The Art—and Health Benefits—of a Dance

Sunyatta Amen takes a tradition and makes it much more than hip

“Food is your medicine or your poison—you make the choice every time you eat.” Amen learned early on that maintaining good health could yield great rewards. Her first belly dancing teacher was her grandmother, and Amen first practiced yoga with her parents, who owned a health food store in Harlem, the first such black-owned enterprise in the state of New York. “I saw that my parents managed stress differently from my friends’ parents,” she recalls. “They maintained their weight and didn’t suffer from illnesses like cancer or heart disease.” Inspired to share the lessons of her youth with others, Amen, who studied biology as a pre-med student in college and later worked as a health columnist, became a certified naturopath in 2000. She asserts that many physicians don’t follow the advice they offer: “Your doctor tells you to exercise and eat better, but doesn’t really show you how to do it. Have you seen your doctor naked lately?”

In 2003, she formed the Belly Dancers of Color Association (, which supports the efforts of holistic living. “There’s this belief that yoga and belly dancing belong to other cultures,” says Amen, alluding to black resistance to these exercises, “but both have African origins.”

The foundation of Amen’s teachings at her MamaSita Movement and Wellness Studio in Washington, D.C., is Movement as Medicine: internal movement, a series of classes that support sexual health; external movement, such as yoga and belly dancing; and food movement, embracing a diet that promotes optimal health. The natural health adviser on the Michael Baisden Show, Amen also hosts her own radio broadcast, which can be heard at She has produced the Moor Hips belly dancing instructional DVD and looks forward to publishing a cookbook. “My job is to make preparing healthy cuisine look as accessible and as sexy as possible,” she says.
Amen teaches that yoga is one of the most effective exercises for managing stress. “Pushing the body to become more flexible makes us more emotionally flexible. The more open and supple our bodies are, the better we can handle the stresses in our lives. Too many of us are not moving at all.” Amen has only one studio, but the Belly Dancers of Color Association provides an international directory of associates, many of whom join with others to converge on Silver Spring, Maryland, during Memorial Day weekend for the annual Movement and Wellness Expo, taking place this year May 22–25. The Expo offers seminars and classes on yoga, world dance, and lifestyle concerns, including diet and food preparation.

“I want to show how simple it can be to live a healthy, vibrant life,” Amen says. “It doesn’t have to be complicated.” For more information, visit

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *