Belly dancing, also known as Middle Eastern dance or raqs sharqi, is a form of dance that grew popular in America during the romantic movement of the 19th century, and is recognized by its quick gyrations of the hips and ornate movements of the hands. The dance is traditionally performed by women dressed in a bedlah style, which usually consists of a headband, a bra or fitted top adorned with coins or beads, and an adorned skirt or harem pants. There are also various props such as finger cymbals (also known as zills or sagats), fans, and tambourine that accompany the dance to capture attention and interest. Although the dance has been around for hundreds of years, it is not until very recently that medical professionals have begun discovering the many health benefits of belly dancing.

To start with, belly dancing is a very low-impact exercise which makes it suitable for women of any age. It is a total body workout that involves movements that come naturally to the female form, making it a very low injury risk exercise. Contrary to its name, the dance focuses on a lot more muscle groups than just the belly. The main movements of belly dancing involve isolated tension of muscles in the abdomen, pelvis, trunk, spine, and neck. However the muscles in the legs and gluteals are also used to keep the dancer balanced as she shakes across the dance floor. Furthermore, since the dancer is constantly on her feet, belly dancing is considered a weight-bearing exercise that can increase bone density and prevent osteoporosis.

One of the best health benefits of belly dancing is improved posture and strengthening of back muscles. Due to the constant twisting and turning of the spine during the repetitive undulations of the hips and torso, there is an increased release of synovial fluid, the body’s own natural lubricant, among the vertebrae. The muscles in the back are also constantly being utilized and toned, providing for greater back strength, flexibility, improved posture, and a decrease in future lower back pain. It also helps counteract the compression of the vertebral discs against each other, which happens with constant sitting and lack of movement.

Another great benefit is upper body toning. The muscles in the arms, chest, and shoulders are utilized when the dancer holds her arms up in complex movement patterns (like the snake arms), holds her veil up to dance with, or uses the tambourine or finger cymbals. Since the arms are continually being held up, the deltoids and triceps are strengthened, preventing the dreaded “granny arms” that come with aging.

Of course belly dancing is also a great cardio workout, burning anywhere from 300-500 calories an hour depending on intensity. Since it gets the heart racing, it is an excellent way to improve cardiovascular health. And combined with a healthy diet, belly dancing can be a fantastic weight-loss tool.

In addition to all these benefits, it has also been proven that belly dancing aids in digestion, increases balance, increases circulation, helps relieve stress, tightens the vaginal muscles, prepares the body for pregnancy/childbirth, and helps regulate menstrual problems.