A Labor of Love

by Delilah

The title for this article isn’t mine. It’s the working title for an unpublished and in-the-works manuscript by Suzanne McNeil. She sent it to me a few years back in exchange for some video tapes she wanted to purchase from me. During the late 80’s in the Los Angeles area she had been pioneering classes that involved teaching pregnant women to use bellydance as a therapeutic aid throughout their pregnancy. She refers to the body of her work as simply Birthdance.

It was a great trade. Inside the blue binder were the lesson plans, copious notes of her actual class progress, her findings including the case notes on the actual birthing progress and experience of some of her students. There was a collection of reference articles on oriental dance and its connection to birthing rituals. Most famous and fascinating was the article entitled “Roots” by Morroco. There were references from yoga journals, personal profiles from bellydancers outside of her classes, medical and midwifery notes, recommended reading lists, excerpts from published works on sacred dance, myth, rites, symbols and goddesses.

Mostly the material focused on how the movements of bellydance can aid throughout a womens’ pregnancy and in the actual birthing process. By documenting her work and findings, her larger goal involved teaching teachers to work with Birthdance as a viable practice for expectant women. In these classes Suzanne worked exclusively with pregnant women. She would have loved to have worked with professional bellydancers and documented their birthing progress, but (we are pregnant such a small percentage of time in our lives) that wasn’t in the cards, and none of the case notes involved professional bellydancers who knew the movements prior to their pregnancy. The movements used were basic and carefully initiated, combining relaxation and breathing techniques, yoga, meditation and the basic hip circle, figure eight, camel walk, bellyroll, and diaphragm flutter.

I did not know Suzanne before this time but she was familiar with the video I produced called “Dance to the Great Mother,” a video of a dance work I did while 8 months pregnant. Suzanne wanted me to have this manuscript even though it was unfinished because she felt since I produced this video, that I would be one archival depository source for her researching efforts if she did not go on with this labor of love. I’ve lost contact with her so I’m not sure what the status of her work is at the moment. I choose to bring this to light because I think this very important work she and others are doing in the field needs to be continued.

What I feel I could add to the unfolding picture of this subject is in the realm of the psychological benefits that I discovered during the Dance to the Great Mother Project. Professionally performing while pregnant was the most transforming experience of my life. It opened me to realizing the range of hurtful and unfair psychological conditioning we women undergo.

I performed Dance to the Great Mother during my second pregnancy. During my first I danced in clubs until 3 months, retired for awhile, taught a little and basically hid out and waited. I returned to dancing 6 months after Laura Rose was born. I put dancing on hold psychologically during that time.

One day during the 4th month of my second pregnancy, I got a phone call to do a private party for an organization. Before hearing very much more I told the women I was on sabbatical due to my pregnancy; she got very excited and requested that I hear her out. I did, and in January 1980 I was commissioned by her regional group of family planners to perform a Birthdance. I went on to perform the dance work at various workshops across the states, and then as part of a larger concert piece called “Phases of the Moon, Faces of the Mother” with Laurel Gray, Kathy Balducci and Tahia Alibec.

The experience was profound for me and for many women in the audience. After the performances they would seek me out with tears in their eyes and comments such as, “If I had only seen this dance before or during my pregnancy I would have enjoyed being pregnant instead I felt fat, ugly, I wanted to lock myself away in a closet I want my daughters to see something like this so that they will enjoy that special time in a womens’ life…”

I knew what they meant. I myself had hid away to a certain extent during my first pregnancy. This marked contrast in my activities taught me something important. I was a darn good dancer, expectant or not! Why should I stop if there wasn’t a health hazard? Both my pregnancies were wonderful, but there was a psychological advantage with the second one. My entire pregnancy with my second daughter Victoria, was spent masquerading around the country as Isis the Great Mother, doing what I was meant to do my entire life, celebrate life and dance! I felt fantastic! I felt like a Goddess!

The deep question that arose for me was, why had I not felt free to dance in a professional capacity during my first pregnancy? Not that I wanted to be in a night club while I was pregnant, but there are other venues. What was this invisible social pressure upon us as women to hide away during the most creative and glorious position of our lives? What damage is being done to a society which hasn’t any images of pregnant women doing anything powerful, creative, or physical? Couldn’t our world benefit from such healthy images of beauty and strength of Motherhood?

In combination with Suzanne’s work and others in the field, I thoroughly encourage women to practice the dance as long as and whenever they are able. Encourage your fellow dancers to blossom to the fullness of their expression, to feel proud to display their pregnant countenance and share the special roots of our dance.

10 research discoveries according to Suzanne McNeil:

  1. It’s easier for women to learn bellyroll movements when they are pregnant. This was amazing!
  2. The undulation or camel walk felt uncomfortable during labor for all the subjects. The motion made it feel like there was pressure downward on the cervix. After discovering this we did not use it during labor. It did not effect anyone in class except occasionally someone in their 8th or 9th month.
  3. The movements most useful during labour were in relation to the hips and lower back, i.e., the figure 8, the hip circle and the pelvic thrust (not from bellydance)
  4. All the students wanted to learn these movements in their dance form because it’s more fun. A teacher could teach them separately as a technique without the bellydance name attached to it if she was hampered by a conservative community.
  5. The circular movements of the pelvis could be done during labor standing, leaning on a bed or table an on hands and knees.
  6. Pregnant women learned better when I placed my hand on the area of the body where the movement needed to be corrected. I would stand next to them- touching- to have them mimic the undulation. This seemed to accelerate learning.
  7. Physical balance and energy increased.
  8. Attitude about their body improved.
  9. Indigestion during pregnancy (a common occurrence) was almost always eliminated.
  10. One woman reported that her baby would kick a lot when she lay down to go to sleep. She tried using bellyrolls during the night and it did quiet the kicking.

Note: A version of this article appeared in Habibi Magazine
Habibi Magazine Volume 15 No 1 ; Habibipub@aol.com or (805) 962-9639
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Reading list:

  • “Earth Dance”, Daniella Gioseffi.
  • “Sacred Dance: A Study of Comparative Folklore,” W.O.E. Oesterly, DD, Cambridge Press.
  • “Serpent and the Wave,” Jalaja Bonheim, Celestial Arts 1992.
  • “Myths, Rites, Symbol: A Mircea Eliade Reader,” Harper & Row 1975.
  • “The Great Mother,” Erich Newmann translated by Ralph Manhiem, Princeton University Press.
  • “Spiritual Midwifery,” Ina May Gaskin, The Book Publishing Co. 1977.
  • “The Cultural Warping of Childbirth,” in Environmental Child Health, Vol. 19, June 1973.
  • “Callanetics: For the Pelvis,” Callan Pinckney, Avon Books 1987.
  • “Good Birth Guide,” S. Kitzinger, Fontana 1979.
  • “The Indian Mother Goddess,” Nerendra Nath Bhallachayya, Monohar 1977.
  • “The Triple Goddess,” Adam Mcleans.