The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: USDC 2015

2015 United States DanceSport Championships, hosted by Wayne Eng & Martin Chang. Instant Downloads and prints can be found at www.DanceSportPhotography.com

2015 United States DanceSport Championships, hosted by Wayne Eng & Martin Chang.
Instant Downloads and prints can be found at http://www.DanceSportPhotography.com

The Comeback Kid. She enjoys a triumph against all odds to win and win big. Winning medium, this time, would be OK, too. That was the plan. Aim high, right? Shoot for the moon and hit the stars, etc. That was not to be the outcome for me at the U.S. Dance Championships in Orlando in early September. And, therein lies the lesson. All sorts of lessons, actually. The road to USDC 2015 was paved with good intentions, hard work, excellent instruction and unanticipated obstruction. The kind of roadblocks that only mustache-twirling villains can devise in their super-secret lairs high on a … no, well, more likely just in a dingy little room somewhere that a troll can feel at ease, chuckling and imagining my bitter tears.

THE GOOD: My very experienced, talented instructor, Ian, is creative, disciplined and fun to work with, even under stress and through injury. He is also the perfect height and wingspan to partner me on the ballroom floor, which ain’t easy to find. My own work ethic cranks along quite nicely. I enjoy practicing dance and cross-training. My competition dresses show well, which is an important part of the overall picture in judging. There’s very little time to be seen per dance, in a crowd. You must catch the judges’ eyes and then deliver with beautiful movement and precise technique.

THE BAD: Oy, half floors in competition! If you do not get whacked or crashed into at least once with a half floor in American Smooth or International Standard, it will be a miracle. Does anybody like half floors? Anybody? My choreography was designed for full floors. My Smooth choreography was quite new to me. I’d only put it on the comp floor in August at the Capital Dancesport Championships. The full-floor version was pretty locked into muscle memory by early September at USDC. The week before, we saw the just-released heat sheets and found we’d be dancing mostly on half-floors for Smooth and only on half floors for Standard. How about learning new choreography for Standard in two hours. (Not exactly my strong suit — yet.)

At USDC, I had some focus issues in early rounds of Smooth but settled in for some decent placements. Not happy-making but not terribly upsetting either. I came to put my game out there and see what the others danced like, not having competed in Smooth for two years. Smooth has changed a LOT in that time, getting much more expressive and “Broadway” even at Silver level in pro-am.

I felt much more solid and confident in my Standard, even though 2015 has been my first year dancing Gold level, beginning competitions in June. The field was a little weird at USDC. There weren’t all that many dancers entered in Gold Standard in my age group. Open Gold, by contrast, had a glut of dancers. I walked onto the floor confident and ready to go. Zero nerves. I had only individual heats, as there were neither Championships nor Scholarships for Gold, only for Open Gold. But something happened. Something at a cellular level. My legs felt like lead from the first dance. I could not slow down my feet to keep time well. The muscles in my feet would not respond.

For the next five weeks, my legs got weaker and even showed basic coordination issues. My hands and feet burned. My blood pressure shot up and I could get winded after minimal movement. Series of medical tests ruled out the heinous stuff that makes legs stop working but tests never really provided resolution. “Virus,” was the official, shoulder-shrugging answer. “It’s what we say when we don’t know what caused it or how long it will last or what will make it eventually– who knows when– go away.” A bizarre germ got between me and my dream. Bad. Could have been worse but bad nonetheless.

THE UGLY:

Saboteur. Saboteurs? I’ll use the singular to keep things simple and the gender feminine so as not to have to he/she my way through these paragraphs. I may never know who tried to have me thrown out of pro-am ballroom in August, two weeks before Capital and three weeks before USDC. It’s an anonymous process. If someone lies to the governing board of the National Dance Council of America, that someone never has to answer to the council or to the accused. If someone goes out of her way to harm you, she has only her conscience to deal with later. Assuming she has one.

An email from NDCA arrived completely out of the blue, like a car wreck with no warning. BAM! Basically, it said: According to someone who has reported details of your activities, you’ve taught ballroom, therefore you cannot be an amateur. You will not compete as an amateur and “will be removed from the ballroom” if you attempt to do so. Bodily force? In hindsight, I can admire this as a kind of badassery seldom promised, much less seen in the world of rhinestones and spray tans.

First, the NDCA rules do change with a fair amount of frequency and my understanding of the rules — which I reviewed with my employer– was that as long as I did not compete as a pro, I maintained my amateur status. For seven months of one year, I taught group classes and individual lessons to beginners, social dancers and wedding couples. My own time to practice and especially to cross-train took a nose-dive. During this, I was not competing at all. I stopped working on a studio staff because the extremely long commute was not conducive to family life, which was going through a demanding period anyway. Back in my home city, I taught ballroom to a grand total of five absolute beginners in group class. Wanting to bring my own dance game back up to speed, I started training to compete again, as the “am” in pro-am. I mentioned my occasional teaching of beginners to multiple pros and none of them indicated this was a problem for my status. Turns out the rules had changed. I didn’t know. But someone watching me in competition made it her business to find out, to explore the rules, to gather “evidence.” And someone — let’s call her Dance Troll or D.T. for short– wanted to harm me. That was mind-blowing! I had never consciously harmed or even been rude to anyone in the Wonderful World of Ballroom. D.T. clearly held something against me personally to go to all this trouble, to care at all! Who am I in the big scheme of the approximately 3000 women competing as amateurs in pro-am? I’m nobody, actually. My comeback is, for now, only in my mind. I have many, many steps to dance before I arrive at my desired destination. What do I desire? To be UNDENIABLE.

I had to explain my side to the NDCA in an appeals process that had no deadlines built in. Fortunately, the process was helmed by someone who seemed to understand a speedy answer would be both efficient and kind. I had already pre-paid all the entry fees and travel expenses for Capital and USDC — expenses that probably would not be reimbursed if I was not allowed to compete as initially threatened. Two days before I was to dance at Capital, the council accepted my appeal, ruling it an honest mistake on my part. It was a fantastic relief to be able to dance! It was also hard to get back on track, as the head game had messed with my focus pretty severely and made me feel vulnerable to sneak attack, a very unfamiliar and unsettling feeling that wouldn’t just go away. My new understanding of the rules also meant I would have to push back by several years my plan to open a combination ballroom and yoga studio in my home city. My very livelihood was re-arranged. All cards thrown in the air and to the winds. To continue developing as a dancer, I could not dance and teach. An ugly-spirited troll made sure of that. Did I shake this off by the time I arrived in Orlando? Not completely, no. So, as a mindf**k, the attack by D.T. had some success. Maybe it was even part of my immune system going into a tailspin. My legs are now back to about 90% power and getting stronger daily, thank goodness.

The darkest hour is just before the dawn! I have learned so much about myself, the dance world and human nature from this process of re-entering competition. My comeback from relative obscurity through obscurity toward ultimate success will continue. The show must and will go on!

2015 United States DanceSport Championships, hosted by Wayne Eng & Martin Chang. Instant Downloads and prints can be found at www.DanceSportPhotography.com

2015 United States DanceSport Championships, hosted by Wayne Eng & Martin Chang.
Instant Downloads and prints can be found at http://www.DanceSportPhotography.com

Brekkie of Champions

The Ballroom Fairy alighted Chez Moi this morning. Smacked me in the noggin with her glittery wand, sprinkling magic dust all over. Commanded, “Amnesia begone! Fitness begins in the kitchen. Remember!” Another smack, for good measure: “Heal!”

Fortunately for me, I actually like Brussels sprouts and all the Green Besties, morn to midnight.

This sparkling alert does not represent the dreaded “D” word. That term that begins with “die.” Rather, it begins with “eat.” As in Eating Plan. Focusing on what you cannot have, on deprivation, really works against human nature. What works? Tasting the rainbow! (Skittles do not count.) Summertime is the best time to take full advantage of a super abundance of colorful, fresh fruits and vegetables. Focus on the abundant variety in Nature that even the most informed eaters can ignore in the hurly-burly of daily life.

Yes, I have recently experienced partial amnesia, as charged by Ballroom Fairy. While enjoying lots of fresh food, I’ve also seen months of overindulgence in, oh, wine and cupcakes and bread. A tummy can hold only so much; less room remained for spinach and kale and other Green Besties. I spent too many evenings in the close embrace of my comfort carbs. Excuses? Got ’em. Reasons? Not so much. Vanity-wise, my waistline and my dance costumes are not thanking me for this distance from the Rainbow Connection. Healthwise, via overindulgence, I’m taxing my pancreas and liver, missing out on the micronutrients that power up immune system and energy, and losing metabolically-active muscle mass because of insufficient protein.

My specific Eating Plan resembles a modified Bodybuilder’s Shredding Regime. It’s perhaps more regimented than the average person seeking better health would follow, but I’m working toward dance goals that demand optimal health and performance. So, for me, it’s four small meals, each containing about 4 ounces of lean protein and an abundance of green veg and a modest amount of complex carbs such as a quarter-cup of brown rice or quinoa. Plus two protein-rich snacks a day, such as raw almonds or Greek yogurt or a protein supplement drink. Where I diverge from the way bodybuilders in shred mode eat is in the inclusion of some fresh fruits. The goal is boosting the immune system, powering up energy and re-building lost muscle. The route is fraught with Pure Pleasure, not suffering. This food tastes sooooooo good and is filling as well.

That’s the Eating part. Don’t forget the Plan.  It’s just like the old trope: If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail. It’s true that the Ballroom Fairy only delivers wisdom and glitter. Not prepared meals. That, you have to gift yourself. It takes time, true. And, it can feel daunting, if you’ve fallen out of the habit of shopping the perimeter of the grocery store where clean food hangs out and back home your pots and pans are dusty with disuse. Any good habit takes a bit of determination to build or re-build. I’m more than ready. Join me! At the very least, make friends with the Farmers’ Market while it’s in full swing and take steps to escape the death grip of processed foods and sweet drinks, sugary or diet versions. Your body will thank you. Mine says, “As long as you don’t take away my black coffee, we’re good.” Deal!

Yum! Muscle growing, energy building.

Yum! Muscle growing; energy building.

Follow the Leader

Being in charge of one’s destiny is an intoxicating feeling. Which way shall you go? Which way shall you take? Will the team, the partner, the family, the club– whoever is caught in the wake of your energy and authority– feel your certainty, giving them the confidence to follow your lead?

Doors to the Executive Suite opened or were smashed open for women not all that long ago. The phrase “stay-at-home mom” was coined pretty recently… ’cause for eons that was ridiculously redundant. What else could a mom choose to do? Ah, choice. Once tasted, never forgotten. That’s probably why the second most common self-disqualification I hear from people about learning ballroom dance comes from some beautiful, strong, competent women: “I cannot follow a man.” These women are leaders in the rest of their passionate lives, earth movers, world shakers. Once you hand over the reins, after all, who would ever willingly give them back? And, there’s the danger of precedent, perhaps. He gets control here; he might assume control there, too. Why rock a relationship boat that seems to be moving along pretty well on its current course by introducing a different way of relating?

Some modern males also feel conflict about “pushing the woman around.” On the dance floor, however, it’s not a simple decision about Who’s The Boss. And, just so you know, my neophyte darlings, there is no pushing in partner dancing. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. It takes many forms. More about that later.

At first glance, especially without the window of personal experience, lead-follow roles in ballroom appear to be very traditionally male-female. Some folks like that. Good for them. It ain’t necessarily so for the majority of dancers. I recently read a blog by a male dance teacher who basically said, yeah, most people like the look of a dominant, alpha male in control of his elegant, receptive woman. Uh, I must reply: Not my circus; not my adjectives. His prescription for people who do not appreciate that concept of dominance and receptivity? Relax and enjoy it. Ahem… I did not gag but I did squint really, really hard at his portrayal. As a ballroom instructor and competitive dancer, I know we can do better than that! (Unless you want your dance partnership to resemble “50 Shades of Grey.” Your call, of course.)

I find it helps to pull back a bit from political, sociological interpretations of partner dancing and consider practicalities. Some are historical, some seem eternal. Checking results is critical. How does it work? How does it make you feel? How does it translate into partnerships off the dance floor?

*Height and clothing: The average male is about three inches taller than the average female. He can see over her if she’s moving backwards. Not as easy for her to see over him. When the earliest ballroom dances were invented, women had voluminous skirts and underskirts to maneuver. The men could move much more freely in trousers. Women today might be also in trousers but if they’re wearing spindly heels, their mobility might not be quite as quick and grounded as a man in his flat shoes with their wide heels.

*Driver’s seat: Someone has to lead! You cannot pile into the car and refuse to take the wheel or, worse, both grab for it and pull in the direction you think the vehicle should proceed. To stick with the metaphor just a moment longer: The driver directs the car; the driver is not the car’s boss or god. Driver turns ignition and engine does not turn over? You go Nowhere. OK, out of the vehicle and onto the dance floor. When a man initiates a lead to a pattern, if the woman does not respond quickly and appropriately, the couple goes nowhere. Or, they get a serious bobble that may end with smashed toes, belly collisions, bruised egos, blooming embarrassment and hiccoughs of irritation. The good-natured may also opt to laugh but few could bear a dance that was all mistakes and miscommunications. This is not dancing. It is suffering.

A very experienced leader may compensate or smoothly move through a follower’s misunderstanding or poor timing, but he does not push her through patterns. He assists her movement with his own timing and balance. No stomping the accelerator, jerking the wheel or grinding the gears.

*Passenger seat: There are NO daydreaming or snoozing passengers in partner dancing. Even if you’re not leading, you are not passive. The follower must know how to move her own weight, support her own arms, keep her own balance, hold her own posture, find the music’s timing and remember at least basic patterns. No one else is in charge of these essentials. Without them, there can be no dance partnership. Indeed, there can be precious little movement. Because there is often a 10-1 ratio of women to men at social dances, courteous men dance with a wide variety of women, with a wide variety of skills and lack thereof. A follower’s lack of strength and balance literally weighs heavily on the leader. If he supports her through these weaknesses, it can take a serious toll on his shoulder joints and his back muscles. It’s better to have some upper body muscle bulk if you’re going to lead.

*Illusion of control: Women at social dances may also find themselves in the arms of an inexperienced or low-skill leader. They are more likely to suffer injury here and the most experienced women will try to adjust the situation by “back-leading.” Subtly or not-so subtly, a follower can adjust her movement in ways that move or redirect or stop the official leader. The trick is that the habit of back-leading can be hard to turn off. Then the follower loses the pleasure of responding to a good lead and the freedom of expression it gives her.

*Leaders follow, too: Does a CEO only tell others what to do and never listen to anybody else? Not many effective, successful ones. When dancers start doing more intermediate moves, the leader can be the one moving backwards. Not seeing where you are going means you must trust your partner who is moving forward. More than once, I have used my weight and altered pressure in my hands to signal my backwards-moving leader that he would run into someone if he kept moving. Partnership, right? Also, in rotary motions, the leader can be “inside of turn,” meaning the follower has to power around him.

*Frame, meet picture: It’s a classic metaphor in ballroom. The man is the frame and the woman is the picture. Many of his movements are intended to show off the woman’s grace and flexibility. In this way, although the leader initiates patterns and changes of direction, he is in a supporting role. When was the last time you offered your boss a Best Supporting award?

*SOMEONE has to do it: Now that marriage equality is the law of the land (thanks, SCOTUS!), I fully expect to see more same-sex couples signing up to develop a special dance for their weddings. Somebody has to lead. Somebody has to follow. Not a gendered assignment in this case. Is it always the taller one who leads? Not necessarily. Opposite-sex and same-sex couples sometimes have a shorter leader. (The taller follower usually adapts by having more flex in the knees so that the hold is comfortable and the leader can see over the follower’s shoulder.)

In a same-sex couple, who leads can be a case of aptitude and attitude. The leader needs to be able to deliver a wide variety of signals to the follower. And, on the social floor and in competition, the leader needs to navigate the couple through a crowd, also known as floor craft. While a quite good follower can learn several dances and develop in a matter of a few months, it can and often does take much longer, even years, for a leader to attain excellence in the role. Which partner chooses to be dedicated to that long process? Which partner has some natural ability that way? The joy of moving as one, in sync with beautiful music, is so alluring. Playing nice and being a team, with a captain, makes it all possible. A division of labor is as practical on the dance floor as it is in the home or office. No one can do everything. Should anyone feel compelled to do everything?

*R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Lack of respect, on either side, severely limits a partnership. As you dance more and more, you feel with your body any lack of respect. Not as an abstract concept. Not as a philosophical or political system of beliefs. Whether leading or following, you feel it in the approach, the eye contact, the weight and pressure of the hands, the rate of breathing, the suppleness of response, the clarity and consistency of direction.

High touch: In these uber-high-tech days, the high-touch process of partner dancing is an anomaly. You cannot text, “Change step. Plz go!” You cannot email about the value of following well or the difficulty of leading well. Yes, you can read a blog post about it, but that’s just a thought provoker. Reading may open the mind to different ways of looking at things, but dance is movement, touch, connection. If you both know your patterns, you can get around the floor with almost anyone. You don’t have to wait for an alert for a tweet from a partner whose very breath conveys “I am so much better than you, I don’t know why I even bother.” You feel it. And, you should walk away. You do not have to wait for an Instagram of your smiling faces with #joy to know that things are working very well indeed. If you desire to taste the joys of partnership, it takes two. Two equals with differing roles and responsibilities, sometimes trading off leadership, each expressing their emotional truth, living completely in the moment. On or off the dance floor. Ballroom can take you there.

The Work

Who signs up for her first ballroom competition for close to 22 months while in the process of moving house across town? Umm, self-moving except for the heaviest items… This kwazy girl! I hadn’t expected my house to sell so quickly or to find a new place so rapidly. But, life is what happens while you’re making other plans, right? Most dance and fitness training– except my teaching duties and some dance lessons–  fell off the map as daily I sherpa’d cardboard boxes up and down stairs and from room to room. Meals weren’t. Just hodgepodges of items acquired quickly and scarfed down with little attention paid. Wine soothed the exhausted beast of burden I had become. When they say moving house is one of the most stressful and demanding life events one has to endure — up there with divorce and uh death– they ain’t kidding! Somewhere, underneath the grind, clarity glimmered. Yes, the last blog post I completed was about the concept of persistence: fall down seven times, get up eight. It had to become “fall down eight times, get up nine.” Fortunately, I forgive me.

I forgive myself so well, I bought a super-duper juicer and new running shoes. My competition is on June 13. Gold International Standard and, baby, I need to become besties with the choreography real quick. And, ready, set, go!

Today:

Ballroom: 1 hour. Rumba warm-up. Slow Foxtrot and Quickstep review.

Weight-training: 1 hour. Shoulders and arms.

Getting juiced up for competition!

Getting juiced up for competition!

Image 1

 

The Work: Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight

In the spirit of Present Moment Living, I promise not to spend too long moaning, “Holy crap, what happened to my fitness and dance life?” In the past are the months in which I did not do much of anything or performed this-n-that in disorganized spurts. There is only Now… and the gleam of the Future. I can’t seem to stick tightly enough to the N-O-W  to avoid setting goals that brightly feature WHEN and THEN. As I described my personality in a Facebook status, I’m not a person who can swim about in the middle of the ocean just for fun. There has to be an island I’m heading toward — one with stickers and shiny medals. And, bare-chested men in Latin pants! Not having a dance competition on the horizon makes me feel aimless, not freed. Not having a race set up and a running calendar established means runs become fewer and farther between, ’til I am seriously into endorphin deficit. And, my clothes don’t exactly fit, mostly around my middle-aged middle. Vanity rears its head, for sure, but so does Budget, which opines that we sure can’t afford to replace all that stuff so better get moving ’til it does fit! Including those overpriced and exquisite competition gowns that have been hanging in my closet for over 18 months.

Back to work! Happy work! The kind of work that makes me feel most like myself.

Thursday, March 19:

Belly dance, 3 hours. Yep, three. Over two and a half hours of practicing to present a 20-minute mini-class at a Women’s Night Out at a Jewish community center. The roar of over a hundred chit-chatting women drowned out my voice, even with a mic. Ended up teaching the small but enthusiastic group that came onto the dance floor mostly via mime.

Prepping to teach a mini-class in belly dance fitness. This is to belly dance what rumba is to Latin dance. Pulls out discrete elements to build fitness, rather than teaching a strict form of dance as performance art.

Prepping to teach a mini-class in belly dance fitness. This is to belly dance what Zumba  is to Latin dance. Pulls out discrete elements to build fitness, rather than teaching a strict form of dance as art.

Friday, March 20:

Latin dance: 30 minutes. Reviewing the student-teacher syllabus for International Rumba & Cha Cha Cha with an ISTD DVD. It features an elderly Miriam Ellis reading from the syllabus in her chair, interspersed with blurry footage of two dancers. The twinkle in Miriam’s voice indicates she has been around more than a few men in Latin pants and it did her a lifetime worth of good!

Running: 20 minutes. High-intensity intervals on the treadmill. In eight interval sets, covered 1.85 miles. The pace averaged one minute of walking at a 15:25 pace + 30 seconds of jogging at a 10:32 pace + 1 minute of running at an 8:20 pace.

Belly dance: 20 minutes.

Saturday, March 21:

Belly dance: 1 hour. Upper body isolations.

Weight-training: 1 hour, 15 minutes. Legs & back + Ab Ripper. My old friend P90X to jumpstart things. Yes, I’m a trainer and can well make up my own workout, but this feels like I have my own charming, somewhat cheesy but very built coach urging me on. Just until the habit is nailed back down, anyway.

Sunday, March 22:

Weight-training: 1 hour. Shoulders & Arms. Still hanging with Tony Horton. I owe him some loyalty for how sore my legs are from yesterday’s workout. Gosh, I had almost forgotten what it felt like to have something sore Every Day. Feels like home!

Yoga: 30 minutes.

Belly dance: 30 minutes. Upper body isolations.

Tomorrow:

Back to practicing competition routines in the studio and to using a firm calendar of run training.

Partner Required. Inquire Within.

“Do you wanna dance?” cooed a young Bette Midler in her breathiest, most innuendo laden tone, building to an explosive vocal climax. My first International Rumba, pro-am showcase, cheekily attempted at the Ohio Star Ball, before I possessed more than a sketchy idea of what a “hip settle” was, displayed more attitude than technique. Gratifyingly, it made a male judge’s eyes pop. The judging panel’s marks, however, did not reflect that moment of pleasure. The two-minute performance also featured my partner, a pro, dropping me as I did a leaning, standing split that abruptly became a split on the floor. Concerned viewers believed my left ankle broke then, but thanks to loose ligaments, it just rolled over. You could say the routine was a tease with neither the skill nor sufficient support to follow through. Early in my development as an amateur ballroom dancer, I didn’t know what I didn’t know!

Two skilled teachers and innumerable coaches and 5 years later, I’m closer to “I know some stuff. What I don’t know doesn’t scare me.” Improvement is a never-ending journey. Desire to grow and the ability to relax and breathe into expression count as much or quite possibly more than drive. Hours on the dance floor and in cross training count when you are fully present. Body, heart and mind united. If stuck in yesterday or fantasizing about tomorrow, you will spin your wheels. A dancer can assimilate a great deal through observation and mimicry, but what distinguishes one dancer from another is originality — even if it’s only the brilliantly timed quirk of an eyebrow or flick of a wrist. The syllabus represents the shore: safety, security, a known and revered quantity. You ignore or forget it at your peril. Yet, you must push out from it and broach unknown waters to be your own dancer. And, when it’s ballroom we’re talking about, you need a partner with similar ideas about the journey. Sink or swim, you are one.

My most technical and expressive dancing now is with a very accomplished teacher, Ian, twice a week, in 45-minute sessions. My practice partner is Mr. Invisible– you cannot see him in my frame although I glide around the floor accommodating his space, lengthening to his imagined stride, counterbalancing his imagined weight. Frankly, my dear, it ain’t enough. Sorry, Viz, it’s not you; it’s me. To continue to grow in ballroom, I require a practice and competition partner’s corporeal presence several days of the week. Putting it out there to the blogosphere, the Universe, the Laws of Attraction, the Fields of Dreams.

Do you wanna dance?

First showcase dance in 2009, an International Rumba to Bette Midler's "Do You Wanna Dance?" Though semi-disastrous for a multitude of reasons, it did not stop my ballroom addiction from blossoming.

First showcase dance in November 2009, an International Rumba to Bette Midler’s “Do You Wanna Dance?”
Though semi-disastrous for a multitude of reasons, it did not derail my passion for ballroom.

Shake, Shake, Shake!

In belly dance class, we wear simple tanks and t-shirts. With my love of costumes, naturally my closet is already stocked with a beaded and bedazzled belly dance bra.

In belly dance class, we wear simple tanks and t-shirts. With my love of costumes, naturally I’ve already stocked my closet with a beaded and bedazzled belly dance bra.

Tattoos of six-shooters adorned her hip bones. A permanent scarab appeared tempted to nibble her sternum. Green gauges elongated what were once delicate earlobes framed by Crayola-red hair. Artist at a gallery opening? Hostess of a house party in Brooklyn? Guess again. That lovely, tribal, ironic woman was teaching my first belly dance class. And, it took place in Richmond, VA, a town that has two rivers flowing through it: The Mighty James and An Entrenched Conservatism (Southern variation). While I myself am not conservative, my chosen dance style, International Standard, bespeaks a certain elegance and grew out of oh-so-proper Great Britain. Why was I doing pelvic pulses and chest pops and figure-8 sit-ups on a Monday night when I could have been home reviewing my Blackpool Festival DVDs, worshiping at the altar of platinum Katusha?

My colorful new teacher, Khalima, posed the same question, albeit in general form: Tell us, why are you here? Short answer: “I want to expand my dance repertoire, especially since partners have been so hard to come by in ballroom.” That verges on negative, for a glass-half-full gal like moi. It’s equally true that costumes are my weakness. Moth, meet flame. And, the art of belly dance has been tugging at the edges of my consciousness for a few years. I’m drawn to the beauty, the femininity, the freedom of expression within the awesome control needed to develop such an array of muscle isolations. It’s sexy stuff! Not because it’s exhibitionistic but because it’s expressive.

Belly dance began in folk dances of the Middle East and North Africa. It was danced within a same-sex, all ages group. Girls would learn from and dance with their mothers, aunts, sisters, grandmothers. In some regions, men held their own social dances as well. Depending on how conservative their society was, men and women might never dance together. It arrived on a large scale in the West in the late 1800s and fascinated people who espied mystery, romance and otherworldliness in what they called the Orient. Western interpretations incorporated the essential motions of belly dance — undulations, shimmies and percussive movements. In some places, it was banned. Too sexy for your bustle. In our comparatively wildly liberal times, belly dance still has some mists of controversy around it. “Cultural appropriation” cry those who believe dance forms reside within ethnic boundaries that should never be crossed. To them, I offer a virtual hug and an invitation to the dance floor. They are strung way too tight.

My first hour of belly dance instruction flew by. What… over? Already?  Premier positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow” to describe complete immersion in an activity with no awareness of the clock. Mihaly elaborated in an interview, “The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” Welcome to happiness!

Playing in this zone can only enhance my ballroom training. Physically, dance posture is dance posture is dance posture. Movements and steps may vary. The music may differ. But, heart, body and mind unite and harmonize the same way across all dance forms.

Connecting body and mind is coming into vogue more at gyms with the inclusion of yoga classes. The inclusion of dance or dance-oriented classes helps make the gym experience more holistic, bringing the heart and personal expression into the picture. At the gym where I work, I will be teaching a cardio fitness class based on Cabaret style of belly dance starting March 17. I certified to teach this before I’d taken a belly dance class — in the same way fitness instructors certify to teach Zumba without having learned salsa or cha cha or other Latin dances. In the fitness environment, we can break out sections of movement and pieces of patterns to make the activity more approachable by a wider variety of participants. Me, I could not resist the allure of the full experience of belly dance. And, I’m thinking that once my fitness students have had a little taste of it, they too will want more, more, more.