Dancing in the moment

For just a few brief moments, I felt like I was really dancing.

Weeks three and four of my belly dancing class proved to be challenging as well as rewarding. We learned how to make horizontal and vertical figure eights with our hips (I’d demonstrate, but — perhaps at a later date when I’m more confident), and we practiced various hip movements while moving forward and backward to music. We also learned how to make “snake arms” (just like it sounds), and to isolate various parts/muscles including our rib cage, to make our abdomens appear to undulate.

All these movements were completely foreign to me, and I suspect to most of the other students as well. Some of them came more easily than others, and as our teacher Kathy warned us, we often found one side or one direction much easier to maneuver than the other. That was to be expected, Kathy said.

Fortunately, she’s introducing and demonstrating each movement slowly, and building on what we’ve learned each week to go just a little further the next time. She also provides a lot of stretches for when we feel our muscles protesting against these new demands.

Happily, I did find in each class those rare moments when I felt like, “Aha! I’m doing it!” Granted, there were plenty of times when I did not feel that way, but those times when I felt successful in learning something new were well worth the effort. Success came in the moments when I let myself completely inhabit my body and stopped thinking so hard. I had to focus on what the teacher was showing us and just let myself DO.

It was only through allowing myself to be fully present in that moment and feeling my way through the movements that my body was able to do I wanted it to do.

This kind of dancing, as I observed in my last blog, appears to be all about control. A lot of dancing is like that. Ballet certainly is, and high level ballroom dancing appears to be as well. While we watch dancers who are experts at what they do, it looks like total freedom. We think, “Wow, what must it feel like to fly across the floor like that?!” But I’m pretty sure it doesn’t feel like pure flight to them.

The only times in my life I felt like I was moving “freely” while dancing are few and far between. I remember whirling around our wooden living room floor to recordings of Chopin Waltzes when I was a little girl. I loved the movement to the frenetic music. Who knows what I must have looked like. I also have memories as a teen or young adult, dancing to pop music during those moments when I could let go of self-consciousness and lose myself in the music. That was a great feeling. And once, learning the authentic polka in a folk dance class in college, I danced the male part (there weren’t enough women in the class) with a slightly built and very able female student as my partner – we spun around the room beautifully, almost to the point of dizziness. That felt free, and really fun!

Learning to be really good at a skilled dance like this is a very different art, or so it seems. Those who have practiced for years and have the talent certainly make it look easy; I know it is not. In order to gain that visual impression of fluidity, a great deal of control is required. It’s not a Bacchanalian free-for-all, this kind of dancing. A lot of what our teacher describes to us is that the control of what muscle groups you’re moving, and how, and when, directs the viewer’s eye to a certain part of the body. You keep the upper body and the head still when you want attention drawn to the hips. If you’re letting your head bob and swivel around, the audience’s eye will be drawn there. A lot of the movements are about creating a sort of optical illusion, which makes it a real art form.

Flyer for Cassandra's Mezza dance concerts by Jawaahir Dance Company November 9-12 in Minneapolis

When you watch someone who’s really good at belly dancing, you are really not sure how they’re making all those motions happen. They seem to defy the laws of physics at times (or at least biology). It’s like the dancer has a magical skill that others couldn’t dream of possessing. And yet, it can be taught.

If you’re in the Twin Cities and interested in seeing some professional Middle Eastern dancing, the Jawaahir Dance Company is having a performance next month, November 9-12.

I imagine it takes years to really master all of the control that I’ve only been introduced to for a month. Because the movements so far have been good for my sometimes aching hips, and I feel better after the classes than I even expected, I plan to continue at least through the end of the Level 1 class, if not beyond.

One aspect of class we’ve just started which I really enjoy is the use of finger cymbals. Because I’m a drummer, the rhythms and coordination of two hands is fun and relatively easy for me (a little harder when you throw in the hips at the same time, but still fun). I like the sound they make, and look forward to learning more complicated combinations in the future.

A pair of brass finger cymbals my hand, wearing a pair of brass finger cymbals on third finger and thumb

What I really enjoyed, however, were those few little moments when I looked in the mirror and saw that I was (for the most part, anyway!) managing the movements that we were trying to learn, and it felt good! I liked what I saw, and I enjoyed the feeling of accomplishing something new.

Don’t Forget to Dance

Last night I attended a dance performance by the Guild of Oriental Dance at the Cassandra School of Middle Eastern Dance, where I’ve just started taking classes. What struck me was the joy in movement that was wonderful to see in all the dancers, no matter what their age, size, or shape. I was impressed by the boldness and confidence of the women (and one man!), who moved beautifully wearing a variety of costumes, from fully covered to more revealing. A few, like Cassandra, were polished and professional dancers, but many were amateurs.

Photo of dancer Cassandra Shore in belly dance costume from the 1970s

The great Cassandra Shore, earlier in her career

When I asked myself whether I might one day have enough courage to dance in front of an audience, even in a modest costume, my immediate response was, “Oh, hell no!”

To be honest, my response had a lot more to do with how I feel about my appearance than faith in my ability to learn how to dance.

When I was in my class yesterday morning, trying to learn the moves our teacher was demonstrating, I watched myself in the huge wall mirrors to see if I was doing it right. When I looked at myself, I did not like what I saw. Immediately, I flashed back to my teen self, looking in mirrors of a dance studio while taking ballet.

Never a serious dancer, I only took beginning lessons because my “open school” allowed us to use dance for gym requirements. I’d always hated gym class. I couldn’t run fast, throw or catch balls. So there I was in ballet class at 15, looking in the mirror as we followed the teacher’s instructions. I recall very vividly not liking what I saw. Was I tall and willowy like the girl to my right? No. Did I have the perfect hourglass shape like the girl to my left? No. Looking back, I know that I was fairly average. But that’s not the way I saw it. I was also unaware that it was very likely the girls next to me were similarly judging their own bodies.

If I could use a time machine to go talk to my teenaged self, what would I tell her? “Hey, enjoy how you look now, because it’s mostly downhill from here?” Not a great message, and not entirely accurate either. Maybe I would say, “Hey, look – you’ve got strong legs that allow you to bend and kick and leap. You can move your arms with confidence and some grace. You can move around the floor and exert your muscles, and feel how good that feels. You are young and healthy. Enjoy it!”

Since then I gave birth to two children, which of course changed my body. Overall, as an adult, I was average looking (size 12-14). Was I happy with that, or even content? Unfortunately not. I’ve never liked being photographed, and I’ve tried many times to change my body shape and overall appearance using various diets, exercise routines, hairdos, etc. But I never spent enough time on that, because there was always so much else to do and worry about.

Then my husband died when I was 42. Grief and depression followed for years, and I spent most of my energy raising my children and coping as best I could. My energy level was very low and I didn’t move much. I indulged in a lot of emotional eating. Within three years I gained 40 pounds. I had to wear size 18 (or larger). This was very upsetting to me and I hated myself for it. Again, I occasionally tried to lose weight through various methods, most of which were too drastic to be sustainable. Other concerns always ended up taking precedence and I just couldn’t keep up the regimen.

In recent years, by changing small things about my lifestyle, I’ve gradually begun to lose a little weight. I’m down 10 pounds from the heaviest I was (now size 16-18). To me, I’m still not in a good place. It took a lot to convince myself to take this belly dance class. Initially, I told myself that I’d wait until I lost another 10-20 pounds. Which could of course take years, or maybe never happen at all.

But that’s the difficulty with weight. If you put your life on hold until you are XX pounds lighter, you waste your life waiting for it to begin.

That’s why I loved watching these women dance. They didn’t have to look “perfect” to be good dancers. They all showed varying levels of skill in the dance moves I’m just starting to learn to appreciate, and they all performed with conviction and with joy.

The students and teachers of belly dance that I’ve talked to described the sensuousness of the movements, and how enthralled they were when they first watched belly dancers. I also heard that what they loved was the sense of confidence these women exude. I would add to that: what I loved was the sense that these women had complete and utter control of their own bodies, down to the muscles of their abdomens, tiny movements of the hips, shoulders, neck, and even – in the case of the fabulous Cassandra Shore – her eyebrows!

Given that the performance last night was a benefit for Women’s Advocates, an organization that helps women whose lives are impacted by violence, the message of women controlling their own bodies is even more powerful.

And empowering! I would like to learn to love and accept myself fully just as I am, and not wait for “someday” to do anything, because someday may never come. Taking these dance classes is not easy for me. Some of the movements do not feel natural. I feel clumsy and ungraceful as I try to make my feet and hips and arms do what the teacher is doing.

So why am I taking dance classes? I want to feel better about myself. I want to move more and learn how to enjoy movement and music in new ways. I’m not ready to be old quite yet.

Picture of me in a dance pose wearing a hip scarf in the Cassandra School of Dance studio

So I ask myself again, would I ever have the courage to dance in front of an audience? Maybe, I think, just maybe. It would take a lot more classes first, though!

— Miriam

WAY Out of My Comfort Zone

If you had told me ten years ago that I would be drumming in rock bands, singing in public, or blogging about cooking, I wouldn’t have believed you.

Such is the magic of stepping out of your comfort zone and trying new things. You never know where it will lead you.

This week my impulse to try something new has led me WAY out of my comfort zone, into this dance studio.

the Cassandra School of Middle Eastern Dance studio

The Cassandra School Dance Studio

My friend and fellow rock drummer Cassandra Shore is the Artistic Director of Jawaahir Dance Company and runs its accompanying school of Middle Eastern dance.

Photo of Cassandra Shore, middle eastern dancer, in costume at a performance

Dancer extraordinaire Cassandra Shore — Photo by Donna Kelly

You got it: Belly dancing. Not something I would have EVER dared to try to do before. And weirdly, not even when I was much younger, trimmer and fitter. But maybe there’s something about being over 50 that is liberating, to some degree. You care less about looking ridiculous because, no matter how silly or bad you may look, you’ve lived through worse. It just doesn’t seem to matter anymore.

It helped that it was a beginner class, with only women, and that almost everyone in the class was new to it. We were all ages and shapes and sizes. I’m pretty sure we were all abilities as far as being able to catch on to what we were doing, though frankly I was too busy watching the teacher and myself in the mirror, trying to figure out what the heck I was supposed to be doing, to notice what anybody else was up to.

Before deciding to try dancing I worried a bit about my hips, though, which have not been the same since many years ago when I constantly carried a toddler on one side, recklessly, and one day felt something go wrong in there. I’ve tried a number of things to alleviate the chronic — though not constant — discomfort in both hips over the years, though not much has helped. My discomfort is doubtless made worse by the pounds I’ve added on in the last 13 years and the many hours of sitting both for work and for my sedentary hobbies (reading, writing, crafts). In addition to that, arthritis runs in my family, which may be part of the issue. So I wasn’t entirely sure how it would go, but I was willing to give it a try.

In general I feel better when I’m more active, but when joints are aching, we all tend to slow down and move less, which can paradoxically make things worse. A large part of my desire to take this class, as much as it terrified me, was the knowledge that I’d better start moving more, while I still can.

It turns out that the movements and motions required for this kind of dancing may be exactly what I need. You isolate various parts of the body (neck, shoulders, rib cage, hips, feet – but mostly hips), moving and stretching in ways not usually experienced in daily activities. It actually felt good to warm up my hip joints and stretch them in new ways. A few of the movements were not 100% comfortable for me, to be honest, but the awesome teacher, Kathy McCurdy, showed us ways to stretch if we needed to, and encouraged us to do so at any time we felt the need.

Middle Eastern dance instructor Kathy McCurdy at the Cassandra School studio

Dance instructor Kathy McCurdy

To my surprise, my hips were not at all sore the next day, but actually felt somewhat better than they have been lately. This encourages me to keep going. The class is 1½ hours each Saturday for the next 10 weeks. I also want to look for other opportunities to do more low impact dancing/movement that is not too difficult and not too expensive, to keep moving to music. Loving music is what helps me move, and makes it more fun than other types of exercise. But I’ll talk more about that next time.

In the meanwhile, I hope I’ll remember some of what Kathy taught us today and try to practice a bit, because I know I’ll need it. This does not come easily to me, but I like the way it forces me to stand straighter and move with more conscious purpose!

If you live in the Twin Cities and know of opportunities to dance and move, low-pressure and not performance-oriented, let me know! I have a few ideas in mind already, but I’m open to hearing about more!