Big Belly Boogie

Some women cycle or swim their way through pregnancy, others shake, shimmy and roll.

By Naomi Mendelsohn

Megan Vernon thought she'd have to give up belly-dancing when she got pregnant with her third child.

"I figured I'd keep doing it until it didn't feel right," explains Vernon, a belly-dancer, doula and mother of three. "But it felt fine. My first performance was three days before the birth of my daughter."

Most people will not witness a woman belly-dance just three days before her due date. However, it is becoming more and more common to see pregnant women participating in all sorts of physical activities. From cycling and swimming, to yoga and well, belly-dancing, women are taking much more pro-active, and active, roles toward pregnancy.

Kicking back vs. kicking ass

In the past, pregnancy was considered a time for women to kick back with a box of bon-bons and prepare for the inevitable — birth. But this is no longer the case.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists(ACOG) revised their exercise guidelines after numerous studies demonstrated that in low-risk pregnancies, neither moderate nor vigorous exercise harms the fetus or the mother.

The fact is, women who exercise throughout their pregnancies have shorter recovery times and are back in shape more quickly than women who don't exercise. But many women aren't waiting till the postpartum period to see the results of their exercise regimes. Instead, they are making birth the focus of their activities, and are shaping up for labor and delivery itself.

That's where dancing and belly-dancing come in.

And lift, and touch, and turn

"Until very recently the interest in fitness has been: How do we keep people from getting unfit during pregnancy," says Ann Cowlin, M.A., C.S.M, C.C.E, Assistant Clinical Professor at the Yale School of Nursing and Founder and CEO of Dancing Thru Pregnancy, Inc. "But the problem really is how do you prepare people for getting fit for labor."

According to Cowlin, the fitness industry, and to some extent the medical community, are only beginning to realize that women need to physically prepare for labor and delivery. The ACOG guidelines, for example, only address questions of aerobic fitness before and after pregnancy; there are no guidelines explaining how to get fit for labor.

"You can work on not losing fitness, but the baby comes first," says Cowlin. "For labor, you need to do a lot of hard work as gently as possible."

How exactly does one learn this?

Well, Cowlin's fitness company, Dancing Thru Pregnancy, has been teaching pregnant women to dance since 1979.

"Our program is oriented toward the dual role of being fit and being prepared," says Cowlin. "To find out enough about yourself from inside, from the movement. So when things start to shake, rattle and roll, and the uterus starts to engage, you're ready. You can follow it. You're in touch from the inside."

Shake, rattle and roll

While many pregnant women are getting in touch with their bellies from the inside, others, like Megan Vernon, are choosing a more external approach.

"There are specific benefits of belly-dance as opposed to other exercises for pregnancy," explains Vernon. "It is really difficult to squat through birth, which is what I did. It takes a lot of intense muscle tone. Belly dance will help build up your thighs which helps you squat. It builds up physical strength in the legs."

But, you might ask, what do legs have to do with belly-dancing?

"The belly part of belly-dancing isn't at all what belly-dancing for pregnancy is all about," explains Vernon.

Although pregnant women have to be cautious when it comes to exercising their abdomens, there are certain traditional belly-dancing movements that don't focus on the belly and will help prepare women for labor and delivery.

"Hip shimmies are a basic belly-dance move which can be very helpful during labor," says Vernon. "You just rock your hips back and forth. If someone's having a hard time and keeps tightening up against the pain, a hip shimmy will get her to loosen up, to not tighten, to not fight against it."

Vernon admits that because there is a certain amount of self-consciousness that comes with a larger-than-normal belly, it can be difficult to get pregnant women to belly-dance, especially first-time moms. In order to solve this problem, Vernon teaches doulas how to belly-dance so they can help their clients through labor.

"It's a woman's dance," says Vernon. "It's not really geared to pre-pubescent figures. You can feel good doing it whatever shape or size you are."

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