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July 2001, Column #2:

Belly Dance as Storytelling Art

In my many years of teaching belly dance, I’ve had students have come with many different reasons for wanting to learn the dance. To get in touch with their sexuality, to explore ancient mysteries, to learn more about their own bodies, to connect with other women, to dance for their friends and family, to get strong, to get fit, are just some of the goals and desires I’ve heard women express. Whatever the original impetus is, that brings women to the dance, one of the major reasons for staying seems to be the multiple doorways that belly dance offers into the storytelling experience.

Movement, of course is the very first expression of self . Before we can talk, we can move. Our earliest understandings of love, comfort , will and accomplishment are all physical. As belly dancers, we make use of these oldest of memories to access body knowledge and awareness that comes before spoken language. Our dance vocabulary is made up of a rich and nuanced cornucopia of movement , integrating sacred geometry with flow, stillness, muscle isolation and connectedness . Our bodies and the sacred space around them., become the medium through which our personal and universal stories can be told.

In the same way that myth interweaves the transpersonal and the oh so human experience into one solid, unbroken fabric, so too our dance form allows us to brings the most lofty and the most mundane themes together into a transformative whole.

Storytelling As Healing Art

In Women Who Run with Wolves , Clarissa Pinkola Estes tells us that stories have...” repair and remedies for reclamation of ... lost psychic drives..” She goes on to tell us that ...” stories come embedded with instructions which guide us about the complexities of life.” Often the stories that belly dancers tell about the intersection of their life’s journey and the dance carry the same powerful infusion of synchronicity and emotional resonance as our strongest teaching myths.

The following story tells of a dancer’s life long instructive and inspirational relationship with the dance. It’s a story of listening deeply to oneself, following one’s own life’s path and the joyful experience of being supported by the beauty, power and depth of belly dance.

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This month's story is from Miriam (Amira Jamal) Hatoum

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other's welcome

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was yourself.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you have ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

--Derek Walcott 1

The Story

Re-entering the dance world has been a rebirth - a feast - for me. While raising my children I continued to teach, and to perform occasionally at parties for friends, but had left the competitive performance world behind, along with the gaiety of going out with girlfriends and spending money on music, costumes, makeup, and the like. Being married to a Lebanese fellow and my household being somewhat immersed in Middle Eastern culture, and continuing to teach, sustained me and kept me connected to the belly dance world. But I always laughed about how my life would not be my own again, however, until the youngest birdie went off to college!

I really had lived the life of my dreams (I ALWAYS wanted to be a mommy - something that's not for everyone, but without a doubt, was for me) and was content to stay home, to not put my children with baby sitters, and to not spend money or time on myself. I never regretted not having the latest music or video or costume. I didn't feel sorry for myself when my students finally stopped asking me to go out with them. I played mommy to the fullest most happily satisfied breaths of my life. Well, the youngest birdie is getting ready to fly, and so am I!

As I am getting older I find that I am not limited in regard to dance, but rather totally unconfined in the way I approach it. My teaching and performances are stronger, more insightful, and infused with joy and love-qualities honed as a parent, qualities now called upon as a mature dancer. I have an awareness and a mindfulness in my dancing and teaching that were missing from the technical skill I had revered and practiced in my youth.

My life has taken a spiritual and intuitive path, with the assistance of the readings of Christiane Northrup, Caroline Myss, Louise L. Hay, and Mona Lisa Schulz (to name just a few wonderful authors). I have begun, among other things, to explore my center of power and strength, to respect my body and learn to properly nourish and care for it, and to appreciate all my life's experiences which bring wisdom, character, and joy to my dance. Christiane Northrup speaks of the "Silver Lining" of Menopause: "The Wisdom Years:" Opportunity to clean up unfinished business from the past; Increased clarity and heightened creativity; Taking time for yourself; Cleaning out the old to make way for the new; and Increased freedom. 2

To best structure this essay, I would like to explore each vision of the silver lining:

(1) Opportunity to clean up unfinished business from the past: This is two-fold: the physical level and the psychological level. On a physical level, I am getting my house in order. This too, is two fold: first of all, my house - literally. Through the reading of Sarah Ban Breathnach's 3 book I have begun to simplify my dwelling, remove clutter, make it a welcoming place of both comfort and contentment. In this quest I cleared a large portion of my downstairs living area to become a dance studio. I cleared out all the furniture, painted and decorated. Every time I give a lesson there, or pass it on my way to the laundry room I smile to myself and think, "Life is good." The other "house" I am getting in order is my body. I walk daily and do strength training as often as is advised. I am learning more about nutrition (up to this point I knew everything about dieting, but very little about nutrition!). I have even finally gotten contact lenses so that I can dance with some clue as to the facial expressions of the audience! The psychological letting go of old business has best been accomplished by deep exploration of some self-esteem issues, particularly as they relate to being a dancer. I have come to terms with the fact that I probably won't ever have the body of a (slender) Hollywood-type goddess. It is much akin to never being able to fit a size 10 foot into a size 6 shoe-I wouldn't beat myself up over that, would I? I have come to terms with the fact that I am getting older...I may never look 28 again (no matter what the creams and cosmetics promise), but I can be the best darned looking 48 year old around! I have also realized that the hurts inflicted upon me by myself in my earlier dance years regarding weight issues have no business in my life now.

(2) Increased clarity and heightened creativity: There are many avenues in my life where these two wonderful concepts, clarity and creativity, have become strong and clear - from work issues to household issues; from issues in my marriage to issues with my teenagers; from money and debt issues to issues of spiritual and emotional growth. What I had no resources to even acknowledge ten years ago, stand before me now, quivering with expectations of being addressed, explored, and solved. As it relates to my rebirth as a dancer, I now see clearly new ways to move my body, express my spirit, and to touch other dancers' lives. Movement and spirit were always out there, but I did not have the clarity or wisdom to catch their wings. The heightened creativity I am experiencing now is not only related to dancing but to my costuming as well. I have taken apart all my costumes and am in the process of rebuilding them to suit my body, my style of dance, and to enhance the very steps I take. I've explored full palettes of color, and types of beads, coins, and fabrics. The resultant handiwork may not be as skilled or breathtaking as a store-bought costume, but every gem and bead will have been sewn with love and a vision.

(3) Taking time for yourself: This was the biggest hurdle to overcome in my search for the silver lining. I was the devoted mom who baked the cookies for school, was often at two different Little League games at the same time (one across town from the other), and who not only took the kids to and from violin lessons and boy/girl scout meetings, but who sat beside them playing in the community orchestra and who was the den mother when no one else wanted to do the dirty work. When my kids hit the teen years I decided I needed to evolve out of being "just" mommy so I wouldn't shoot myself as a result of empty nest syndrome. But that only added to my burdens. Now, not only did I have the kids, the house, and a husband, but also had a full time job, a part time job, and was finishing up a graduate degree. As my obligations to the children and the house unwind, however, I am filling that space with time for myself. I have begun teaching 10-15 hours a week, take modest bookings for performances, often go out with girlfriends to see other dancers perform, and take time to design and sew my costumes. I am still busy, but it's totally for me.

(4) Cleaning out the old to make way for the new: This actually falls right into place because of the evolution of the other issues. Belly dancing videos have replaced Disney movies. A dance studio has replaced an extra desk for the kids and other utility furniture. Costuming baubles and fabrics have replaced toys and legos. Belly dancing publications and catalogues have replaced "Parent" and "Family First" magazines. Belly dancing cassettes in the car have replaced everything from Sesame Street Sings to Metallica. Fresh salads, grilled seafood, and light fare have replaced quick and easy stick-to-your-ribs family style meals. Walking and dancing have replaced bend-over-pick-up-the-toy. Going out with the girls has replaced staying home with the kids. Hopes and dreams and freedom have replaced my concrete and practical way of thinking and living.

(5) Increased freedom: This is the culmination of my journey through the silver lining. Do not think I am rejoicing in being free from my life as I knew it for twenty years. I am rejoicing that I am free because of it. It is the proverbial "I have worked hard to get where I am today." I have raised two responsible self-sufficient children with immaculate judgement, values, and direction in life. I have created a home that is comfortable and a haven for my spiritual and physical growth. I have nourished a marriage and a mate who allow me to stand apart as a complete and whole individual. I am not burdened with worries about my children, my home, my marriage, or my husband. I am not burdened with broken records about looks, or weight, or intellectual and spiritual capacity. I worry less about what others think about me, and instead rejoice in what I am able to do to bring joy into my life. My increased freedom comes from an evolution of sorts, not from something that I stole or was given.

I have two quotations that sit framed upon my wall above my computer at work: "You never grow old until you've lost all your marvels"4 and "Don't just live the length of your life, live the width of it as well." 5 Living the silver lining through dance makes me feel I have that special marvel all my own, living life to it's fullest width. As I age I grow younger. I embrace the process and rejoice in it. As in the poetry above, the time has come when, with elation I greet myself arriving at my own door, in my own mirror...I love again the stranger who was myself. I have given back my heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved me all my life, and whom I have ignored for another... I am ready to feast on my life.

1 Derek Walcott (1999 edition) "Collected Poems: 1948-1984, " Ferrar. Straus & Giroux, NY

2 Christiane Northrup (1998) "The (New Discoveries) Menopause (that are) Revolution: (Changing Old Ideas)., Phillips Publishing, Inc.

3 Sarah Ban Breathnach (1995) " Simple Abundance - A Daybook of Comfort and Joy"., Warner Books

4 Merry Brown

5 Diane Ackerman

Amira Jamal began performing 1974 on the New York Middle Eastern night club circuit, including the famed Port Said, Egyptian Gardens, Club Darvish and Club Isis. In 1981, she formed the Amira Jamal School of Middle-Eastern Dance in Brooklyn, where she taught hundreds of dancers from beginning through professional levels. Today Amira Jamal continues to teach from her Framingham home and in Boston. She performs for private celebrations, haflis and workshops.

This article has appeared in The Middle Eastern Dance in New England Newsletter, January/February 2001, and in Zaghareet, July/August 2000.

Miriam (Amira Jamal) Hatoum

"We are fools whether we dance or not. So we might as well dance." Japanese proverb.

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Embracing Aphrodite, Column #6

Healing Through Belly Dance, Column #5

Belly Dance to Inspire Healing, Column #4

Embodied Sexuality and Female Power, Column #3

Belly dance as Healing Dance, Column #1

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