Replace Your Gym Workout

By Ma*Shuqa Mira Murjan

You go to the gym five times a week to meet the recommended 150 minutes/week of exercise, and it's always the same routine: You run 30 minutes on the treadmill or take a cycle class, lift weights for another 20 minutes, then stretch for 10. Snore. If you find yourself practicing all kinds of avoidance because you're locked into and bored with that kind of regimen, maybe it's time to switch things up. According to Ma*Shuqa Mira Murjan, an instructor who has been teaching belly dance for over 46 years (and working out at a health club for over 30 years), trying something new -- such as belly dance -- can be a great way to breathe new life into an old workout routine. And yes, even slow, sensual belly dancing counts as a good workout!

Here are some belly dance moves to try for a fun and elegant workout:

Bellydance Moves For The Lower Body

Bored with calf raises and leg presses -- or just want to avoid the glute machines that put you into awkward positions in the middle of the gym? Look no further than ballet-styled moves for a great lower-body workout. "Depending on what you do, you can work all muscles in the lower body," says Ma*Shuqa Mira Murjan. Don't want to take a structured ballet class with bar exercise so popular at gyms today? Ma*Shuqa suggests doing “ballet-styled bellydance movements” that are similar to ballet. For example, small arabesque lifts with torso stretches and powerful, graceful leg extension work your glutes and lower back, relevés work your calves, and battement kicks (steps to the front or the side) work your quads and hamstrings.

Belly dance tends to be a female-dominant dance form, men can -- and do -- get down (and there are some dances for men – the assaya/stick dance provides a workout much like martial arts). "Belly dance is easily an entire workout from day one," says Ma*Shuqa. "If done properly, the back muscles are fully engaged and so, are your abdominals. While whirling through movements with a silk veil or “Isis Wings” (large pleated fabric “wings” as in the goddess Isis), your triceps, and biceps assist your back muscles in any pull-up-related action. And you work your calf muscles in belly dance just by walking around on the balls of your feet in relevé." Other bellydance moves target the inner thighs, glutes and hamstrings – as we create dynamic depth of movement with figure 8 torso and hip movements, exciting “ body locks and pops” as well as the ever constant body undulation in response to the musicality of Middle Eastern music.

Many of my conversations while working out in the weight room with former Olympians and renowned sports psychologists and from my own personal workout and dance exercise history lead me to recommend that belly dance can replace the gym workout.  “Personally, I used workouts in belly dance and at the gym for my ovarian cancer recovery.” says Ma*Shuqa. Ma*Shuqa recommends belly dancing for anyone who's looking to alleviate lower-back pain, decrease body fat, increase muscle definition, improve stamina, boost energy, improve body posture while adding grace to your stature and movement, preserve or improve health, and build confidence – or to just have fun!

Bellydance Moves For the Upper Body 

Ma*Shuqa points out that “bellydance works the cardiovascular system and the calves and the torso – from the combination of light quick footwork and dancing movement layered with shimmies". Don't worry if you have two left feet: Classes typically involve repeating just one or two moves, so you can leave the fancy footwork to the professionals.  Just focusing on weight transfer from foot-to-foot with controlled elegance requires core strength and creates a cardio-effect workout.

Belly Dance Especially Good For Back And Shoulders

Belly dance movements can liven up and strengthen the back and shoulder muscles that often get neglected. Belly dance requires a total body movement and flow. "A lot of the movement comes from moving your arms... while performing shoulder and chest isolations," says Ma*Shuqa. Consider veil dancing – even with the lightest of silk fabric – the requisite raised arm and torso bends to whirl and dance with a veil creates strategic exercise for the back and shoulders. Many dance students say they usually feel extremely sore muscles after classes and they feel stronger - like they have engaged in weight training. 

Belly Dance For Endurance And Weight Loss

Marathon sessions on a treadmill can get a little boring -- not to mention lonely. When you dance to a piece of music to practice movement to match musical passages -time seems to fly by. Because belly dance has so many different levels of performance movement and movement possibilities; and because Oriental dance/Raqs Sharqi requires the dancer to “match” the musicality and instrumentation - belly dance cannot be boring. For example, soft strains of a violin or flute can be danced with swirls of beautiful silk veils. Percussion creates excitement, and as you shimmy along you increase your heart rate, boost your endurance, and shed pounds.

"The weight just comes off,” is a phrase often heard from the dancers in training for dance competition as they focus on perfecting their movements, and performance ability and quality. Says Ma*Shuqa, "The ability to get into other cardio exercises outside of dancing is also easier, because your endurance improves." Many avid belly dancers notice a stamina carryover effect and find themselves at an advantage for other endurance sports like running, or programs like Pilates, and Cross fit.

While gym workouts may meet your fitness goals, they can often feel boring, solitary, and no fun. Belly dancing is fun and easier to stay with because participating in belly dance classes is social. Belly dance enhances overall endurance and you can feel euphoric from not only the generation of endorphins from the exercise movement, but also because belly dance movement requires matching music musicality to create “tarab” (soulful expression), it can give your heart and soul a lift.

Belly Dancing For A Full-Body Workout

Beautiful bellydance movements should always flow with sustained movement and undulations through the entire body. For a great arm and chest muscle workout, with your arms into so-called "second position" (i.e. out to the side and parallel to the floor) you can work your entire core if you add slow snake arms. Activate your core and perform body undulations with every foot weight change working your legs. As you undulate, power your torso alternately lifting your torso, then squeezing your mid-back, then powering your core in your abs, and then pull your shoulders back to begin the next undulation along your entire torso.  Don’t forget to move your arms in beautiful slow movements as you move your torso in undulations; and flow arms movements through to wrists, hands, and fingers. Try “seated undulations” to work and isolate the upper torso. As an added bonus, with upper body undulations you can fight bad posture and target "the computer posture muscles" -- the spot where our back hunches after too many hours in front of the screen. Try these seated upper body undulations at work – your posture will improve and your back fatigue will vanish as you develop muscles in your torso to sustain good posture while seated.

Bellydance For Cardio

If you're a fan of the classic movie Singing' in the Rain, I don’t need to tell you how some of the high-energy tap scenes almost make you lose calories just by watching. No surprise that fast belly dance movement equals cardio workout sessions in aerobic dance.

Bellydance For Core And Glutes

This swap of bellydance for your gym workout might surprise you, but it's the ultimate get-ready-for-swim-season workout because it targets your core and backside.  Bellydancing requires perfect posture, yet allows for graceful flowing movement from an energized core. "Bellydance rarely moves straight forward and back with foot movement alone – every dance movement in this genre requires total body movement in undulations and isolations of the torso, so it's great for your obliques," explains Ma*Shuqa. Oriental dancers always move with elegantly controlled transitions of weight transfer that may include circular or diagonal movement requiring the use of all muscles in the core. Bellydance movement also involves moderate to a deep bend in the knees with glute activation, - the equivalent to a gym workout with squats. And, bellydancing with added hip shimmies that exercise the gluteus muscles adds a physical challenge and layer of beauty to dance flow.

Author Bio

Ma*Shuqa Mira Murjan has been performing, teaching, and coaching for over 43 years.  Ma*Shuqa’s MPH in health education and health coaching give her the requisite background  in addition to her over 30 years of working out at a health club owned by an Olympian. Her Ma*Shuqa Method gives dancers a structure for developing improvised choreography while performing with individualized styling. Her workshop is perfect for teachers and dancers who want to enhance performance dynamics and styling. She has authored many articles on aspects of professionalism and performance in Middle Eastern dance. As a dance photographer – what she sees through the camera lens reflects a dancer’s professionalism.  www.MaShuqa.comCarl Sermon is well known for his festival and performance photography of Oriental dancers. Ma*Shuqa and her husband Carl work together to provide artistic direction and performance photography for photo sessions with Oriental dancers. See their work in The Belly Dance Chronicles magazine, The e-zine, and at

Why not drop in and  try a class?  If your regularly scheduled dance classes are on holiday break...Ma*Shuqa continues to teach weekly classes.