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Endo Belly Dance

Later this summer, I have an ultrasound scheduled to begin the process of maybe, finally, diagnosing the endometriosis that I believe I have. 

End of summer edit: Diagnosis achieved! It's not endometriosis, it's ovarian cysts and internal vascular damage caused by a history of untreated, rupturing cysts combined with severe dysmenorrhea caused by an excess of oxytocin, which also caused me to produce milk like a prizewinning dairy cow and to experience other side benefits that you can probably guess, which helps make up for the lifelong menstrual disorder and extra painful labor. I have begun taking a low daily dose of progestin, which is already helping without causing noticeable side effects. There are many reproductive and menstrual disorders that can cause similar symptoms, many of which can be diagnosed with a minimally invasive ultrasound and treated in ways that can transform your health and quality of life. Get it done if you need it. You're worth it!

Sometimes I feel like my belly is busted. At different times in my life, I've had different abdominal issues at varying degrees of severity. They started in my teens and changed with different stages of biological development, different dietary habits, different exercise routines, and different levels of stress. They were relieved by pregnancy but made childbirth tough. They returned a couple years after I gave birth and have evolved over the past decade. And now that I'm in my late 30s, I have collected some strategies under my belt (yeah that's a mom joke, ha ha) for managing my belly issues in between medical interventions. The most fun and consistently effective practice I've tried is belly dance.

I first tried out belly dance in college, when an older friend taught a brief workshop. I only learned a few basic hip movements, but they felt so good that I was hooked. 

After college, I made a new friend who was also interested in belly dance, and together we bought hip scarves and sought out instructional DVDs. (Quaint, right?) Then YouTube was launched, and instructors from all over the world started uploading free lessons. I tried doing yoga and weight training too, but I always came back to belly dance as the most fun exercise practice and the most effective at stabilizing my core and stretching out my abdominal tissues. Belly dance corrected and removed all symptoms of my scoliosis, soothed my menstrual disorder, and made me look and feel more feminine and confident. It didn't just sculpt my abs as well as the deeper "corset muscles" that cinch the waist, it helped with my posture and balance and physical strength. 

When I got pregnant, I sought out belly dance designed specifically for pregnancy, and later, hip circles helped to speed up the progress of my labor.

After my daughter was born, I used gentle belly dance movements to help my body heal from childbirth, along with exercises specifically designed to correct diastasis recti. I was even able to close and heal an umbilical hernia without surgery with a combination of physical therapy exercises and postpartum belly dance.

When my daughter was a toddler, I took advantage of a couple of local, in-person belly dance lessons that two different instructors offered  in my location. These in-person lessons helped me to level up my skills with personal, live feedback from instructors who could watch me from every angle and give me tips in real time.

In the time since my favorite instructor moved out of town, my belly dance practice has sometimes lapsed. Sometimes I feel like I don't have time, or I have a period so bad I can barely stand up, and I fall out of the habit. Sometimes it's too hot or I don't feel like picking up the floor or I'm having a day when I don't feel like inhabiting my body so consciously.

The Quarantine 15 wasn't necessarily a bad thing for me (I used to cross the line into underweight every time I got sick, especially during hot summers), it has been a little confusing to my body image because at the same time, my belly has begun to bloat more, especially before my period, so much that I look pregnant. I want to keep the focus on my health and not fitting a particular beauty standard (or last year’s shorts—farewell, old friends!), so I’ve gone back to belly dance as a practice more likely to help me accept my new belly than to frustrate me in a doomed attempt to lose it. (It might be something that requires medication, surgery, or just plain acceptance that this is my body shape until menopause. I'll find out more after my ultrasound.)

I won't lie, I got majorly comfortable in my sweats and OG authentic mom jeans (hahahaha, the extremely old, baggy, knee-ripped, vintage DKNY "boyfriend jeans" in the back of my closet have made a comeback that is, apparently, in style!), and a recurrence of severe anemia had me lounging on the couch quite a lot in the early days of quarantine.

But every time I get back into belly dance, it's worth the effort. In the long term, gentle to intermediate exercise builds up my energy rather than sapping it, and it helps with my menstrual symptoms. It helps keep my core strong and stable and keeps my joints and spine supple from my toes all the way up to my neck. And it helps with body confidence to be able to control how my body can move, even if I can't control everything about my illness or the way my belly looks. 

No other kind of exercise comes close to stretching and loosening up abdominal tissues like belly dance, and that helps noticeably with physical endometrial symptoms and anything else that causes bloating. Dance of any kind also benefits mood and cognition more than other forms of exercise.

During the pandemic, obviously, in-person classes ceased as an option. But more instructors began giving lessons online, not just in YouTube videos but in livestreaming classes in which the instructor and students can see each other. While that isn't quite as good as a live class, it gives instructors and students all over the world access to each other, from anywhere that has a good enough internet connection. Dance legends like Sadie Marquardt and overseas dance fitness queens like Leilah Isaac are now accessible to learners from all over the world. 

If you have a busted belly of any kind, I highly recommend trying out belly dance, even if you start very slow with basic, gentle movements. This dance form is truly adaptable to any ability level and provides unmatched therapeutic benefits for the body, mind, and emotions of any uterus-containing human person with physical or psychological body issues. No matter what you look like, you can feel better inside of your skin and bones by giving yourself the loving, sensual internal organ massage of belly dance. 

I've already promised myself to keep it up all summer long, even when the weather warms up. I've cleared out a big space in my cool basement and set up a smart TV to connect to my favorite instructors, so I have no excuses! After I complete a couple of one-month challenges, I'll post about the results.

Jean Michelle Miernik is the author of Leirah and the Wild Man: A Tale of Obsession and Survival at the Edges of the Byzantine World.

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