I can’t explain it. Not one word comes to me when I try.
Jon says it’s just who I am. It’s where I belong. I get what he’s saying, but it’s just an intellectual, abstract idea. I can’t process its meaning and how it relates to me and how I feel.
But it is this ineffable feeling that makes me keep going back to Bellydancing class every week.
It’s this feeling that comes to me when I’m in class, when I’m learning something new, which is constant, and when I’m dancing. I mean really dancing, in those rare moments when I’m in my body, feeling it move to the music, and not in my head, wondering if I’m doing it right or wrong.
It’s this feeling that fills me up as I sit in my car alone driving home, listening to the music I was just dancing to with the other women in my class.
This feeling brings me to the edge of tears, but doesn’t make me cry.
And it makes me feel good about myself, not because I’m good at what I’m doing, but because my body loves to move in the ways I’m learning to dance. Not that it’s natural or easy, but that on some level, it seems my body already knows. As if it’s been waiting to be reawakened.
Is this who I really am, as Jon says?
It seems unimaginable to me.
So for now, I’ll just keep feeling what I feel and doing what I do. And I’ll leave the words to explain it for another time.
We had a week off after the Hafla, but tonight my Bellydancing class begins again.
And I’ve graduated a bit. From now on I’ll be staying for the first half of the Level two class. It feels like I’m making a new commitment to the class, my fellow bellydancers and myself. It only makes me nervous when I think about it.
So I’ve decided to dance instead of think.
One of the beautiful things about American Tribal Style (ATS), the kind of Bellydancing I’m learning, is that it’s a kind of language.
Julz invited some of the women from an ATS group in Halfmoon NY, come to our Hafla. She and Kathleen had only danced with them once before about a year ago. ATS isn’t choreographed, there are certain moves and everyone follows the leader not knowing what she will do next. The leader is constantly changing too.
This all happens by everyone knowing the moves and giving cues to each other, with their bodies and eyes.
ATS dancers meet all from all over the world and dance together.
Julz told me that the woman (I don’t remember her name, but I”ll find out) she and Kathleen were dancing with in the video above has slightly subtler cues than we do. So in a way, it’s like the same language with a different regional accent.
It just takes getting used to.
Last year Jon and I went to the ballet to see Swan Lake. During the performance, one of the dancers who was standing behind the prima ballerina as she was dancing, was talking to someone back stage. Very unprofessional, but also, this isn’t something you can do with ATS. Even when there are three dancers up front and a chorus of dancers behind them, the chorus has to pay attention, because it may be their turn to dance any moment.
For me, it’s this kind of spontaneity that keeps ATS creative and fun.
Jon leaned over to me and said, “This is who you are.” I looked up and saw Callie leading a triplet with Jackie and Emily. Reflected in them I saw myself. My eyes welled up with tears.
How can it be?
I know I can’t dance, I know I can even clap to a beat. Even when I was actually dancing I didn’t really believe it. When Kathleen told me I was ready to do a slow dance at the Open House in October, I didn’t even have to think about it, my “no” came quick. When Julz told me I had learned so much in the past year, I only kind of believed her.
It felt good to dance at the Hafla. I danced my slow and fast dance with Julz and Kathleen, I danced with Kitty and then we all danced together. I watched a lot of dancing too. I liked being there, getting to talk to everyone and share the food.
But I didn’t know that I could dance until I saw the video that Jon took of me and Julz and Kathleen dancing. When I watched it, I could see so many of the things I did wrong, but I could also see that I was dancing. I was better than I imagined and I could see I know more than I thought I did.
I’m still a bit stunned by it all, but last night, I felt something shift inside of me.
I had a feeling of belonging and a shared commitment. The women I dance with are serious about dancing. Dedicated. But it’s not their whole lives. They all have families, small children or grandchildren, jobs, their own businesses, but it’s an important part of their lives. And we’re in it together because ATS is not about dancing alone. It’s about dancing with each other.
When we start the new class in January, I’ll be staying a half hour longer, for part of the level 2 Class. I’ll be learning new moves while I continue to improve the ones I already know. I’m ready for it. I’m committed. I’m no longer just learning, I’m dancing.
Branch Woman called to me this morning. Of course she wanted to be dressed in symbols of the Ancient Goddess. A tiny piece of turquoise for her heart some beads around her belly and a turban of strung beads with charms.
In a little while I’m going to be getting dressed myself for the Holiday Bellydancing Hafla tonight. Jon’s coming and bringing his camera. I’ll also bring a bowl of fruit. Food and dancing, getting to talk to each other, in a way there’s no time for during class.
I can see now that Branch Woman is a Dancing Talisman. I listened to the Hafla Playlist while I dressed her.
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.