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Archive for the ‘Health and Wellbeing’ Category

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Spring has got to be the busiest time of year for bellydancers. The gigs, the workshops, and the shows can begin to take their toll on you physically and mentally if you’re not careful. Fortunately, with this arsenal of superfoods under your coined belt you have nothing to fear. Here’s my suggestions for 5 snacks that can keep up with you!

Chocolate: The before class pick-me-up

Let’s start things off right with chocolate. Dark chocolate, to be exact. Chocolate is packed with flavonoids, which can help lower blood pressure and also act as antioxidants. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, which trigger feelings of pleasure. It contains serotonin, an anti-depressant, and mild stimulants as well. It’s the perfect pick-me-up after a long day when you still gotta get to the studio!

The Snack: Try one or two squares of dark chocolate with five to eight almonds. The addition of heart-healthy nuts will provide long-lasting protein energy. Just be sure to only eat a little as both foods are high in calories. The point is to get big bang for your buck, since nobody wants to come to class and shimmy on a full stomach.

Mint Leaves: The stomach soother

Everyone’s experienced that queasy feeling in your stomach when you’ve gone a little too far with you veil spin drills. Or maybe you made the mistake of eating too soon before class. Chewing on mint promotes digestion, soothes indigestion, and reduces nausea and headache. Plus, it makes your breath minty fresh!

The Snack: You can now buy fresh mint leaves in the produce section of most grocery stores.  If you don’t want to chew on leaves, gum or breath mints with real mentha oil will work just as well. Don’t like the taste of mint? Try candied ginger for some of the same benefits.

Bananas: The post-shimmying replenishing fuel

Besides packing a healthy dose of vitamin B6 and vitamin C, bananas contain about 400 mg of potassium. Potassium is one of those important electrolytes that are often lost in workouts. It also helps prevent muscle cramping and soreness. And if that’s not enough, bananas are good for brain and bone health, too.

The Snack: Blend a banana with a cup of soy milk and one tablespoon of almond butter in a blender for a fruity nutty protein-packed treat! You can sweeten the drink with a tablespoon of honey, too.

Trail Mix: The classic in between gigs snack

So trail mix is probably not new to you, but it’s worth mentioning here because it does it’s job so well. Easy to store and take to shows and workshops, it’s also packed with antioxidants, heart healthy fats, and protein. Just be sure to eat only a little- it’s high in calories.

The Snack: I like to make my own trail mix to keep things new and exciting. There’s lots of great recipes on the internet with fresh combinations. You can go sweet, spicy, or tangy to suit your palette. Just be careful of salty, as you don’t want to dehydrate before going on stage. And watch out for sulfites and other preservatives in dried fruit.

Blueberries: Healthy daily living food

Blueberries are packed with anti-oxidants that help prevent cancer. They have also recently been linked to brain health and improved memory functioning. Plus, they retain a lot of their nutritional value even when frozen. As such, they are available for healthy snacking year round.

The Snack: I like blueberries with one of my other favorite foods- Greek yogurt. Greek yogurt has about twice as much protein as regular yogurt for just a small increase in calories. I mix blueberries into naturally sweetened (no sugar or corn syrup!) Greek yogurt and sprinkle chia seeds on top for an extra protein and anti-oxidant boost.

Happy snacking!

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In honor of Earth Day I wanted to focus this week on scary toxic chemicals… and I’m not talking about the ones that spew from cars and factories. I’m talking about the ones in your cosmetics.

The average woman uses about 10 personal products daily. This includes things like shampoo, toothpaste, lotions, and deodorant. Unfortunately, the FDA does not regulate the majority of the ingredients that go into these personal products, and many contain trace amounts of carcinogens, mutagens, and neurotoxins.

According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, 60% of lipsticks contain lead. Yeah, that stuff they removed from paint because it was too toxic to be in our walls- you’re probably putting it on your lips!

How is this possible? Well, the cosmetic companies would argue that these ingredients are added in such small amounts that a user’s exposure is quite limited. That may be true, but what are the cumulative effects of using these products daily for a lifetime? The studies are quite limited and I personally would rather play it safe than sorry.

Here’s the good news

There is a growing movement towards safer, more environmentally friendly cosmetics. People are working to get lawmakers to impose stricter regulations. New green businesses are beginning to offer cleaner alternatives. So here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  1. Look for fragrance-free options. Added fragrance to shampoos, lotions, and creams is one of the worst sources of these harmful chemicals. A lotion that doesn’t smell like cucumber melon can be just as lotion-y without the artificial additives.
  2. Avoid chemical dyes and colorants, including hair dye and especially skin lighteners. Hydroquinone, which is often found in skin lighteners, is considered to be one of the most toxic of all cosmetic ingredients.
  3. Keep a short list of the worst offenders. You can keep a list in your purse of common yet harmful chemical additives. But be warned- the FDA does not require that all these be listed on the label. If it’s not listed, it doesn’t means it’s not there.
  4. Check products before you buy. You can search your favorite brands on EWG’s skin deep database for a full breakdown of ingredients and any warnings associated with them.
  5. Shop the green cosmetic market. A lot of companies (especially small, family-owned ones) are making an effort to provide personal products free of harmful, synthetic chemicals.

Bellydancers use a lot of personal products in preparation for a performance. We might be getting more exposure than the average woman, especially on the nights we have gigs!

Be safe and be healthy!

References and Further Reading:

Campaign for Safe Cosmetics

The Story of Cosmetics

EWG’s Skin Deep Database

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Compromising your natural support structure requires balance

You probably already know that balance is one’s ability to maintain an equilibrium either while standing still or moving. Balance is actually linked to strength. It’s the strength of very small muscle groups needed to hold us in place when we disrupt our natural support structure (either by taking a foot off the ground or moving different sections of our body out of alignment). So how do we use balance in belly dance, and why is it important to develop this skill?

What a belly dancer with balance looks like: She appears solid, grounded, and in control of her body and movements. She can easily perform the transitions needed for level changes and floorwork. Movements that require shifting the weight to one foot or movements on relevé seem effortless. She can spin or turn while maintaining her position on the floor or while traveling around the room, stopping with ease and precision.

You know what the feeling of being off balance is like. If you experience that feeling during…

  • large isolation work (such as large torso circles or eights)
  • level changes
  • spins, turns, and arabesques
  • traveling steps
  • relevé (on your tip-toes)
  • movements with the weight on just one leg

… then you know it’s time to work on your balance.

A few tips for balance work:

  1. A lot of balancing in belly dancing relies on the calf muscles. To strengthen these and practice traveling steps, relevé, and level changes, try adding heel raises into your warmups. Lift your heels off the floor, balance on your toes for a few seconds, and then lower with control. Repeat for a minute or two.
  2. You can give yourself an even greater challenge by layering a shoulder shimmy or torso circle over the heel raise exercise. Or try performing a grapevine, or other footwork sequence, interspersed with heel raises.
  3. A lot of people avoid spins because of the unpleasant feeling on dizziness or nausea, but this actually fades with practice. Some people feel less effect focusing on a point turning with them (like their arm or shoulder), on nothing at all, or by spotting. Start with the style that works best for you and try to add a few turns to your practice.

Extra-curricular study: I really like Yoga for teaching body awareness (important for balance) and strengthening core and calf muscles. Standing yoga poses like Vrksasana (the tree) are great.

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Using props requires coordination

Coordination is our ability to integrate our movements into sequence, into what we call dance. It is actually a synthesis of the other components of fitness such as strength and balance.

What a coordinated belly dancer looks like: She is able to effectively layer. She can perform hip and torso movements in tandem, shimmy over circles and eights, or add level changes. Her movements are in sync to the music and form natural patterns to the rhythm. Her footwork is varied and she has an assortment of traveling steps, turns, and transitions to choose from when improvising or choreographing. She can gracefully integrate props such as a sword, veil, cane, or zills into her routine.

You should work on your coordination if you:

  • Feel like you ‘lose touch’ with your arms when you’re concentrating on other movements
  • Feel like you can’t connect to the muscles your instructor describes using for a particular movement
  • Would like to learn to travel with the circles, waves, and eights you already know
  • Would like to add a shimmy to the circles, waves, and eights you already know
  • Want to add more complex traveling steps and footwork to your practice
  • Would like to dance with props such as a sword, veil, cane, and especially zills

A quick note: What’s the deal with isolations? Isolations, as I refer to them, are small, highly focused movements. These include the circles, waves, and eights of the hips, belly, torso, chest, and shoulders. Isolations are a product of coordination (your brain knowing and connecting to the right muscles at the right time), strength (those very small muscles having the power to move large sections of your body), and flexibility (those same muscles being able to stretch long enough to produce a wide range of motion). You need all three to have clean, precise isolation work.

Recognizing the Signs

1.) You’re working on a new isolation but the body part you’re trying to move just doesn’t go where it’s supposed to. Your instructor has described what muscles to use and has maybe even shown you where they are located. You just can’t feel them though, and aren’t sure how to connect to them.

Why: Your brain and the muscle haven’t coordinated yet. You might use the muscle in your day to day without thinking, but haven’t discovered yet how to actively move it where you want it to go.

The Fix: First, try your best to identify the right muscle group. You might be able to see the muscle movement in your instructor, or even feel it with your hand. Ask your instructor to steer you through the movement with her hands, if you feel comfortable. Then try to incorporate a mind body connection into your practice. Imagine the muscle working, performing the movement correctly.

2.) You’re learning to layer, essentially trying to perform two movements at once. It might be as simple as circling your arms while moving your hips from side-to-side, or more complicated like layering a hip shimmy over a figure eight. In any case, you have that sensation of brain overload. When you concentrate on one movement the other loses its form or shape, starts and stops, or gets dropped altogether.

Why: It’s the typical pat your tummy while scratching your head thing.

The Fix: There are a few things you can try in your practice. Always start with one movement first (I like to start with the harder one), and then slowly add in the other. I also recommend varying the speed of one or both movements. The circle can be really large and super slow when you’re first trying to layer a shimmy.

3.) Fancy footwork is not your favorite thing. Your instructor occasionally throws in a few turns, crossovers, rock steps, cha cha chas… and it’s like showing a dog a card trick.

Why: We don’t always identify as strongly right and left with our feet as we do our hands. It’s difficult sometimes (especially when a mirror is involved) to tease apart footwork.

The Fix: Unfortunately, the only thing to do is practice! It’s good to slow things down occasionally, but a lot of times it can be easier to get things at speed. Don’t think, just try to move. Look for ‘anchors’ in the combination… one two three turn five six rock step… and try to hit these first, the filler steps will fall into place.

Extra-curricular study: I like to think that the footwork I use in my combinations is entirely a product of step aerobics and ballroom dance. From these I learned how to take ‘X’ number of beats and distance A to B and travel it gracefully. I highly recommend both as a supplement to your study, I think you’ll be surprised by how much you’ll learn about belly dance!

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Check out these beautiful body lines, courtesy of good flexibility

With inactivity and aging our muscles tend to shorten and stiffen, in other words we lose our flexibility. Flexibility is needed for extending muscles through their normal range of motion to create the beautiful hip and torso articulations we use in belly dance. And it isn’t just for dancers, fitness experts now agree that being flexible is extremely important to preventing injuries both during exercise and in our normal day to day motions.

What a flexible belly dancer looks like: She always has good posture and alignment. Isolations of her torso, hips, arms, head, and wrists form complete shapes (like circles instead of ellipses) both small or large at her discretion. She has mobility in her spine to bend backwards or forwards, to twist or rotate.

You should work on your flexibility if you:

  • Have poor posture
  • Experience stiffness or tension in your muscles including hips, neck, wrists, arms, and shoulders while dancing (not your joints, that’s something else!)
  • Have trouble twisting or rotating one section of the body (like your torso) separately and away from another (like your hips)
  • Intend to perform backbends
  • Want to improve the range of motion of isolations
  • Want to improve your body lines, your ability to extend hands, arms, torso, or legs to form beautiful poses

A quick note: What’s the deal with isolations? Isolations, as I refer to them, are small, highly focused movements. These include the circles, waves, and eights of the hips, belly, torso, chest, and shoulders. Isolations are a product of coordination (your brain knowing and connecting to the right muscles at the right time), strength (those very small muscles having the power to move large sections of your body), and flexibility (those same muscles being able to stretch long enough to produce a wide range of motion). You need all three to have clean, precise isolation work.

Remember that when stretching aim for tension in the working muscle, not pain! Deepen your stretch slowly and with control while breathing. Never bounce or rock in the stretch. It takes 30 seconds of holding a stretch for the muscle to begin to relax and lengthen, so try to be in the position for at least a minute.

Recognizing the Signs

1.) Your instructor has shown you what good posture is supposed to look like, but it feels really awkward for you to try and hold that alignment. You tend to slump back to what feels normal and comfortable pretty quickly.

Why: You don’t have enough core flexibility to support good posture and alignment. Your muscles are used to being in a contracted state and have therefore shortened, now they really have to stretch to hold good posture.

The Fix: Concentrate on good posture throughout your day, both at work and at home. Supplement your dancing with stretching for the core muscles, especially the upper back, shoulders, and chest.

2.) You’re working on a figure eight or circle for your hips or chest. At one point in the movement you feel a lot of tension, and if you push it too hard pain, in the working muscle. Your circle or eight isn’t completely ‘filled out’ either, because at the same point you pull back inside the trajectory of the shape to prevent tension or pain.

Why: You don’t have enough flexibility in that muscle to execute a full range of motion.

The Fix: Add this circle exercise to your warmup. Perform fifteen circles in each direction for each section of your body starting with your hips, moving through torso, then shoulders, arms, wrists, and finally head. Add extra circles if one direction/side feels more tense. For the movement your working on in the scenario above, find that awkward point in the circle or eight and hold it. Push gently into the stretch aiming for tension not pain, and breath deeply.

Extra-curricular study: The best thing for flexibility is of course Yoga! But any general stretching program will help, too.

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Shimmies take a lot of muscular and cardiovascular endurance!

In the world of fitness “endurance” can be either muscular or cardiovascular. Muscle endurance is your ability to repeat movements without fatiguing, cardiovascular refers specifically to the strength of your heart. Amping up your endurance means aerobic exercise and lots of repetitive movements… in other words, drills, drills, DRILLS!

What a dancer with good endurance looks like: She can perform moderately strenuous dance moves such as traveling steps and shimmies for at least ten to twenty minutes without tiring. She isn’t always out of breath; most of the time she could talk while dancing if she wanted. She doesn’t run out of shimmy power by the end of class. She maintains good posture and alignment, even when she’s been dancing for awhile.

You should work on your endurance if you:

  • Notice your arms and posture tend to ‘deflate’ by the end of your practice
  • Feel out of breath while dancing or practicing drills
  • Always feel sore the day after a class or a performance
  • Tend to lose a lot of power to your movements after awhile (your shimmies run out of steam!)

Recognizing the Signs

1.) It’s hard to hold your arms up for too long. By the end of class, you look pretty deflated and your arm position might best be described as ‘chicken wings’. 

Why: Your chest, shoulder, and arm muscles fatigue pretty fast if they are not regularly trained.

The Fix: Don’t let arm positions and movements take a backseat during your dance practice. Try to always be doing something with your arms, even if it’s just holding them in position. Switching positions, if you can, is better than dropping armwork completely. When your arms get tired take a break, but don’t forget to re-introduce them again a few minutes later. Want to kick up your arm strength even more? Introduce a veil to your practice. You don’t even have to dance with the veil, just holding it will be enough to make arms and shoulders work really hard!

2.) You do an awesome _______ shimmy… for about thirty seconds. Then it’s gone and your body feels kind of like Jell-o when you try to shimmy again.

Why: A shimmy is very localized, but still very intense, demand on your muscles. They’ll fatigue quickly when you’re just starting to learn a new movement.

The Fix: Try cycling shimmies through several speeds to build muscle endurance. Start with a slow and large movement, refine to slightly smaller and faster, then return to slow and large. When you feel yourself getting tired try slowing down instead of stopping. It’s slightly less demanding for muscles, but they’re still engaged and therefore becoming stronger.

3.) Ten minutes or more or non-stop dancing to the music is certain to leave you out of breath.

Why: Your cardiovascular fitness, the ability of your heart to pump oxygen to your muscles, could be improved.

The Fix: You need aerobic exercise! Try to practice at least two or three times a week. Make a playlist of your favorite songs, ones that really get you pumped up, and dance without stopping for at least ten minutes. Incorporate moderately strenuous shimmies and traveling steps as often as you can.

Extra-curricular study: Aerobic exercise featuring repetitive movements is perfect for working on your endurance. Other forms of dance, such as Bollywood, can be really fun additions to your routine. My favorites? Walking/hiking and step aerobics!

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This modified side plank requires lots of core strength

Technically speaking, strength is the capacity of a muscle to exert force against resistance. In belly dance we don’t hold weights (although I have a pair of zills the size of tea cup saucers that might count); the ‘resistance’ is often gravity or even the weight of our own bodies. Belly dance is therefore only light strength training, but having strength is important for maintaining good posture and for clean isolations.

What a strong belly dancer looks like: She always has good posture and alignment. Her isolations are clearly defined and she can perform them equally well slowly or quickly. Her core muscles can support movements with a large range of motion. She can easily transition from standing to floorwork.

You should work on your strength if you:

  • Have poor posture
  • Experience back pain during or after dancing
  • Want to be able to perform more advanced floorwork technique
  • Intend to perform back bends, especially transitioning to floorwork dropping through a back bend
  • Want to improve the precision and range of motion of isolations

A quick note: What’s the deal with isolations? Isolations, as I refer to them, are small, highly focused movements. These include the circles, waves, and eights of the hips, belly, torso, chest, and shoulders. Isolations are a product of coordination (your brain knowing and connecting to the right muscles at the right time), strength (those very small muscles having the power to move large sections of your body), and flexibility (those same muscles being able to stretch long enough to produce a wide range of motion). You need all three to have clean, precise isolation work.

Recognizing the Signs

1.) Your body seems to just deflate by the end of class. Your instructor is constantly reminding you to keep you chest lifted and your shoulders back. You experience lower back pain often while dancing, or perhaps even the next day.

Why: You don’t have enough core strength to support good posture and alignment, and to compensate other muscles are stepping in to do the work where they shouldn’t.

The Fix: Concentrate on good posture throughout your day, both at work and at home. Supplement your dancing with light weight training, yoga, pilates, or other core strength fitness routines (see below).

2.) You’d like to achieve greater extension with your torso movements (slides, circles, camels, back bends), but when you try to make your movements larger you feel off balance. Or, you can extend much further on one side than on the other.

Why: You don’t have enough core strength to support the movement (on either or both sides).

The Fix: Practice extending the movement to the point where you feel tension in the opposing muscle groups. Make sure you’ve maintained good posture and alignment. Hold in the extended position for ten seconds or until the muscle fatigues. Take a break and repeat.

3.) You’re working on an isolation that’s difficult for you. You vaguely feel like you can connect to the right muscle, but it just doesn’t seem to go anywhere when you ask it to move. It feels weak and heavy, like there’s an invisible wall preventing you from moving it.

Why: The muscle group you are trying to move is not strong enough to carry the weight you’ve asked it to carry (or you’re still having trouble connecting your brain to the right muscle, a coordination issue).

The Fix: The one’s the hardest to deal with, but as always practice can help. Visualize the muscle you’re trying to move, imagine it working. You might be able to place your hand on that muscle group to feel it when it contracts and releases. You might also try “isometric” (squeeze and release) contractions to help locate and strengthen.

Extra-curricular study: My favorite fitness programs to better my posture and and rev up my floorwork are yoga and TRX suspension training. Light weight lifting, core and abdominal exercises, and Pilates will work, too.

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