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.


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