How to Shimmy: Belly Dance Technique
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. 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", and there is also a sharp, shimmering version of the hip shimmy called the "vibration shimmy" which is done 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
Instead, 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.
The glute shimmy is sharp and shimmery rather than soft and voluptuous.
Once you've mastered the basic shimmy standing still, you can layer it with a multitude of moves - figure eights, hip slides, turning, walking, on one leg, etc.
There are variations too, with various names depending who you learn from, what style you're learning and what country you're in - the rocker shimmy, the choo-choo, three-quarter, washing-machine - the list goes on!
And I haven't even mentioned shimmying with your upper body - that's a whole other subject!