Saturday, August 14, 2010

My Secret

I knew if I wrote belly dancing, my secret would be out: I like to belly dance. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not ashamed. It’s just that some people still have the wrong idea about belly dancers. They think they dress up in skimpy outfits to gyrate and jiggle solely for the attention of men, and that belly dancing is nothing more than a form of foreplay.

Unfortunately, it’s nothing new. Women who like to belly dance have faced that stereotype since the Middle Eastern dance form made its first big splash in America at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

It’s also not fair. Although there are dancers who exploit the stereotype, there is a far greater number attracted to belly dance for the same reasons I am: it’s a great source for friendship, fitness and fun.

I know – it’s not nearly as compelling as the seductive stereotype, but it’s the truth. Although I signed up for my first belly dance lesson to get a different form of exercise, a big reason I’ve been hooked for nearly twenty years is because of the people I’ve met and the friends I’ve made. You’ll meet all kinds of women in a belly dance class, from college-age students to corporate executives, and everything in between. And what you quickly find is that those outside roles mean little. Everyone comes to the class or workshop for the same reason – to dance. Having that in common has a tremendous equalizing effect, and it’s truly surprising how quickly bonds form between fellow dancers.

Belly dance is also great exercise. Anyone who has attempted a shimmy, serpent arms or a camel walk knows how much muscle control, flexibility, endurance and core strength they require to do well. And unlike gyms, where many of us feel self-conscious if we aren’t already in great shape, belly dance welcomes all ages and body types. It’s usually just a room full of women, so you needn’t worry about your makeup, hair or what you wear – as long as you’re comfortable and you can move. (Sounds good, doesn’t it? )

The biggest reason I’ve stuck with belly dancing all these years is it’s simply a lot of fun. Of course I love the music and movement – I even like the chance to feel a little sexy now and then – but mostly I love being in an environment with so many women helping, supporting and entertaining each other. After all, belly dance didn’t start out as a performance art, or even an art of seduction. It evolved in the home as a social dance by women for women. Friends and family members gathered and danced for each other as an expression of joy and camaraderie.

Unfortunately, that’s not what comes to mind these days when you tell people you belly dance. So for the longest time I didn’t tell co-workers or casual acquaintances about my pastime – but now I smile and say, “Yes, I belly dance.” Sometimes that’s met with an awkward smile or a stifled giggle, and I wonder if they’re envisioning something like a Salome, an “I Dream of Jeannie” genie or worse. Other times, though, they want to know more and I have the opportunity to tell them about its great qualities. Then, on a few rare and happy occasions, something I never would’ve expected happens: they tell me later they became more curious about belly dancing and signed up for a class themselves. And it never fails, I can see that familiar gleam in their eye and I know they’re hooked, too.

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