Out of Africa

...and into dance, with this FREE-SPIRITED PRENATAL WORKOUT

Dance every day” is the sage advice we once heard a 5-year-old give to a new bride. And her secret for a long, happy life is no less true while you’re pregnant. True, trying to execute complicated hip-hop or punk steps as your shape is rapidly shifting might have humbling, if not disastrous, consequences. But traditional African dance can be a great form of prenatal exercise and a unique way to get comfortable with your pregnancy.

“Instead of fighting the changes in your body, African dance lets you celebrate them,” says personal trainer and dance instructor April Underwood, who designed the workout that follows. “Women can move to the music — naturally move, within their bodies’ limitations — and feel comfortable with their bodies as they change.”

A celebration dance Underwood teaches African dance at Revolutions Studio in Santa Monica, Calif., with a drummer providing the beat. Each dancer responds with personal interpretive movements, as if telling a story. For pregnant dancers, the story is often about the power and energy of fertility. It’s a celebration dance. “There are no do’s and don’ts in African dance,” Underwood says, “so you don’t ever get the feeling that you’re doing it wrong.”

You’ll find that the hip rotations and kicking footwork will help tone the legs and buttocks. The basic move of shifting weight from foot to foot strengthens the feet and ankles. Pulling the elbows back and the shoulder blades together while extending the arms helps relax your back muscles and spine.

As with all exercise, work at a safe, comfortable level. Listen to your body’s cues: If you’re sweating too much or feel too winded to talk, slow down. But the pregnant women in Underwood’s classes usually walk away feeling uplifted, not exhausted. “The dancing gives you energy,” Underwood says. “It makes you feel joyful.”

workout schedule

Warm-up Begin with 5–l0 minutes of limbering movement, done in rhythm to drum-based music. Shift your body weight side to side, loosen your neck and shoulders, and sway your hips from side to side, knees bent. Then make full hip circles, clockwise and counterclockwise. Release tension in your spine and inhale deeply, exhaling fully by pulling your belly in toward your spine. To relax your feet, do ankle circles, and point and flex your feet. Complete your warm-up by lifting yourself up and down on your toes, then stretch your calves and back, holding each stretch for 10 seconds without bouncing.

The dance Do each dance move in the order presented, completing the entire sequence 4–6 times; it should take a total of about 20 minutes. If you feel good, do it longer, or choose a particular move that you enjoy and repeat it as many times as you like. As you begin to dance, move smoothly and rhythmically to the drum beat, keeping your body close to the ground. Once you’ve mastered the sequence, you can add your own stylings.

Pay attention to your heart rate. If it seems to rise rapidly because you’re not used to this type of movement, slow down. Be sure the room is cool to avoid overheating, and drink plenty of water. As pregnancy progresses, you may want to keep your arms below your shoulders if you feel winded.

Cool-down Reduce movements to a slower, smaller range of motion for 5 minutes. Breathe deep into belly and repeat warm-up to release tension from hips and back. Complete workout by stretching all major muscle groups, including back, legs, calves, chest and shoulders. Hold each stretch to a point of mild tension for 20 seconds without bouncing. After stretching, sit cross-legged and do some deep belly breathing: Close eyes, inhale slowly for 6 counts, then exhale for 8 counts. Repeat l0 times.

(dance moves)

1. Alternate kicks Stand with feet slightly apart, knees bent and heels on floor. Bend elbows in and slightly behind waist, squeezing shoulder blades together. Rotate forearms outward so palms face forward, fingers spread [A]. Straighten legs and kick one leg out in front of you, foot flexed, at the same time straightening both arms in front of you and lowering hands down toward extended foot, palms facing in. As you kick, round shoulders forward, contracting abdominals inward [B]. Lower leg back to starting position, bending knees. Bring elbows behind you by squeezing shoulder blades. Now kick with the other foot. Repeat for 16 alternating kicks. Strengthens middle-back muscles and abdominals; helps promote good posture.

2. Summer harvest After the last kick in exercise 1, separate feet wider than hip-width apart, knees and toes turned out to a 45-degree angle. Bend knees slightly and cross your arms over your belly, fingers spread [A]. Bend knees a bit more, then begin to straighten legs and lift one leg, knee slightly bent, up and to the side, flexing foot. As body lifts, raise arm on the same side as the raised leg to shoulder height [B]. Return to starting position and lift other leg and arm. Repeat for 16 alternating knee lifts. Strengthens legs and back muscles.

3. Mother’s reach From the beginning position in exercise 2 with hands on belly, take a front diagonal step with left foot, turning body to the right and bending knees. Keep back straight. At the same time, reach across body and out to the right with left arm [A]. Step back to center position, hands on belly, and do a quick right, left, right “cha cha cha” [B]. Then repeat to your left, stepping with your right foot and reaching with your right arm [C]. Repeat for 16 alternating reaches. Note: In your third trimester, place your nonreaching hand on your thigh rather than your belly for extra support. Strengthens abdominals and legs; loosens shoulders and back muscles.

4. Hip sway Stand with feet slightly more than hip-width apart, knees slightly bent. This is a 4-count move: On 1, sway hips rhythmically to the right, shifting body weight onto right foot. At the same time, lift right arm up to shoulder height, elbow bent, and press your right hand down and back, bending the elbow at shoulder height. Your left arm should be at shoulder level, elbow bent, with hand in front of chest [A]. On 2, switch arms as you sway to the left [B]. On 3, sway back to the right, switching arms again [C]. On 4, shift body weight onto your left foot and straighten both legs, lifting your right foot off the floor and moving both arms out to the side [D]. Squeeze shoulder blades together to avoid overarching your lower back. Bring right foot back down and repeat the sequence, starting with a sway to the left. Do 8 times, alternating sides. Increases circulation; increases hip and lower-back mobility.

5. Fertility dance Place feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent. Spread fingers across belly and round shoulders forward. Contract abdominals, dropping tailbone and pressing hips forward [A]. Thrust chest out and forward, squeezing shoulder blades together as you rotate shoulders back to pull elbows behind you. Use abdominals to support the back; your pelvis naturally rocks backward [B]. Return to starting position. Repeat 16 times. Increases strength and mobility of spine and shoulder girdle; improves posture.

6. Drummer’s beat/Guaranga’s moon Stand with feet wider than hip-width apart, knees bent. Staying in this position, step forward 4 times while playing “air drums” with hands [A]. Step forward 4 more times with arms out to sides, lifted to the ceiling, palms up [B]. With weight on left foot, pivot counterclockwise, making a full circle with right foot in 8 steps. Hold right arm out in front of you, elbow bent, palm up. Keep left hand on belly, elbow bent [C]. Repeat, pivoting clockwise, weight on right foot, left arm up. Walk backward 16 counts, swaying hips and fluttering palms one at a time in front of face [D]. Repeat sequence twice. Strengthens legs, shoulders and shoulder-rotator muscles.