Every time I hear a woman share that she couldn’t imagine participating in a Bellydance class because she is afraid or ashamed of her belly, a pang of Sisterhood recognition beats inside my heart with understanding for what is happening deep inside of her. When I was a young child I loved dancing and moving my body. However, I was a little on the “fluffy” side. I did get to twirl a baton and march in the fabulous white boots that the Majorettes got to wear, but my career as a Majorette, begun at the age of five, was cut short after my mother mysteriously pulled me out of the group. Funny, to this day, I still have a story in my head that it was because I was too fat and that I was one of the slower choreography learners.
Around the same time, my mother attended a six week adult class in Bellydance. She would dance around the house with those amazing ringing cymbals on her fingers, wiggling her hips and arms up in the air, practicing the week’s new steps and movements. It is the only clear memory I have of my mother dancing by herself in the home. She loved the popular dances of the day and she and my father had a regular Friday night date. Memories follow of my family in the den, dancing to records spinning on the record player. Dad, happily teaching his flock of three, two girls and a boy, the newest dance steps of the day.
Dance, for me, has a deep tie to time together with family, trying new things, laughing, being silly, funky, quiet, exuberant and spinning. Many hours were spent in my backyard pretending to be Diana Prince spinning into her superhero Wonder Woman costume and flying in her invisible jet.
Later in my adult life, I found myself working in broadcast television, hoisting cameras, editing, producing and doing a lot of behind the scenes work. Because it was a very physical kind of work that I was doing, I was wearing the khaki and polo shirt uniform and working with a lot of men. I was seen as what was called back then as a ‘tomboy’.
An opportunity to try a Bellydance class came my way during a time when, as a backstage tech, I spent hours watching the female on-air personalities working with stylists doing their makeup, hair, and clothing, perfecting their on-air glamour. How they dressed, what color lipstick they wore, their body weight and how the camera added “pounds” of perception was incredibly intimidating to me. It was common for me to hear, “You should be on camera instead of behind the camera.” No way, I thought; I couldn’t handle the pressure and all of the childhood insecurities I’d had would well up inside me. Plus, I was a foodie who loved dessert. I really couldn’t imagine having to live with the restrictions that many of the beautiful women that I worked with did. Did I mention that they were incredibly brilliant too? There was so much attention on their image that it was often missed how much they contributed to the content of the programming, as they were considered window dressing to make their male counterparts more attractive.
Then, by a small miracle–a story for another time–the local Bellydance instructor crossed my path and I was in her beginner class the very next day. The call of the zagat, or finger cymbals rang into my mind from my childhood memories of my mother. The Bellydance instructor was colorful, vibrant, healthy, smiled and moved with a feminine grace that I admired and wanted for myself.
Lifting heavy things, building sets, running cables and hanging out in ice0cold television studios had turned me into one of the guys.
That first class was the beginning of a journey of Sisterhood. It was the first time I had ever been in a room of only women. I began performing and learning as much about Bellydance as expressed around the Middle East and North Africa as I possibly could. Since then, Bellydance has been a constant companion with me through relationships, pregnancy, motherhood, peri-menopause, and various injuries and illnesses. Initially, I simply wanted to learn how to move more gracefully so that I would stop tripping and bumping into things.
And though I love the dancing, when it came to performing on stage either solo or in a group, the anxiety and self-critical inside voice would take over. As a curvy woman designing a troupe costume, as opposed to the petite women who could buy them off-the-rack, I had to figure out how to engineer something that would cover my breasts, flatter my body and match the other dancers. It was awkward to have to use three times the yardage for my bra covers as most of the troupe. The constant comparing and trying to fit in and match like we were the Rockettes added to my insecurities.
Bellydancer confession: the first time that I could even allow myself to remotely enjoy baring my belly while performing was when I was pregnant. It was the only time in my life when all of the subtle undulations of belly rolls looked great on me and it was like hugging my babies. Performing five months pregnant with my second child at a Lebanese restaurant for a New Year’s Eve party is one of my favorite pregnant Bellydance memories.
Recently, in a class, one of the women shared her discomfort at baring her belly. I often wonder where the concept or belief came from that Bellydancing, amongst women, is synonymous with dancing with an exposed belly? As I will explore in future posts, Bellydance as a theatrical performance was brought to the United States via early World’s Fairs and, later, onto Burlesque stages.
Yet when a brave woman shares within a circle of women the voice of the inner critic, “I’m old, my belly has stretch marks/scars, it’s not flat!” Everyone circled around this brave Sister and started lifting their workout shirts and lowering their yoga pants. A chorus of chirping ensued with women pointing out their scars, discolorations and soft spots. It was gloriously beautiful to see and be a part of this group that knew and understood the inner critic so much that they earnestly interrupted the first woman in a show of solidarity and support. In that small group of women, a variety of ages and body types were represented each belly curvy and shapely with its own stories to tell. That image sits with me today as a triumph, because even five years ago the supportive response would be advice on how to “fix” it with the latest fad diet or exercise. Instead, we stood in solidarity sharing that those bellies were beautiful just the way they were. We honored each belly with gratitude and committed to being in relationship with our bodies by both appreciating them and listening to their information about how to take good care of them.
There is much that I have learned through my experiences as a Bellydancer about being a women and learning how to make friends with my own body. As a performer, there is constant pressure to have the body be performance ready, which is shorthand for fit into the expensive costumes. Reflecting on this and remembering teaching BellyMamas, my own Bellydance Pre-Natal and Post Natal Fitness classes years ago, reminds me of how many times that I have shared with women about the common misconception of “going back to the pre-baby weight”. Womens’ bodies change as we mature and go through the life changes of graduating high school, getting married/divorced, care-taking an elderly parent, developing a career, from menarche to menopause and beyond, the body transforms and evolves. Each women dances her story, her joys, her sorrows and her beauty.
I’ll finish with some words I heard from a wise musician when I was a baby Bellydancer attending an immersive week long Bellydance camp in California. We were sitting in a small room packed to the log cabin rafters, tucked into the Mendocino Mountains enjoying the evening cabaret. The musicians played on one side of the room while the crowd created a circle that was to be the tiny stage for the line up of dancers for the evening. Musicians and dancers created magic with music and movement. When an older woman stepped onto the stage the musician next to me and the rest of the crowd came to a hush. I wasn’t sure what was about to happen, but she danced the most beautifully of them all. The gentleman sitting next to me was reverent, tears welling in his eyes as she moved. The audience was mostly silent and I couldn’t tell if they were appreciating her or not. Her bow was accompanied by the most love filled and adoring applause that I have ever heard. The man turned to me and said, “The woman over 50 is the most beautiful dancer that there can ever be. She has a story to tell. She has lived life. When she dances her sorrows they are the most beautiful gems because she has survived. When she dances her joys, they are brighter than the sunshine because she understands that those moments are moments to be absorbed and enjoyed. The woman with a story to tell. She is the most beautiful.”