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.
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.
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!