The wind gently nudged us toward the Persian restaurant in Clarendon. The sky threatened to pour down on us at any moment, yet we bounced along the sidewalk gleefully with traces of sadness.
Midweek had become my new favorite day of the week. It had suddenly transformed from being the worst day of the week to one that looked forward to. Early January a friend suggested via text that our next adventure has to be belly dance classes. This was one week after I had just signed up for Lap Swim classes on Thursdays and was feeling overwhelmed by having something to do more than once a week on a weeknight–yes, I’m a teacher in her 30s. I originally said no and thought I was being good by setting some boundaries and taking care of myself. Until another friend called who was toying with the same idea. The thought of the three of us in class together made it a little less daunting. Each of us said, “I’ll do it, if you do”. We signed up and confirmed with each other on a Sunday night. I purchased a couple of hip scarfs to get me started and anxiously waited to see if the snow storm would cancel our first class.
Shimmy. The first movement we learned was a hip shimmy. Our teacher, Saphira, was kind, funny, and motivated us to learn this new dance form. We giggled awkwardly at some of the movement and got laser focused at others to pick up the choreography. From the first time I shimmied, I was completely lost–reminded of that very first hip-hop class I took in 1999 at Joy of Motion. My hips moved and I inhaled ready, excited, free. A respected friend once asked me why do you do Ballet, when your body is made for African, Indian, and Hip-Hop movement? To which I responded with: it’s the one place where I don’t try to be perfect. Having had a harsh history as a hip-hop dancer, going back meant that I had expectations. Fear kept me away for so many years. Fear of not being good enough. Fear that the old tapes in my head would return–the ones that made me feel like I wasn’t a talented dancer. Little did I know that this winter, I would find my dancer legs or rather hips again.
Undulation. Weighted hip circles–shifting your weight to isolate your hips in a circle. While this movement didn’t come so easily, I danced and moved smiling. It is hard to describe the feeling of knowing that you belong to something without ever understanding it completely. With each move from learning each shimmy to umi and choreography, I felt more and more like I was born to do this. Like my body was and will always be a dancer’s body. Not one that may always look like a dancer’s body, but one that will always move like one. This truth is one that I thought I knew, but it wasn’t until this past 8 weeks that I genuinely felt it.
Figure 8. When I was 19 and taking hip-hop classes, I would watch the belly dance classes before class and wonder if my hips had that ability. Well they do, it turns out. Learning to move my hips in a figure 8 pattern was hard and new and different and thrilling. I now do the figure 8 while cooking. It allows me the feeling of pure, unconditionally joy.
When I was 19, I didn’t know that I born to do it. I depended on others to judge my abilities. I depended on my comparisons to other dancers. She can do that, I can’t do that; therefore, I’m not a beautiful dancer. These old tapes that run in my head can still pop up and begin to play, if I let them. What I have learned this year, especially thanks to this 8 week course, is I am born to be a dancer. No one else can claim it, except me. I don’t have to have the body of the perfect dancer. Hell, I don’t even have remember the choreography perfectly every time. To dance, I show up, smile, and perform for myself. It’s about the joy of feeling the movement like it is breathing, like there’s nothing else that matters and you are the only one in the room.
Finally: show your belly and watch it jiggle. At our 5th class, I took a risk and pulled my shirt up high enough to show my non-six-pack belly. As I danced, I watched my belly move and began to love the way it moved. For the first time since I was 12 years old, I didn’t care that my abs weren’t formed into a crisp six-pack. Watching my instructors move their bellies in such artistic ways, I couldn’t help but release my old western beliefs about that six pack. I thought of all those old Bollywood films in which the women didn’t have six packs yet were sultry and beautiful. I watched my skin and dare I say fat move to the beat of my hips and let go. This would have been enough, but the exclamation to this moment was B turning to me and saying way to go! When a girlfriend stands behind a decision you’ve made, it can easily make you feel invincible.
So on Wednesday night when the three of us G, B, and I sat down for our last dinner after class with just the three of us, I mourned the end of Winter and the end of that journey that brought me here. I joked that we were graduating and that it was an important day. We laughed, ate our favorite Persian dishes of kubideh, chicken kabob, and shish-kabob and talked like friends who’ve known each other for decades upon decades. Each of us in a completely different, new, and better place than whence we gathered 8 weeks ago. It feels random that Belly Dance brought my body back to feel so complete, but the truth it is the girls who talked me into dancing again that brought me back. I knew I could be exactly myself and I wouldn’t be judged. I knew I could look in the mirror while attempting the Umi for the first time and giggle with G or B. It was safe and filled with unconditional love. The two ingredients that allow me the freedom to be the dancer that I was born to be.