|See that long vertical line going up my belly? That's my rectus abdominis muscle. Photo by Marcus Ferrando|
Strong abdominal work is something that all belly dancers-and audiences- love and admire. Among dancers, abdominal technique is always coveted, but rarely mastered. Spectators go crazy for rolls and flutters, too. Dancers and “civilians” alike regularly ask if I have an alien in my belly…or if I do crunches to get such strong abs. However, though I occasionally enjoy pretending that I’m a Reptilian Hybrid from a distant planet, the answer to both questions is a resounding “no”.
Seriously, the only way I train my torso is with belly dance abdominal work. Though I love Pilates, and have dabbled in Yoga, I knew zilch about either discipline when I started working on my abdominal technique. I’m here to tell you that all it takes for amazing belly work is a little knowledge of proper technique… and a lot of practice time. If you’re willing to put in the time, you’ll have a wild “alien belly” just like me, I promise!
Here are a few tips for achieving strong abs- and there are no sit-ups, crunches, or cross training involved. With practice, you’ll be able to achieve mind-bending rolls, undulations and flutters yourself.
First, let’s discuss undulations. There are two types: Muscular and Muscular Skeletal. The first kind uses only the muscles of the abdomen; a belly roll is muscular only, meaning that the bones or joints-or combinations thereof- are completely still.
The second type of undulation uses muscular engagement combined with bone/joint movement, usually coming from the pelvis and ribcage. A fine example of this would be the movement most of us know as a Camel. But even though a Camel appears to be coming from the pelvis itself, it requires the interior abdominal muscles to engage in order to look really pronounced. When I perform this movement, I tighten up (or engage) my lower abs –and also the muscles of the pelvic floor- when I pull back with my pelvis, and release them when the pelvis itself pushes forward.
The muscle predominantly used in belly rolls is the rectus abdominis, a long, strong-banded pair of vertical, parallel muscles, which run up the length of the torso. The banding in the muscles is what creates the hot “six pack” on guys who are super- fit. The banding creates natural sections in the muscles, which are enhanced by training. But for us belly dancers, even though the bands are present, the movements we do while dancing enhance the muscles length-wise, or vertically, so they look a little different…I like to refer to this as our chick pack. Most of us have a very strong rectus abdominus…but only around our middle band, the one that falls at our natural waist. We often don’t use the parts of the muscle that is above or below that spot- and getting those areas stronger is essential for heavy-duty belly rolls.
A great way to train for rolls is to locate the muscles of your pelvic floor and tighten them up, much the same way you’d do a kegel exercise. Pull in with the rectus abdominis as though you were zipping up a zipper all the way to the top of your rib cage. Hold it there for a moment, and then try to zip the “zipper” downwards again.
My flutters are even, highly sustained and large enough to see from the back of the room- no matter what size the venue is. They do not come from an ability to move my abdominal muscles in and out quickly. I could definitely do that if I wanted to! However, if I engaged my abs by pulling them in and out super-fast, then I wouldn’t be able to layer belly rolls with my flutters…a movement that I call the “flundulation”.
The main secret for crazy flutters is to keep your abdominal muscles soft and relaxed, while your skeleton remains in standard dance posture- pelvis neutral with the tailbone tucked slightly towards the floor, ribcage lifted, and shoulders back and down. This sounds a lot easier than it actually is!
Think about it: our abdominal muscles are constantly engaged, whether we’re conscious of it or not. When enter in performance, our abs are always engaged- we’ve been trained to do that! When we walk into a party or social gathering, we automatically pull up into a regal posture, without even thinking about it. Trying on a costume or an item in a store’s dressing room, we immediately suck in our stomachs.
Letting our bellies remain loose and relaxed is completely conditioned out of us by society, so it might take you a while to get the hang of keeping your skeleton engaged and your abdominal muscles soft. When I was training to do this- and I taught myself, no one showed me- I’d place my hands on my sides, actually hooking my fingers just under my top ribs, so I could really feel my ribcage staying lifted as I let my belly go soft. It looks kinda dorky, but try it- it works!
After you’ve gotten comfortable with that, it’s time to discover your diaphragm, which is the place of initiation for all my flutters. The diaphragm, the large, major muscle that controls our breathing, is strong and kinda dome-shaped, sitting in the lower middle of your torso. Though we’re usually not aware of it, the diaphragm contracts rhythmically as we breathe as we breathe in and out. But if you concentrate, you can control the diaphragm- like when you breathe in deeply, holding your breath before diving into water. Think of your diaphragm as an inflatable ball. It fills up as you inhale and deflates when you exhale. So you can feel it in motion, place your hand on your diaphragm and breath slowly and deeply.
Once you’ve located your diaphragm and felt it moving naturally, try it a few times with conscious control, breathing in and out slowly and deeply as you keep your skeleton lifted and your abdominal muscles soft and un-engaged. Now, try exhaling sharply, cutting the diaphragm’s muscle movement off. You’ve done this correctly if you feel a little clutch or catch. Repeat this a few times, allowing yourself a couple of moments of regular breathing in between, so you don’t hyperventilate and become dizzy.
A word to the wise: while many people advocate catching your breath and “cutting it off” at the throat, I don’t like this practice at all! Not only are the little “catches” you make while doing that visible to the audience, the movements also cause the tendons in the neck to pop out and look stringy and ugly…even on younger dancers! Instead, try to visualize the little clutch or catch staying just at the top of your ribs, directly under your cleavage…or, if you're a guy, directly under and between your man-candy pectoral muscles.
Remember, the diaphragm is one of the strongest muscles in our entire body because it’s in constant use as we breathe. If you repeat these practice movements even just a few times a day, the strength in your diaphragm will build up really quickly…and soon, you will have a an "alien in your belly", too!
If you liked reading about abdominal technique here, then you’ll LOVE my instructional DVD, “ABS-olutely Fabulous”- it’s packed with info on flutters, belly rolls, and undulations!
Get it here:
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