The Science Behind Learning Shimmies

Learning how to shimmy is a huge challenge for many new belly dance students. Even if they come to Middle Eastern dance with several years of other dance training, most likely none of it prepared them for that small, repetitive movement that is so integral to belly dance styles.  When they sigh “HOW do you do that so fast?”, we usually tell them “Practice, LOTS of practice!”. It’s true, practice makes perfect – or at least a lot better – but what exactly is happening in our bodies in that early shimmy learning stage?

The Engine That Stalls

Remember back to your early days, instructors! New students, yes, we’ve all been where you are. You get your shimmy going and a few seconds later your knees mysteriously stop by no will of your conscious brain, You pause, then you start it back up again like an old car that stalled at a stop light. What is happening and how do you “fix” it?

Getting Under The Hood

There are a few components to learning a new movement pattern. First, you brain needs to understand what you mean to do. Second, your brain needs to get your body to cooperate – at first in a  slow and rudimentary way. In class, I ask my students if “their heads have it” meaning, they understand the movement. After all, your body doesn’t stand much of a chance if your brain doesn’t get it first. From that understanding, the body will learn it with enough perseverance. Princess Farhana cracked me up in a workshop once expressing the same idea. She said “your brain is writing checks your hips can’t cash” –  so true!

Now that your brain understands and your body can carry out the motion at a moderate speed for a short amount of time, how do we get that to grow into a sustained, smooth shimmy? This is where the body works the behind the scenes magic of neural adaptation.

Bring In The Wiring Crew

Whether it’s a shimmy or strength training, much of the early progress we see with practice is due to neural adaptation rather than actual changes in the strength or size of our muscles.  For an Egyptian knee shimmy, the quadriceps and hamstrings are the primary muscle groups we are talking about. Each of these large groups in made up of several smaller muscles and each of these has bundles of muscle fibers that work together. Each of these bundles is controlled by one nerve and that work group of muscle fibers and it’s nerve is called a motor unit. Check out the picture at the top of this post for an illustration of a motor unit.

When the neural adaptation process starts, the brain and motor units improve the speed and efficiency of their communication. We experience this as our body “cooperating” with us. On a larger scale, the motor units learn to work together in a more synchronized way. Just like a rowing crew that has all its members in perfect timing to achieve maximum speed, your muscles work best when all the motor units needed contract in unison. As the movement pattern become more familiar to our brain, our bodies also begin to recruit more motor units to do the same movement which really adds more shimmy-power.  We experience this golden moment as the “smooth, sustained shimmy”.

So is your instructor conning you when she says “Practice, LOTS of practice!”? No, absolutely not. Neural adaptation is the outcome of all that practice. It doesn’t happen from thinking about your shimmy, or wishing your shimmy would get better. The more often you practice the more positively your neural network will adapt to comply with your dreams of amazing shimmies for hours on end.

“Often” is the important key word here. Shorter daily shimmy practice will get the beginner better neural adaptation results that wrestling with it for an hour once a week. All of these things are also true for experienced dancers who are working to master a new and different shimmy than the one they’ve been doing for years.

So whether it’s your first shimmy or learning shimmy style #10, give yourself 5 minutes every day to let your body work that neural adaptation magic! Remember… “Practice, LOTS of practice!”


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21 Responses to “The Science Behind Learning Shimmies”

  1. Intermittante Says:

    Love it! An exquisite motivation for me to continue giving it a go, every day a little bit! Thanks for sharing your thoughts 🙂

  2. nadirajamal Says:

    YES! I also recommend “The Talent Code”, which talks about how this process is used to develop talent in lots of different fields. (And when you finish it, I’m dying to have a conversation about my theory that belly dancers are like soccer players, while ballerinas are like violinists.)

  3. Nvard Says:

    Mahin: “As the movement pattern become more familiar to our brain, our bodies also begin to recruit more motor units to do the do the which really adds more shimmy-power.”

    Do you mean that the brain will recruit more motor units for the same amount of work or it will recruit more motor units as result of you wanting to increase the intensity?

    Nadira: I’m really interested in your theory.

    • mahinbellydance Says:

      I should not let myself do last-minute editing at 6 am!!! I fixed that sentence.
      To clarify, yes, the body does start to recruit more motor units for the same movement. For any physical activity, this happens when you increase the demand on the muscle by either increasing resistance or increasing speed. In the case of a shimmy, it is the increase in speed that spurs the greater motor unit recruitment (unless you practice with a weight belt). You could look at this as the later and ongoing part of neural adaptation, rather than the more initial improvements that I described more fully. Our bodies are amazing machines!

      • Nvard Says:

        Do you know or know a source where I can learn more about which motor units are used for intense shimmies? Some say FG, but some say SO or is it FGs that become FOGs w/ time and training? Does the size principle hold true if you use FG motor units for an intense shimmy or will the body adapt and activate FG (if that is the type used) immediately? What about vibrations? Thanks!

      • mahinbellydance Says:

        That’s a heavy-duty question!! I don’t know of any studies in particular that looked into shimmies. I’d love to see one! I do recall many years back hearing about a research project in the Southeast US that planned to test which muscles were used for specific belly dance movements. I was never able to find the finished paper, however. If you ever dig it up, please do share 🙂

        Regarding the motor unit types, without a bellydancer hooked up in a lab, I think we have to go with our best guess based on general physiology knowledge. My guess would be that SO (aka Type I) units would have to be somewhat involved. A shimmy in it’s natural environment is part of a much longer physical activity. I’d also guess that the intermediate types (II a, etc.) would also be used as this is more intense (if you shimmy hard enough) than the rest of the dancing.
        As for the size principle, to really know how far up the size range we recruit, we have to know the mV threshold and a shimmy’s demand to determine if it is enough to trigger the faster, larger fibers.

        Well now, this has been a very stimulating conversation 🙂

  4. Dawn "Madlenka" Ventimiglia Says:

    This is akin to what I tell my young music students! I use a “jungle” metaphor: you can’t just walk into a thick jungle and expect to get through easily. Trying to get our fingers to move in a certain way is difficult for our brain to handle at first, because we are breaking new pathways from our brain to our fingers, like breaking a path through a jungle. At first, it’s slow going, but as the path is trod over and over, the pathway gets clearer and easier to travel. So…they more you practice those difficult movements, the more natural (and easier) they will become! 🙂 Be an explorer…

  5. Ginger Says:

    The exact same principle applies in ballroom, when beginners don’t understand when their feet should be “open” (apart) or “closed” (together), say, during waltz boxes. They have to train themselves to not immediately smack one foot right up next to the other in reflex.

  6. Raks Almeh Tribal Fusion Dance Troupe Says:

    What a great article!

  7. adiemusfree Says:

    Teeny addition to your approach – imagined movements have been used for years in sports training and in therapy for stroke and chronic pain. This is because by imagining movements, the same neural pathways (especially in the sensory and motor areas of the brain) are activated as when the movement is being carried out. So imagining the feeling of the movement being done does contribute to refining your shimmy – provided that you’ve understood the movement.
    I loved your comment that unless you understand the movement you’re not going to do it well – it’s all about your brain and neural networks developing smooth and synchronised firing.

    • mahinbellydance Says:

      Yes, there have been several studies done with injured athletes who used this kind of “visualization” training while they were immobilized and recovering. They regained their skills much more quickly than those who didn’t. It’s powerful stuff. I find this kind of visualization technique is really great for learning choreography and getting it into your “muscle memory.”

  8. ריקודי בטן Says:

    so cool that you combined bellydance with anatomy!

    • mahinbellydance Says:

      Thanks! My academic background is in Exercise Science so it’s always something I’ve incorporated in my teaching method. It’s been fun to put it out there more directly with these blog posts – there will be more! 🙂

  9. The Science Behind Learning Shimmies - Deep Roots Dance Says:

    […] has an excellent article on the physical processes which are engaged when we first learn to shimmy, which of course applies […]

  10. rashmichaudhary Says:

    your blog is my guiding angel mahin ❤ :*

  11. Belly Dance Bazaar – How to Shimmy: Belly Dance Technique - Belly Dance Bazaar Says:

    […] This is the feeling you want to maintain, all the time you're shimmying, even at speed. Practice this exercise slowly at first. It will take you some time to build up speed – learning to shimmy properly takes a lot of patience, because the instinct to tense up is always threatening to take over. You need to practice at a slow pace until the movement is committed to your "muscle memory", then you can start taking it faster (if you're interested in how that mechanism works, read this article by Mahin). […]

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