I’ve always loved dancing. There are photos of me as a child, swirling and twirling on the dance floor at a holiday camp disco and newspaper clippings reviewing shows I performed in as a teen. Over the years I’ve tried ballet, tap, jazz, ballroom, flamenco, Irish dance… if there was an opportunity to get down and boogie, I’d be there in the spotlight.
It became harder to prioritise dance classes as work and family commitments took over throughout adulthood but over time I realised how important dance was to my physical and mental health. When a friend suggested belly dance classes I was apprehensive. Being perimenopausal, my weight had fluctuated, and my confidence taken a hit. I certainly didn’t have a flat stomach and the flexibility I’d been so proud of in my youth had also disappeared, but I was assured belly dance was excellent exercise for people of all shapes and sizes – something encapsulated by Shimmy School’s slogan ‘Every Body Can Dance’.
The benefits of belly dance were apparent from my first lesson. Although it is a whole-body workout, there is a focus on developing a strong core. Working these muscles is especially important as we age as conditions such as rectus diastasis – or separation of the abdominal muscles – become more common. Rectus diastasis affects up to a third of women, often beginning during or after pregnancy or in perimenopause. Not only does it affect posture, causing back and hip pain, but there is also a correlation between rectus diastasis and pelvic floor dysfunction.
Actively strengthening the abdominal and pelvic floor muscles through targeted exercises is one way of reducing the likelihood of developing bladder and bowel incontinence. “Belly dance is a great way to focus on the pelvic floor muscles, which weaken as we age,” explains Eleanor Gaywood, founder of Sheffield-based Shimmy School, who says her classes are primarily made up of women over 50.
For women in their forties, fifties and beyond, utilising the muscles honed during dance class can be life changing. Not only can strong pelvic floor muscles delay or prevent incontinence, but they could also be the key to a more fulfilling sex life. In a paper published in the Journal of Women’s Health, Issues and Care, Brent Reider stated pelvic floor muscles “are the same muscles that contract during orgasm. Consequently, firmer muscle tone of the pelvic floor muscles adds intensity to the muscle contractions during orgasm and enables a woman to identify, isolate, and command muscles of the pelvic floor.”
Pelvic floor health has long been a niche subject but is now rightly moving into the mainstream with apps devoted to improving pelvic floor muscles such as Squeezy recommended by the NHS. Wider conversations are being started due to the popularity of podcasts such as Helen Ledwick’s Why Mums Don’t Jump; kicking the taboos around pelvic floor dysfunction and vaginal prolapse into touch once and for all.
Although pelvic floor health is a major benefit of belly dancing, when speaking to my peri and postmenopausal classmates, they talk as much of how belly dance benefits their self-worth as the impact it has on their physical wellbeing. Improved mental health and feeling empowered are mentioned more than once, along with regaining a sense of purpose and control. They also state belly dance has helped them rediscover and prioritise themselves.
As an instructor, Eleanor feels the friendships made in class are a key part in lifting the wellbeing of all who attend. “It’s lovely to see people making incredible bonds,” she says when asked about how belly dance can help menopause-related anxiety. “There can be a real danger of losing human connection nowadays, but we have a wonderful, supportive community.”
There has been only minimal research into the effect belly dance has on mental health, but a small clinical trial investigated the impact belly dance had on quality of life, fatigue, and depressive symptoms in women with breast cancer. It found those attending twice-weekly classes benefited from significant improvements, including an increase in body confidence and sexual function and a decrease in fatigue and depression. Although the study focused on women with breast cancer, the results correlate with comments made by menopausal women who swear by the benefits of belly dance.
Perhaps it’s no surprise – research from the North American Menopause Society (NAMS) found “dancing improves cholesterol levels, physical fitness, self-image, and self-esteem in postmenopausal women,” and boosting the self-confidence of women through making them feel seen is something Eleanor and her staff are passionate about. “I’ve seen women in this stage of life lose confidence and feel invisible,” she says, “which is why it’s great when so many of our class members end up on stage. There’s nowhere more visible than that!”
Belly dancing during perimenopause has given me a greater appreciation of my changing body and brought joy and laughter into my life. I’d recommend it to anyone!
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