Three Belly Dancers Meet the Fitness Pharaoh
Compiled by Aliya
Sometimes when I start a new dance class, I ask my new students why they joined and what they want most out of the class. The answers vary, but usually include "fun" and "exercise". Although a little voice inside of me sometimes murmurs "It's the costumes, stupid", I know that these two reasons, fun and exercise, will always be a big part of the dance attraction.
The fun seems to happen naturally, and the exercise benefits have a wonderful way of creeping up on you. Anyone who does Middle Eastern dance is going to be, on the average, more flexible than someone who doesn't, and muscle development is greater. Just holding up and swinging a veil makes a difference in firming arms, and the ab and leg benefits are obvious.
Many serious dancers take exercise to the next level. Assuming a healthy weight, nothing is going to reshape your body as dramatically as physical training. Spectacular costuming can enhance any figure, but the reverse is also true - a spectacular body will look great in any costume. Even better, any woman can have a spectacular body, at any age or figure type, by working hard enough at it.
So, how hard is hard enough? What about the health benefits of the dance itself, and what does it take to get to the next level? This article follows the experiences of three women who are training with Gerson Kuhr, a licensed fitness instructor specializing in training Oriental dancers. Mr. Kuhr's specialty has inevitably resulted in his being dubbed "the Fitness Pharaoh", and he has made quite a difference in dancers' lives.
I really love to eat, and I figured muscle mass would burn up more calories and look a lot better than fat. Yes, dancing itself is indeed great exercise. I only have to look at my dance friends, or follow my students' progress, to see positive differences. But could we do better? Other dance forms, like ballet, incorporate exercise as well as practice for better body and dance results. The effects appear to be synergistic. Could this be true of Oriental dance as well? It was worth a try.
Last March I started an exercise program under the leadership of Gerson Kuhr. The choice of trainer was obvious. He had impressive credentials, enthusiasm, actively supported dance as a WAMEDA editor, and one look at his physique is convincing testimony that this guy knows what he is doing. Once the times and locations were settled (once a week at my local Fitness First), a sort of rhythm was established, involving weight lifting and core strengthening. I soon discovered Gersons program is not for wimps. One thing I love about Oriental dance is that it is feminine and strong at the same time. Most other dance forms, even physically demanding dances, seem to unintentionally associate the appearance of dainty weakness, and sometimes even emaciation, with femininity. This is not at all true of Oriental dance, and Gerson expects his clients to exalt in every tangible strength gain. (You expect me to lift that much?) Yes, sweat is definitely involved, but the benefits are substantial. He also provides the motivation for me to work out a few times a week between scheduled training sessions, and progress is recorded in a log book, which appeals to the scientist part of me.
Not having the proper hormones to produce a massive musculature in spite of challenging workouts, I eventually started to firm up. My total body shape did change a bit; my skinny, weak upper arms and shoulders grew in muscle just enough to compensate for what used to be a bottom-heavy figure. My chest has grown slightly (no, not big increases just where the padding is, alas - I mean the whole chest circumference). This does, however, contribute to a balanced feminine shape. The amount of weight I could handle slowly increased, as did my confidence, grace, carriage and range of motion. Gerson's core body exercises, which focus on the abdominal areas and lower back and do not require machines or weights, gradually increased in number and complexity. The relationship to an improved ability to perform dance movements soon became obvious.
The exercise regime does not take the place of dance practice, but it does facilitate and enhance the movements. I can actually see some of the individual muscles moving! All this work makes me feel better about myself, and it seems easier to give up some of the junk food, too. I still feel I have a lot further to go, but nine months of Gerson-guided workouts have resulted in surprising improvements and I am now confident that this will continue. Yes, it is going to take a long time, and it isn't easy, but it is possible. Of course, with all this firming up, I will need new costumes, lots of new costumes...
I've been training with Gerson for about two years now. We meet about every 5-7 days. He directs the entire program, increasing both weight and difficulty as we go. We do about 10 minutes of stretching, followed by about an hour on weights, then 30 minutes of aerobic exercise on an eliptical machine. When we started, I had a body ravaged by celiac disease. I started working with Gerson to rebuild the strength, coordinate, and muscle tone I had lost. Now I am stong, both inside and out. He has reshaped my body in ways I never thought possible. In particular, his program has rebuilt my damaged lower abdominals and given me hope of a firm flat belly (provided I keep to my diet),...something unheard of for someone with Celiac.
I did notice improvements right away, with immediate gains in coordination and stamina. I increased my leg and arm strength, so I could stay dance longer on the balls of my feet and keep my arms lifted longer. I started feeling the different muscles in my abdomen respond, so my undulations and belly rolls became more fluid and responsive. I actually achieved a full bellyroll, not just the strange flip flop around a central crease that was my "belly roll" before. Stronger back and neck muscles have enabled me to carry my shamadan effortlessly on stage. None of this would have been possible without Gerson. He understands my training needs and goals as a bellydancer, and is very creative in applying his skills as a personal trainer to help me achieve them.
For me, diet is as critical as exercise. Of course with my many food allergies, I can actually damage my muscles by eating the wrong things. In addition, I have noticed that I have much better energy and strength for my workouts when I eat properly. A good diet not only ensures you have the energy you need, but it also can help control body fat, essential if you want to be able to show your hard-earned muscle tone! Exercise and diet go hand in hand. You must balance them together to get the results you want!
And one more thing: Bellydance can be an exercise and body shaping program by itself, but most of us don't really use it that way. Challenging ourselves physically by engaging in different types of exercise helps us stay focused on our exercise goals and encourages the body to respond. Weight training in particular is most effective in reshaping the body and strengthening the bones (a must for ANY woman!) For balance in your exercise program I also recommend yoga or pilates for flexibility, as well as adequate aerobic exercise (like dancing!) for stamina and weight control.
My viewpoint may be a bit different from others, since I'm not a professional dancer. (I prefer the term 'ardent amateur' to describe my relationship with belly dance).
I've been dancing for 23 years now, the entire time with the Dancers of the Nile. (We're nothing if not loyal!) I've been taking a general exercise class for the past 8 or 9 years, but with the advent of menopause, my weight has increased and my stamina's decreased. About a year ago, I finally decided that I had to do something about it. Of course, Gerson was the first person I thought of, because of the WAMEDA connection, and we started working together last January. I don't belong to a gym (yet), and was reluctant to shell out for membership in case I didn't like the workout, so we've been meeting at my house once a week, using manual resistance. Although I don't measure my strength gains by specific weight increases, I consider it my duty (and secret pleasure) to make Gerson work as hard as I am! I know that my strength's increased when he starts to huff and puff mid-way through my reps, and in one particular exercise (squats), he's giving me as much as he can, and I'm sailing through. Heh. I'll probably join a gym soon, which will expand our repertoire of exercises and allow us to better track my improvements.
I have noticed a difference when I dance, certainly. I have more control over my moves, a greater sense of power and extension as I go through a routine. My stamina's improved, as well. Although I still am carrying more weight than I'd like, my muscle definition is evident, even under the fat!
I went for a massage recently, and my masseur commented on my improved definition.
Working with Gerson has been a wonderful experience; his encouragement and rigor have helped me exceed my own expectations. I think that working with a personal trainer complements the exercise we get from dancing, and any other aerobic exercise programs we might be participating in. It's certainly working for me!