Maha al-Musa is author, mother of three, doula and creator of Belly Dance Birth. She has released a DVD entitled, "Dance of the Womb - Belly Dance for Pregnancy and Birth". I love this DVD. It is soothing, encouraging, and a wonderful exercise during pregnancy and as a preparation for childbirth. I wanted to ask Maha more about how she developed this method, her experiences as an Arab women reconnecting with her roots, and of course, her births! The interview is below. You can watch a trailer of the DVD here and visit her website here.
1) Can you tell us a little bit about your background? How did you become interested in belly dancing as an art form?
Thank you Shannon – lovely to connect with you - My background is that I am of Palestinian/Moslem (father) and Lebanese/Christian (mother) origin, raised in Australia from two years of age! East meets West! I have always listened to Arabic music, including my father’s soulful singing voice, and danced as a child but it wasn’t until I went to visit my father’s exiled Palestinian family in Jordan at 21 years of age that I connected to belly dance as a powerful, spirited, fun and explorative dance art form…art in terms of expressing one’s longings, emotions, moods and essence through the bellydance..I was so fortunate to be invited into many different women’s space’s that exuded the same passion and genuine love of the feminine sisterly connection – I loved it and was hooked!
2) How did you start to make the connection between belly dancing and birth?
When I was 30 weeks pregnant with my first son Kailash over 13 years ago, I came to a very progressive and exceptionally beautiful town in Australia called Byron Bay that supported natural, home waterbirths and independent midwives…here I actually joined a pre natal belly dance class with an amazing midwife Ann (who was also a belly dancer!) … her class triggered deep memories of my Arab ancestry and experience from Jordan. I saw a very simple and natural connection to birthing through the belly dance movements which mimic the instinctive rhythms of the female body….in pregnancy the beauty of the changing shape and body of a woman is reflected in the tempo, tone and rhythm of this Arabic dance. In labour I took with me these empowering movements that encouraged a welcoming of contractions through a holistic focus on the dance, one’s body and breath, and a beautiful alignment and connection to baby during the birth process…I felt that I had all I needed to be autonomous and strong in my own resource: my birthing body and I was able to surrender without fear as my cervix dilated and I softened body, mind and Spirit thru the dance. When Kailash turned 6 months old I took over the class from Ann and I would take him with me dancing with him on my hip swirling and circling around the room full of beautiful mothers…I developed the work over the next 13 years until today and I never stop being inspired and sharing the knowledge with so many other women to give them faith, hope and strength in the normality of birthing...it is a great passion and love of mine…!
3) Can you speak about some of the traditional ways in which Arab women birthed and how the incorporated movement in their birthing?
I can speak about some traditional birth stories I know from my own Palestinian grandmother who birthed 9 babies at home and from an Egyptian friend of mine whose mother had 6 babies at home in rural Egypt, as well as an American dancer and belly dance teacher Morocco who witnessed the birth dance in a village in Morocco in the 1960’s – In regards to my grandmother - we had a traditional family birthing house where women of the family went to birth in the village of Al Qubab - Palestine… To this special house my grandma was taken on a horse and cart by my grandfather, whilst she was in labour with all her children by her side..there a midwife would meet her and assist in the birthing…the understanding was that a woman could move about in labour however she wished and in fact she was positively encouraged to move and be in upright positions..this is also depicted in many statues, drawings and images of ancient Near East women’s studies….before the advent of hospitals and medical interventions women of the east and I would assume in many traditional cultures supported one another whether it be by midwife, relatives or other village women…The contemporary observation of a birth in a village in Morocco by the wonderful belly dancer Morocco from New York was one in which she witnessed the supportive circle of women dancing, chanting, ululating around a very relaxed labouring mother..it is a beautiful tale of sisterly support and celebration of natural birthing..
4) One of the things I love about your work is that it portrays Arab women, not only in a positive light, but also as very powerful. This has always been my experience of Muslim women, but Arab women in particular. How do you see this work in terms of changing some of the stereotypes people may hold about Arab and Muslim women?
Thank you Shannon – this subject is extremely important to me…I am very very passionate about sharing POSITIVE aspects of Arab women’s culture..the awakening I had in Jordan was a real eye opener because before embarking on this trip I had a pre conceived idea about Arab and Moslem women and families expecting to witness Arab women as subservient, uneducated, walking 10 paces behind a man and generally down trodden! Nothing could have been further from the truth in my experience (and I am not denying that there are negative things that do also happen) but what we tend to see is media that constantly portrays Muslims and people of Middle Eastern origin as somewhat primitive, unapproachable and when not romanticized plain odd! Being Palestinian I have had many a surprised comments from people when they meet me amazed that I am a very nice and normal person not the assumed terrorist or fighting kind! Often it is those whom have never met a Palestinian or Arab person who have in their mind a detailed analysis, usually a one dimensional stereotype, that isn’t always favorable to the truth of what is…I love that the fact that in the birth climate (which has a political edge – human rights for baby, mother and society!) and my work there is a similar running theme of needing to stand up, be heard, to have the “truth” spoken and to be honored and acknowledged!
5) In your DVD you show the home birth of your daughter at 46, no small feat! It is very clear by watching it that the pelvic movements of belly dance births allowed you some release and relaxation, what was it like for you as a laboring woman to have this tool of belly dancing to cope with the contractions?
I have to say that I truly believe that having had the experience, knowledge and support of my cultural roots and this bellydancebirth® work enabled me to birth with a fearlessness and strength that was undeniable…..it was such a great gift to birth at home again at 46 years of age…….the bellydancebirth® techniques definitely helped to put me into a focused, soft, surrendered and relaxed state..a very good dear friend of mine, who also assists at homebirth, said to me there is no reason why older women cannot birth naturally….the main thing is they must release the neo cortex (thinking brain) and focus in on the primal brain, letting go of thoughts, analysis, what if’s etc in birthing – I have to say I AGREE!!...as we get older we do tend to think too much and not allow spontaneity and that comme ci comme ca attitude to prevail!! As an older woman birthing if you can allow the thinky brain to go on holiday and LET GO of “mind” chatter you will birth with greater surrender….the bellydancebirth® movements can powerfully bring you into this meditative, hypnotic state very easily…..its a great tool and focus in first stage labour….Not to say I didn’t have moments of “thinking” but I was able, through my experience of meditation and softening in the bellydancebirth® techniques to let them go more easily…and accept the sensations and contractions of my labour with a sense of birthing purpose rather than tension and tightness….
6) How have you seen belly dancing help pregnant and laboring women? Are there any specific labor patterns or pregnancy complaints that belly dancing might address?
There are many areas where bellydancebirth® techniques are very helpful for a pregnant and labouring woman…..the main areas that I emphasize are around the philosophy that birth is baby and woman centered…giving a central premise upon which the movements and philosophy of my techniques must stem….so firstly the psychological knowing that women are capable, strong, and their bodies are perfectly designed to birth is but a beginning point…we cannot hope to empower women when their main belief is that the answers lie outside of themselves….We have lost birth to the experts – the idea that the “other” is more knowledgeable than “I”…women must also work hard now to get back their sense of I CAN DO THIS identity…to have positive birth possibility is our main hope for the future……Then of course there are the physical realities of pregnancy and labour…For example, lower back pain a very common complaint which belly dance is very good at releasing through the sacrum and circling and rolling the pelvis with bended knees…..Also posterior presentations are more common today and are generally caused from too much reclining so we need women to exercise in upright positions with pelvis at its widest point and in labour to get women up with gravity and leaning forward to allow greater pelvic room with circular rotations ..this really helps with optimal foetal positioning……Bellydancebirth® techniques can help in so many ways – physical, mental and emotional….
7) Thank you so much for preserving this legacy of women centered birth. Is there anything else you would like to add or leave us with?
I am so happy to see after 13 years of work that belly dance for birth is really starting to take off around the world..I think women are looking for natural ways to empower themselves in birthing and in ways that truly work and support her instinctual knowing…I also know that birth is a mysterious process sometimes way out of our hands as well….there are no certainties so we must approach all our preparations with an open heart and mind ready for whatever experience we will have…..still to be BEST prepared, knowledgeable, have informed choice and with a sense of feeling safe wherever we birth (and that is personal) must be respected for all women…..I say “less can be more” on this journey…I am also happy to say that I am in the process of putting together my one day intensive workshop for birth professionals in theFundamentals Of Bellydance For Birth – The Al Musa Method®, which I have had many requests for and which I hope to take all over the world. My book and DVD Dance Of The Womb, are two wonderful resources as a starting point for women to have some understanding of this beautiful birthing modality.
Thank you Shannon for taking the time with me…much appreciated!