Belly dancing was much more than an art, it began to heal me.

The sacred art of belly dancing opened my eyes up to our limited beliefs we women can hold. As I continued to explore the sultry dance, I slowly became attuned with the disconnect between my body and spirit, and this is where my healing journey began.

This is my first time writing about belly dance and its effect on my psyche.  I have been belly dancing just over 15 yrs., with 12 of those performing in a local Indian restaurant.  Admittedly, I struggled with writing this as there were so many moments early on in my studies where I could feel my body, mind and spirit begin to relax into belly dance.  I felt the old thoughts of the rock-hard abs, standard of beauty, etc., drift away the more I got into the various styles of this ancient dance.  But I realize there were 2 distinct moments within my belly dance studies that helped me to let go and allow everything in me to move freely.

I should tell you all that I am a late bloomer when it comes to dancing in general.  I started modern dance in my mid-late 20s. In my 30s-40s started dancing with a modern dance company in Chicago, where I danced for several years. During a break from the dance company, a friend of mine went to a restaurant in Chicago that had been known for their elaborate belly dance show.  They had two different acts at the time; one group was a very modern version of belly dance, and the second act was a very traditional. She called the day after this show and said to me, “You need to study belly dance – it’s so you!!” I was thinking how could this dance be me? Belly dancers have curves – I’m long and lanky.  My friend sent me clip after clip of the show for days on end.  Finally, I looked up classes and started taking belly dance.  My first day in class was learning a hip shimmy.  At first, my brain went to, “I have to shake my butt?! – This can’t be right – I can feel everything giggle”.  This was COMPLETELY opposite of my modern dance where everything had to be more tightly held together.  In this class were women with varying dance skills, ages, sizes, and shapes, (including a woman who was 8 months pregnant), all of which seemed to be natural at these hip shimmies.  And then there was me, feeling frozen from my own self-imposed intimidation of not being able to just let it go.  I was completely stuck in my head with this idea that I did not look like them, therefore, I could not move like them.  I continued these classes, but with a small resentful chip on my shoulder.

Why was I so hung up on letting go? I grew up with the most amazing, non-judgmental parents.  My mom would often say that the female body was beautiful – regardless of size; she believed in being healthy vs. skinny. Quite often my mom and I would watch our public broadcast station and see all sorts of performers and dancers. And inevitably we saw a belly dancer on rolling quarters, one at a time, down her belly!  We were in awe.  My mom was impressed with the control and isolation it took.  She never mentioned anything negative about how little clothing the dancer had on or that it was too sexy. And as a side note, my mom also respected burlesque dancers – so really, why on earth am I so hung up in this class?

I took a workshop with a veteran of the belly dance world who was of a fuller figure and moved so effortlessly as performed.  She spoke more of the background and evolution of the dance as it came to the western world.  That in the various regions of the middle east, and throughout her travels of studying folkloric and belly dance, she saw women of ALL ages dancing, even if they needed canes to walk with, they would still find the joy within them to dance.  She explained that a lot of what we know of belly dance, (most dance actually), came from the home, celebrations, the street, and we should still embrace that.  She also discussed how though the belly dance of today is performed in more revealing costumes, we as women/performers are not simply exposing the vulnerable areas of the body, (chest/heart and belly), but as a symbol of security of who we are.  We stand with strength that lies within us. YES – women are strong and need to feel secure with who we are!  WE need to do that for ourselves, not wait for someone else to confirm it. This was the beginning of my journey of exploring myself through dance, feeling my moves became bolder, more confident.

The most important revelation was during an Arizona vacation in the summer of 2009.  I was looking for a different direction to take my dance in but felt stuck or nervous as to where to take it.  I decided to take a private lesson from an internationally famous, quite stunning fusion dancer, who had the classic modern dancer’s body.  I mentioned to her that I was feeling stuck in my dance, and her response was “have you lost someone recently?”.  I got teary eyed, and explained I lost my mom in early January, (2009).  My mom became paralyzed the last 2 years of her life, and she continued to encourage me to take classes, to dance and to not stay home with her. I expressed to this dancer that I had moments of ‘was there something else I could have done; did I do enough’.  She mentioned that loss or trauma of any kind can get locked up in our bodies, that there are moments in life that can leave ‘scars’ and prevent us from moving forward.  I now felt completely dumbfounded.  She continued to explain that we need to accept, embrace, and own these emotions and to let go. (We all know that is easy to say, but harder to do.)  “Holding on to pain and anger hurts ourselves and hinders OUR growth.  Dance it out” she said.  This was it – the breakthrough for me to really move. 

I felt like I was given the permission to move as I needed to, and with the confidence to do so. In my modern dance experience, I think I was more about what the standards of western dance and beauty was. There was a ‘certain’ look to ballet and modern dancers that was expected. I was blessed to meet and study with these two amazing women, with completely different body types who danced fearlessly and unapologetically.  From them, I gained the courage to let go of the perceived concepts I had of the ‘dancer’s body’. The belly dance fusion pieces I was creating now had the freedom to show vulnerability on stage, to be open and friendlier with the patrons at the restaurant.  It wasn’t just the ability to be more fluid, but to be fearless in my moves. I began to express my stories of loss, of heartache, and to do so unapologetically. And I look forward to the new stories my body will allow me to tell.

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Most everyone calls me Piper and I’m a personal trainer, group fitness instructor, and aqua aerobics instructor. For the past 25 plus years I have studied all forms of dance from ballet to Middle Eastern as well as fusion belly dance. But it was in 2011 that I decided to turn my focus to fitness.
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