetic and prescribed posture is not the same. Postural and presentational aesthetics in fact differ widely from form to form: ballet does not use kabuki posture; flamenco does not use Balinese posture. Therefore, dancers who choose, for example, to incorporate ballet steps or principles into Middle Eastern dance need to be aware of more than how to perform the steps. Not only must they be aware of the cultural significance of gestures, they must realize when they are introducing a value statement, based on an aesthetic, along with a movement. In the aesthetic of Middle Eastern dance, the back of the body is valued equally with the front. While it may be true that in some Arabic cultures “giving someone your back” is a gesture of disrespect or anger, recall two things: one, it does not translate to all Arabic cultures; and two, it is operative in context — when it is done in response to conversation or attempted conversation, or socially. Native Middle Eastern dancers, theatrical and otherwise, do turn their backs — in fact, those who entertain off the theatre stage often must have their backs to a certain portion of the audience part of the time. Dancers at weddings or those leading the Zeffa Al Arousa, the procession of the bride, are a prime example. A dance that developed in marketplaces, villages, communal rituals and gatherings is one that does not necessarily have to preference one direction at the expense of others. Therefore, in Middle Eastern dance, the back is not compressed to preferentially lengthen the front. The dancer is as “present” in her3 back as in her front—something that is occasionally difficult for our western, mirror-gazing and frontally-oriented culture to learn. We know “the backs of our hands,” but the full length of the backs of our bodies may be an unknown.
One very important application of the principle of valuing the back equally relates to Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen’s work4 on oppositional lengthening: if Middle Eastern dance demands that the back and the front be lengthened equally, then when executing a backbend5 — which can place extreme demands and pressures on the body if done improperly — one must, among other things, lengthen the back as well as the front.6 Doing so relieves most of the more dangerous pressures on the body. In fact, this same principle keeps the dancer “present” in both (or all) sides of the body, enhancing performance as well as safety.
This sort of fortuitous gain occurs throughout Middle Eastern dance. As practitioners of this dance, we are lucky: this form actually preferences, even demands, natural good posture. I would like to take a moment to point out that this differs from fictional good posture. Puffing one’s chest forward and up (at the expense of the back) and maintaining an artificial arch in the back is not good for anyone — no matter how supposedly “attractive” it is, as fashion photography would have us believe! Instead, actual good posture occurs when the spine is appropriately aligned in a relaxed way: When the back and front are equally and simultaneously lengthened, no muscles are working harder than they need to (to create an artificial arch, for instance), and only the normal curves of the spine are present. If one is unaccustomed to this posture, it can often be found by imagining that one is about to sit down on a chair or stool. This is exactly the “basic position” taught to students of Middle Eastern dance by knowledgeable teachers — though each teacher often has a different means of saying it. Nonetheless, the freedom, softness, or bit of bend in the knees and the hip joints (actually necessary for certain movements) and the alignment of the spine which Middle Eastern dance works from is, in fact, ideal natural posture. In such a state, we are safe from dangerous compression and possible eventual damage.
Another healthy freedom in Middle Eastern dance, and a postural aesthetic, is the acceptance of foot alignment that allows toes to point straight ahead, and joint positioning that places knees directly under hip joints and ankles directly under knees. Western women in particular often feel compelled to pull the knees in. Many will do this especially when bending the knees for a height change down; they may have been told it’s what a “lady” does, the implication being that otherwise, one is no lady! This is not, however, a Middle Eastern standard. Perhaps attire plays a role here, but at any rate, Middle Eastern dance allows the joints of the lower extremity to be placed in alignment, so that the knee bends as it was meant to: straight forward, not sideways! Attempting to coerce the knee into bending a bit inward is an excellent way to damage the medial ligament. A good alternate standard is that the knee should bend in the direction the toes are pointing — preferably the second and third toes, since western women’s shoes often deform the feet so that the big toe is bent laterally, toward the outside of the foot. This is a safe application even for other forms.
Unsafe uses of the hip joint are usually less of a concern, since it is a ball and socket joint rather than a hinge joint. Nonetheless, locking the hip joint into an extended position often creates a “chain” or “cascade” effect wherein the knees also lock back (another way they were not meant to bend), the pelvis tilts down and forward and a slight arch is placed in the lower back, resulting in compression of that area. My Feldenkrais instructor, Dr. Paul Linden, often uses the illustration of two basic postures: the open, extroverted, or exposed and the closed, introverted, or shielded. Adopting one aspect of either of these will predispose one to other aspects. Locking the hip joint forward predisposes one to the open posture — which is not particularly balanced. Recall that the postural aesthetic of Middle Eastern dance is balanced.7 Middle Eastern dance demands this not only aesthetically, but functionally: If the hip joint is locked forward, many movements are, if not impossible to perform, extremely difficult to perform well. This is particularly true of Egyptian dance, which not only works this area, but emphasizes it as a focus.8 Consider, too, the basic posture for Middle Eastern dance and how to attain it: imagine sitting down on a high chair (If you can sit with your hip joints locked forward, please phone immediately, as I’d like to photograph you for medical journals!).
In a balanced, aligned, centered posture, with a bit of bend or softness in the joints for quick movement, as needed, or shock absorption, movement is not only easier to perform, but also easier on the body. Another advantage of Middle Eastern dance worth mentioning, however, is that, with the exception of certain folkloric forms which do emphasize bouncing or jumping,9 not only does Middle Eastern dance work from a posture preferable to many other forms, it has less impact. I am fond of describing it as “the original low-impact aerobics.” It is weight-bearing exercise, not weight-stress exercise.
Another unique characteristic of Middle Eastern dance, especially as opposed to most western dance forms which focus on use and placement of the extremities, is its emphasis on working from and with the torso and the center of the body. When movement originates from or moves through the center it lends power, balance and coordination, and is in fact the most effective way to move. The best athletes, the best dancers, have all learned, consciously or unconsciously, to use their centers. Use of the center is not always taught in other dance and exercise forms, however, and it is possible, without training in observation from Alexander, Feldenkrais or other techniques, to look at either throwing a ball or a tango and see only hand or foot movement. Middle Eastern dance will not permit this oversight: it not only works with, but focuses on the torso, relations of the ribs, pelvis, abdominals, hips and all the muscles of the spine, demanding that the student learn to work from and use her center. In order to obtain precise locks, shimmies or undulations, all essential to the dance, the student must explore, learn about, and gain control of many of the deep muscle groups, postural muscles, and stabilizers — and he or she must develop the strength to do so. One particular Egyptian dance walk works almost directly from the psoas muscle. Even the graceful hand and arm movements, in the aesthetic of Arabic dance, start not from the hand or fingertips, but from the center: from the center of the back, from the collarbones and sternum10. There is one folkloric “shoulder” shimmy that actually originates in the back: The muscles on top of the shoulder have little or nothing to do with it; it cannot be achieved by using them, instead requiring use of the more powerful back muscles.
The general power of movements that originate from the center, from the torso, from muscles strong enough to stabilize us upright, on and off center, for all our waking hours, has another effect in addition to the physical ones. Learning to tap, to control this power can be a heady thing. At the very least, it often gives confidence and pride to the performer. Often it unlocks what the “problem” was with other activities that were attempted: the center, the balance, were not used. So many Middle Eastern dancers say that before studying Middle Eastern dance they “used to be really clumsy” or “really uncoordinated” or “no good at physical activities or sports.” My personal theory is that control of the center and movement through it, while used by the best practitioners of other forms — perhaps unconsciously — is rarely overtly recognized or formally taught. People who see only foot or hand placement, focus on it and attempt to perform it without using their centers, are at a disadvantage. I believe, moreover, that some people preferentially initiate from their centers. It is accepted that some people initiate movement — walking or spins, for instance —from their shoulders, some from their hips, and that the quality of the same movement, with a different initiation point, differs. I think that many of the dancers who feel at home and at ease in Middle Eastern dance are people who preferentially initiate from their hips, from their centers. They become better at many things — even things they weren’t good at before — once they learn how to include and use their centers. The aesthetic and movements of Middle Eastern dance outright force them to do so.
Working from the center and concentrating on the many different areas and relationships of the torso — an area that many western dances treat as a rigid unit — can have another effect as well: improving the student’s kinesthetic map. A kinesthetic map, as I will use the term — and as it is generally used, I believe — is the concept an individual has of the proportions of her body, locations of the joints and so forth. Portions a student pays extra attention to would be drawn larger on her kinesthetic map; portions she ignores, smaller or shorter. It is rather like a funhouse mirror distortion of the body. The point is, people often move or carry themselves not in accordance with the actual proportions of their bodies or the actual locations of joints, but in accordance with their maps. If a student thinks of her foot as narrow, like an ice skate, she will use it that way, and she will have balance problems. If, however, the concept of the four points of the feet is introduced,11 and the foot is conceived of in terms of four different places, with definite space in between them, there will be more use of the actual area of the foot, and balance will improve. Almost all of us know someone who illustrates the classic case of an inaccurate kinesthetic map: the person who was a tall, thin teenager but has since filled out to, for instance, a six-foot, 180-pound triathlete who constantly walks into things because he still thinks of himself as that slender teenager. Of course he runs into things — he truly isn’t aware of the “new” size of his feet or the width of his shoulders or the depth of his chest. In fact, if you ask most people to indicate with their hands the depth of their ribcages, they will be off by a good bit. We pay a lot of attention in mirrors, which show frontal images only, to the width of our ribcages, but rarely gauge the depth.
In Middle Eastern dance, the forced focus on individual “pieces” of the body and relationships between them, particularly in the torso, can redefine or “redraw” an individual’s kinesthetic map — more accurately and appropriately. I referred to this earlier when I indicated that Middle Eastern dance could provide a more accurate body image as well as improve a dancer’s comfort with her body. This dance of course emphasizes hip work, requiring some focus on that area. In the process, however, the dancer discovers that wide hips enhance beautiful, precise hip work. Moreover, it is also absolutely necessary to release inward pulls and tightness in order to execute some movements in Middle Eastern dance. Thus, such a dancer not only gains a better concept of where her hips are and how they work, she gains a positive appreciation of wide hips and relaxed, released easy movement, escaping at least one restrictive cultural mandate.
Another excellent example is the focus on undulations involving the spine. Most Westerners believe, or move as if they believe, that the largest and predominant joint in the spine exists at the waist. While this area is regularly stimulated by the waistline of our pants or skirts, it is not the largest joint, but only one of many. If, however, it is drawn largest in the dancer’s mind, she will try to move that way. The spinal undulations of Middle Eastern dance force at least some awareness of all the joints in the spine — including those I find most often ignored: the lumbar area and the mid-thoracic joints, particularly those between the shoulder blades. The emphasis placed on the relation of the pelvis to the spine and body, particularly by Egyptian dance, forces a realization that yes, there are lumbar vertebrae, several, and a dancer can flex or extend at any and all of them. Middle Eastern dance can cure people of treating this area, and the mid-thoracic area, as a rigid unit. In this sense it can confer much more flexibility and ease of movement.
These undulations are only some of the many movements in Middle Eastern dance referred to in Labanotation as successional movements. Such a movement style can confer increased range of motion and flexibility anywhere it works. For instance, many of the successional movements involving the arm can lead to realization of increased range of motion in the shoulder. Remember: if a student never thought she could move that way, if it never occurs to her, she may in fact never move that way. However, once a discovery is made that the ball joint of the shoulder will allow a certain movement, that option is open as a movement choice. This is one way Middle Eastern dance increases flexibility.
Another means for increasing flexibility involves a counter-intuitive — but very true — principle of Middle Eastern dance: achieving greater amplitude or speed in vibrational movements, among others, requires relaxation. Many work-ethic oriented Westerners assume that they must work harder, use more muscles, tighten them up, use more effort. They believe in more effort, so they create it — unnecessarily. In fact, the means to control “shimmy” or vibrational movements comes primarily from two things: an awareness of comfortable, rather than actual, range of motion; and control of the degree of relaxation. Doesn’t “controlling the degree of relaxation” sound like a tempting goal in itself in our rushed, stressed lives? Wistful humor aside, it is true that we can find ways to consciously relax an area. This has applications not just to the shimmies of Middle Eastern dancers, but to the achilles tendonitis and shin splints of runners. The conscious control of relaxation one must learn in attempting to master shimmies, and the kinesthetic, feeling sense of what that relaxation is like, can be applied equally well to a tight calf muscle, with at least some palliative effect. Middle Eastern dancers will and must eventually learn this — another fortunate side effect of the aesthetic and movement form.
In summary, Middle Eastern dance is a form that works from a natural posture and alignment which are kind to the body; that values the whole body rather than stressing one part for the enhancement of another; that is low-impact; that focuses on movement from the center and teaches one how to access and use it, and in doing so evokes feelings of personal power and confidence; that improves self-image not only in the psychological sense but in the kinesthetic map sense; that improves the effectiveness of movement in general; that increases flexibility, actually or by enhancing one’s sense of it; that can possibly lead to at least some conscious control of relaxation, and hence has applicability to preventing or easing injuries; and that can, unlike so many other forms, be performed far, far beyond the 30th year without damage to the body — more likely, with increased fitness and health, as well as increased depth and content, as one goes on. Finally, this dance form has an advantage for, an appreciation of, and a validation of not one body type, but all the rich and varied builds, proportions, widths, depths, heights and images common to human beings. Given the standards — which must be called unrealistic for most — presented to us by today’s media, that is a very healthy thing, and worth remembering.
“I’m struck by how much HEALTHIER bellydance is. Even if you do start as a child, there’s no insistence on starving yourself; and in the countries that started it, big is beautiful — it’s assumed you have to have something there to shimmy with. Instead of the extreme extensions and pushing the muscles beyond their limit that characterize ballet, we learn to relax: you can’t flutter taut muscles, you have to relax them and give yourself slack. You’re in contact with the floor — or better yet, the earth — instead of up on point, or on the parallel bars, trying to ignore pain and the fear, no, expectation of falling. And you can go on doing it as long as you can move anything, instead of being forcibly retired at 25 or 30 with no experience of any other way of life to fall back on. (I suspect some of the older dancers can still dance because they do still dance: the exercise itself helps keep bone density up and fights off osteoporosis and related problems.) Not to sound messianic, but we’re onto a very good thing here. And yes, we do need to spread it around — and provide some alternative female archetypes to counteract Twiggy, Kate Moss, et al.” — Ma’Aleesh/Jo Falcon
1. Middle Eastern dance in particular can not only enhance a dancer’s self-image but can confer a more accurate physical self-image through body awareness, as will be seen.
2. Pitt, Leonard. “The history of flight.” Somatics 1988-89; Autumn/Winter: 24-35.
3. Although I do not see Middle Eastern dance as solely feminine by any means, I wish to avoid the laborious “his or her” convention. Because of this, and because the great majority of western participants are female, I choose to use “her” and “she” in this article.
4. Previously available only as separate articles, a compilation in book form is now available and can be ordered directly from the School for Body-Mind Centering, Northampton, Mass. by calling 413-256-8615. Bainbridge Cohen, B. Sensing, feeling and action: the experiential anatomy of body-mind centering. Northampton, Mass.: Contact Editions,1993.
5. Note that one can perform flawless Middle Eastern dance without ever opting to perform any kind of backbend. It is not a necessary part of the dance.
6. There are several other considerations in doing backbends; see my previous article, “An Alexanderized Look at Backbends,” in Habibi Vol. 10 Number 10, 1985.
7. In this sense Middle Eastern dance comes closer to martial arts, with its emphasis on centeredness (as well as the concept of the pelvis as the center of power, and of flow through the center), than it does to those western dance forms which preference the open or extroverted posture.
8. Shareen El Safy, seminar in St. Louis, Missouri, May 1991.
9. It is worth noting that, unlike the dermishes common to Eastern European dance, for example, most bouncing movements in Middle Eastern dance emphasize bouncing lightly up, rather than heavily down. It is more like posting a trot in English horseback riding: instead of driving the body down, you touch lightly and briefly and use that touch to spring up.
10. Zeina/Dee Birnbaum, seminar in Louisville, Kentucky, October 23, 1993.
11. Simplistically, the four points are on the inside and outside of the ball and heel of the foot. Suzanna Del Vecchio was the first instructor I encountered who was using them, though not in the way I do here.
Shakira teaches and performs internationally, drawing on 19 years’ experience in Middle Eastern dance. Her background also includes four years of medical school and several years’ study of the Alexander Technique, the Feldenkrais Method, and Paul Linden’s Being in Movement. She is currently obtaining certification in the latter. In addition to dance publications on topics from technique to ethics, she has contributed to several publications as a medical writer. A version of this article was presented at the Orientale Dance Festival of Finland, January 1996, where Shakira was the American instructor, one of four international instructors selected worldwide email@example.com.