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Belly Dancing: A Soulful Revolution
by Kimberly Ewing

My experience with belly dancing has become a journey back to my most real and powerful self.  I am rediscovering the free-spirited, empowered, creative female I was as a child.  People often ask me why did I decide to take belly dancing.  At the time I decided to take it, I didn't really know why, it just felt like something that I'd enjoy and benefit from, somehow.  It has proven to be a learning and healing experience in many ways. 

 

In American culture, women's bodies receive such a great deal of abuse - - both physically and conceptually.  We say we pride ourselves on being a country of freedom and individuality.  However, I see this freedom and individuality as only truly sanctioned if who you are fits within a certain framework.  Women are judged valuable by our body's shape, size, and its parts, using a standard that most of our bodies cannot live up to nor should be expected to fit.  Even the women whose bodies fit the standards suffer from anxiety, fear, and often obsessive worry about maintaining their "achievement".  So many are trapped in vicious cycles of dieting, bingeing, purging, starving, excessive exercise, and cosmetic surgery all in the elusive search for the "perfect" body and the promise of resulting happiness and peace.

 

I used to think I was immune to this phenomenon.  I'm smart, introspective, and I generally "don't believe the hype" of this culture.  For goodness sake, I'm even a psychologist and teach classes on women's issues.  I am also an African American women and my body generally falls outside the "normal and acceptable" ranges dictated by a largely White male-dominated culture.  The African American cultural norms I identify with historically assumed that women were supposed to have some meat on their bones.  So, I assumed I was free to explore life as a female unencumbered by rules about how I should look.

 

As a young girl, I became drawn to ballet dancing with its gracefulness and the flowing images of the beautiful costumes.  When I took classes as a child, I was always being told to tuck in my butt.  My butt just doesn't do that, or at least it doesn't look like its tucked, even when it is!  There was another African American girl in the class who got lots of praise from the teacher.  As I remember it, her body was more slight and narrow than mine.  While I progressed in the class, I became more and more disillusioned with ballet dancing.  It just didn't seem like it was really made for me.  I didn't really like the rigidity of it and I began to internalize the mistaken belief that I didn't have the body type for it.  It wasn't fun for me anymore.  Certainly not worth missing Saturday morning cartoons!

 

Upon taking belly dancing lessons, I have rediscovered my love of dance.  Belly dancing is all the things I wanted ballet dance to be, but it is so much more.  Belly dancing feels graceful, feminine AND womanly (though I know men do it too).  Its physically challenging, sensual, freeing, empowering, and wonderfully exciting.  Belly dancing also makes me confront all my issues about my body and my unique sensuality.  To belly dance well, I think, a woman has to be comfortable in her body and with her body's movements.  Self-consciousness ruins it.

 

I have had to get used to standing in front of a mirror, watching my body move in ways I never thought I would move it in public!  During the first classes, I used to giggle to myself all the time!  It was fun, but also painful because I could feel myself bumping up against all kinds of emotional walls.  "Respectable women don't move their bodies like that!"  My butt is way too big to be doing that move!"  "Oh my goodness, are my breasts supposed to be jiggling like that?!"  "Good grief! My belly is dancing to a rhythm that only it can hear!"  And other such thoughts constantly ran through my head.  I realized how much I had absorbed messages about an "attractive" body and how much my body deviated from that image.  I too had become an unwitting victim of the good old American cultural misogyny. 

 

In order to really see what I was doing and get more out of class, I made myself start wearing tighter fitting and more body-revealing clothes to class.  Again, this set off alarms for me.  It made me more conscious of my body and its movements (which was the point!).  I realized how much I don't pay attention to my body.  I especially don't focus on the section of my body that belly dancing is most focused on - - the part that really makes me a woman!  What a sad and unfortunate reality.

 

Because of my enjoyment of the classes and my deep desire to improve, I push on through my worries and self-consciousness.  It is an on-going challenge.  At different times of the month, my body feels and looks different.  While I may have noticed the changes on some level, I am much more aware of this due to belly dancing.  I have to keep monitoring my body judgments, and keep dancing.  As the people in the classes change, I might look around the room and feel like I am the most jiggling one in the class!  But, I have to push beyond this, and keep dancing.

 

Ultimately, besides pure enjoyment, belly dancing is helping me experience my own internal revolution.  It is liberating me.  I move differently, with more confidence, ease and strength.  I am  less bothered if I should jiggle a bit when I walk.  In fact, I kind of like it!  I notice and appreciate women of all different sizes much more now.  I am much more conscious of the sensuality and beauty of just being a woman, regardless of shape or size.  More importantly, I feel more powerful.  It is a quiet, internal kind of power.  When I am dancing, I am most aware of it.  There is something about the look and feel of the undulations and shimmies that makes me feel awesome!  In those moments, I am keenly aware of how much my body is capable of.  My intellect is not discounted, in fact there is some kind of wonderful intelligence of movement that is happening.  It isn't in my head or brain, although I am sure that I am thinking about the movements on some level.  But, in order for me to really get the movements,

 

When I am aware of the power and strength in being a woman, I wonder again about those negative self-judgments that limit me and quiet me.  It is then that I am convinced that belly dancing is truly revolutionary in its potential to free women from our internal body enslavement.  We may not be able to change the messages on TV, in magazines, from friends and family.  But, we can free ourselves from our internalized negative judgment.  There is such power and beauty in our bodies, connected to our bodies and resulting from being in tune with our bodies.  I am truly rediscovering myself and becoming the woman I was always meant to be!  I invite all women to join in this awakening and celebrate themselves!

 

P.S. Thanks, Piper!