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?