Recently, I have come across articles about belly dancers who have turned 100 and are still dancing, as well as forum posts where people ask if it is possible to dance into old age or even start learning this dance genre at 40 or 50 years of age. This has made me want to investigate more and write a post about this topic, especially since I am no spring chicken myself and as someone who loves to dance!
In my research I have come across several examples of belly dancers who are still performing later in life, including some who started learning in their 40s or 50s. It is definitely possible to become a professional belly dancer beyond the age of 40. In particular, it is certainly possible to teach, organise events, give lectures and talk at seminars.
There are perhaps some movements that are better left to young people, unless you have done them all your life and still have the necessary level of fitness (I list these movements further down in the Health Benefits section). Also, some dancers prefer to wear less revealing costumes as they age. However, none of these things should put you off, as belly dancing in particular is a low impact dance genre with movements that are natural in that they follow the natural alignment of the body, rather than going against it. I have also noticed, by attending several performances over the years, that even though dancers may lose the ability to perform the most physically demanding moves as they age, they definitely improve their feeling and expressivity in the dance. In many types of Middle Eastern dance, feelings often matter more than physical virtuosity and it seems to me that raqs sharqi in particular gets better as the dancer matures, being more of a woman’s rather than a girl’s dance.
There are several academic articles (listed in the references section below) that highlight the benefits that physical activity and dancing in particular has in older age. The benefits include psychological benefits linked to the fact that dancing is a social activity (Cooper & Thomas, 2002; Nadasen, 2008), as well as social benefits in that dance and leisure can help people subvert mainstream negative perceptions about aging (Wearing, 1995). In particular, Angela Moe (2014), a belly dancer herself, investigates how this is particularly true for older women who practise this dance genre.
Benefits of dancing in older age, are not just social and psychological, but also physical. In particular dance is good for physical fitness (Eyigor et al, 2009; Bijun, 2000) and for the sense of balance (Alpert et al, 2009; Eyigor et al, 2009; Federici et al, 2005), which is a good thing since with age falls become more common and also more dangerous as bones are more frail and at higher risk of fracturing.
Hence, unless your doctor has advised you against physical activity for any specific reason, dancing and belly dancing in particular is good for you at any age (but check with your doctor first if you have any specific ailments). There are, however, certain movements that is better to avoid if you have weak knees and/or problems with your back and neck. These are:
Some dancers over a certain age prefer to wear dresses rather than bedlah (skirt and bra costume). If you prefer to wear a bedlah but you want to hide imperfections of the torso such as stretch marks, you can wear a body stocking that covers the torso, as Egyptian belly dancers in the movies from the golden age of Egyptian cinema do. So, for example, Samia Gamal, Naima Akef, Taheya Karioka, Nagwa Fouad always wore body stockings. However, they did not do so for aesthetic reasons but rather because Egyptian laws forbid dancers from showing the bare skin of the torso. In any case, check out videos of those dancers (there are plenty on Youtube and Vimeo) for some ideas and inspirations. Body stockings can be flesh coloured or in the same colour of the costume. Also, you could have a fishnet material on top of a flesh coloured body stocking.
For the legs, some dancers wear leggings under their skirts and for the arms, if you are worried about soft under arms (called ‘bingo wings’ in the UK), you can wear long bell shaped or ruffled sleeves. In any case, I would advise against becoming too paranoid with issues of looks and to just enjoy dancing!
There are many examples of famous dancers who keep dancing until their 70s. One famous example is the American dancer Morocco (Auntie Rocky), who is over 70 and still dancing, travelling and teaching. Another American dancer, who is an icon of American belly dance, is Greek born Helena Vlahos who is still dancing and in great shape. I am not sure how old she is, but she was already dancing in the 1960s. As for Egyptians, Mona Said, Nagwa Fouad, Nelly Fouad and Fifi Abdou may not be starring in movies or dancing in night clubs any longer, but they are still teaching and performing at festivals around the world.
Below, Auntie Rocky performing.
You may be thinking that it is easier for dancers who have started dancing when they were very young to continue dancing all their lives. But what about those who learn belly dancing late in life, in their 40s, 50s or later? Can they become good dancers and what can they realistically achieve? I personally know some dancers who have started at such an age and they are now accomplished dancers and dance and teach professionally. For example, Ann Hall (UK based dancer now in her 70s) learnt belly dancing late in life, but is now a very good dancer and teacher and she travels extensively in Northern Africa and the Middle East to keep training. You can find more about her on her site www.medinabellydance.com
Melanie Norman, also based in the UK, started late but she is also a professional dancer now who organises shows and events with live music in London. She is also a great teacher. She started training at the age of 38 with no previous experience in dance and now dance is her life.
Mona Said in Greece in 2014
And finally, there are at least two belly dancers in the world dancing and enjoying themselves beyond the venerable age of 100! Belle Green, from South Setauket in the USA, turned 103 on 1st January 2015 and she teaches belly dance in Jefferson’s Ferry Lifecare Retirement Community. Catherine Furst turned 100 on the weekend of 15/16 November 2014 in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, USA. She started belly dancing when she was 30 and has continued all her life. A baby by comparison, Angie Rounis danced at a talent competition in Maryland (USA) in 2011 at the age of 85.
Browsing the net I have found some resources you may find useful about learning and dancing at an older age:
Alpert, P. T., Miller, S. K., Wallmann, H., Havey, R., Cross, C., Chevalia, T., Gillis, C. B. and Kodandapari, K. (2009) ‘The effect of modified jazz dance on balance, cognition, and mood in older adults‘, Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, 21(2), pp. 108-115.
Bijun, X. (2000) ‘The Physical Fitness Effect of Sports Dance on the Middle or Old Age People [J]’, SPORTS & SCIENCE, 2, pp. 009.
Cooper, L. and Thomas, H. (2002) ‘Growing old gracefully: social dance in the third age’, Ageing and Society, 22(06), pp. 689-708.
Eyigor, S., Karapolat, H., Durmaz, B., Ibisoglu, U. and Cakir, S. (2009) ‘A randomized controlled trial of Turkish folklore dance on the physical performance, balance, depression and quality of life in older women‘, Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 48(1), pp. 84-88.
Federici, A., Bellagamba, S. and Rocchi, M. B. (2005) ‘Does dance-based training improve balance in adult and young old subjects? A pilot randomized controlled trial‘, Aging clinical and experimental research, 17(5), pp. 385-389.
Moe, A. M. (2014) ‘Sequins, Sass, and Sisterhood: An Exploration of Older Women’s Belly Dancing‘, Journal of women & aging, 26(1), pp. 39-65.
Nadasen, K. (2008) ‘“Life without line dancing and the other activities would be too dreadful to imagine”: An increase in social activity for older women‘, Journal of women & aging, 20(3-4), pp. 329-342.
Verghese, J., Lipton, R. B., Katz, M. J., Hall, C. B., Derby, C. A., Kuslansky, G., Ambrose, A. F., Sliwinski, M. and Buschke, H. (2003) ‘Leisure activities and the risk of dementia in the elderly’, New England Journal of Medicine, 348(25), pp. 2508-2516.
Wearing, B. (1995) ‘Leisure and resistance in an ageing society‘, Leisure Studies, 14(4), pp. 263-279.