How to Shimmy: Belly Dance Technique
There are several kinds of shimmy, and the names can vary depending on which country you are in, what type of belly dancing you do and even who your teacher is. Here are several examples:
- Hip Shimmy
- Knee Shimmy
- Choo-choo Shimmy
- Three-quarter Shimmy
- Egyptian Walk
- Washing Machine Shimmy
- Shoulder Shimmy
- Chest Shimmy
Every belly dance beginner wants to know how to shimmy, and every intermediate belly dancer wants to know how to shimmy better.
Basically, a shimmy is just a fast vibration of part of the body. What makes the modern Egyptian shimmy so difficult is that you have to relax the body part you want to shimmy. In Western dance, we're used to the idea that if we want a muscle to move, we need to tense it—so a relaxed shimmy goes against our instincts.
The secret to a good shimmy is to use other muscles to drive the movement, so the part that's shimmying can relax and go along for the ride.
Hip Shimmy (Knee Shimmy)
So to shimmy your hips, you use your leg muscles and relax your hips: to shimmy your shoulders, you use your back and ribs and relax your shoulders.
(Just to confuse things, it is possible to use your hip and/or butt muscles to shimmy: You can do a hip "wobble", or you can do a "vibration shimmy" by tensing the butt. However, those are not the versions that are most commonly used.)
Instead, the shimmy used most often in modern Egyptian belly dance is driven by the legs. Many teachers call it the "knee shimmy" because the knees pump back and forth past each other—but personally, I hate that name, because it encourages beginners to take the wrong approach.
Exercise for Shimmy
Stand in dance position with your feet close together. Close your eyes and think about softening your knees, letting your tail sink towards the floor and allowing your hips and buttocks to relax completely.
Now, let your right hip drop. Don't "push" it down and don't tense the muscles - let it stay loose. Imagine your butt cheek is dropping because it's heavy - some teachers suggest thinking of it as dropping a cannonball. Notice your knee will bend to allow the hip to drop, but your knee didn't "drive" the movement. Now drop the left hip. Notice how your left knee bends and your right knee straightens in a natural reaction.
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).
If you're doing it right, you should feel your butt wobbling behind you. As soon as it tenses up, stop and relax.
Tip: When you feel yourself getting tense, step your feet into second position (i.e., more than hip-width apart), and try shimmying—obviously you would never perform a shimmy in that position, but it does help to remove the tension and get the right feeling.
Maintain Your Core!
All that relaxation doesn't mean you should let your core go. It may look sexy, but doing shimmies with your butt sticking out will injure your back!
To keep your pelvis in the right position, don't "tuck your bottom under"—you'll tense your glutes and kill your shimmy. Instead, think of lifting and contracting your core gently. Georgette (the wonderful shimmier in the video at the beginning of this article), talks about "smiling with your ovaries"!
Of course, everything is not completely relaxed while you're shimmying—otherwise, you wouldn't be able to move. If you place your hands behind you, just under your butt, you'll feel the tops of your thighs contracting and releasing as you alternate legs. Your quads (on the front of your thighs) are also working. However, if you think too much about tensing and releasing those muscles, there's a risk you'll start tightening other areas too—and you'll lose the vibration. That's why it's best to focus on the relaxed areas and let the working muscles look after themselves.
There are many other ways of teaching the shimmy. Here's another approach.
The Glute Shimmy
I've been describing the modern Egyptian shimmy, but there are other schools of thought. A popular shimmy in America is the "glute shimmy".
Suhaila is the queen of the glute shimmy. If you want to emulate her, the exercise below (from her belly dance DVD) is an essential drill. The shimmy itself is just this exercise brought up to speed—alternately tightening and releasing each glute.
Once you have the basic concept of a lower-body shimmy, you're ready to learn some of the variations. Be warned, they can have different names, depending on which country you're in, which style of belly dance you're learning, and even which teacher you have.
The Choo-Choo Shimmy
The choo-choo is done on demi-pointe, taking tiny steps. With each step, your hip moves - step left and the left hip lifts, step right and the right hip lifts. At first glance, you think it's the feet that are driving the hip movement, but that's not so. As Rachel Brice says in this video, it's a little hard to analyse, and it's a matter of trusting your body to "get" the move.
The Three-Quarter Shimmy (Egyptian Walk, Hagala)
The 3/4 shimmy is a walking shimmy—you can't do it standing still. It consists of three distinct hip movements—up, down and out. As you walk, the sequence is:
- Lift L foot and lift L hip simultaneously
- Place L foot and drop L hip simultaneously
- Transfer weight to L foot and slide L hip out simultaneously
Repeat with the right foot, and so on.
I've had teachers assure me that the Egyptian Walk and the Hagala are two different steps. If there are differences, they seem subtle to me, and more to do with emphasis and the size of the movement than the actual movements—but I'd be happy to hear from anyone who can explain it to me!
Washing Machine Shimmy
I have my reservations about this shimmy. I've seen it taught in beginners' classes but never seen it in performance. I wonder if it's taught because it's easier than a "real" shimmy. Basically it's a forward and back movement, alternating hips. The video is self-explanatory.
Finally, here are a few tips for perfecting your hip shimmies.
Once you have the basic shimmy concepts, it's time to start layering. Sometimes you will just stand and shimmy (or walk and shimmy) exactly as in the videos above. However, that's only the beginning of the story.
One Leg Shimmy
To begin layering, first practice doing a knee shimmy standing on one leg, with the other leg pointed to the side or the back. Do your own experiments:
- How does it feel when you shimmy both legs? Can you do it evenly?
- How does it feel when you keep the standing leg still and shimmy the free leg?
- How does it feel when you keep the free leg still and shimmy the standing leg?
- Now try transferring the weight smoothly from one leg to the other without losing your shimmy.
Once you feel comfortable with those exercises, and can transfer from one to the other, you're ready to try adding other moves.
- Try doing a figure eight while shimmying. Notice how, as you move through the eight, you need to transfer your weight and change which leg is doing most of the shimmying.
- Try the same thing with hip circles, mayas and anything else that takes your fancy!
Now take another look at the video of Georgette near the beginning of this article, and notice how she manages to fill an entire song with just shimmies, by combining them with different moves (and a little humor).
There are several different variations on the hip shimmy, but there's really only one shoulder shimmy. Many beginners find the shoulder shimmy difficult, and it shouldn't be. The problem is that most teachers, when they try to break down the move, get it totally wrong! The video below shows a teacher making exactly that mistake.
When she demonstrates one shoulder at a time, she moves her shoulder joint backwards and forwards, which is incorrect technique.
Now play forward to the point where she's doing the shoulder shimmy with the cane in her hands. Do you notice something? She's not moving her shoulder joints at all. They are quiet—it's her collar bones that are moving backwards and forwards.
How Not to Shoulder Shimmy
Clearly, Elisa Jade knows how to do a shoulder shimmy, because when she dances it, she does it correctly. But like many teachers, her attempt at breaking down the move only confuses the beginner.
When you do a shoulder shimmy, you should have a flat plane across your chest from one shoulder to the other at all times.
If your shoulder joints are pushing forward, you're doing it wrong.
The next video demonstrates the movement of the shoulders more clearly:
© 2020 Marisa Wright