Shake it like Shakira

Prenatal belly dancing, Nia classes offer alternatives for working out


Meg Shreve


Arabic music is playing over the loudspeaker and there is a swirl of hip scarves and veils. Is this a new Shakira or Britney Spears music video shoot? No, everyone here is pregnant. They are practicing the shimmy during a belly dancing class. This isn’t your predictable prenatal aerobic class. These moms-to-be are looking for fun and alternative exercise routines to keep fit.

Exercise during pregnancy is a good thing. In fact, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends women get 30 minutes of exercise almost every day. And it’s a better idea to choose something you’ll have fun with and keep doing because 30 minutes now can pay off in the delivery room.

Dr. Foti Chronopoulos, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, says women who participate in aerobic activity during pregnancy have shorter deliveries and fewer problems.

And some of the area’s hottest trends are belly dancing and Nia, which focuses on the natural moments of the body and is a combination of modern dance and body awareness exercises done barefoot.

Nia or belly dancing? When Margaret McIntyre, 40, a Chicago resident, was looking for a prenatal exercise class, she stumbled on Nia classes being offered by Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

“When I first read about it, it sounded interesting,” she recalls.

Nia first appeared 25 years ago in California. Think of it as Tai Chi, dance and yoga all mixed into one class. Certified Nia blue-belt Anne Pringle is McIntyre’s instructor and says, “You don’t have to be very coordinated or a dancer.”

But Nia involves more expressive moments than traditional aerobic classes. And even the atmosphere is different. Pringle says instead of numbers shouted over loud music and static aerobic steps, Nia instructors use what Pringle calls “world beat, rhythmic music” and focus on smooth movements. 

“The class is adjusted for your body and has more movement than yoga,” McIntyre says. “You feel energized just from the exercise and relaxation of it.”

For those wanting to join belly dancing, Grow in Motion at the Dance and Wellness Center in Forest Park offers a prenatal class. Keep in mind that belly dancing hasn’t always had that sexy, seduction persona you find in a Spear’s video. 

Grow in Motion director Gabrielle Deschaine, who belly danced up until three weeks before labor during her recent pregnancy, says belly dancing was traditionally a ritual associated with fertility and labor.

Her class covers the basic steps for beginners. Deschaine adds, “Women need their own time outside of a mainstream class to talk about the pregnancy and how the different moves benefit them.”

 Chronopoulos says activities such as belly dancing and Nia can provide aerobic activity, though participants should take it slowly if they are just starting.

Yoga or Pilates? Programs need to be checked with a physician before starting. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology suggests pregnant women stay away from exercises with a high probability of falling or abdominal injury, such as kick boxing. (And no scuba diving, please.)

And if you’re looking for something a little more low key, Chronopoulos suggests yoga. Yoga can also help during the delivery process and is “fantastic for lower back pain,” he says.

Tracey Carr, group exercise supervisor at Edward Hospital in Naperville, teaches prenatal yoga classes and one-on-one Pilates sessions, which couple yoga-like breathing with modified stretching and strengthening exercises. She credits yoga with easing some of the pain during her three pregnancies. “In my experience my ankles and legs didn’t swell,” she says. “There are poses in yoga you can do to alleviate that.”

Before choosing a class, Carr suggests asking about the instructor’s certification. Some have extra training in prenatal fitness. Also, ask about the instructor’s experience and whether she taught while pregnant.

If you decide to jump into a new routine during your pregnancy, be sure to educate yourself about the steps and movements. Carrie Poynton, coordinator for the Fit Mom’s Club at Lakeshore Athletic Club in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, took multiple classes including yoga throughout her pregnancy and encourages women to ask questions.

“I wasn’t a yoga buff, but I felt very comfortable asking questions,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to speak up.”

If this is not your first pregnancy, balancing the time to exercise with caring for your other children may stop you from joining a new class. But some gyms offer a solution.

Bubbles Academy in Chicago runs a supervised playground during its prenatal yoga class. “Moms love that children have something to do at the same time,” owner Kristine Johnson says.

Lakeshore Athletic also offers prenatal yoga and Pilates classes and a supervised playroom for kids aged 6 months to 12 years. 

Whether you’re perfecting the figure eight or stretching your arms out in an expressive Nia move, Chronopoulos emphasizes, “It’s better to do something than nothing.” 


Meg Shreve is an undergraduate student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and an intern at Chicago Parent.


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