Belly Dance

I was dancing when I was eight, I was dancing when I was eight. Is it strange to dance so late?

I think I might have stopped dancing when I was eight because my father told me I was fat. After that, you just have a hard time getting yourself off the ground. It was like I put on lead shoes and didn’t take them off for nearly thirty years.

Exercise for me always meant suffering. Punishing my body for not being thin, or eating too much, or not eating at all, or not exercising the day before, or not exercising hard enough or whatever whatever whatever. There was never a lack of reasons to hate myself, to hate my body. I decided to give it all up entirely, all physical activity. Nothing. I did it out of protest, because I didn’t wish to punish myself any longer. I wanted to get out of the prison of my own flesh. Yet remaining completely motionless wasn’t the answer either. My limbs began to atrophy. I was beginning to have problems with my joints. My wrist would pop and crack from using the computer. My back was caving in on itself. I absolutely had to do something, but what? I knew that yoga would help, but any form of exercise for me was a slippery slope, a direct route back to the self loathing I had just extricated myself from. What to do?

The Cairo Carnival was being advertised at a local venue, and my husband and I felt compelled to investigate. We are great lovers of anything from Africa and the Middle East. For us it is the absolute source of much of the beauty in the world. The art, history, culture, religion, music, food, literature – our appreciation of it all is one of the things that brought us together. It’s odd how belly dance escaped us.

The Cairo Carnival is the big belly dance festival in Southern California. We walked into a glitterdome, a wondrous parade of beautiful women, all in sequins and rhinestones, dancing their hearts out. It was all women, practically. I had this notion that belly dance was strictly for men, like strippers, but I could not have been more wrong. There were women of all ages, all shapes and sizes dancing for each other and having a blast. I’ve never seen a more accepting environment for women’s bodies. It blew my mind. Here, what is considered excess flesh by mainstream Hollywood standards, is beautiful. In fact, it’s better to have some weight on you, if you want to shimmy properly. Women were moving their bellies, popping them out, pulling them back in. Undulating them! I haven’t seen women celebrate their stomachs – ever. The stomach for me had always been a shameful thing, the dead giveaway that I was never going to be the ethereal and frail love object, the movie star’s girlfriend, the chic and popular model, but merely a fat and unchangeable human being. In ballet I was always admonished for not pulling it in tight enough. In the gym I was screamed at because I could never do enough crunches. I didn’t even like to drink water because it would cause my belly to bloat. These are the reasons I just stopped working out. I couldn’t take all the dehydration and self hatred. At the Cairo Carnival, my belly was free. A name that conjures up the desert, Cairo, is the one place I finally felt safe to drink. Drink in the joy of women, enjoying their bodies, loving themselves and each other.

I bought a necklace, an unusual one. It hung down the front to become a belly chain. I loved it, and I wore it so much I decided I needed more. The vendor from the carnival agreed to come over and show me what she had left. She showed me all the lovely styles, and she said, “When you dance, you can just wash them off afterwards.” She thought I was a dancer! I was immensely flattered, and decided that I couldn’t just appreciate belly dance from afar. This was some kind of calling. I started taking classes from Princess Farhana aka Pleasant Gehman. She’s the best teacher and a good friend. She’s beautiful and an incredible dancer. After her class, women just glow. She helps them to feel really good about themselves. It’s a ministry. I dance every day if I can and I watch lots of belly dance.

When you go see a belly dance show, if you look around, a lot of the women are crying. Tears for a million different reasons. Because they can’t believe how beautiful the dancer is, and because that beauty is something reachable, accessible, not distant and elusive. Because we have all wasted so many years hating ourselves for how we look and not appreciating ourselves for what we can do. Because we’ve sucked in our stomachs since we were children and now our backs are racked with pain. Because we have criticized our bodies for so long and we have just begun to feel what its like to compliment them. Because we have wasted so many years longing for something that didn’t really exist, but was sold to us by movies and fashion magazines. Because for many of us, we would have never imagined we could wear something that would expose our midriffs and now that is all we wear! Because bellydancers are never too old, too fat, too ugly, too anything that we are too much of in the ‘real’ world.

Perhaps I am idealizing it, because I am still fairly new at it, but does it matter? I love it, because I love the way it has made me feel, and that’s all that matters really, isn’t it?


20 thoughts on “Belly Dance

  1. I am also a belly dancer. I have struggled with my weight since the birth of both of my children. Belly dancing has given me back the strong self-esteem and self confidence that I had when I had a figure. It has become a wonderful form of excercise and it has given me the most beautiful group of diverse friends that anyone could be blessed with. Through belly dance I have watched my friends and myself express joy, pain, love, and peace in ways that words could never explain. Thank you for your elegant words to describe such a beautiful equalizer.


  2. Whew! The blogs you write about body image hit me like a ton of bricks. I feel ALL the things you do. I have seen belly dancing but it made me feel bad because the women are SO beautiful and sexy and I never thought I could be like that. After reading your message I think I may have to reconsider. Thank you for sharing and being so honest about everything. It makes me feel better to hear you say, ‘I’m not perfect but I love myself and damn. . . I’m sexy and beautiful’. You Rock!
    p.s. Your new show on VH1 (The Cho Show) is awesome. I loved it. πŸ™‚

  3. I know this reply is a bit late, but I came across your blog during an internet search on belly dancing. I am new to the art form and was feeling apprehensive about my age. I am thirty-two, soon to be thirty-three, and I felt that I may be too old. I spent most of my twenties raising my daughter and ignoring myself and I packed on the pounds. Now I fell into belly dance and I love it so much!!! I want to learn so much, but unfortunately do not have the money to train with a teacher, so I learn what I can from tapes I buy off of ebay. I realize that dancing can be done anywhere with your heart right open, and that means even in my little livingroom. Thank you so much for what you have written, it has inspired me to keep going even as the age of time creeps up behind me.
    Thank you!

  4. “I love it, because I love the way it has made me feel, and that’s all that matters really, isn’t it?” Yes. Yes it is. And if you’re fortunate, you’ll still feel that way after several years. I do! πŸ˜€

  5. I started belly dancing because I assumed I was too old to go back into ballet, and I knew I was too short and too round to every be taken seriously as a dancer in a school or company. I was writing myself, and my love of dance, off at 28! But belly dancing welcomed me. It is harder and more technical than I realized at first, but as each muscle becomes more familiar and the moves become less clumsy, I’m starting to feel graceful and beautiful again. And I love it! I shimmy while brushing my teeth. I dance down the aisles at work. There’s this love and acceptance and joy in it! And you’re right about using exercise as a punishment because all the ballet training was precisely that: I was trying to fit a form that was never meant for me, trying to earn the food I’d eaten or shrink the waist and legs I was born with. But in belly dancing (and in the basic yoga that’s come with it), there’s a lot more pleasure and progress. I do it for fun and then I notice how it’s getting easier.

    I’m glad I’m not the only one! Here’s to the journey!

  6. Nicely worded. Easy to relate to on many levels. Been dancing for three years. I’m still caught between “western” stomach (flat, muscled) & “eastern” stomach (not so constrained by society). Good to know this is helping another person.

  7. This brought tears to my eyes the first time I read it. You have no idea how much this resonates with me. I’ve had so many surgeries on my stomach that its left me with scarring and oddly shaped muscle tissue. It’ll never be flat and perfect like you see on TV, and I was made fun of for that. It wasn’t until I joined my troupe now that I began to see the beauty my unique body has. AMEN and thank goodness for belly dancing.

    Also I read this aloud to my class during practice and all around the room you could see the girls taking it in and start to tear up. Such inspirational words! Thank you for finding a way to write down what so many women feel!

  8. I realize that this is a rather old blog. But I still felt the need to respond. This post really touched me. Bellydance has been one of the few things that helped me to preserve any ounce of self esteem and self confidence I have after being in an emotionally abusive relationship. When I was a size 8/10 at 5’8″ my exboyfriend would tell me that he thought I was overweight and needed to trim down. It was ridiculous. It is also ridiculous that I stuck around for a little over 4 years.

    Bellydance was the thing that saved me and still saves me to this day. It’s been 6 years and I love bellydance as much as ever!

  9. I am visually impaired and have struggled all of my life with my weight. Somehow, in just one entry, you have expressed EXACTLY why I have come to love and value bellydance so much over the last few years.

    Because of my size and my disability, I have always felt incapable, unwanted, inept, and hated myself because of my vision, my body, and how others seemed to see me because of both of these conditions. I always wanted but never felt I was worthy of the things you mention above, thanks to a lifetime of putdowns that came from others, as well as myself- eventually. I still struggle with confidence & self-esteem issues (especially when considering performing onstage- both as a dancer as well as a burgeoning singer), but you illustrate beautifully why bellydance and the culture surrounding it has such gravity, beauty & power for women, and why it’s been such a joy in my life too.

    I’ve just begun taking classes in the past year or so, but aside from the mention of ceasing to dance (I dance anyway and say to hell w/what people think-at least on the dancefloor-, because that’s the ONE place where I can be free, anonymous, and get lost in my own world-outside of being in the water), you have -absolutely- told my story too- from the core of where I’ve been, as well as where I hope to be going. πŸ™‚ Thank you so very, very much for being so brave, so proud, so eloquent, and so persistent. And for speaking so freely of your own journey, because.. either purposefully or inadvertently, you have just spoken the hearts of many, many others, very possibly all around the world. πŸ™‚

    Much Love, Praise and Gratitude,
    Renae M.

  10. I am not a belly dancer, but my beautiful partner is. In fact, we were at a hafla just last night at the studio where she takes classes. These are some of the most eloquent words I have ever read on the inherent beauty of women and the way that beauty is expressed in belly dance. Every time I go to a belly dance event, I am struck again by the beauty of the dancers, regardless of how they fit – or don’t fit – into the “Hollywood ideal” of beauty. It never fails to make my heart swell to see the joy on their faces as they dance, secure in the knowledge that they are, truly, beautiful.

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