My Interview About Belly Dance From 2006

•July 9, 2016 • Leave a Comment
This is an interview I did for a student at Bala Cynwyd College, PA when I was asked to teach a stage presence workshop in belly dance.  It’s a little insight into my world of belly dance 😉

1.) When did you first decide that you liked belly dancing?  

I first liked belly dancing when I saw a very small (and probably somewhat misrepresented) portion of it on “I Dream of Jeannie”, my favorite 1960’s sitcom.  Then, in the early 90s, I saw the video for “ Mysterious Ways ” by U2, one of my favorite bands.  There was a small clip of a belly dancer swaying her hips to U2’s funky pop-rock oriented tune and I thought it was so cool.  The chorus lyrics are :  “It’s alright, it’s alright, alright… she moves in mysterious ways.”  Very appropriate!  The very first time I saw a live belly dancer was when my friends invited me to their bridal shower.  The belly dancer performed for the bride and groom and all I kept thinking was, “I want to do that someday!”  Little did I know that 10 years after that I would be in a studio in Miami taking my first belly dance class!  That actually also happened by mistake.  My intention was to take a jazz class because I was always into working out and I thought training in some kind of dance would be beneficial.  To make a long story short, when I tried to sign up for the jazz class, the front desk told me that the class was already full and closed, but that they had one more space in their belly dance class.  I was hooked from the very first shimmy I did.  The rest, as they say, is history!
2.) Is belly dancing a tradition in your family, or was it an interest you picked up on your own?
I come from a very Hispanic/Latino family, so belly dancing is definitely not a tradition for us.  I grew up watching and dancing the dances that are typical to our culture:  Merengue, Salsa, Bachata, Cumbia, etc….   My parents have both been excellent dancers for years so it was easy to pick up observing their moves.  We would have house parties in NY and we were always dancing.  I believe that because it is “in my blood” and because I enjoy dancing so much to pretty much anything, it has always been easy for me to pick up dance in general.  I think that there are certain similarities between Latin and belly dancing, particularly movements associated with the hips.  Because the movements  in both cultures are sensual and lively, I’d say I was able to pick up belly dancing very quickly.  Additionally, when I began studying it, I was completely immersed and absorbed into learning not only the proper technique but its history and culture.  It instantly became a passion for me that, up to that point, had been as yet undiscovered.
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3.) Where did you learn to dance?
I’ve always enjoyed all forms of dance and consider myself a quick learner.  As a Hispanic, we were always dancing at parties, so I didn’t have to actually “learn” Latin dancing, per se.  I did, however, need to train in belly dance classes because it is a dance that requires body isolations, which is something I was a little unfamiliar with.  I began studying with Virginia, who is one of the top Oriental Dance artists based in Miami .  Initially, I took belly dance to incorporate it into my workout routine, but within days of my first class, I fell in love with the art form and knew I wanted to perform it.  I feel that when one has a passion for something, it becomes that much easier to learn and do.  It is not an easy dance, but I love it and was determined to work hard at it and that is what helped me pick up on it faster.
4.) What made you decide that teaching belly dancing is what you wanted to do?
I didn’t actually decide that teaching belly dance is what I wanted to do as much as my interest in performing it – initially.  I love the stage and have done musical theater, some modeling, etc. so the performance bug has always been within me!  However, after I covered a few classes for my teachers, it was very gratifying to be able to help others learn something so beautiful, just as I was mentored by my own teachers and colleagues.  This dance is indeed an art form, but it is also a very powerful expression of a woman’s strength, sensuality, and femininity.  There is nothing else that has helped the majority of belly dancers boost their self-image as much as this dance.  Therefore, I feel a sense of responsibility to guide other women in feeling everything that is beautiful and wonderful about being a woman.  THAT is what keeps me determined and motivated to want to teach belly dance.
5.) How much do you know about the history of belly dancing?
I know many things about its origins, but I am learning new things every day about the history of belly dance because there is much out there that even the most accomplished dancers sometimes do not yet know.  What I know about the historical aspects are things that I have researched and/or gathered from talking to those who are more knowledgeable, such as my seasoned veteran instructors and/or dancers who have been in the business a very long time.  I always share the information I’ve learned with the students I’ve had and just in everyday conversation.  I continue to do research on belly dance (or Raqs Sharqi, as it is known in the Middle East ) so that I can continue educating myself as well as sharing it with others.
6.) Where could one go out to enjoy an evening of belly dancing? Clubs, parties, concerts, etc…?
You can most definitely check out any Middle Eastern restaurant in the area – most likely you WILL see a belly dancer there!  It is part of the culture and typical atmosphere that a restaurant with Middle Eastern cuisine will have at least one belly dancer performing on the weekends.  Some venues rotate the dancers, so you may see 2 or more on any given weekend, depending on scheduling and other factors.  There are also cultural events, concerts, parades and clubs that occasionally feature belly dancers.  A hafla (which means “party” in Arabic) is held from time to time at various venues several times throughout the year and they are sometimes sponsored/directed by a belly dance studio or a specific belly dance festival/organization.  Haflas are a great way to see many belly dancers perform (both students and professionals) as well as watch different styles of Middle Eastern Dance.  You will also typically be served an authentic Middle Eastern buffet-style dinner and have the opportunity to try some dance moves as well, which is always fun and interesting!
7.) What is it that you love about teaching and performing belly dancing?
What I love about teaching is watching others learn something fun, healthy and lovely which makes them feel great about themselves.  What I love about performing is being able to express something I love doing through the beauty and skill of this dance and watching their joy as they are entertained.  It is especially a privilege to be appreciated by audience members who are of Middle Eastern descent – I feel as if I am doing the dance some justice when they compliment me – it is, after all, THEIR culture.
8.) What is your reaction or how do you handle when people ask if belly dance is related to stripping?
I usually explain to them that the way in which the media portrays belly dance is often depicted erroneously and that one must watch a professional live belly dance show to really understand and/or appreciate the art.  There are many differences, but one of the most obvious is the costuming.  You will NEVER see a true belly dancer wearing fish-net stockings and garter belts.  Our costuming ranges from full-length dresses to the glitzy, sexy bra and belt, baring the midriff; however, we do NOT take anything off at any point during our performance.  We believe that you can be sexy without being erotic.  There is definitely a difference!  Another major difference is that professional belly dancers will NOT perform at bachelor parties or all-male parties.  There have been some exceptions by newer belly dancers and/or students which we strive to educate otherwise, but generally, the most serious-minded professional belly dancer will not do that.  Most people have this belief that belly dancers were put on this earth to entice and seduce men or that a harem is a place where many scantily clad women or dancers are surrounding a male sultan for his pleasure.  This is a myth created by the media.  A harem is actually a place for housing women only.  It was historically forbidden for men unless they were relatives.  So the image of scantily clad women surrounding or seducing men in dance is just not true.  Finally, the best answer I give to people (and the most logical) is that there is a significant difference between a stripper and belly dancer simply in the audience demographic.  We can dance for your 5-year-old.  A stripper cannot.  SIMPLE!   At the end of the day,  we are family oriented entertainment, while stripping is adult-related.
9.) What function or purpose does belly dancing serve?
The health benefits associated with belly dancing are very often key for many women, including those who are pregnant since belly dancing has its roots in birth rituals.  It provides a great workout in a fun, relaxed environment.  Most women feel they are not working out because they have to do it, but because they actually WANT to do it.  Belly dancing is not only an excellent form of exercise, but it is also a beautiful and, at times, under-appreciated, art form with the same professional standards of ballet, modern, jazz, tap and more.  It takes great skill, determination, and endurance to perform many of the movements because its main emphasis is on the isolation of the body.  It is unlike any other dance form – particularly Western dance – in that it celebrates the natural roundness of the female body regardless of size or shape.  Additionally, any woman (or man) of any size, shape and weight can belly dance.  It has become a huge self-esteem booster for many women and the dance movements themselves have influenced many women to feel healthier and sexier about themselves and, as such, more comfortable with their bodies and entire self-image.
 
10.) Who generally takes your belly dancing classes? age, gender, race, etc…?
 
Women and men of all backgrounds, ages, race, and religions perform or take belly dance.  Men are also interested as there are many professional male belly dancers who have enjoyed success.  There is absolutely no age, weight, height, race or gender restriction in Oriental Dance!

The Importance of Warming Up Before Belly Dance or Exercise

•July 6, 2014 • Leave a Comment

How many times have we done belly dance shows without warming up first?  Hmmm…..I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that probably out of 10 performances, we may have only warmed up once.  I’ll also go a step further and say that the warm-up most likely consisted of some quick breathing due to nerves and maybe some shimmies getting into costume and making sure there would be no wardrobe malfunction, right?  It may sound funny, but there is some truth to that for some of us!  I admit I have been a frequent offender of skipping over some necessary warm-up time.  As such, I have made a conscious effort in recent years to loosen up my body for a few minutes, even if I am dancing to one song.  The truth is, although we may feel okay or we think our dance routine is ‘too relaxed and simple’, our bodies always risk potential injury dancing full-out without having taken at least a bit of time to move around first.  Sometimes, it only takes a very minimal movement for our bodies to remind us of that.

Aside from helping to prevent injury, the other benefit to warming up is that it helps you relax prior to your performance.  I can honestly say that I do not get as nervous as I used to when I began performing years ago, but there are times when even the slightest nerves kick in just before I go on.  This is normal for any performer, even the most seasoned ones.  That said, when I take the time to warm up, I find that it helps shift my focus from those nerves to a calmer spirit, allowing me to have a more comfortable and natural performance, especially when I feel added pressure before certain shows.

Warming up is not limited to a pre-show time “to-do list”, however; anytime we participate in any physical activity or sport, it is paramount that we  loosen our bodies.  When you think of something as simple as rolling out of bed first thing in the morning, most of us tend to stretch out our arms and legs, right?  In fact, it is a bit challenging at times just to get out of bed because our bodies have not sufficiently “woken up” to move around as we normally would during the day.  Think of your muscles like a rubber band that has been stored in the cold overnight.  If you attempt to stretch out a cold rubber band, it may tear or break.  However, once the rubber band is at room temperature, you can stretch it out completely without a tear.  The same goes for our bodies.  You do not ever want to push your body past the limit when it is still cold; you need to move it around first to build up a warmer temperature so that your muscles have somewhere to go without risking injury.  Remember, it doesn’t have to take so much time; the important thing is to do it.

To demonstrate some effective warm up exercises, I have created a short video called Belly Dance Warm Up Exercises and Drills  targeting every area of the body specific to belly dance movement.  These drills are not just great as a warm-up prior to a show, but also to loosen you up before a belly dance class, workshops and rehearsals or even before your daily dance training at home.  Please note that you do NOT need to do every exercise shown in the video.  Although the video is just under 12 minutes long, I realize that not everyone has that time, particularly if you have a hectic schedule.  Believe me, I understand; no pressure at all!  These serve simply as recommendations I wanted to share because they have been extremely helpful for me.  If you are short on time, you can do a shorter combination of just a few of these or choose the ones which work best for you.   Either way, it will be just as beneficial.  The key here is to move around, even if it is only for 5 minutes.  You will get your entire body warm, prepped, relaxed and most importantly, free from possible injury.

I truly hope this can be instrumental for your dance routine and/or workout practice.  Please feel free to contact me with any questions and share with others if you are so inclined!

Keep on dancing!

Peace and shimmies,

Rena~

Raqs Fitness: Embracing Belly Dance as Both an Art and Fitness Regimen

•May 19, 2014 • Leave a Comment

I have always believed and maintain that being a great belly dancer requires not only having excellent technique, passionate delivery and a strong knowledge of Middle Eastern music and rhythms, but also demands having a strong and healthy body overall.  While it is not necessary for belly dancers to fit the ideal body image typically seen in other dance disciplines or in Hollywood, I personally enjoy being fit and staying in shape as a  decision I made years ago in my quest for overall health and fitness.   I believe that as we get older, it is paramount that we work hard to take better care of ourselves both inside and outside.  We’ve all heard these expressions:  ‘A strong mind equals a strong body’, ‘our bodies were designed to move’ and ‘you are what you eat’.  Granted, they may be very cliche to some, but are principles by which I live and truly believe in.   I will always insist that it is never too late to start training and observing a healthy lifestyle, regardless of who you are, when you start or even what your health challenges may be.  Naturally, it is important to check with your health professional prior to participating in any fitness/dance program, but there are many who are still able to observe a lifestyle which includes regular exercise, in spite of certain challenges.  The key is in listening to the caveats from your doctor and doing what is right for YOUR body type as it relates to YOUR individual health concerns.NamasteRed

Those who truly know me know that I am an advocate of – and have been consistently devoted to – a life of health and fitness for years.  I didn’t always challenge myself in the past as I do now, but I have always been all about taking care of myself and learning new ways to improve my exercise routine.  I find that I am a lot bolder now about trying new things and stepping out of my comfort zone, something I never would have considered in my teens or in my 20s!   Although I am not fitness certified, I have had the privilege of having been mentored by friends who are certified personal trainers, dance instructors of all disciplines, yoga instructors and more.  They have helped me a great deal in teaching me proper form, technique, terminology and more.  For that, I am eternally grateful because I have been able to help others along the way in addition to reaching my own goals.  Along with teaching belly dance classes in Philadelphia for over 6 years, I also included various forms of exercise within the dance routines to make the most out of my students’ learning time.  By incorporating both things I love (fitness and belly dance routines), it greatly helped my students achieve, not just a rich dance vocabulary, but also the motivation to strive for a healthier and more fit way of life through combined exercises and dance movements.  The truth is, dance is exercise in itself, so it makes perfect sense to combine fitness elements for a greater challenge!  

 

I get an enormous sense of satisfaction in encouraging and motivating others to get moving and get healthy!  I love helping others by providing tips on different exercises and healthy eating habits that I follow myself and which have been instrumental in my strong desire for a better way of life.  These exercises are not always belly dance-related, but at times, they are belly dance-inspired!  When I began training in belly dance, I did it with the intention of working out my body because I thought it would be excellent for improving flexibility, strength and stamina.  While this is absolutely the truth, I didn’t realize I’d fall in love with the art form to the point of wanting to perform it professionally, which for me, was of even greater satisfaction since I love the stage and the rush of performing.  As it turns out, I was blessed enough to reap the benefits from both!  I love this art and I love that I have had the ability to professionally entertain audiences as well as educate others in it, but I also love what it has done for me physically.  From a fitness perspective, I have seen dramatic changes in my body and health benefits that belly dance has afforded me over the years.  As such, I have always embraced it as both a beautiful art form and an important fitness regimen in my life.  Hence, the reason why I will always continue with it as long as I have breath in my body!   I feel an incredible sense of accomplishment when I find unique ways to combine fitness elements with belly dance because I know that not only am I doing something wonderful for my health, but I am also enjoying an amazing and challenging dance that allows me to move in ways I never thought I could.  There are many things in life we cannot control, but I am thankful that with belly dance, I CAN control the way I want to move and express myself.  

As always, I will continue to educate myself in all aspects of fitness and belly dance to improve my overall health and provide valuable insight to those who care about living stronger and healthier lives.

 

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of…..Happiness?

•June 20, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.  We have all heard those infamous words from the Declaration of Independence, undeniably described as “certain unalienable rights”.  Oh yeah, that line follows an iconic and often-debated statement about all men being created equal, but that’s a topic for an entirely different blog, at least 10 pages long!

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So why do I even bring up this phrase which forms part of “one of the best-known sentences in the English language”?  Not to mention, its intended purpose is rooted in a formal documented institution of rights for all human beings, rather than the thoughts currently occupying my mind which have led to this written expression of sorts.  Perhaps because they have collectively become the most sought-after goals by most of us trying “to do this thing called life” (thank you Prince!) and we don’t even realize it.  As many times as I have heard these words or have recited them in my head, I have never actually dissected what that means to me specifically.  It was not until recently that I began to think, perceive, smell, taste, absorb and digest the significance of it all as it relates to my own adventures, for lack of a better word.  In fact, I’m still in the process of comprehending its complexity, though with renewed ambition.  Decidedly, the things I once wanted or thought I would have achieved by this time are no longer even in my frame of thought, let alone in my vocabulary.  By the same token, there are certain aspects that I never imagined would become a part of my reality and current existence.  No doubt, this dynamic has been both a blessing and a curse in many ways and I’m equally thankful for both outcomes.

As I reflect on many things in my life, in particular, my life over the past few years, I have been experiencing a roller coaster of emotions across the board:  Professionally, personally, socially, mentally and even spiritually.  My perspective of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness has taken on not just a different shape, but also a drastic change and I am learning to cope and move with that changing shape.  Cope?  Isn’t that a word one uses when referring to rehabilitation or after a not-so-pleasant visit to the oncologist ?  Probably, but in my world, this is how drastic a change I have felt; so much so that at times, I have even sat down to psychoanalyze myself….without a formal degree in Psychology!  I admit that sometimes I am not at all fond of the direction in which this “changing road” takes me, but I follow it as best I can nonetheless and I realize that it is best to accept it.  As difficult as it is, going with it keeps me sane, calm, panic-free and even improves my brain power.

Going with the flow.  We say this all the time.  It’s very “urban dictionary”, but if you think about it, it is an absolute logical response, especially when you’ve come to the humble realization that you simply have no control over some things.  You know the typical advice they always give about driving on treacherous snowy roads.  It is recommended that when you suddenly hit a sheet of ice and your tires start spinning out of control, the best thing to do is go with it, rather than trying to fight it or control it.  Do not steer.  Do not break.  Do not accelerate.  Just go with it….PERIOD.  Then, when your car is stabilized, you’ll have a better handle on it to regain control and keep moving forward where you originally were headed.  It sounds great in theory, until panic sets in and all that good advice goes out the window somehow!  It’s the same with my crazy, spinning, fickle, uncertain and sometimes out-of-control life.  I am learning how to drive on this sheet of ice that has recently represented my direction in life and I cannot afford to allow panic to set in, forgetting the advice for driving in treacherous conditions.  It seems like there is no end in sight for me before I get back on a road where I feel safe, stable and certain of where I’m ultimately going.  I hate the feeling of helplessness.  I hate not knowing.  I hate not being in control.  Nevertheless, I go with it.

Those who know me very well know that I push myself incredibly hard every day, but I feel like I’m stuck in the same rut,  Just when I feel I’m taking a step forward, I end up 3 steps back.  I have expressed to my family that this somehow makes me feel useless as all hell.  My family graciously comforts me and reminds me that I’ll be alright; that everything I have ever done before (especially my dancing) is still there – like riding a bike, you never forget.  Then I remind my family that even bikes get rusty if you don’t use them enough!  I swear I feel like my bike has been sitting in a garage that’s under a padlock with no key available!  Yet I tell myself that this will pass; that as long as I continue working as hard as I’m working now, my tenacity will eventually pay off.  I’ve often told some of my closest friends that if tenacity were a weapon of choice, I’d probably be a WMD (weapon of mass destruction).  Sounds funny and even silly, but it’s my own exaggerated analogy to express just how tough I am and how I do everything in my power to achieve my goals.  That unstoppable drive is what helps me stay focused to keep going just when I want to quit.  That is why I believe I’m going to get back on the road headed in the right direction sooner rather than later.  That is why I truly see myself accomplishing greater things than I thought possible or even deemed necessary.  Some say I aim too high.  I say my aim can be higher still.  Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.  I haven’t quite figured out entirely what that means for me, but the fact that I have taken the time to think about it leads me to believe I’m one step further than where I was before.

Want to Stay Young and Healthy-Looking for as Long as Possible?

•May 26, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Every time I’ve met and spoken with people whose skin looks amazing, and they’re in their 50s, 60s and even 70s, they all have one thing in common.  Aside from the fact that they eat right and/or exercise, they also tell me that they have stayed out of the sun or at least wear their sunscreen if they happen to be in the sun.  You want to stay young-looking as long as possible and keep your skin looking healthy?  Then wear your sunscreen, even if you’re just going to take the garbage out.  You may laugh at that, but I am quite serious.  Being healthy is not just about eating right and exercising, it is also about taking safety precautions when it comes to the sun, particularly those of us who live in warmer climates.  Whether you believe it or not, the sun ages you, causes wrinkles faster and can potentially cause skin cancer.

Many people assume that skin cancer comes as a result of a few beach days of prolonged sun exposure.  Wrong.  Very often, it comes from sun exposure accumulated over time without wearing a sunscreen, even if it’s just getting in and out of your car.   It’s like adding pennies to a piggy bank.  Pennies are small change, but they add up once you start stacking them.  It is the same with sun exposure.  If you never wear sunscreen every time you make a run to the store, go to work, park your car, etc. and you do this for years, all of that sun exposure DOES add up over time.  This is why it’s important to wear your sunscreen even if you do not plan to be outside for a long time.

If you’re going to be on the beach or outside for long periods of time, then wearing sunscreen is a no-brainer for most people.  However, the mistake many people make is to put their sunscreen on when they’re already on the beach or in a park.  You should actually apply it BEFORE you leave your house; generally 30 minutes before sun exposure.  Anytime you step outside, the sun’s rays are already hitting your skin, not just when you get to the beach and yes, even when it’s cloudy (the sun penetrates right through).  Don’t believe me?  Just ask people in the medical field like my sister who have seen cases of skin cancer, including people who have olive, brown or black skin.   Most people think that only the fair-skinned are at risk; that’s another misconception.  It doesn’t matter how fair or dark your skin is, you can still be at a health risk if you do not wear your sunscreen.  Look for broad spectrum sunscreen with at least a 30 SPF, which protects you from the sun’s damaging UVA and UVB rays.  You may not like what I’m saying, especially if you love to tan (like I do), but I am speaking from experience and because I’ve done my due diligence on this.

I used to be a sun-worshiper when I was in my 20s.  I stopped doing that sunbathing thing years ago and I’m very happy about that….so is my skin!   The more research I did, the more I spoke with health professionals and even with people who actually developed skin cancer, the more I realized I not only wanted to make sure my skin maintained a healthy appearance, but that I also wanted to live longer.  I will be the first one to admit that I LOVE the gorgeous deep, caramel color I would get when I tanned, but in the name of health and safety, I opted to stop that and do “fake-bake” only.  Yes, I’m one of those who uses the stuff in a bottle!  Nowadays, the formulas they make are much nicer and more pleasant than when sunless tanning first came out on the market.  By the way, tanning beds are just as bad as the sun, so stay away from those, too. If you really want a year-round glow, then your only safe alternative is a sunless tan:  spray, lotion or airbrush.  I may not get the exact same deep tan I got from the sun, but I’m also not putting myself at a potential risk for skin cancer.  It’s an investment in my overall health and it is well worth it.  I’d rather have less color and know that I’m taking precautions to be healthier and live a little longer.

So, if you want to keep looking great and as youthful as possible, then wear your sunscreen every time you go outside.  The fact is, we will all get older, but we can age gracefully if we are smart about our health choices and habits.

Who Needs a Gym? You Can Still Be Fit and Healthy!

•May 14, 2013 • Leave a Comment
I am sure after reading this heading, you thought to yourself:  Nah, she isn’t serious is she?  Actually, I am quite serious.  You do not necessarily need to go to the gym to be fit and healthy.  Why?  Because I have been working out at home for years and nearly every time someone meets me, the first question I get is:  ‘How often do you go to the gym?’  I always smile at that assumption, thinking to myself I must be doing something right if they’re thinking I spend hours in a gym!  The truth is I had gone to a gym years ago when I started getting serious about fitness for close to a month only, that’s it.  I never went back to a gym after that once I learned how to do certain things with the resources I had readily available at home.  You would be amazed at what you can do without spending a lot of money on a gym membership.  Believe it or not, you can follow a strong exercise routine and practice great overall health habits from the comfort of your home.  The key is to be disciplined and consistent.
 
In today’s society, where so many celebrities and the media constantly bombard us with images of toned, fit bodies, it can be overwhelming and even somewhat discouraging to keep up with the fitness trend, not to mention all the diets that surface.  Generally, most people want to look good and live a little longer.  It seems every time we turn on the TV or read an article, there are new and sometimes crazy methods being introduced that promise us that ideal body we long for.  As important as it is for one to look great, the goal should be to be exercise safely and eat properly and not necessarily look like the hottie on your favorite TV show or movie.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with desiring a beautiful, fit body, but we need to be careful about the ways in which we choose to go about it, remembering that the main goal should be to desire a healthy and strong physique and not just look like someone else.  It is paramount to research, educate ourselves and stay informed on everything that exists regarding diet and exercise.  Many diets out there that claim instantaneous results are scams to get your money and actually do not produce real results.  We need to ensure we do our homework on any diet/exercise programs and consult with a physician so that we are not compromising what our bodies can handle or jeopardize our health.
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So how is it that we can stay in shape without attending a gym?  Well, in order to answer this question, I need to go into a little background first.  Many people I know have a gym membership.  Out of those who do, about 1/3 actually use their membership regularly.  Why?  My perspective on this is that having the membership is almost like a security blanket for them.  It is good to hold on to for a while even though they may never entirely immerse themselves into it.   Another reason some never get to use it is because they may find themselves running out of time in their hectic lives to spend an hour or two at the gym.  However, many fitness centers across the country have early, late and even weekend hours to accommodate just about everyone’s schedule, so perhaps this no longer becomes such a strong argument.  When you think about it, it is a shame that some folks are spending an exuberant amount of money without getting the most out of their membership.  It is also ironic that I am a lot more disciplined in my exercises without a gym membership than some of my friends who do have one.  Hmmmm….what’s wrong with this picture?   Some friends with whom I’ve spoken say they do not go to a gym because it is not in their budget or they simply do not have the time to exercise.  This is where I reiterate: You do NOT need to turn over your entire paycheck nor do you need to dedicate hours per day (at a gym or otherwise) to be fit and healthy.  There are options available for you to do some great exercises at home and take as little as 30 minutes out of your day for it.  The important thing is in making the time.  I certainly understand how busy life can be since I have a full schedule of my own, but I still take time out for exercise.  By dedicating just a few minutes to take care of my body on the inside as well as the outside, I see it as an extremely important investment in myself.
 
So here is my M.O.:  I do not go to a gym.  Obviously, we all know that now by what I’ve stated.  I do my entire exercise routine at home and only do so for 30 minutes or so a day.  I do not follow any diet, which means I basically eat what I want yet keep it all in moderation.  It truly works out for me and any doctor I’ve seen can attest to that!  First, and most importantly, is my consistency.    I have been exercising religiously for almost 20 years and, therefore, I know what my body can handle and how it generally responds to what I consume and what I can physically do based on my eating habits and workout routine.   It certainly helps that I have been dancing professionally for over 8 years, which makes me very active and helps my body overall being that I have a high metabolism.  The operative word here is “active”.  Remaining active is an important step in observing good health practices to maintain your ideal body weight.  Whether it be walking, running, jogging, cycling, swimming, hiking, playing sports and, yes, dancing (which is a sport and exercise like any other), you are doing something beneficial for strengthening your muscles and improving your cardiovascular system.  Typically, people who are engaged in some kind of physical activity tend to sleep better, have more energy and stamina and are generally happier.  Oh yes and there’s a little thing called sex that is also better when you are physically fit and active…just an FYI!  Hey doctors say it, too so this is where medical advice goes to another level!
 
Second, I do not believe in or follow any diets.  I believe in balance.  Based on my own experiences, I have come to realize that it is not necessary to cut out certain food groups to be healthy.  I really do eat what I want, but I do it in moderation.  For example, if I had a burger for lunch, I will have fish and vegetables for dinner.  If I had dessert one night, I will skip out on it the next few nights and so forth.  It has to do with being smart about your choices and disciplined portion control.  We cannot banish all fat, protein or carbohydrates from our meals and necessarily consider that “healthy”.  It is important to remember that our bodies DO need a certain amount of carbohydrates, protein and fat (the good kinds of fat) in order to function properly, particularly those with an active lifestyle.  Some people I have spoken with refuse to eat anything except a light salad or fruit, but – in their desperate attempt to diet – they do not realize that they cannot live by fruits and vegetables alone.  I have always told people to think of their bodies as a vehicle.  Every vehicle needs fuel in order to run.  The key is in the type of fuel you feed your vehicle and how much of it.  Some require diesel fuel, some unleaded, etc., but ALL need fuel.  In the same way, our bodies will not run without the proper or sufficient amount of fuel.  You cannot live without eating properly and that includes avoiding the habit of skipping meals.  By skipping meals, you are allowing your body to go for longer periods of starvation.  Not a good thing.  Then, you want to overcompensate for the time you missed those meals by trying to devour a huge meal, which throws your entire system off and can even make you feel sick.  Now, as far as your vehicle, you can certainly give it a “1/2 tank of gas”, but it will run out of gas a lot faster than if you fed it a full tank of gas.  You get where I’m going?  If you have a full tank you can take your body for a nice long ride!   Regular tune-ups are a must as well!  Of course, we should be mindful of what NOT to put in our bodies as well:  Nicotine, excessive caffeine and alcohol.  Yes, we all know this; it is a no-brainer, but it has to be stated for those who cannot seem to let go of those habits that eventually take their toll on overall health.
 
Finally, I use what I’ve learned in my dance training and tips from professional fitness trainers to follow my daily workout routine.  What if you cannot afford expensive equipment such as an elliptical?  No worries.  I have learned to do exercises using my own body’s resistance to develop strength and flexibility.  You can also find simple, yet effective and challenging exercises which will help satisfy your own fitness needs.  If you buy just a few good free weights, a mat and a stability ball – items which are relatively inexpensive – you can do many exercises without ever having to leave your home or spend in excess.  By researching and keeping up with legitimate, professional resources that offer excellent ideas and expert advice to guide you in improving your well-being, you can achieve realistic goals through safe health and fitness approaches.
 
One thing that has helped some people I know do regular physical activity is finding something that may be a hobby or extracurricular activity for them.  For instance, I know a few people who have taken up boxing, others do ballroom dancing (or any type of dancing), since it is just as much a sport as is basketball or soccer.  Still others take up martial arts, something which goes even beyond the physical.  There are so many  activities available to us today that burn fat, tone muscles, and promote good heart health, all while providing a fun environment.  Engaging in any of these activities will make exercising a more enjoyable and less monotonous experience because you will be getting the same results without feeling as though you are endlessly pumping iron as you would in a gym.  Of course, you can never go wrong going to a gym, but these are nice options for those who wish to “gym-less” (new word!).
 
A strong, fit, healthy body starts with a strong, fit and healthy mind.  You need to believe in yourself, take time to care for your body and make smart decisions about eating and exercise habits without endangering your health.  Most of all, you should be consistent in what you do.  The expression, “No pain, no gain” may be overused and perhaps a bit cliché, but it also carries a lot of weight (no pun intended!).  If you start your fitness regimen one day and stop the next, you will not see improvement.   As such, it is indeed worth sacrificing a little pain now to gain effective outcomes in the long run.   Think back to the days you were in school and you really needed to digest and learn a subject.  You attended class, but it didn’t stop there.  You also needed to do homework.  You needed to go to the library and do some research.   You needed to stay up late or get up early and study until you completely understood what you were preparing for.  At times, you needed to do a lot of reading, memorizing and putting theory into practice to be able to fully grasp the material, right?   It is the same with exercise and overall health.  You cannot just workout and eat healthy today, then stop tomorrow to perhaps pick it up in another month, expecting to see immediate results.  It doesn’t work like that.  You need to be consistent about it and put hard work in order to truly reap the benefits.  There is no elevator to a fit and healthy body, you need to take the stairs!  Be patient with yourself, confident, positive, believing you can do it and you will persevere.  In time, you will see how much better you  look and feel!  Before you know it, you will love it so much,you will want more!!

Say It Loud, With Silence: Life Lessons Learned in Dance

•August 30, 2012 • Leave a Comment
Silence is golden.  Ah, that proverbial saying often used in circumstances in which it is thought that saying nothing is preferable to speaking.  Sounds simple enough, yet how challenging and even impossible for some of us, right?!  Nevertheless, it becomes incredibly crucial and, at times, necessary to observe this practice during certain conversations and/or situations.
Prayer & Meditation
Being silent was reflected in a song by 80s pop artist, Debbie Gibson.  I remember when I was in college, I bought her 1989 album “Electric Youth” which featured a song that, although never released, was a song I really liked.   The title: “Silence Speaks a Thousand Words”.  Throughout the song, she describes the heartache of a rocky relationship largely due to lack of communication.  Some of the lyrics are:  “When I speak, you turn around and saying not much is saying a lot.”  Indeed, this is so true.  Being silent in this regard does say a great deal about their love or the lack thereof.  Silence played a major role Biblically as well when Jesus was interrogated prior to crucifixion for alleged blasphemy and declaring himself King of the Jews.  Jesus simply did not answer.  In fact, when the death of Jesus was foretold in the book of Isaiah, the prophet declared, “He was oppressed and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth….” (Is. 53:7).  This presents a profound image of a man accused, yet not defending himself, standing silent as a grave.
Obviously, the preceding are very different examples of silence, but my general point here is that no one can negate how powerful silence is, be it a positive or negative circumstance.  So now you’re probably thinking, ‘how would this be a segue way into belly dance and its life lessons’?  Before I get to that answer, let me jump back to the phrase “silence is golden”.  It is believed that the phrase was taken from the Sartor Resartus 1831, by poet Thomas Carlyle, in which a character expounds at length on the virtues of silence.  Part of that text reads as follows:
“Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves together; that at length they may emerge full-formed and majestic into the daylight of life, which they are thenceforth to rule.”
Wow.  This is certainly applicable in belly dance.  For example, some ‘newbie’ dancers performing for the first few times may feel that they need to put all their skills out there on the dance floor.  Thus, very often they may execute everything they’ve learned in classes or workshops the minute they step out, such as advanced spins, doing 5,000 shimmies at top speed without breaking a sweat and so on.  That’s actually a great thing because it shows that they’ve taken the time to study and practice what they’ve learned and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.  However, they may focus entirely on that aspect of the dance, not realizing that it’s ok to slow things down or simply hold a pose and be silent.  They feel that somehow, the audience may get bored if they either slow it down or pause in the middle of their routine.  Not true!  In fact, it can have quite the opposite effect!  You can take your time, completely slow it down in dance and the delivery of that interpretation will be just as skillful and passionate as if you were bouncing all over the stage with high energy.  It may even be more effective and mesmerizing to your audience.
I remember when I used to teach belly dance classes in Philadelphia, I would constantly tell my students, “Make the audience wait for you. They’re not going anywhere.”  Well, at least not if they are truly interested in watching you they won’t go anywhere!  After all, let’s face it:  Your hair looks perfect, your costume is stunning and your face is radiant, so it’s ok to stop and make the audience wait for you!  Why wouldn’t they want to watch you?  This is your time to shine:  Take your time, breathe, slow down and allow them to take it all in.  Besides, it’s a good time for you to pause as well so that you don’t wear yourself out! Translation?  Stop and be silent in your dance; even if your performance is energetic, it’s ok to do so.  You’d be surprised at just how effective this is.
So what does this have to do with ‘life lessons’, you ask?  In our daily lives, we come across all types of people, situations and circumstances.  Some good, some not so good, some bad and some downright ugly.  There are times that it is actually ok to be silent; to be still and simply shock the hell out of that person or situation that tried  to break you.  The message you send in silence can be just as loud and powerful as if you were to speak, but it needs to be done with courtesy and grace, regardless of how challenging things may get.  Ultimately, we come to realize that amazing things happen when we hold back a little; when we allow ourselves to be in control – the good kind of control!