Kat took a few photos of me in my Bellydancing outfit. They were all in focus, but I really liked this one. I know it was a mistake, but I love it as a photograph of a woman and dog.
Kat pulled one colorful scarf after another out of the plastic bin on my bedroom floor. Then came the billowy silk pants and the velvet cholies.
She brought what she thought would match my purple Bellydancing skirt and the blue, purple and green sash belt Julz passed on to me. When Kat emailed me and asked if I wanted her help getting together a costume for the Haflah, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.
A month ago, when we had Dancing in the Flow in my Bellydancing class, Kat showed me how to tie my hair up in a turban. But I didn’t feel comfortable going to class wearing it.
Now I’m ready. Ready for the turban, the silk pants under my skirt, the jewelry, the bindi and even the make up.
Somehow Kat knew that. And she took the time to gather clothes and jewelry and come to my house to help me do it.
Actually I can’t stop crying as I write this.
I’m trying to understand what I’m feeling, but it’s seems to be a step ahead of me. Like my brain hasn’t caught up with what I’m feeling yet.
It’s not just Kat’s generosity. She’s become a mentor to me.
Kat is one of the founders of Bennington Beledi Tribal Bellydancing. She retired from dancing the year I started. She introduced me to Bellydancing and came with me to my first class. And ever since then, she’s been guiding me. Sending me photos of her and the other women dancing over the years, emailing me timely articles and videos of bellydancers she thinks I’d like.
And today she shows up at my house and explains to me how to put make-up on. The only make-up I’ve ever worn was flavored lip gloss when I was a kid.
There was something timeless about what Kat and I did today.
The experienced woman teaching the newcomer. Girls dressing up for the dance. An initiation of sorts.
After I was all dressed up, we sat on the bedroom floor talking about our mothers. The regrets and coming to acceptance. We talked about how our second marriages were filled with emotion, compared to the first, and how we both wanted a ceremony and witnesses.
Kat is both friend and mentor and she gave me something today that I never experienced before, but always wanted.
On Thursday we’ll have the final rehearsal for the Haflah in my bellydancing class. It will be a dress rehearsal for me. I’ll tie on my turban and see what it feels like to dance in the silk pants that I’m borrowing from Kat. In between now and the Haflah, I’ll buy some eyeliner and lipliner and experiment putting on make-up.
I’m thinking of the Haflah as part of my holiday. A celebration of dance and food in the dark days of winter. And I’m looking forward to every part of it. Getting dressed up, spending time with the women in my class and of course, dancing.
Julz and Kathleen turned one way and I turned the other. When I realized I was turning in the wrong direction, I laughed at myself, but I danced as if I hadn’t made a mistake and seamlessly followed Kathleen, who was leading, into the next move.
Something broke open inside of my between last Bellydancing class when I had a panic attack and this weeks class. I think it has to do with the original reason I wanted to learn to Bellydance.
It wasn’t so I could be scared and feel bad about myself, it was just the opposite.
The first time I watched Sisters of the Shawl dance, I saw women who were secure with themselves and their bodies. Women who were dancing for the love of it, they took it seriously, but at the same time, didn’t care what other people thought about them.
They danced the way I make my art.
Except dancing is even more direct. Because their bodies become their art, their form of communicating to the world. And their bellies, which are both powerful and vulnerable, are the focus of the dance.
I watched them dance and thought they could only be dancing that way if they felt really good about themselves. If they loved themselves.
I’ve never believed that a person could just change their mind about a long-held belief. That there must be a process to get from one point to another. And I imagine I’ve been going though that process and that’s why when I walked into class last night, and decided I was going to dance with feeling, without worrying about my mistakes, I was able to do it.
Of course, the people who surrounded me helped. I truly felt the meaning of the Tribal Sisterhood that I wrote about a while back. Everyone in class was supportive, in their own way, without fussing.
At the end of the class I danced with Julz and Kathleen while the rest of the class watched. Technique came second to feeling the music in my body. I incorporated my mistakes the best I could, like a professional entertainer might. I completely enjoyed it.
Then Julz and stood at the other end of the room together while everyone else dance. “Now, she said, you get to be the audience”.
As we watched, Julz remarked on each dancer. How Callie does this beautiful thing with her eyes when she’s dancing. How Emily becoming a Sister of The Shawl last year breathed new life into them. How much she loves to dance with Jackie. And how great Kat was doing after not dancing for over a year.
These were not empty compliments. This was Julz telling me how much she appreciates each of her Tribal Sisters for who they are.
Unlike last week, I left class feeling good about myself, and that I too was appreciated for who I am.
As I walked out the door Julz said, “Just remember, dancing with Kathleen and me is like dancing with a ham sandwich.” I’ll remember those words, and they’ll continue to make me laugh and put me at ease.
“What’s important is how we feel, our connection to the music, and what we give to the audience.” Alia Thabit
I learned last Thursday that practicing and learning Bellydancing is different than performing it.
This probably seems obvious, but I never thought about it before. Not until last week, when I practiced performing for the first time and had a panic attack.
My panic wasn’t about dancing, not really. It was about something unresolved inside of myself. And it’s my problem, not the audiences. So if I’m going to perform, even if it’s just for the other women in my class, I have to leave my crap out of it and only bring what I want the audiecne to receive from me.
“The movement doesn’t matter. What’s important is how we feel, our connection to the music, and what we give to the audience.”
Before I started taking Bellydancing classes, the only dancing I ever did was moving my body according to the music and how it made me feel. Bellydance has been such a completely new experience for me, I’ve been just trying to learn the most basic things.
I’ve been too busy thinking to feel.
“Get out of your head and into your body,” is something I’ve heard both Julz and Kathleen (my teachers) say more than once.
There was a dancer at the last Bellydancing Concert I went to that I still remember. She wasn’t the best dancer, but she gave a great performance. She danced with the kind of joy that was infectious. She was as much fun to watch as it seemed she was having.
I may not be able to do all the moves well and I’m sure to make mistakes. But I can bring my love of Bellydancing to my performance. I can aspire to that attitude that I so admire in the Sisters of the Shawl and the Sahidi Sisters.
I know with my art, when I bring confidence to what I do, it makes all the difference.
A mark made with confidence has a completely different feeling then one that is self conscious. A confident line, whether straight or not, is bold, unapologetic and honest about what it is and what it isn’t.
Alia Thabit says that the audience feels the mood that the performer creates.
In three weeks I’m going to be performing, in front of other Bellydancers, at our yearly Haflah and I don’t want to pass on my panic to them. I want them to feel the “Here I am, This is me” kind of honesty when I dance. I want to dance as well as I can and not forget to feel the music and the joy of dancing, so they will too.
The glass of wine had no effect on me at all. I lowered myself into he hot tub. My body ached and I couldn’t get warm.
I knew I was scared, but I didn’t know I was having a panic attack until Jon told me. That’s how it works with panic attacks, when I’m in the middle of one, I’m blind to reality.
For the previous couple of weeks I listened to my Bellydancing playlists and chose a fast and slow song that I thought I could dance to.
In a few weeks my Bellydancing class will have our annual Hafla.
A Hafla is a celebration with dancing and food. Last year when I attended, it was all so new to me. Everyone in the class brought something to eat, then us new students got to watch everyone else dance. Towards the end of the evening, we all danced together.
This year, I’ll be dancing with our teachers Julz and Kathleen. There will be a few more people attending the Hafla. Members of our families and an ATS Bellydancing group from Half-moon NY, will be joining us too.
I hadn’t really thought about it much. I knew we were going to be practicing, but I didn’t know exactly what that entailed.
Last night, at the end of class, Kathleen took me to one side of the room, while Julz queued the music. “This is where we’ll be dancing,” Kathleen told me. She motioned to the empty space in front of us, “and that is where the audience will be”.
I assumed, as often happens in class when I’m learning something one on one with Julz or Kathleen, that the rest of the class would be doing their own dancing. But as I found my place in our trio, I looked up and saw the rest of the class watching us.
Suddenly, they were not longer, Emily, Callie, Trish and Kat, women I’ve been learning to dance with for over a year, they became “The Audience“.
There was no time for me to think about it. The music started and for the next five or six minutes I may as well have actually been dancing on a real stage with a real audience.
It was only when I was alone in my car, driving home, that the voices started.
Old voices telling me how bad I had danced. I started to imagine everyone in class making fun of me. Talking behind my back, saying I’d never be able to dance.
Then I tried to talk myself out of it.
I asked myself what I would tell someone else who was experiencing what I had. I told myself I never really considered dancing in front of an audience and that I made a lot of mistakes, but that’s what practice is for. It was natural to be nervous. That was part of learning. I did fine.
My self soothing didn’t work any better than the glass of wine I downed when I got home. It was only this morning, when I began to see it clearly.
The fear of people ridiculing me goes all the way back to childhood. In many ways, the home I grew up in was a scary place for me. Being the youngest, getting me to cry, to feel bad about myself, was almost a sport for my brother. I learned not to speak, to hide who I really was to protect myself from the ridicule of him and my father.
The only safe place was one I created inside of myself.
It was a big Victorian house at the end of a dirt road, with a garden, and endless rooms, including a library, the books reaching higher than I could see, and a single stuffed chair and lamp. It always welcoming, always warm, always safe.
Jon is quick to say that panic attacks happen when we’re lying to ourselves.
This morning I could see the lie.
My fear came from the lie that the “audience” had seen the truth about me. That I had done something wrong. That I was such a bad dancer that I’ll never be able to learn. I had exposed myself for everyone to ridicule me, and in my panicky mind, of course they would.
The truth is that I danced fine last night. No better or worse than ever before. And of course, no one is ridiculing me, except myself.
This morning I got an email from Kat, “I’m sure it was a little scary doing the first run-through with Julz and Kathleen. Don’t worry, that’s why rehearsals start a few weeks early and it will be a very warm, intimate, affirming audience.”
That’s what’s real. Not the voices in my head. Not the panic in my body.
I am safe now.
I haven’t been to that big old Victorian house at the end of the dirt road for years. I’ve surrounded myself with people like Kat, who are kind and encouraging. And I’m seeing, for myself, and showing more of who I really am, all the time.
The music comes on and I start to dance. I’m by myself, so there’s no one for me to follow.
I have to decide which move I’ll do when. I start out with the taxeem because it’s the Bellydancing move I’m most comfortable with. I try to make my moves match the music. I try to keep time. I move through all the slow moves I can think of, hip circle, stalk walk, body wave. I repeat a few then panic and turn in a stalk walk, hoping to hand over the lead.
But there’s no one else there and actually, I’m not even really dancing. I’m driving home from Bellydancing, listening to the playlist from the class, imagining it all.
I read somewhere that when you sing a song in your head, your brain is doing the same thing as if you’re singing out loud.
So if I’m imagining that I’m dancing, am I, in a way, practicing?
It feels like it to me. Not physically, but in remembering and understanding the different moves and how they work with the music.
This has been happening to me for a while. It’s not something I consciously think about doing. Now when I hear music that I’m familiar with from my bellydancing class, I just start dancing in my mind. Or if I’m in my studio, I actually dance.
I see this as me embodying Bellydancing. Not just taking lessons or learning, but beginning to know and experience it in a way I haven’t before.
I’ve never done anything like Bellydancing in my life. It all new to my brain and body. And I’m grateful that it’s come to me at this point in my life. It makes me trust that, if I’m open to it, there will always be something new for my body and mind to experience, now matter how old I am or what my life situation is.
I sat across from my mother in the diner and handed her my iPhone with the picture of me bellydancing. “Oh,” she said, “you look so cute”. Then continued staring silently at the photo, her lips pursed, her eyes soft.
“It looks like you’re looking at a puppy,” I said to her.
My mother has always, and continues to infantilize herself and the women around her. I knew if I showed her the photo of me bellydancing she’d call me cute. Just for that reason, I wasn’t going to show it to her. My mother calling me cute has become a “thing” between us. It began when I was old enough to want to be taken seriously and everything I said or did, no matter how important it was to me, was described by her as “cute”.
Now at 54 years old, it still gets to me. She calls me cute and I’m that teenager again, struggling to be heard, to be taken seriously. My mother, who is 89, is aware of this, we’ve talked about it, but it doesn’t stop her from saying it.
It’s one of the things that keeps me from opening myself up to her. Makes me careful about what I say and don’t say to her.
Sitting across from my mother I watched her looking at the photo of me bellydancing and wondered what she was seeing. Certainly not the same thing I saw. Maybe she saw a little girl in a dance recital, all dressed up in her pretty dance costume.
I didn’t plan on showing my mother the photo. I did it because I was telling her about my bellydancing class and she said that she imagined it was good exercise and I must have a very flat stomach from all that dancing.
My mother was trying to make sense of what I was doing the only way she knew how. Though the eyes of looking a certain way, for men. My father, who died over 20 years ago, in particular.
I told her that I didn’t have a flat belly and my stomach hung over the waist of my skirt. I told her how we bulk up our skirts to give us bigger hips, so there’s more movement when we dance.
That’s when I showed her the photo.
Once more I risked being misunderstood in order to explain myself to my mother. Forty years later, I was still trying.
I clicked on to another photo of me and the other women in my Bellydancing class hoping she would see what I saw. “Look at the stomach on that one,” she said. My father’s words came out of her mouth. She had embodied them. How many times had I heard that growing up.
“No,” I said, probably too loudly.
I got up from my side of the diner booth and sat next to her. She was denigrating my tribal sisters. “These women are beautiful, their bellies are beautiful and their hips are beautiful,” I told her. I moved my hand in a figure eight mimicking the movement of our hips when we did a taxeem. I could see and feel the beauty and power of the move and was determined for my mother to see it as I did.
I pulled up one of the videos of the Sister’s of the Shawl dancing during the Open House. She watched silently as I explained that we don’t dance for men. In fact, in the type of bellydancing we do called American Tribal Style, the outfits were designed to cover the parts of a woman’s body that is traditionally most sexy to men. We cover our legs with long skirts, cover our hair with turbans and wear a coin bra, like armor, over our choli.
We dance for ourselves and each other.
I saw this the first time I watched the Sister’s of the Shawl dance over a year ago. It wasn’t just the beauty of their movements, it was their attitude and confidence that moved me to tears. I wanted what they had.
As I pulled up another video I told my mother the story of how Fat Chance Bellydancing, which ATS was derived from, got its name. The founder was asked by a man if she would dance privately for him. She told him, “Fat chance.”
I know as I was trying to explain my bellydancing to my mother I was also trying to combat the ideas and beliefs that still sometimes plague me about my own body image. She handed me the soap box to stand on and was a captive audience.
A life long opera and ballet lover, my mother could see the beauty in the video of the Sister’s of the Shawl dancing. Probably, more than all my words, that was the most helpful in her coming close to understanding what I was saying.
When I thought about it later, I realize that my mother calling me cute when she looked at the photo of me, didn’t have the same effect as it used to.
Maybe because I was able to get a glimpse into what my mother may have been seeing. Maybe because I was able to speak honestly, without getting upset or angry.
I’m not really sure if my mother got what I was trying to say about bellydancing and what it means to me. That it’s not just some cute thing that me and the other women in my class are doing. But it doesn’t matter to me so much either.
Although it would be really nice if she understood, I’m no longer looking for her approval or acceptance.
“There is a sisterhood — we look out for each other,” Irion said. “We’re not using our bodies to entertain men. I think we’re all here for ourselves.” Julz Irion
I just got a link to the article called “It’s a Language: Women Find Empowerment at Bennington Beledi American Tribal Style Bellydance” that Elodie Reed wrote in the Berkshire Eagle, about my Bellydancing class. I cried (in a good way) when I read it.
You can click here to read it.
Anyone reading this, if any of you live close enough, come and try it. Classes are every Thursday night at 5:15 in the Senior Center in Bennington Vermont. The first class is free and, like me, you may just surprise yourself and find that beautiful power that lives deep within your belly that has been waiting to emerge.
“We have been told how to look, how to dress, how to act, how our bodies should be shaped for an eternity and it is so exhausting and debilitating. Enough. As you say, a rebellion! It is time we took back our bodies in the fullest sense–including pride in our bellies. When I swallow my anger and outrage and fear and sadness, it is stored in my belly. What an amazing thing. Maybe it’s time to just be thankful for it rather than ashamed.”
The women who wrote these words to me, (she asked me not to use her name) was standing next to me, in the rain, sharing an umbrella with her daughter, as we watched the Sister’s of the Shawl dancing in the rain at the Bedlam Farm Open House.
She was reacting to the piece I wrote about Bellydancing being my power and rebellion. She wrote so well what I was feeling, I wanted to share it.
I hadn’t thought about the idea of swallowing our anger and fear and storing it in our bellies. But that makes sense to me. Our bellies are a vessel for so much. Lets fill them with good things.
Taking back our bodies, is a basic step in making changes in the world around us. I need to be strong within myself if I’m going to reach outside of myself.
I flailed my arms and hands, trying to keep my voice down.
“You know how it is, I said to her, we’re supposed to be ashamed of our bellies. We’re made to feel bad about them, think they’re ugly if they’re not flat and tight.” And this is our power center” I said, still waving my arm around,” If you look at the Chakra’s, this is where our power is and we’re taught to hate that part of ourselves.”
The advanced Bellydancing Class (I’m in the beginner class) was doing another hour of Dancing In The Flow, and I didn’t want to interrupt them. I was sure I couldn’t dance another hour. I was tired, but also exhilarated from dancing for just one hour. And now the reporter, Elodie Reed, from The Bennington Banner, who interviewed Julz and Kitty before the class, was asking me a few questions.
Elodie nodded her head as if she understood exactly what I was saying and was encouraging me to go on. Whether she agreed with me or not, she was doing a good job of getting me to talk. Before she left, several of us tried to talk her into taking a Bellydancig class.
The last few times I put up a video on Youtube, there was an ad, with a visual of a woman’s stomach. Her stomach was tanned and not just flat, but it actually looked concave.
I never looked to see what the ad was for, but the image stuck with me.
Because I’ve written about my own stomach and Bellydancing, I get a lot of ads about women’s stomaches. Or maybe they just target women my age. The ads are inevitably telling me, and everyone else who sees them, what foods to avoid or exercises to do, to reduce belly fat.
I remember seeing an exhibit years ago at the Fashion Institute of Technology, in NYC focused on corsets in women’s fashion. They had examples of corsets beginning in the 1700’s and showed how the corset transformed into the girdle. The exhibit made the point that the new corset is exercise, dieting and surgery.
Even thought I’ve mostly not only accepted, but have come to see my belly as beautiful, over the past year or so, I still catch myself looking down at my protruding stomach and wishing it was flatter. That track in my brain, of thinking my belly is ugly, is old and deep, and sometimes I fall into it. But now, I immediately climb out by touching my stomach and saying out loud, “I love you belly, you are powerful and beautiful”.
I keep thinking of that idea that the third chakra, which is in our bellies, is where our power lies. The place of our self-esteem, self-respect and strength. I think of how I spent so much of my life trying to reduce or control the size of my belly. How I hid it, as if it was something to be ashamed of.
When I started Bellydancing I had no idea how far it would reach inside of me. How deep it would go. How much inner strength I would harvest from it.
It was when Elodie asked me if Bellydancing had any significance to what is going on politically with women in our country now, that I started ranting about the power of our bellies and what they represent.
For me Bellydancing is an act of rebellion.
Personally, a rebellion against the stunted idea of beauty I learned growing up in my family and from our society. Politically, it’s a rebellion against all the people in power who are trying to bully women into remaining silent and still trying to make us feel ashamed of our true strength and abilities.
Every time I dance, I can feel myself get stronger.