Revealing the Ancient Art of Belly-dance as a Tool for Natural Childbirth

Excerpt from Bellydance for Birth

‘A Bedouin Arab girl learns a pelvic dance during the puberty… and will bellydance, when she is in labour. The belly dance represents the power of women to produce life.’ Sheila Kitzinger, Rediscovering Birth 2000

Middle Eastern Birth Dance is a term I have used to describe the movements of the bellydance for their function as a birth dance. It is a safe and effective dance expression that supports women throughout pregnancy and labour providing a natural birthing technique that encourages and promotes active birth. With my profound experience of Middle Eastern Birth Dance I can no longer contain the ripe womb of knowledge and feelings I have towards its implementation. I feel strongly to share my appreciation of its art with all women today.

Middle Eastern Dance has evolved over time and traversed many lands from India to Greece, from the Pacific Islands to the Middle East. It has been labelled, restructured, extended, and fused with other dance styles over time. No doubt it would have served different functions in ancient times, whether as a ritual for reproduction, birth or celebration. As a predominantly woman’s dance it would have been passed from mothers to daughters through verbal, oral and physical means to preserve its sacredness and honour its connections to birth and fertility. The one factor that has not changed over time is that Middle Eastern Dance and especially Middle Eastern Birth Dance is a unifying ‘dance of the feminine’.

Questions I am often asked in relation to Middle Eastern Dance as a birth dance is: do contemporary Arab women utilise the movements in pregnancy and labour today and if not, why not? What has influenced the nature of the birth dance over time and how much have Arab women been influenced by Western perceptions and ideals in relation to their native dance? Some Arab women I have spoken to, nod enthusiastically when I speak of Middle Eastern Birth Dance, especially those from Muslim backgrounds, whilst others seem intrigued that one of the specific purposes of the dance has its roots in birthing. Once I have explained the articulation of the dance in reference to birth these same Arab women and mothers smile with a knowing recognition, acknowledging that the belly dance bears this profound implementation.

Why is there very little specific documentation of the Middle Eastern Birth Dance? I believe much information is shrouded by the mystery of the dance as an ancient sacred rite and thus its movements have not needed to be formally structured in Middle Eastern culture. This is most likely because it is inherent within the cultural domain and is a natural part of a woman’s daily life as supported by Tunisian performer Layla Haddad who says ‘…as soon as we come out of our mother’s belly we dance! It’s part of our everyday life… everyone is a dancer in their heart.’ (Beauty and The East, Wendy Buonaventura).

Again the dance has only been chronicled by its natural evolution through oral, visual and practical methods. If ever categorisation and labelling of Middle Eastern Dance per se is formally documented, then it must be done with a sensitivity and respect to the culture rather than just through academic and technical instruction. Connections to the dance should communicate an empathy based on nature, feelings and spirit which in turn creates the setting for deeper spiritual understanding, an essential component of gratitude towards cultural identity.

Many modern day women have become estranged from their primal birthing brain and the knowledge that lies within it. Women too often hand their power over to the medical world long before they enter labour and have the idea that someone else will do it for them. I encourage women to take birth into their own hands, by becoming informed of their choices and by finding out as much as they can about what will be happening to their body and mind during the pregnancy and childbirth journey.

Birth is experiential. You have to experience it to fully know it. An exercise such as Middle Eastern Birth Dance can act as a purposeful tool to assist a woman before she steps through the gateway of birth. It can help to bridge the gap between the primal brain (which knows how to give birth), and the modern woman (who may have forgotten how to give birth), assisting her to claim back her most basic and inherent right as the Deliverer of Life. The birthing journey requires us as women to get back to a sense of life basics where intuition and instinct are key elements. When implemented in pregnancy and labour, the Birth Dance enables a woman to connect to her feminine source without fear or shame. Birth is, without a doubt, one of the greatest self expressive and creative processes we can embark upon in womanhood.

I believe that a woman’s birthing heart centre resides within the pelvis and hip area. The Birth Dance entrusts a woman to explore this pool of emotion and physicality in relation to her feelings around her femininity. Once a woman opens this heart centre and dances to its core she can begin to understand the deeper layers of her self and feel progressively free to explore each layer and hence work towards becoming unencumbered during her labour experience.

On the whole, modern women lead sedentary lives as compared to our ancestors who tilled the earth, washed in rivers, prepared fires for cooking, carried babies on their backs etc. They were the hunters and gatherers using their instinctual minds in everyday activities. We now predominantly use our rational minds and don’t require such instinctual activity to prepare the basic requirements of day to day living. Sadly, in the West, we rarely stretch, squat, bend, reach or open and extend our bodies to their full capacity each day.

Throughout the Third World, women squat and kneel in positions in which the pelvis is at its widest, and in their work make movements in which the pelvis rocks, tilts and rotates in smooth and steady rhythm.

Young Middle Eastern girls instinctively dance from childhood to adulthood and so they are preparing and strengthening their muscles in advance for the great event of birth. When they deliver their babies, their bodies are already in tune with the requirements of labour that can only be a positive advantage.

The main goal of Middle Eastern Birth Dance within the framework of labour is to fully allow the labouring woman to help nature by moving with and not against the contractions she welcomes. Instead of tensing her muscles and mind with fear and apprehension towards pain, the labouring woman accepts and surrenders actively, consciously and as best she can to each contractive wave she experiences. The smooth, circular and undulating movements of Middle Eastern Birth Dance aid a woman’s ability to deal with her labour in an opening rather than restrictive fashion.

The soothing rocking motions of the circular and figure 8 movements set the scene for a birthing woman to flow with the natural rhythms of her labouring body and become connected to Nature and Universe. Emotionally the Birth Dance opens up a well of feelings that cannot be easily locked away in pregnancy. It is as though the dance beckons a woman to stand in the light of her truth and feel her conscious presence within her birthing body. It is therefore a wonderfully relevant birth preparation because of this dual acceptance of emotion and physicality.

It is not too late for any woman to take up Middle Eastern Birth Dance, if only for a few months at the end of her pregnancy. Any understanding and experience of Middle Eastern Birth Dance is advantageous. I want women to feel the dance rather than to think the dance, just as birth is a predominantly feeling experience. As a birth support person in many other women’s labours as well as my own I have witnessed the use of the Birth Dance, and I acknowledge the power of its use. I am passionate about sharing a powerful tool that ALL modern women can utilise to enable them to have a natural and conscious birth experience.

Published in byronchild/Kindred, Issue 8

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