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.