Let’s Get Real – Fitness Level and Dance

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That’s me, Nathara – the big girl in the center

If you’ve met me, then you know I’m a big girl. But what you might not realize is that just a couple years ago, I thought my dancing had been ended by a back injury.

It didn’t happen all at once – it happened gradually over time, getting more and more sore and more and more debilitating. Finally, I woke up and I couldn’t spring out of bed – I was in a LOT of pain. I took a temporary hiatus from dance, figuring that resting my back would fix it right up. Then, one day, I was on a photo shoot and couldn’t walk more than 10 feet without having to sit down and rest my back from pain that coursed through it and into my thighs and knees. That’s when it because really real.

I spent months and months and months going to doctor after doctor and physical therapist after physical therapist. They did all the tests on me and they all came back inconclusive – how on Earth could I be so disabled by something the doctors had no idea about? Was I ever going to be able to walk again? Hike? Dance?

I was referred to a pain management specialist and, while I was waiting, a friend bought me a gym membership so I could continue my own physical therapy in a place where I could get help if I needed it.

I feel the need to point out at this point that I am a mere 35 years old – there is no reason for there to be something wrong with my back – at least, none that I (nor my doctors) knew of.

This is Samra - she's been belly dancing forever and is somewhere in her 70s - I can't keep up with her at all!
This is Samra – I can’t keep up with her at all!

While waiting for the specialist, I decided I had to go back to dance. Not dancing was slowly killing my soul and I needed to reconnect. Belly dance is an especially wonderful dance in that the social aspect is so pervasive. Unlike other dance classes where you show up and hang out in your personal bubble, never talking to anyone else, in belly dance, we are all sisters – young, old, thin, fat, introvert, extrovert, pro, amateur, whatever. If you dance, we’re sisters, just like that. Not only did I need to reconnect and be in my body the way I only can be when I was dancing, but I also missed my sisters. So, I decided that if I danced for 5 seconds and then laid down for 10 minutes during class, that’s what I would do.

I made it all the way through class that first night without having to rest at all. I was shocked, my mentor was shocked, the other ladies were shocked. It was AMAZING. I continued going to class every week and slowly my pain started easing up, as did the accompanying depression. I was feeling more like myself again and everyone was just so supportive.

In the meantime, I saw the specialist and after a 5 minute examination, she recommend that I have my nerves cauterized. That even SOUNDS really horrible!

I did some research on the internet and learned that some people experience relief for 6 months to a year  before having to have the procedure done again – but others only get a few days, and some even experience worse pain instead.  So I told the specialist that I was going to wait on the cauterization and see where dance would take me. I consulted my regular doctor and she agreed and measuring my range of motion showed I had improved dramatically.

My back still has issues, but I think I know what the problem is – a weakened psoas muscle. But, I keep it strengthened by going to dance class. I can tell when I miss class because I become achey and sore right away. But as long as I don’t do anything foolish like carry furniture, my back is totally fine. I even went hiking with my brother back in October.

So, yay for me! But WHY was belly dance able to help me recover?

Belly dance works all sorts of different muscles in different ways - people are always shocked by that!
Check out Shaliney’s acrobatics!

Great question! So, the type of movement belly dance teaches is intramuscular and isotropic exercises. This means that the muscles are exercised by pushing against each other, rather than a weight. This also gives it the added benefit of being a low-impact (rather, no impact) exercise, which means it doesn’t jar and hurt your joints, so if you have a bad knee, hip, etc. it’s a good way to rehabilitate because you won’t be jumping up and down or running or anything like that which strains the joints.

It also strengthens your core muscles. In Western civilization, we are trained to use our torso muscles as a corset – the muscles stay tensed continuously to keep our backs and middles rigid and upright (or not, if you slouch), but it actually makes your core much stronger than it would be otherwise – and you get to experience the bliss of using your dormant muscles in the ways they were meant to move.

That doesn’t mean that belly dance is a non-cardio exercise, though – while the slow undulating movements are excellent for strengthening your entire body, the accent movements (or “hits”) provide a cardio workout as well, without impacting your joints. The thing I found especially helpful in this is that I could increase my cardio as slowly as I wanted to by just doing what I felt com have a slouching issue!). We are taught that moving our torso sinuously is sinful and provocative, and so discouraged. But moving these muscles in a sinuous and nuanced way is actually what they’re supposed to do and I didn’t have to worry about what would happen if I was 6 blocks from my house and plain old couldn’t walk anymore.

So, now I am living almost a normal life with normal activities and experiencing almost no pain at all. I still have to be careful not to push  my back too hard, too fast (I was learning break dancing the other day and it just murdered my back because the posture is all different), but otherwise, I am footloose and fancy free. And I have my sisters back. And while I am still quite overweight, my doctors say I am extremely fit – just with some extra fluff on top.

A lot of people think they have to get in shape before taking a dance class, but belly dance works within your capabilities and allows you to push yourself gently into bigger and stronger movements. Dance first, then, when you’re stronger and fitter, THEN go back to the gym.

Keep in mind, this is just my anecdotal experience combined with 18 years of dancing and connecting with hundreds if not thousands of other dancers. Your mileage may very, but seriously consider it.

Good night for now, lovelies!

— Nathara

Nathara, Aine, and Shaliney after a surprise performance at a birthday party - still ready to rock!
Nathara, Aine, and Shaliney after a surprise performance at a birthday party – still ready to rock!
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