If the idea of wiggling your hips and shaking your bootie in a room full of people fills you with dread, what you are about to read may change your mind. You see, there are good reasons why belly dancing classes have grown in popularity with British women. Forget hours of pounding on the treadmill or turning up at Legs, Tums and Bums — belly dancing not only gets us girls toned in all the right places, but is also said to have some surprising health benefits — including improving the symptoms of pre-menstrual syndrome, boosting sex drive and aiding digestion.
When Mia Serra quit a high-powered job in the city to set up the Mia Serra School of Belly Dance six years ago in central London, she was taking a risk: at the time, belly dancing classes were still pretty niche. But the classes soon filled up, and there was demand for more.
Firstly there is the cardio element. It may not match the sweaty heights of circuit training but you can certainly get your heart-rate up, while at the same time strengthening and toning those problem areas — the buttocks, stomach, upper arms and even the legs. Mia says, “People lose a lot of weight, and it creates an hourglass womanly shape as the movements are very ‘figure of eight’. You keep your curves, and sometimes, if you don’t have them, you get them.”
Some reports claim the hip movements and blood flow lead to a balancing of hormones and thus reduction in pre-menstrual syndrome. It is also believed to reduce cellulite, provide a good source of non-impact weight-bearing exercise, and help combat digestive disorders. Mia explains: “The movements aren’t just stretching, some of them are internal, they are massaging your organs, your digestion, and when you do that, you’ll get a really nice feeling within yourself.”
Dr Mike Smith says there is no concrete evidence to support the claims, and most of what is described could be achieved by all forms of exercise. However, he adds it is likely that enjoying what you are doing further enhances the benefits. “While other exercise can be boring, belly dancing has a heightened sense of thrill,” he said. “Although it would be hard to prove that it has these advantages, it seems like a reasonable hypothesis — the spirit of adventure will get the endocrine glands going.”
Although belly dancing’s origins remain a matter of some debate, sometimes traced back to a pagan fertility dance, Serra speaks of the more commonly accepted roots. “Many people say it travelled with the gypsies. As they were nomadic it moved from India, across the Middle East and into Spain. They would take the dance forms and then infuse them into the culture wherever they went.”
More modern forms now embody a fusion of Turkish, Lebanese and Egyptian belly dance. Historically, the hip movements have actually been more important than those of the belly because in many Arab countries women are covered up so they would define the precision of movement by placing an ornate scarf around the hips. It was only in the 20th century that the glitzy bra and belt outfits came about.
Mia, who has danced at places including the British Museum and the Royal Festival Hall, says: “When I first learnt to dance, I didn’t want people to think of it as seedy and cheap. But then my mum said to me, if you’re not cheap and seedy, no one will perceive you as that.”