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Monday, January 26, 2015

Does Fitness Cross-Training Make Better Belly Dancers? Sometimes. Maybe.

My segment in the video below kicks off at 4:16.  (Link to the full series of interviews.) Watch, or keep reading for an expanded treatment of this same topic.

Like many creative people, I have a personality that encompasses seeming contradictions.  For instance, although I've dedicated the better part of my life to exploring the physicality of dance expression, I am a low-energy person.  I sometimes have trouble finding the energy to dance, and I essentially always have trouble motivating myself to exercise.  To be honest, I find workouts to be something of an ordeal.

Experts often say that if you do not enjoy exercise then you simply are doing the wrong kind of exercise.  This seems credible to me, so at one point I thought that maybe I just didn't know enough about different modes of fitness.  Maybe, I thought, if I understood exercise better, I would learn to appreciate it or find some way to make it work better for me personally.  Thus in 2009 I obtained AFAA group fitness certification,  earned a diploma from a 300-hour vocational preparation program for personal trainers, frittered away far too much money trying each and every one of New York City's fitness trends (aqua yogalates barre boxing spin fusion, anyone?), and even briefly worked as a trainer in a health club.  Turns out that, at least in my case, experts are wrong.  I know now a LOT about exercise, I truly tried it all, and I still find it to be, at best, a chore.   

But the silver lining is that I am often able to put my knowledge of fitness practices to good use helping others, particularly dancers.

So, will fitness cross-training make you a better dancer?  What kind of conditioning program do I recommend?  Unfortunately, as with so many things, there are no one-size-fits-all answers.

You do need a reasonable fitness level to perform, at least in a professional capacity, and the more fit you are, the more artistic options are available to you.  And if you are a professional entertainer, cross-training can be a useful to tool for achieving and maintaining the slim figure that is required for many jobs in the commercial arena.

For dancers who are more involved with belly dance as recreation, or for dancers who are primarily involved with belly dance as a fitness activity in and of itself, cross-training can be beneficial but is certainly not a requirement.  While being more fit opens up more options, one of the most appealing features of belly dance is its adaptability to dancers at differing levels of physical ability.  Not every dancer needs to do floorwork or to coruscate indefinitely through a breakneck karshilama.  Many dancers, including myself, cherish belly dance in its aspects of social dance and folklore, people's dances that are accessible to anyone and everyone.  I am saddened every time I hear a potential student say she thinks she is not in good enough shape to try out a beginner class.  At an entry level, belly dance truly has no fitness prerequisite.

And perhaps more importantly, all the fitness in the world won't make up for a lack of dance skill.  Star quality depends not only technique, but on musicality, expression and stage presence, and, in the case of cultural styles, contextually appropriate styling. Both strength and flexibility improve a dancer's versatility, but, to my mind, highly-developed coordination and body awareness are far more important for the clean, clear, fluid qualities of movement that primarily distinguish virtuoso belly dance technique.  Beyond a baseline level, training large skeletal muscles seems generally less helpful to most belly dancers than the careful cultivation of nuanced articulations—a process that is usually best supported in dance class rather than a gym.
That said, if dance classes alone are not giving you the level of fitness you desire, or if you have the time, energy and financial resources to train outside of dance class, cross-train away.  When used as a tool to unlock your body’s potential, cross-training can deepen the authenticity of your physical presence in your dancing, give you a greater sense of owning your movement vocabulary, and strengthen the artistic signature of your work.

When putting together your workout, my best advice is to do a little of what you dislike the most, for utility and maintenance, and a lot of what you like the best, focusing on those activities not as exertions, but as tools to discover and cultivate your unique physical aptitudes. 

Whatever it is you dislike, because it is often neglected, is almost always the thing your body needs most urgently, and the thing from which you will gain the most immediate benefit.  For women in particular, the dreaded exercise is often heavy lifting; men often find excuses to avoid stretching. Core work is another frequent nominee in everyone's most-detested category.  Whatever that thing is for you, a little of it is likely to take you a long way.

Once the chores are taken care of, revel in whatever things your body likes best.  (Or, if that’s not happening, whatever things it tolerates least begrudgingly.)  Find the activities that are “easy,” and see where they will take you. In my case, I’ve focused cross-training on developing my natural flexibility, and a result, I’ve crafted an exceptionally limber body that imparts my dancing with signature fluidity.  But had I instead been naturally good at strength training or cardio, I am sure developing those facilities would have taken my dancing in an equally interesting different direction.

Moving on:  I have suggestions to share about various modalities.

Strength-Building at the Gym
Many of the iron-pumping exercises in common use in mainstream gyms were popularized by bodybuilders, and may be better for bodybuilding than for building functional strength.  This doesn’t mean that women who do these exercises are likely to become bulky, or that these exercises won't burn calories, just that one-muscle-at-a-time isolations are seldom the most efficient way to train for for real-world activities.  I recommend that unless you are bodybuilding, remediating, or working on a rehabilitative goal, you choose bodyweight exercises that engage your full form over machines or exercises that leverage a bracing posture.  For instance, choose pushups over bench presses; choose squats over machine leg presses; choose pull-ups over bicep curls.  When you have a choice between performing an exercise on a Nautilus-type machine or with free weights, go with the free weights.

Ladies: you make me bonkers when I hear you say, “ew, I don’t want to lift weights because then I’ll get masculine bulging muscles.”  NO YOU WON’T.  Or, at least, not unless you make it the central focus of your life and work fiendishly for that goal.  And even then, if you were to reach that elusive state and didn’t like it, guess what?  You could stop or change up your program, and the muscles would quickly melt away.  Problem solved.   Not only is this “I don’t want muscles” rhetoric nonsense—bulking up is very difficult for women—it’s damaging to you, your mother, your sisters, and your daughters.  Don’t perpetuate the idea that strength shouldn’t be cultivated by women because it will somehow make them look ugly.  Stop stop stop.

Also, if you’re going to do anything in a gym (and maybe even if you are not), buy this book: A Woman's Book of Strength. Author Karen Andes does a wonderful job of explaining ideal form, and, more exceptionally, writes beautifully about weight lifting as a mind-body discipline and as an expression of femininity.  Really, this book is SO GOOD.  Buy it.

CrossFit, Kettlebells, Calisthenics, Gymnastics, Agility Training, and Whatnot 
For dancers in particular, I tend to think these types of workouts are likely to yield more useful results that more traditional "gym" types of activities.  However, these workouts are most accessible to individuals who come to these activities with a baseline level of fitness already in place.  If you are inclined to explore in this direction, be proactive about injury prevention, and, ladies, don’t get psyched out by the macho berserker culture that is somewhat attached to this fitness genre.  As much as your finances allow, work with a coach or trainer who can ensure that you are working safely and effectively.  For inspiration, please check out the amazing CoachTara

For those for whom yoga works, yoga works beautifully.  But, hard as it is to believe in these yoga-saturated times, yoga is not for everyone. (Or, at least, not every form of yoga is for everyone. In the context of this discussion, I’m speaking about physical practices of yoga that one might undertake as part of a conditioning program.)  One consideration that I seldom hear discussed is how body weight and body weight distribution affect yoga practice.  I have observed that, in the belly dance community, the most enthusiastic proponents of yoga conditioning tend to be slim, with bodies that are relatively broad-shouldered and narrow-hipped.  And, in my own body, I’ve noticed how even small amounts of lost weight can transform postures with which I had struggled in to something relatively easy and pleasant, and free up previously-inaccessible ranges of motion.  (Eagle pose, for instance, is just not mechanically ideal for non-willowy legs such as mine.)  So, especially for those with a voluptuously low center of gravity, if yoga is a struggle, the moves in your practice may  simply be a bad match for finding your movement potential.

Another consideration of yoga cross-training is energetic.  At least for Oriental styles, belly dance tends to be energetically contained and curvilinear in its geometry.  Most yoga radiates outward in straight lines.  This dichotomy isn’t necessarily problematic, but I would encourage dancers to be thoughtful about if and how they wish to incorporate the energy and lines of yoga in to belly dance, and to not engrave into muscle memory shapes that one does not desire in one’s dance.

Probably everyone already knows this already, but there are a lot of very high quality yoga classes that can be streamed over the internet.  These might not be a great resource for beginners (as with exercises in the CrossFit, etc category above, injury prevention and and ideal form are much more likely to be realized with good coaching), but are an economical and convenient option for those qualified to work independently. I periodically take classes through YogaGlo.  I also like the instructors and beautiful outdoor filming at YogaToday.  

Pilates and “Boutique” Fitness 
Pilates is yet another modality that works for those for whom it works.  I am not one of them.  When I was much younger, this was a source of vague uneasiness for me.  Before small-p pilates came into the public domain, it was a somewhat obscure modality practiced primarily by dancers, many of whom believed it to be an essential tool in crafting a dancer’s body.  In my eagerness to cross every t and dot every i, I did my best to cultivate a Pilates practice, but could not find modifications that would work for my low back.  (I have some structural asymmetry in my pelvis and an unstable sacrum, which sounds like something Pilates should be good for, but in my case it is not.) I currently do not practice pilates in any form.  Older and wiser, I now have no doubts that I possess the body of a dancer, and an absence of pilates has been immaterial.  But, that said, if you like it and it works for you, do it!

Those seeking an alternative or complement to Pilates might be interested in Gyrotonic.  Gyrotonic apparata are somewhat similar to those used in Pilates, but the curvilinear paths of Gyrotonic may be a better complement to the air design of belly dance.

In New York City, fitness-seekers may also be interested in Shen Tao.  This studio uses unique proprietary apparata, and the director is exceptionally sensitive to creating custom programs that meet individual needs.

Finally, well-bankrolled dancers in NYC and other affluent urban centers might enjoy classes in one of the many the Lotte Berk-derived barre programs.  From an exercise perspective, I like the format and flow of this style pretty well, but the high-life packaging is a bit much for my sensibilities.  Once I took a class at Physique 57, and between movement cues the extremely upbeat extremely blonde instructor attempted to motivate us by telling us that after class we would all fit into new skinny jeans, and we would have a field trip to the "Jeans Bar at Barney’s."  Then, in time with the music, clapping along on the beat, she chanted, "JEANS BAR AT BARNEY’S! JEANS BAR AT BARNEY’S."  Yes, this really happened. 

This is usually a pretty easy one; most everyone has a heart-rate elevating activity that they find to be at least tolerable, or can at least motivate themselves to get up and go for a walk.  Personally, I am an unapologetic fan of step aerobics, although there’s not currently one in my regularly scheduled activities.  When I lived in Washington, DC, I used to Jazzercise, although I think a lot of what I liked about that program were things I liked about my specific instructor, Pretha Mitchell.  (The web says she’s still teaching.  If you are looking for a fun workout in DC, this might be it.)

Most of my current cardio happens on an elliptical machine, which, honestly, I really don’t like very well, but once I get myself to the gym I listen to something in my headphones and it’s over with quickly.  I concentrate on how improved circulation is keeping my skin beautiful and my blood vessels healthy.  I also remind myself about how much I value maintaining the ability to run away from danger, or to run to the assistance of someone in need of aid.

I used to run outside sometimes, but essentially quit after one too many episodes of street harassment.  (Sorry team.  Jerks: 1, Me: 0. The words bounce off but I’ve been grabbed a few times, and that has been enough to make me concede defeat.)  But I do enthusiastically recommend running for those for whom it’s an option.  If running is even vaguely appealing to you, go find a copy of the fascinating and inspiring Born to Run (there's probably one at your library), and see if reading this book doesn't charge you up.

Flexibility / Mobility
In this arena perhaps more than any other, different things work for different people.  I have done very well with long static stretches.  In DC, I benefitted enormously from classes with Lucy Bowen McCauley.  If you are outside of DC, the next best thing is probably yin yoga.

Other approaches that I have seen work well for people are Active-Isolated, Kelly Starrett’s Mobility WOD, Intu-flo, and Ki-Hara Resistance Stretching.  The story of swimmer Dara Torres’ work with Ki-Hara is especially interesting.

Sometimes massage also makes a big difference.  I see a therapist as often as I can afford to, which unfortunately is pretty much never.  But I do have a close relationship with my foam roller, and with a blue acrylic dolphin-shaped thingy that’s designed to dig into trigger spots.  I also recommend MELT classes.

Finally, I am no way qualified to make any recommendations about nutritional supplements, so I'm not making any, other than to say if you have mobility issues that might be related to adhesions or internal scarring, read up on serrapeptase.

I get more than enough of this in the context of my dance activities, so I haven’t made much of a study of coordination programs in the fitness world, but I have always been intrigued by this program: Andrey Lappa's Dance of Shiva.

Somatic Education
Established dancers are unlikely to need much work in this area, but taking ownership of efficient movement patterns is a huge factor in day to day good health.  If you suffer from chronic pain, are injury prone, have postural problems or acquired asymmetries, or struggle to move with grace, the act of putting new intentionality into your movement patterns may have significant fitness benefits.  If this is you, look at Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, and Aligned and Well.  In New York City there are a gazillion resources specific to this sort of work, but some of those that I know better and recommend are Somatic Anatomy (one half of whom is a belly dancer), The Breathing Project, Embodied Asana, and Irene Dowd, who can be hard to track down, but seems to currently be at Noho Pilates.

So, armed with all of this knowledge, what is my actual workout, and will it work for you?

Your mileage may vary.  Having gone through the strange, long, dark tunnel of trying to become an “exercise person” only to come out and find myself exactly where I started, I have reverted to the bare-minimum fitness routine I need to stay in good health.  I do 20ish minutes of some kind of cardio a few times a week followed by maintenance stretching, bodyweight squats in the kitchen while I wait for the kettle to boil, and a pushup or two when I need to take a get-away-from-the-computer break.  I kick up into a handstand (balancing with feet against the wall) a few times a week, based on an intuitive feeling that I benefit from occasional inversion. Once in a while I'll do an online yoga class.  When I don't have much going on I try to throw in a little more resistance training, either with weights or just doing body weight exercises.  And, being a New York City resident, I have a good amount of walking and stair-climbing built into my everyday routine.  I regard good posture and optimal biomechanics as my birthright, and attend to their maintenance as a sacred duty.  I am barefoot whenever possible, and in utterly flat shoes when it is not, with occasional exceptions made for hot dates.  That's pretty much it.