Every Monday morning I eagerly take myself to a Minneapolis dance studio. I am dedicated to the art of belly dance. Have been for almost two decades.
Unbeknownst to many, Minneapolis is the Midwestern hub for a lively belly dance scene. There is a constant rotation of performances by talented troupes and dance companies, plus lots of opportunities to learn from great instructors. There are more belly dancers here than you’d ever imagine.
Through that studio door come women from all over — the suburbs, the cities, even from neighboring states. The women who take classes with me are accountants, scientists, artists, linguists, waitrons, radio announcers, medical technicians and freelancers of all kinds. When we're not in class, we can be found tapping out Arabic drum rhythms on our steering wheels or practicing our shimmies over kitchen sinks. Some of us even perform.
All of us have made arrangements, with varying degrees of difficulty, to be at the school for two hours every week. We have devoted ourselves to sweating it out during a high-intensity belly dance class.
Why do we go? Belly dancing reassures us that we are resilient, we are dazzling.
When I was a college student I was sexually assaulted. And the anguish of that experience was directed inward. My body stored up lactic acid and doled out cramps as punishment. I spent my days hunched over and breathing hard. Anxiety.
The day came when a doctor told me I should take antidepressants. Resentment surged through my limbs and lingered in the pit of my stomach.
When I got home, I ran the prescription through my shredder and found a belly dance class instead.
Learning the moves
I remember some of my first classes. The teacher told us we were going to learn basic undulations. I held my breath. First she demonstrated. Her body was serpentine as she controlled the forward and back rocking of her body, undulating from the top of her chest to the bottom of her tailbone. She looked sinuous and strong. A Nordic belly dance goddess.
Then she wanted us to try it.
“Turn your right side to the mirror,” she said.
We turned our sides to face the mirror. My chin jutted forward, my shoulders slumped. I preferred the front-facing view of myself, but the side view was truer.
“Ok, put your right foot out in front of your left, about hip-bone distance apart,” the teacher said.
“Lift your chest.” She demonstrated by lifting her own. Her breasts seemed to pop forward of their own accord. How did she do that?
She told us to use our abs to hold ourselves up. “Relax your shoulders. Get them down and away from your ears.”
She walked around the room checking to see that everyone’s chest was lifted and shoulders were down. When she got to me her cool hands touched my shoulders. “Relax them” she said with a voice that sounded like a cross between massage therapist and math teacher.
I made an effort to drop them, but they inched up again when she turned away from me.
“Do not be intimidated by your own breasts,” she told the class. Everyone tittered. What woman does not have a conflicted relationship with her body?
“Be proud,” she said.
The life of a dancer
The floorboards at the studio are clean and understated. They exude a tanned and healthy glow because they've been pampered by dancers who don’t want them afflicted by the cold or salt or sand you see tracked across most Minnesota floors.
I always take off my boots and leave them in the pile by the door. The footwear runs the gamut from beefy Sorrels to sensible shoes and a smattering of heeled sandals.
By 10 a.m., the floor is packed with women in black yoga pants and tank tops angling for a place to stretch. Some have scarves wrapped around their hips that sparkle with beads and coins. And their hips are all shapes and sizes. They are belly dancers!
A dance bag is what you carry when you have a dance life. I pick up my own big bag containing a hip scarf, finger cymbals, a practice veil, a skirt, water bottle, dance shoes, a clean T-shirt, a notebook and a pencil to write down choreography, and some spare change.
Dance bags vary considerably. Mine is an oversized pouch with a woven design on the outside. Some women carry gym bags. Others stuff things into designer purses.
My favorite idiosyncratic dance bag is the one my classmate Susan carries. It’s a small trick-or-treat bag with a skull and crossbones. Turns out, she took it from her kid after Halloween. Before that she carried her stuff in a plastic Target bag.
See? That’s how it happens. The longer you dance, the bigger and more elaborate your dance bag becomes.
I have been taking Monday morning class with the same dozen or so women for years. I know their bodily quirks almost as well as my own. Broad shoulders, hips of all sizes, hammertoes — you name it, I know it.
Will new dancers experience what we have? The pride from teaching our bodies a new language? I have discovered how to live comfortably in my own skin. Instead of my body being a source of embarrassment or shame, I can inhabit mine with a warm, spirited air.
Our teacher Jenny moves us back and forth in dance drills over the length of the floor. I undulate my body from the top of my spine through my sacrum as I move sideways down the dance floor. Step together step. Undulate. Undulate. My arms are gracefully curved overhead.
We try to follow Jenny’s zesty movements. We use our arms, shoulders and torsos to turn and tip our bodies and maneuver around the floor.
“Add a shimmy on it,” Jenny yells over the music. Being able to shimmy while standing in place is one thing. To layer it with other moves is to achieve a new level of mastery.
Every hour we practice we are gaining physical recall. This deepens our love of the movements and the music. We are working hard and loving it. With each step on the beat, each attempt to master new technique, we vacate the cells holding us back. Propelled by the momentum in the studio we find in ourselves a hard-wearing, pumping heart.
We move our hips in a sinuous undulation with a shimmy on it. All together my classmates’ hip scarves shimmer with each tip and roll of the pelvis, like glossy Rainbow trout in a brook, making our way back and forth. Sun flashing from metal scales, we are smooth, understood, uncaught.
Patricia Cumbie is a Minneapolis writer and dancer with Dans Askina. She can be found online at www.patriciacumbie.com.
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