Get ready for this jelly— and belly dance the way to better fitness, self esteem, and a stronger than ever midsection. Turns out belly dancing may be more than just an excuse for girls to dress up like Disney’s Jasmine. This week’s Grobby (Greatist lingo for hobby) is a centuries-old practice that doubles as a tribute to ancient rituals and a unique workout.

Belly-Busting a Move — The Need-to-Know

Photo by Jordan Shakeshaft

The music, dance, and costumes associated with belly dance vary widely across regions of the world. Most modern forms stem from ancient tribal dances in the Middle East and North Africa and weren’t originally designed for exercise… or even for baring some skin. Instead, belly dance— which might itself be an Americanized term— was originally part of a ritual dedicated to the goddess of fertility and celebrations of birth. Toward the end of the 19th century, belly dance left its ritual roots for the U.S. and other Western countries, where Arab dancers performed for largely male audiences. Before Nicki Minaj, there were belly dancers who moved to that boom, badoom, boom bass in American night clubs and burlesque theaters.

The art of belly dance might look simple, but don’t sign up for the Belly Dance Nationals Competition just yet. The practice takes a huge amount of skill and coordination. Aspiring belly dancers practice tricky patterns of movement that involve isolating and contracting individual body parts. (Seriously, try moving the torso separate from the hips— not so easy!)

All that isolation strengthens muscles in the core, but the shakedown’s benefits go beyond the belly. One study indicated women who practiced belly dance for at least three months reported positive outcomes including greater flexibility, lower blood pressure, and reduced anxietyThe contribution of belly dance to body education, physical and mental health of women who go to the gym or dance. Abrão, A.C., Pedrão, L. J. Escola de Enfermagem de Ribeirão Preto, Universidade de São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil. Revista latino-americana de enfermagem 2005; 13(2): 243-248.. There’s also evidence that belly dance helps strengthen pelvic floor muscles, which are associated with childbirth in women and with bladder control in both genders. Studies have also indicated that trunk strength and aerobic-muscular endurance are important predictors of belly dancing ability, so those who aren’t ready to feel the burn might just be big belly flopsImpact of motor abilities on belly dance performance in female high school students.Srhoj, L., Mihaljević, D., Jukić, J. Faculty of Kinesiology, University of Split, Split, Croatia. Collegium Antropolgicum 2008; 32(3): 835-841..

So You Think You Can Dance — Your Action Plan

Fitness centers all over the U.S. offer belly dance classes for all levels, commonly for hour-long sessions. But if moving the body like a snake for a roomful of people seems too intimidating, new dancers can try belly-dance-inspired workouts at home. And while most dancers are women, men have recently taken up the hobby as well, especially in Middle Eastern countries like Egypt.

Regardless of gender or skill level, remember that every dancer needs a good warm up. Stretching increases heart and breathing rate and helps make sure the body delivers oxygen and nutrients to muscles most in need. Focus warmup efforts on the knees, lower back, neck and ankles, since those areas are the most common belly-dance-injury spots. Still skeptical? Try a class and belly-ieve it!