Zen, Yoga and The Art of Belly Dance by Z-Helene Christopher

 the original article you can find : www.z-helene.com

  Belly Dancing has often been marketed and sold to the Western public as frivolous, tantalizing and light-hearted dance entertainment. Often portrayed in the media as the cut-out “I Dream of Jeanie” Halloween doll fantasy, Belly Dance is anything but superficial once you pass through the allure of the funhouse entrance. For some of us who are devoted to its study, practice and presentation, Belly Dance is a deeply meaningful artistic and spiritual path that leads towards self-discovery, self-actualization and an essential understanding of nature and life.

   In his ground breaking book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig says that “the real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called ‘yourself.’” In its profoundest sense, to really Belly Dance one has to know oneself. To this extent, Belly Dancing has certain elements in common with the Eastern spiritual practices of Zen Buddhism and Yoga. These qualities include a commitment to expanding one’s consciousness, an absolute presence in the moment, a focus on the breath, a daily discipline, a meditative outlook, a pursuit of quality and truth, a compassionate and loving attitude, and a love for Divine Union.

   To expand one’s consciousness the Belly Dancer must at a very fundamental level become aware of dense places in her body. (Please note that most Belly Dancers are women, but that there are men who do perform and do so very well). Imbuing these areas with feeling and sensation is a never-ending process of constant refinement, integration and balance. This is similar, in approach, to the execution of the third limb of Yoga which are the physical postures, called Asanas. A successful way to bring consciousness to dense areas is to allow the more open parts of the body to teach the less aware parts. A good example is the popular Belly Dance movement called snake arms. In performing this move, often one arm will be more fluid than the other. The solution is for the more fluid arm to precisely teach the less fluid arm how to smoothly do the movement.
   Another example of unblocking blocked areas is the particular awareness that Belly Dance brings to the unloved abdominal area. Belly Dancers work on gaining specific control of the various stomach muscles by isolating them individually and then moving, rolling and fluttering them making for a fuller, more rounded look to the abdominals. This is especially important in our Western society where we are constantly given the message to lose our waistline inches, flatten our stomachs and to create “abs of steel” by doing endless, mindless stomach crunches. Failure to attain this perfect washboard stomach contributes to poor self-esteem and eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia. As Belly Dancers, we reject this static, unhealthy attitude and bring life to our abdominals. In effect we say to ourselves and others, “Hey! I can have body fat here and still have incredible control and be in good shape!” When an audience experiences a dancer who is connected to all parts of her body, the door is opened for them to become more connected to their own bodies.

   Sometimes becoming conscious means objectively assessing one’s deficits and assets in all areas of performance. The dancer must develop the deficits and enhance the assets. Often, in fact, a deficit can actually becomes an asset. For example, there is the dancer who initially cannot spin without getting dizzy and nauseous. She diligently and methodically works on her spins and, over time, eventually becomes known for her fabulous spinning. Then there is the dancer who moves beautifully but her face is blank and static. This dancer becomes aware of the fact that she blocks her emotions and with the guidance of a good teacher is taken through a series of emotion-releasing exercises. She journals her process, often accessing her dreams and childhood experiences, and continues to perform with the prevalent thought of allowing her emotions to flow through her dance. Eventually, she performs and her presence is riveting. She is told, “You moved me so deeply!” by audience members she does not even know. In both these cases, the Buddhist idea of right thought and a Yogic love for the refinement process is necessary.
   Another quality that assists the dancer on her spiritual and artistic path is for her to increase her awareness by being present in the moment. Most individuals live in the past or future or are distracted somewhere else in the present, ie. talking on a cell phone while trying to drive, or sitting and watching TV. They are not directly experiencing their bodies in the here and now. Zen Buddhism might be defined as “waking up in the present” and much of its discipline is designed to shake its practitioners out of a dull, absentminded state. The dancer, as well, must train herself to be ever-present. She needs to avoid the trap of thinking in numbers while doing choreography and looking as if she is demonstrating the movements as opposed to living and breathing them.
   A key to being present in the moment is to develop awareness of the breath. A cornerstone of Zen Buddhist meditation is Zazen, literally meaning “the mind that sits.” While sitting, the practitioner counts the breaths to quiet the mind of extraneous chatter. One is to observe the mind as it wants to jump from the present to the past to the future. Focusing on the breath encourages the mindfulness of being present in the moment. Yoga, too, works deeply with the breath. The fourth limb of Yoga, called Pranayama, concentrates on the art of breathing by regulating and refining the inhalation, exhalation and retention of breath.
   The Belly Dancer, as well, must develop a heightened awareness of her breath. While being mindful and inwardly centered, she uses her inhales, exhales and dramatic retentions and flutterings to encourage the audience to breathe with her as she explores the moment. For instance, when she stops and holds her veil behind her, inhales deeply and then exhales while executing a spectacular run, the audience, too, inhales, exhales and are swept away with the movement. At its best, the great Belly Dancer embodies her own self-evolved archetype and takes the audience along with her on a movement journey. The moment is no longer experienced in the past, future or as a dulled present, but rather is supercharged, visceral and electrifying.
   Although not exactly Belly Dancing- but definitely related to it- is the art of coin rolling. Often diminuitized in the media as a parlor trick or circus act and therefore not performed by many dancers, flipping coins (usually quarters in America) excellently demonstrates the qualities of awareness, breath and the moment. It also perfectly embodies the sixth limb of yoga, called Dharana, which is extreme concentration and focus on a single point. In this endeavor, the dancer places the coins on her lower abdominals (nine quarters is the world’s record) and then uses muscular finesse, breath control and her focused attention to roll them all together up twice, down twice, one at a time and then every other one. When done well, it is a remarkable feat that is long remembered by the viewers.

   Yoga and Zen practices insist upon daily discipline. The same is true for the Belly Dancer on her path toward personal integration and excellence. To say the least, a dancer needs the discipline to eat well and to be healthy and fit. She must constantly practice her movement isolations, combinations, finger cymbals (zills), veilwork or any of the other Belly Dance specialties such as cane, sword or candelabra. This is necessary for a beautiful and professional execution during performance.

   A daily discipline of meditation is also favorable. Although Zazen and Pranayama are excellent practices for the Belly Dancer to adopt, her meditation need not be as formal. At the very least, she will reap great benefits by developing the ability to sit and objectively visualize her dance and its connection to life. A dancer should ask herself, “Why do I dance? How does my dancing affect others?” Having contemplated these questions in a quiet and focused state of mind, the dance gains more depth and meaning for the dancer and this is perceived on an unconscious level by the audience. Overall, by meditating on her dance, the dancer aligns her thoughts and actions and this translates into a more profound effect when performing.

   Equally important are disciplines that involve a moral and ethical code of behavior. To be most effective, the dancer who aspires to be great should follow what Buddhist philosophy calls the Eightfold Path: right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effect, right mindfulness and right contemplation. Similarly, there are a code of ethics and behavior that are the first and second limbs of Yoga, called the Yamas and Niyamas, that help instruct the Yogi in how to live a life conducive for soul development. In short, the Belly Dancer should conduct her life truthfully and be the best person she can be. 

Those who aspire have a sense of something noble and good about them. There is an unselfish longing from the heart to embrace love, truth and compassion. If the dancer is self-deluded, critical, overly lusty, greedy, indulgent, lazy, conceited, ignorant or full of ill will, a “muddled” quality is often sensed about her during performance. That is why there are dancers whom we do not care to look at and others whose presences awe us so much that we cannot take our eyes off of them.

   If she is a beginning dancer, these lesser attributes are generally apparent within the first few seconds of her entry and she is often unconsciously dismissed by the audience. Things get more complicated, however, with the advanced dancer who has achieved a high level of technical expertise but who needs work on her interior life. This dancer is good enough to garner attention and praise and she may even be beloved, but the potency of her transformative effect is curtailed. Although her discipline is apparent in her dazzling technique, her lack of inner development lessens the depth of her impact. An example is the excellent dancer who is haughty and full of herself. Some audience members will be impressed with the show of what they perceive as great confidence and will applaud her for it; but she is appealing to a baser instinct in others. It is the difference between art that has a flashy, short life and art that lasts in the hearts and minds of people for years because it has positively nourished and uplifted them.

   Both Yoga and Zen have as their aim a transcendent state of mind in which duality ceases and bliss is attained; these are called, respectively, Samadhi and Enlightenment. Although not the direct experience, the great Belly Dancer evokes the essence of these transcendent states when an audience has a group spiritual experience of Divine Union. She is the living conduit between the music and the audience and it is through her physical presence that a deep connection is made and a personal transcendence is attained. For sure, the audience’s claps and verbal encouragements that often accompany performances help contribute to the heightened group experience. Yet it is the dancer, herself, who is the focal point, the vortex in which each individual feels the connection to him/herself and the whole. In these times, when it is easy to feel disconnected, isolated and distinctly separated, the great Belly Dancer provides an exquisite and vital community healing. Her love, beauty, truth and compassion which she has fostered in herself is felt by all and consequently taken out into the world to be shared with others.

   Whatever philosophy or religion one adheres to, it is reasonable to say that we are all at different stages in our inner and outer development as individuals. For those of us who follow Zen or Yoga, it is unlikely that we have reached the evolved state of a Buddha or have directly experienced the full power of the highest state of consciousness of Samadhi or Enlightenment. Regardless of the path one takes, however, the important point here is that the Belly Dancer actively aspire toward a deeper understanding of herself and life. In spite of any shortcomings, the Belly Dancer’s commitment to quality and self-betterment will permeate everything she does and manifests as more effective performance. This, in effect, leads to real greatness.

   For in performance, a great Belly Dancer has brought all aspects of herself into an integrated gestalt. Her artistic sensibilities, movement, music, costume and theme are expressed through her unique archetypal persona that strikes a universal chord in others. Her power to positively connect, uplift, inspire and transform others is unequivocal.....and it all begins with herself.


Iyengar, B.K.S. LIGHT ON YOGA (Schocken Books, New York, 1977).

Mehta, Silva, Mira and Shyam. YOGA, THE IYENGAR WAY (Knopf, New York, 1997).

Pirsig, Robert M. ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE (Bantam Books, New York, 1981).

Smith, Jean. THE BEGINNER'S GUIDE TO ZEN BUDDHISM (Random House, Inc., 1999).









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