Health: The mother of all dances

If belly-dancing does not immediately spring to mind as effective pain-relief when giving birth, think again. A group of expectant mothers at the Active Birth Centre discovered it to be just that. By Katrin Levy
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A dozen women are tilting their hips and circling their stomachs, in time with the Eastern music. But this is no ordinary belly-dancing class: all the women are heavily pregnant.

"The movements seem very natural and comfortable and in keeping with what you could do with a huge bump out front," says Colleen Larmarque, who started the class when she was eight months pregnant. "We all felt like sexy vixens slinking around the room."

Hania Porucznik, who is teaching the class at the Active Birth Centre in London, became interested in Egyptian dance seven years ago. "I went to see a performance of it and I immediately thought, `Yes, that's what I want to do,' " she says.

At the Active Birth Centre, the dancing is being taught as a way of alleviating back pain in late pregnancy and to help cope during labour. But, according to Hania, the benefits of belly-dancing extend beyond an easier and less painful labour. "The movements open the body up, which is useful for later on, but it's also very good for your posture, health and self-esteem."

Belly-dancing is becoming increasingly popular in Britain and Europe generally, so it was no problem for Hania to track down night classes and workshops in order to learn the moves. "There are standard techniques that you learn, but you also bring a great deal of yourself to it," she says. "Women of any age, shape or fitness can do it, and look beautiful doing it."

However, even Hania hadn't considered the possibility of pregnant women belly-dancing until her sister-in-law, Helen Macnair, became pregnant with her first child two years ago.

"Years ago, I read an article by an American dancer who had attended a Berber birthing ceremony," recalls Hania. "A special tent had been erected especially for the birth and the men of the village were banished to the outskirts.

"The village women gathered around the pregnant woman, eating, drinking tea and listening to music. When the woman entered the first stage of labour, she started dancing and undulating her stomach around, and all her neighbours joined in, imitating her.

"After a while, when she entered the second stage of labour and got the urge to push, she went in to the middle of the tent, squatted and pushed the baby out. At the time, I just thought it was interesting, but when Helen became pregnant, I started thinking about it again."

Helen, 29, wanted to be an active participant in her child's birth.

"Throughout the pregnancy, I was doing yoga and Thai meditation with Hania, but not belly-dancing," she says. "But there was music in the background when I started going into labour, and we thought we'd try it. It was the best thing in the world. It took all the pain away."

It took seven hours in total, from the time Helen's waters broke, to the time she gave birth, which is pretty remarkable as many first-time births can take anywhere between eight and 36 hours. "I was only in hospital for two hours, and there were no forceps, cuts or tears," Helen says. "It was painful, but the dance movements helped me to cope with the pain and kept my mind off it. The only times that it started to feel too intense was when I sat still."

Helen's experience inspired Hania to contact the Active Birth Centre to see if they would be interested in a belly-dancing class for mums-to- be. A few of the sharper Egyptian movements were inappropriate for pregnant women, but after a bit of modification, Hania was ready to give her first class.

"I had 20 women in front of me, and amazingly, they picked the movements up straightaway," she says. "It often takes non-pregnant women months to learn what to do, but the class just seemed to have an affinity for it.

"It was lovely. They started to dance, their bodies started to move and after two minutes, every single one of them had a smile on their face and their eyes were shining."

Colleen Larmarque started the classes when she was eight months pregnant. "I'd done ballet, jazz and tap, but I hadn't belly-danced before my pregnancy," she says. "Everyone was a bit embarrassed at the beginning, but that soon evaporated and we just had a lot of fun."

Unlike Helen, Colleen experienced quite a difficult labour. But she would still recommend Egyptian dancing as a way of alleviating back pain in the last months of pregnancy, keeping supple and generally relaxing the body. This is a view that even the traditional medical establishment is starting to share.

"I've spoken to midwives in the delivery room who have been amazed at the pain relief it affords," says Hania. "Many midwives will tell a woman in labour to stand up and circle her hips around anyway to help the baby's rotation and natural descent. So they are usually understanding of women who want to take it a little further."

Belly-dancing is not dangerous, but to be on the safe side Hania only teaches during the second trimester, once the pregnancy has stabilised, and asks participants to get the permission of their GPs before coming to the class.

"No one knows how Egyptian dance originally came about, but my experiences with teaching it have made me think that perhaps it originally started off as part of a birthing ceremony," says Hania.

"It looks like the most natural thing in the world. If something looks that beautiful, you can probably assume that it's also doing your body some good."