Looking to get your isolations sharper, your figure eights and circles smoother, and your quality of movement crisper and cleaner? It’s all about practice! However, the way we practice can have an effect on what we get out of that practice. Mindful drilling trumps mindless drilling, so here are three tips to strengthen your belly dance isolations!
1. Know what you’re moving, and how you’re moving it
Hip locks. Well, we’re moving the hips right? Sure, but what’s the driving force behind that movement? We know we need to alternate straightening and bending the knees, so have you taken the time to notice if one leg is working more than the other?
First, start noticing what your default pattern is. Film yourself and watch it back, or ask your teacher or mentor to help you identify what’s driving your movement.
Then, it’s time to get a little nerdy. What muscles can you choose to activate a little more to emphasise the hip lift? (Side note: Muscles are always working – there’s no such thing as a skeletal movement, so here it’s more about what you’re actively choosing to contract a bit harder for emphasis!)
It’s really helpful to learn what muscles could be driving the movement, and get an understanding of how privileging one muscle group over another could change the movement quality of that isolation.
2. Strengthen those muscles!
We’ve gotten nerdy, we’ve started to think about the muscles involved! Now what? Easy – strengthen those muscles. Interested in how you can get your obliques to play a part in increasing the size of your hip lifts and drops? Start strengthening them. Plus, there’s the added bonus of a decreased injury risk when our muscles are stronger.
…. Then speed it up, but don’t cheat! Slowing down an isolation can help you to feel and see the “sticky” parts. When you take your hip circle, maya, or hip lock at a slower speed, you’ll be more able to see differences in size and symmetry. If you’re more aware of these differences, you’ll be more able to work on them. When we’re learning or perfecting a skill our brain has to be involved in doing the work. So slow it down, notice what you want to change, give your brain time to process, and keep at it. When you’re ready, increase the speed. Find where you’re comfortable, then get to that “sweet spot” that’s just out of reach – when you’re not flailing and getting too frustrated, but where you’ve gotta work and reach to get and keep that technique strong and even! Playing with speed is not only a good way to identify how we can improve our quality of movement, but also great for challenging our current level of technique.
One of the biggest mistakes I see dancers make when it comes to training is ignoring the concept of progressive overload.
What the heck is progressive overload!?
Progressive overload refers to gradually (the key word here!) increasing the amount and/or difficulty of your training over time. In both the rehabilitation and athletic performance spheres, we use progressive overload to safely and effectively improve strength, mobility/flexibility, and conditioning status (cardiovascular fitness).
I see dancers make two big mistakes when it comes to progressive overload:
Not acknowledging (or perhaps understanding) where they currently are NOW.
I see so many dancers injure themselves (or just make themselves so sore that they NEVER want to train again!) because they set a goal that is too lofty for their current fitness levels. Lofty goals are fun, but you need to progress towards that goal over time. Just because someone else can run 5km right now, doesn’t mean you can right away, especially if you’ve never run before!
The next most common problem I see is:
Building up to a certain level…. And then never changing anything!
You don’t need to always aspire to stronger, faster, more flexible (although, I truly believe that stronger is better in lots of ways for our bodies – but that’s a discussion for another time). But our bodies are REALLY good at adapting to stressors. Exercise is a stressor. We need a certain amount of consistency for our body to adapt, but once the body is used to something, we need to change it up to keep ourselves seeing the same benefits of training. This can be as simple as changing the type of exercises you do every 4-6 weeks, or adding weight or resistance to the exercises you’re doing.
Progressive overload is not just important for our strength, conditioning and mobility work. It’s also important to consider when planning our dance practices.
Consider this common scenario:
You’re going to a belly dance festival for the first time in a long time (especially after the last 2.5 years of most things being online!). You’re usually dancing for 45 minutes, three times a week. But you’re so excited to dance again, and all the workshops look SO good (sound familiar?). So you’ve signed up for 8 hours of workshops this weekend!
Jumping from 2.25 hours of dance in a regular week to 8 hours (or 10.25 if you also did those standard regular classes) is a big jump in load for our bodies. This can be one of the reasons you might be more likely to sustain an injury at a dance festival – it’s a huge jump in loading that your body is not used to.
But don’t just take my word for it – let’s use a simple method to assess this jump in dance volume:
The acute-to-chronic training/workload ratio (ACWR)
Sounds complicated already, I know! But I promise it’s not, and for this simple method, you can even find a calculator online. I use a slightly more involved version of this method, but this basic method is a great way to get a snapshot of whether you’re increasing your dance and/or training volume too much.
The acute-to-chronic training/workload ratio (ACWR) compares your mileage (for activities like running, cycling, and swimming) or duration (for activities like dance) from the last week to your average weekly mileage/duration for the last four weeks. Week 4 is last week, Week 3 is the week before it, and so on.
When you do an ACWR calculation, you’ll end up with a number at the end. Here’s what the numbers signify:
<0.8 = danger zone; undertraining which can lead to injury risk (yes, we also don’t want to DROP our training amounts too much from week to week if we want to avoid injury!)
Week 1 = 135 mins (3 weeks before the festival: your standard 3 x 45 minute dance sessions)
Week 2 = 135 mins
Week 3 = 135 mins
Week 4 = 615 mins (The week of the festival: Your standard 3 x 45 minute dance sessions, plus your 8 hours of workshops at the festival!)
To calculate your ACWR, add up the minutes from each week:
(615 + 135 + 135 + 135) = 1020 mins
Then, divide that number by the number of weeks (this is standardly measured in 4 week blocks):
1020 / 4 = 255
Then, take the amount of load (in our example, in minutes) from the most recent week, and divide it by the average of the last four weeks (the number we just calculated above):
ACWR = 615 / 255 = 2.4
In this example, your ACWR would be 2.4 → You’re currently in the “danger zone,” the highest risk category for injury because of how fast, and how unevenly, the load has been ramped up.
This is just one of the reasons why we want to progressively overload all of our training – dance, strength, conditioning, mobility or otherwise. We want to progressively build up overtime to reduce our chances of injury.
Have you got any questions about progressive overload for me? Leave me a comment below!
In addition to being the founder and director of Greenstone Belly Dance, Siobhan Camille is a Rehabilitative Exercise Specialist and Strength & Conditioning Coach. Siobhan Camille has an extensive background in exercise science with postgraduate level degrees in Exercise Prescription and Rehabilitation Science. She takes a particular interest in the safety, strength, and performance of dancers, and has conducted formal research on injury incidence in belly dancers. She draws on this background to emphasise safe dance technique and teaches her students how to find and activate muscles to create clear movement.
I think by now, most of us are thoroughly convinced of the benefits of warming up for dance – or at least, we like doing it! When we surveyed 109 belly dancers in New Zealand, we found that 84% of them warm up prior to their dance practice (bravo!).
When I first started out in the world of exercise science, the evidence for warming up was a bit patchy and contentious. Nowadays, there’s a lot more evidence out there that a good warm up can improve your performance, and can decrease your risk of injury.
However, it’s important to know that not all warm ups are created equal!
To be fair, I have not seen too many awful warm ups in my time. The one that stands out was when a dancer started with extreme (and I mean: extreme) backbends and hair tosses within 30 seconds of the warm up song commencing. This was one of the few times I was generally worried about injuries (but to be honest, I was stifling laughter because it was so unbelievable). Aside from that, I do see a few warm ups that don’t really fulfil the goal of getting warm, and could have some potential for injury.
One of the common mistakes I see includes beginning with stretching. Dynamic stretching (moving joints through the range of motion you’ll use in your session, but doing so by actively using muscles) is a common part of a warm up routine, but it’s not usually the first thing we do, and it isn’t a passive, held (or static) stretch.
We don’t generally recommend static stretching before exercise sessions (an exception is made at times for hypertonic muscles), as it’s been found to be linked with an increased injury risk due to decreasing the muscles’ ability to produce power (and therefore meet the demands of our dance). Most of this research is on long, static stretches of 60 seconds or more, which a lot of exercise professionals brush off, saying “no one does this in their warm ups anyway!” However, a specific sub-group sometimes does engage in this practice of long, static stretching: dancers!
So how do we warm up properly?
One common method that is supported by science is the RAMP protocol. This consists of three phases:
Activate and Mobilise
Let’s take a quick look at how we can use each of these phases to build effective warm ups!
The first aspect of the RAMP protocol relates to raising the heart rate, breathing rate, blood flow, and core body and muscle temperature, but also the level of skill of the dancer or athlete.
Raising a lot of these physiological aspects like heart rate and blood flow is particularly important for some dancers with pre-existing conditions like exercise-induced asthma, but it also helps all of us by increasing muscle temperature and getting our body ready for the challenges our practice or performance will present us.
Raising the level of skill is also not to be ignored. Here, you can think of including key movement and skill capacities for dancers. If you’re teaching a beginners class, it could involve introducing some basic foot patterns as part of this phase. For all levels, it could be including certain movements that use the same muscles you’ll be using in the rest of the class or session.
The general rule for this phase is that movements are bigger and less isolated, they make dancers feel warmer and breathe a bit heavier, and there is no kind of stretching present yet.
Activate and Mobilise
The “Activate and Mobilise” phase of the RAMP warm up protocol involves moving from more general movement in the “Raise” phase, to key movement patterns required for belly dance performance.
This is where things start to become a little more isolated and more closely resemble belly dance technique. This is also the phase where we start to focus on stability and flexibility, and use active range of motion exercises, such as lunges, big hip circles; things that start to move the joints through their required range of motion for the upcoming practice session. This will likely look different for a drills class compared to when preparing for an advanced choreography run-through!
This phase also has benefits for learning, as if you introduce similar movement patterns to those you’ll be using later in the class, it gives students a chance to repeat them and learn them better.
This is where the warm up starts to bleed into the class or practice session itself! The “potentiation” phase is all about increasing the intensity of the warm up until it is truly “sport-specific” (or dance-specific, in our case!). This phase is where you start moving and performing movements at the same intensity as you will for the rest of the class. The more intense you intend your practice session or performance to be, the more important this phase is. So if you’re about to get on stage and do a drum solo, you certainly want to be moving quickly, feeling really warm, and have worked up to fast, strong isolations by the end of your backstage warm up!
Warm ups should be individualised to what is coming in the class or performance ahead. The literature suggests that this full warm up (phases 1-3) should last about 10-20 minutes, which can sound scary when we only teach 50 or 60 minute classes!
However, as mentioned, the third phase (“Potentiate”) really starts to become inseparable from the class itself. I tend to spend around 8 minutes on the first two phases, and then I move in to specific drills that increase in intensity. That way, we’re all warm and ready to go, but we’re also learning and improving during this time!
As long as you make your warm up specific, that 5-10 minutes at the beginning won’t feel like a waste. Consider what dance concepts you can remind students of as you get them warming up so they’re not only prepared physically, but also mentally for the class ahead.
In addition to being the founder and director of Greenstone Belly Dance, Siobhan Camille is a Rehabilitative Exercise Specialist and Strength & Conditioning Coach. This blog post was originally written by Siobhan for her Safe Dance Column in the Middle Eastern Dance Association of New Zealand (MEDANZ) December 2020 Newsletter. You can join MEDANZ to access their newsletters and find out more about MEDANZ here. Photo by Veronika Hegedus-Gaspar.
 Milner et al., 2019. A Retrospective Study Investigating Injury Incidence and Factors Associated with Injury Among Belly Dancers.
 Jeffreys, 2007. Warm-up revisited: The ramp method of optimizing warm-ups.
 DeRenne, 2010. Effects of Postactivation Potentiation Warm-up in Male and Female Sport Performances: A Brief Review
 Malliou et al., 2007., Reducing risk of injury due to warm up and cool down in dance aerobic instructors.
 Barengo et al., (2014). The Impact of the FIFA 11+ Training Program on Injury Prevention in Football Players: A Systematic Review.
If you’re looking for something to help you unwind (are you like me? An active relaxer?), take a listen to the latest podcast episode to feature Siobhan Camille of Greenstone Belly Dance!
As many of you know, Siobhan is also an exercise scientist and a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist. She works with dancers and athletes across the globe to help them get the most out of their bodies and optimise their performance! Read more about Siobhan’s work for dancers here.
In addition to being the founder and director of Greenstone Belly Dance, Siobhan Camille is a Rehabilitative Exercise Specialist and Strength & Conditioning Coach. This blog post was originally written by Siobhan for her Safe Dance Column in the Middle Eastern Dance Association of New Zealand (MEDANZ) October 2019 Newsletter. You can join MEDANZ to access their newsletters and find out more about MEDANZ here. Photo by Nathan Pigeon.
Knee injuries are relatively common both in and outside the dance world. If you’ve experienced knee pain or knee injuries, you’ve likely been told “move it or lose it” by your healthcare provider or physiotherapist. We know that one of the worst things we can do for an injured joint or body part is to stop moving it.
Why is movement and strengthening so good for our joints? As I’ve touched on in previous columns, muscles are designed to be the main stabilisers of our joints. Ligaments and tendons are part of the system that keeps our joints stable, but these big, trainable muscles that cross the joints are essential for keeping our joints healthy and strong. For example, for the knee joint, we often recommend quadriceps (front thigh muscle) strengthening, because that muscle is important in keeping the patella (kneecap) tracking through the femoral groove (the groove in your upper thigh bone). So strong quads aids in keeping your kneecaps stable, giving you more confidence to dance and move strongly!
If you’re looking for some easy body weight exercises to incorporate into your dance warm ups at home to keep your knees happy and healthy, here are a few good starting exercises.
Bodyweight Exercises to Keep Our Knees Strong
These are a classic for strengthening the quadriceps muscle, and they’re also great for general leg strengthening and challenging our balance for level changes in dance. If you’ve got a lot of knee pain, start with low repetitions, keep the movement small, and alternate sides. An example could be 2 sets of 10 lunges, swapping legs on each rep. If you’re feeling stronger, you can stay on one leg for a full 10 repetitions before switching to the other side. Be aware that a fitness lunge is different to a yoga lunge; only step back so far that you end up with both knees coming to 90 degree angles at the bottom of the movement. Remember, it’s fine to make this a mini-lunge, or to hold on to something stable, while you’re starting out with this!
This is a great way to strengthen your hamstrings, the rear thigh muscles that cross the knee joint (and therefore play a role in stabilising that joint!). This one is also nice because it usually doesn’t cause any pain for knee injuries. If you’re just starting out, you may want to do regular bridge lifts to begin (both feet flat on the ground). Otherwise, try 2 sets of 10 on each side. See an example of the one-legged bridge lift exercise below.
One-legged calf raises
As belly dancers, we spend a lot of time in releve, so calf raises are great for making us stronger for dance, and they protect both our ankles and our knees by strengthening the muscles that cross those joints. I generally recommend working up to being able to do 25 one-legged calf raises each side, but you can start with two feet on the ground, with 2 sets of 10 calf raises to begin. Try not to let your ankles collapse inward or outward as you do this, and to ensure that your knees stay aligned, you can squeeze your glutes in the upward movement. See an example of calf raises below.
Femoral neural glide (“nerve flossing!”)
This can be particularly helpful if you experience pain in the knee cap or just above it, where the quadriceps muscle meets the knee. Unlike the first three exercises, this exercise is better as a cooldown, and I advise you to do this very slowly, very gently, and with very few reps to begin. Generally we recommend you start with 1 set of 5-10 reps each side, only bending the knee to the point of slight discomfort. You are literally gliding the femoral nerve through muscle here; a nerve that innervates the quadriceps. Sometimes this nerve can get a bit caught and cause a funny tingly pain further down the front of the leg. Even if you think you have not felt any effects, start easily and gently with this one, and then see how it feels later. If you’ve got a lot of nervy pain around the kneecap and find that this helps you, still stick with just 1 set of 10 gentle “flosses” at a time, but you can repeat this 2-3 times a day. See an example of the femoral neural glide below.
Looking for personalised advice to keep your knees (or anything else!) strong for belly dance?