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One of the main reasons my students tell me they enroll in belly dance class is they want exercise to lose weight. And very frequently, when I mention in conversation that I teach belly dance, the first response I hear is, "Oh, I've heard that's a great way to lose weight."
I even had to insist the community education program I work for list my class in the arts (not the exercise) section of their catalogue. They were under the impression that my class was focused on helping students slim down. What I actually teach is a dance technique class. In other words, in my class, the focus is on learning how to dance, not necessarily on exercising. You can use the dance steps I teach to exercise, but that's not what we do in my classes.
You don't have to look very far to figure out where the idea comes from that belly dance equals weight loss. Just look at the claims on the boxes of the most readily available belly dance DVDs, those of Rania and the Bellytwins. Rania has an entire "Bellydance Fitness for Weight Loss" series. The twins sell a "Slim Down" DVD. And every interview with one of them in everything from national fitness magazines to daytime talk shows seems to include weight loss claims.
But are the claims true? Well ... yes and no.
There certainly are many benefits to belly dancing, everything from toning muscles to boosting your mood. It feels so good to take a belly dance break during the day.
And it's certainly true that if you're belly dancing, you're burning more calories than you would if you were just sitting watching TV. Being a couch potato consumes about 84 calories per hour.
Estimates for the number of calories burned by dancing vary widely from 180 to 500. The reason for the range? Just think about it for a moment. If you're practicing your undulations or snake arms, you're probably working in the 180-calories-an-hour range. If you're rehearsing a vigorous Saidi dance with lots of jumping while swinging your cane overhead, then you may be working in the 300- or 500-calorie per hour range.
But, let's face it, who among us -- even the most passionate -- dances so hard and long that we get our hearts pumping at an aerobic rate for an hour a day?
I've seen esimates that if dancers do exercise at this rate, they could burn off the equivalent of a Big Mac in calories a day ... which would result in a weight loss of 100 pounds a year. That's an impressive claim. But then why are there so many great-looking but hefty belly dancers out there teaching and performing?
Well, number one, if you're trying to lose weight, you shouldn't be eating Big Macs.
Seriously, though, there are several problems with that claim. First, very few of us can or do dance aerobically for a solid hour every single day of the year.
Second, there is the issue of exercise plateaus, where your body gets used to a certain kind of exercise, and it stops consuming as many calories as it did when you started. (That's why it's important to enjoy a variety of physical activities.)
Third, and probably most import, that impressive claim is ignoring the caloric intake part of the equation. No matter how much you exercise and how many calories you burn, if you are eating too much, you will gain weight. The key -- if you're trying to lose weight -- is to burn more calories than you consume.
And the only way to do that is through a combination of sensible diet and exercise.
Belly dance can be part of an overall weight loss plan. But you won't lose weight just by belly dancing. I wish it were true. I just don't feel ethical making such unrealistic promises to my students.
There certainly is an obesity epidemic in the United States these days that's endangering our health, and we should be doing more than we are to fight it. Let's get people up and moving and burning calories. But let's not lie to them. You're not going to lose 100 pounds (or even 10 pounds) or drop a dress size or two just because you start belly dancing.
See the photo of me at the top of this blog? That was when I was teaching and dancing just about every day. I've been told I look beautiful in this photo. Yet I was more than 20 pounds overweight. Today I'm at the ideal weight for my height and bone structure.
How did I lose the weight?
By belly dancing, in part. Also, by making radical changes in my diet. And by working out with a personal trainer.
Even if I hadn't been working out to lose weight, though, I would have continued dancing.
Is it part of our Puritan heritage in the United States that we can only enjoy dancing if we make it into something practical, such as a weight loss regimen?
What's wrong with just enjoying dancing for the joy it brings us? That's why I dance.
Because it's fun.