Conditioning and Dancing

Yes, it’s Friday and it should be an “inspiration” day, but there’s a post that’s been bubbling in my brain for a while, and I’d rather write it down now.

It’s about the sticky issue of conditioning. And I say “sticky” because a lot of belly dancers don’t like it. They expect classes to be “fun”, they go there to dance, and anything that even remotely smells of hard, technical work is scoffed at. Dancing is equated with learning a choreography, and other things pertaining to the dance, like a bit of history, or even talking about the music, are eschewed because people go to have fun. Arm technique? BOOOORIIING!!! controlled moves? who cares when you can just wiggle around a bit!

And while that is ok, it also creates a somewhat stagnated environment, where advancing your technique, if you really wanted to, can become difficult. Picking a favourite move, like a camel or body undulation, or even a tummy pop, I’ve heard people say that they would never be able to do them nicely because they had no control over their abs, and no strength. Yes, belly dancing will give you some core toning, but unless there’s more effort to get those muscles stronger, they won’t build up that extra strength magically. And stronger muscles help get stronger, cleaner and more controlled moves.

For us curvy ladies there’s an extra layer of stickiness, as doing conditioning work can be *difficult*, mostly because a lot of the exercises can put a lot more strain on our joints purely because of our weight, or because our thicker thighs and bigger tummies can get in the way of executing some movements, or worse, just breathing. And then we find that awful conundrum, thinking that we need to be thin to become better dancers, and for those trying to shed that awful mindset where everything going wrong with us was because of our weight, this becomes a dangerous mindset. Some might give up altogether, because after all, why bother?

The answer is not to give up, but to get stronger. Yes, it will be more painful, yes, we might need to start with less repetitions, or with the easier versions, or both. We might not be able to do even ten push-ups on the floor, but there’s nothing to say we can’t do wall push-ups instead. And some exercises like Pilates, that are no-impact, might help too. And you know what? Against what might happen the first couple of times, it does get easier. The first time my ATS teacher put us through her Level 2 conditioning, I was a bit in pain -the full “oh gods my abs are so stiff I can’t move or even laugh” came later- but deep down, I was embarrassed that I was having so much difficulty with it all (would have never admitted it, though). Planks? Please, I couldn’t even lift my thighs off the floor for the easy version! It was so bad that I wrote back to her to ask what I could expect, because I didn’t think my body would cope. She was encouraging but firm: I would not be allowed to get away with not doing stuff because it was too difficult, but she wanted me to try. I did, thinking that it wouldn’t happen: I was too fat, too old, to get my body to do some things.

Obviously, I was wrong. That was back in November last year; we’re in the middle of May, I’m still taking ATS, and while I still find some parts of the conditioning difficult, some things have improved dramatically. The physiotherapy exercises I’ve been having to do since January to deal with my tendinitis have given me a required framework to add some extra exercises, and that’s what I’ve done. I am currently doing Pilates’ Series of 5 (see video below) plus tummy crunches and a plank every other day in between my physio series; on the other days, I’ve started a series of biceps and triceps curls and have picked a few exercises from Rachel Brice’s DVD on arms, as well as wall push-ups, as the standard floor ones hurt my wrists quite badly, and I’m doing higher number of reps to make up for the easier work. This extra work has made the conditioning in class easier; I’m still finding it challenging, but I am getting there. I still hate it with a passion, but I understand that it’s got a good reason to be there. And I am not the only one that seems to think this extra work is worth it either. A lot of Tribal and Fusion classes do make a point of having conditioning thrown in, and not that long ago I read a post on Charlotte Desorgher’s blog about bringing back that conditioning for exactly the same reasons.

And the results are worth it. I’m looking at the videos from the May Fair and noticing that more often than not, my elbows are now lifted, whereas just keeping my arms up for a full song when I started was an effort. My undulations are strong enough that they can be seen even from a distance, even though they are usually the bane of quite a few curvy ladies, as the extra layer on top of the abs tends to obscure the move. I couldn’t even do an “easy” plank back in November, nowadays I can hold a proper one, not for long, granted, but still it’s improvement. And I’ve started weight lifting again, simply because owning a 2kg sword I should be able to wield it without tiring, or else I will hurt myself, one of my pets or someone around me while dancing or practicing if I can’t control it.

To me, it all boiled down to a few simple questions. What did I want more: sharper, more defined moves, or avoiding the embarrassment. Dancing with a sword, or not letting my arms ache. In short, allowing myself to work hard (and fail sometimes) to get better, or holding onto my deeply seated notions that I wouldn’t be able to do certain things because of my weight, in exchange for comfort. I know what I’ve chosen to do, but ultimately, the only person that can answer that is yourself.


Shoes – part I: Flats and Slippers

My very first purchase for dancing, after the second class, was of shoes. When you’re dancing, your feet work a lot, and therefore any issues with your feet or footwear will reflect on your comfort, dancing and of course could even affect your health. Plus sizes have the extra disadvantage of generally having wider feet, and can also have weaker joints that makes finding the right shoe critical for a safe, enjoyable practice.

Ballet shoes
My first purchase, and one that a lot of people use, were ballet shoes. Black, unassuming, and almost as comfortable as being barefoot, they are easily available and generally inexpensive. I would advice, however, against purchasing them online unless you have no other option, at least for the first pair, for the simple reason that every manufacturer has their own sizing, and the difference between snug enough and too tight is too small. You might find that your feet like one manufacturer’s better than others, or that someone’s 7 1/2 wide are someone else’s 9 standard. The best way to avoid frustration is to walk into a specialised shop, and ask. Tell them what you are looking for and why, they will be able to advice you properly.

Once you’ve got your brand new ballet shoes, there are some things you might want to do. First is to turn it inside out and sew the fabric sole all along the inside if this isn’t  done already. Usually these thin fabric soles are glued in place; while you’re dancing the heat tends to soften this glue and soon enough you will find the soles bunching up in uncomfortable places. Sewing it in place prevents this from happening.

The second thing you will want to do is to make sure those lovely elastics they come with are sewn in place and at the right angle and length. I prefer to wear mine as an X from just in front of the ankle bone to pretty near the front, but experiment with this until you find something that doesn’t bother you. Remember, the idea is to keep the shoe firmly in place in the middle of all your arabesques, gliding and shimmies, so you should aim for solidity, not prettiness. Shoes are usually covered by the skirts during performances anyway, at least if the skirt is cut to the right length, so don’t worry too much.

Good ballet shoes should see you perfectly well thought class. Some people, particularly those with wider feet, will find that the thin, short sole of the ballet shoes makes them feel unstable on their feet, or “pinches” in the wrong places. If that is the case, then these won’t be for you, although don’t discard the possibility of using them if you are in need of a particular colour of shoe to finish off an outfit: in this case, the white canvas, easily dyeable ballet shoes will come handy and save the day.

Ballerina Flats
Quite a few people in my class has tried these at some point or other. Either the standard flats or the currently very popular foldable party shoes, the kind that come in a little bag for you to change into after your feet have given up the ghost if you’ve been partying hard. These are comfortable but not the sturdiest, although most of them do have the required elastic around the opening to stay on your feet, so while they might be good for showing off your moves at that party or an ocassional performance, I wouldn’t choose to wear them for class. If you do choose to use these, make sure that the bottom is somewhat smooth, to help you with gliding and turning. If you choose to wear standard ballerina flats, make sure you add the elastics to help keep them in place, otherwise you will find yourself stumbling quite often.

Chinese Bellydancing Slippers
Don’t. Save yourself money and aggravation, and just don’t. If my word isn’t enough, I can give you a reason. These are knock-offs the egyptian bellydance slippers. But instead of suede or leather soles, as the originals have, they have made them with a fake suede that has a bit of a “foam” consistency. They will feel very comfortable and cushiony for as long as it takes you to wear them through, which in my case, was about a week where I practiced around one hour daily. They are easily available all over Ebay and even, to my dismay, at some specific bellydancing websites, selling them as Turkish (they aren’t).  The worst of it is, these are not that cheap comparing with the Egyptian ones, there’s just a couple of pounds’ difference, but saving yourself that little will result in needing to spend more quite soon.

Egyptian Bellydancing Slippers
Do, if you’ve got the chance. These are usually made with leatherette tops, but a double layer of leather or suede inside and outer soles. They are sturdy, are usually hand-sewn, and can last a long while. They tend to come in two versions, one with a teensy heel -around 1.5cm or just over half an inch-, and completely flat. I prefer the flat versions. They normally come in silver and gold, although some sellers have started offering them in other colours, and so far in the UK I’ve been able to find red, green, turquoise, black and cerise, all with silver,  and saw red and blue brought from Cairo. They  all tend to be done in metallic colours, most commonly gold and silver, and if you are doing tribal or you feel your gothic heart shrinking at the idea of  glitter on everything, you might find them a bit off-putting. I’ve resigned myself to the bling in exchange for their suitability.

The only issue I can see with purchasing them is that Cairo uses metrics and European sizes, so if you’re in the UK or US, make absolutely CERTAIN that your intended size is the one you’ve requested. Also, since they’re done by hand mostly, the sizing can be a bit erratic.



%d bloggers like this: