Did you know that there are 18 different directions that you can move your hips? That is the first thing I learned when, at age 40, I decided to get crazy and take a belly dance class along with my friend, Jen. But it wasn’t the most important thing I learned! Belly dance class led me on a journey to discover beauty in different forms I never would have known.
The classes were casual and enjoyable. Most of the women in the class were around my age and our teacher, known as Alizah, was one of the most patient, kind and truly good people I have ever had the good fortune to know. I’ve never been the most coordinated person but through her patience, I slowly learned the basic skills to move my body in ways that are very foreign to Americans.
Belly dance is very much about isolating muscles. It’s great to learn awareness of posture and where your muscles are—and how to use those muscles independently. I learned how to stand straight rather than to hunch over, which I’ve done most of my life. I learned how to move my hips without moving my upper body and how to move my upper body without moving my lower…easier said than done! Although I’m out of practice now, I can still isolate my stomach muscles to roll my belly. I never did get good enough to be considered a real dancer but that belly dance class changed my life for the better!
They say that music is a universal language. As I became familiar with and eventually learned to love the unusual sounds and rhythms of Middle Eastern music, I also started to have an appreciation of the culture and the people. Belly dance was not initially a club performance. It was a dance that women did in their own company, some of the movements a preparation for childbirth. There are vast differences between Turkish, Arabic and Egyptian styles of music and the dance itself is very different in each.
Another thing I learned is that the most beautiful dancers are not necessarily the skinny gals…they’re the real women with a couple of extra pounds. Curves accentuate the beauty of the dance. You need a little “somethin’ somethin”’ to jiggle! The skinny women who don’t have hips have to add something puffy to the sides of their costumes or you won’t see their hip movements very well.
My epiphany came only a few months after I started the classes. Alizah was coordinating what is known as a “hafli”—basically a belly dance show and party with open dancing for everyone after the show and during breaks. A band was hired and a show of dancers was lined up. This particular show was very different than most, however. This one was called “Hot Flashes” and was only open to performers over the age of 45. My friend and I bought our tickets without really having a clue what we were about to experience. All we knew was that belly dance class was fun so a belly dance party sounded great!
I will never forget the first dancer in the line-up. Never. Ever! Her name was announced, the band started playing an Arabic standard and the dancer came on stage. She was a very large woman. This was not what I’d expected and I was initially taken aback. That didn’t last long. Almost immediately, I became lost in the fluidity of her movements, the grace of her choreography, gorgeous flowing long black hair swirling around her with every turn and what surprised me most was that she was sexy. Yes. Sexy! She transformed through the dance into an amazing creature. I really saw her as a human, rather than judging physical attributes.
After her, another stout woman did a Saidi cane dance—a flirtatious, rhythmic , fun, dance using a thin cane as a prop that was like nothing I’d ever seen. Once more, the dancer was transformed!
Again and again, the belly dancers of all different shapes and sizes continued to amaze me with the beauty of their dances, causing my view of their physical appearance to change—and through that my view of my own changed.
When Alizah performed, Jen and I jumped up and down screaming and clapping for our teacher and her adorable, saucy style.
The next lesson came from Dorothea whose command of the stage was graceful and nothing less than regal. Dorothea was a 70 year old grandmother at the time! (She’s still teaching dance to this day!) I’ve heard people say that “Belly dance keeps you young.” I guess it’s true!
By the time Phaedra of Boston came out, I thought I’d seen everything that could amaze me. I was wrong. Wow, was I ever wrong! Phaedra can do movements with her hips that defy gravity! She is a small person, short in stature but looks six feet tall when she performs and has the most beautiful, engaging smile you’ve ever seen! She’s truly an incredible dancer! Aside from that, she’s a nice person and I’m now proud to call her a friend. She’s one of the many people I am lucky to have in my life because of that one class.
Friends, community, solidarity, and compassion are all attributes that I found in belly dance. Through that one class, I met many wonderful, quality people. It’s hard to believe that they weren’t always in my life. I certainly intend to keep them close always!
No matter the shape, age or size, we are sexy, beautiful and valuable. Belly dance made me see my own value, my own persona, my own soul. It made me see how little my dress size means in comparison to all the characteristics that make up the rest of me.
Aliza is the creator of the online belly dance magazine, BellydanceNewEngland.com
Phaedra has made instructional DVD’s and can be found on www.ephaedra.com