In the Belly of the Goddess: Belly Dance for Pregnancy and Birth
by Cathy Moore, CNM
I began belly dancing the same year that I finished my nurse-midwifery training program. At the time, I had no idea that there was an association between this dance form and birth.
I guess you could call it a bit of synchronicity that a midwife would find herself pointed in the direction of studying an ancient dance form whose origins are rooted in childbirth preparation and ritual.
I was studying belly dance with a group of women, whose mission was to explore the deep feminine power and spiritual connection inherent in this dance form, and to share their discoveries with other women. My belly dance teachers informed me that there was a link between belly dance and birth. This assertion made intuitive sense to me, but it wasn’t until about a year later that I had a personal epiphany regarding this claim.
Belly Dance and Birth
There have been a number of women, most belly dancers themselves, who have made the correlation between this dance and childbirth. Most often cited, is Morocco, a NYC dancer and scholar, who in a series of articles written in the 1970’s related her personal experiences of being awakened to this connection, and of her experience of attending a traditional birth ritual in the Middle East which confirmed for her that belly dance is indeed a birth dance. Rosina-Fawzia Al-Rawi, in her book Grandmother’s Secrets, describes birth customs still practiced in contemporary times in Arab countries which include the laboring woman being surrounded by her female friends and family who belly dance with her to support the labor process. Barbara Brandt, the founding mother of The Goddess Dancing?, was one of the first in the Boston area to talk and write about the belly dance and birth connection. She collaborated with area birth professionals to present a series of workshops exploring the link between belly dance and childbirth. And Delilah, a dancer from Seattle, has written about her personal experiences as a pregnant belly dancer, and also produced a beautiful video featuring herself dancing in the third trimester of her pregnancy as she embodies Isis, the Great Mother.
My personal realizations
I had my first personal understanding of the connection of belly dance to birth when I was learning to shimmy. The shimmy is a quick vibration-like movement of the hips, chest, and full body. I had struggled with the shimmy for a while, as many students do, and when I finally “got it”, and could feel the wonderful looseness and relaxation of the muscles of the pelvic floor, I knew instantly that this move was intended to move a baby down the birth canal.
As a midwife, I have the great privilege to observe human labor and birth on a regular basis. Any of you who have had the opportunity to witness a birth know that this is one of the most amazing displays of female creative power that you will ever see…The forces at work are nothing less than awesome. In my observations of laboring woman, I began to see for myself that the movements used in belly dance actually mimic many of the physical and emotional manifestations of labor in a woman’s body.
In the early phases of the first stage of labor, the mood is one of excitement, anticipation and welcoming of the onset of labor. Many women, if left to their own instincts, choose upright positions and naturally move their hips and pelvis in circles and crescents. Rhythmic movement is understood by midwives as evidence that the laboring woman is coping well with the labor progression. These movements help to disperse the pain, and are often prescribed by midwives especially when the woman is experiencing back pain. Many midwives believe that moving the hips also facilitates the baby finding the optimal position for entering the birth canal.
As the labor progresses to the active phase, and contractions become stronger, the woman goes deeper into herself. An emotional turning inward which resembles the mood of the chiftitelli, the slower movements of a typical 5-part belly dance routine, is observed here. Floorwork, dancing on the floor, is often employed during the chiftitelli, and illustrates many of the positions women assume when actually giving birth. In ancient birthing traditions, a shallow depression would have been dug into the earth to receive the baby, and the birthing woman would lower herself to the floor and position herself in such a way as to gently release the baby into this hollow.
Most women, as they enter the phase of labor known as transition – a time that is considered to be the most intense of the entire labor, will often display an uncontrollable trembling in their limbs and entire body. A natural shimmy, brought on by the labor itself!
Another amazing observation for me, when I really saw it with my belly dancers eyes, is the way the woman’s abdomen begins to spontaneously undulate with the uncontainable urge to bear down that signals the beginning of the second stage of labor. Undulations are the slow, snakelike belly dance movements of the arms, abdomen and torso. I have seen this phenomenon even in women who opt for epidural analgesia. She may no longer feel the urge to push because of the numbing effect of the epidural, but her body knows that it is time for pushing!
Belly Dance as a prenatal exercise
Some of the same women mentioned earlier who have written about the belly dance and birth connection, have also suggested that belly dance may have been the very first childbirth preparation exercise. Morocco, in her research into prepared childbirth classes such as Lamaze, found the exercises taught are similar to, and in some cases exactly the same moves taught in belly dance classes. Barbara Brandt, in her collaborations with birth professionals, also explored the usefulness of belly dance as a childbirth preparation exercise.
The basic posture for belly dance, with the knees slightly bent, the pelvis tucked under, and the heart lifted, is excellent for counteracting many of the common discomforts associated with the physical changes to her body which a woman experiences during pregnancy, especially in the last trimester as she approaches her due date.
The hip and torso movements provide exercise to all the muscles of the abdomen and the muscles of the pelvic floor involved in birthing in terms of both strengthening and improving flexibility.
Belly dance benefits for pregnancy
From my personal observations the potential benefits of belly dancing for a pregnant woman are many, and I will list some of them here: More and more, research is showing that regular exercise in pregnancy benefits both the mother and her baby. Regular exercisers can expect to have overall shorter labors and less need for interventions such as C-section. Studies show placental blood flow is increased with moderate exercise. This means the growing baby gets more oxygen and nutrients delivered to it throughout its intra-uterine life.
Unlike many forms of fitness where the emphasis is on muscular contraction, belly dance balances muscular contraction with expansion or muscular lengthening, similar to yoga. This results in both increased strength and flexibility. In our culture, many of the forms of physical fitness in which we participate, emphasize only muscular contraction – for example “rock hard abs” or “buns of steel”. For birthing, a woman needs muscles that are not only strong, but that are also flexible enough to expand and lengthen in order move the labor along, and to facilitate the birth.
Also, like yoga, and Tai Chi, and other forms of exercise which emphasize the mind body and spirit connection, belly dance improves body awareness helping the woman to be in tune with her changing body and her growing baby. These are essential elements for a pregnant woman whether she desires an un-medicated birth experience, or plans to make full use of current modern pain management techniques such as epidural analgesia.
Healthy body image is another benefit for women who belly dance. So many women, whether pregnant or not, have experienced a wonderful acceptance and appreciation of their bodies, as they learn the movements of belly dance which are essentially natural to the female body. Any woman who lives in our modern culture, and especially pregnant women who often hide under tent-like clothing, can benefit from the “my body is great!” affirming messages inherent in belly dance.
Because, at its ancient roots, belly dance tells the story of woman’s life-giving power, it is a natural for pregnant woman who are at the peak of their creative power. Through belly dance, a woman celebrates her fertility, sensuality and abundance and affirms the fullness of her being.
Pam England, a nurse midwife and author of the book Birthing from Within, which I recommend that all pregnant women and birth professionals read, talks extensively about the importance of active, creative self-expression to the birth process. She and I both agree that belly dance is one of the many avenues for this creative self-expression that is essential for the pregnant woman in achieving her goals of self-discovery and “birthing-in-awareness” (England and Horowitz, 1998). Giving birth is a rite of passage, and belly dance is one powerful tool a woman can use to re-claim pregnancy and birth.
Belly dance is an ancient dance form rooted in childbirth that offers many benefits for contemporary women seeking to re-claim their power during this significant rite of passage.