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with Lorraine Lafata, MSW, LICSW

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March 2002, Column #3:

Embodied Sexuality & Female Power

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 Annamaria

Embodied Sexuality & Female Power

Annamaria has been practicing massage and the healing arts for nine years in the Boston area. Having returned to school to complete her Bachelor's Degree in Cultural Studies, she graduated in May from Lesley University. Blazing a trail through the many rich and diverse learning opportunities inside and outside of academe, she discovered bellydance. She pursues other various forms that creativity takes through doing art-work, writing, and singing. Guided by an awareness of the inherent unity of the body/mind/spirit/emotions, she brings a vision of wholeness to her personal and professional life intending to integrate spirituality, creativity and the natural world into daily life. She loves living with her two crazy cats in a little house in the woods. And looks forward to continuuing the dance along her serpentine path!

Bellydance, for me, is largely about learning how to embody my sexuality and celebrate female power and spirituality. My study in the tradition of bellydance as ritual, as healing, as expression, has provided me with a way to explore experientially. It has augmented and balanced my research into the themes of female power, sexuality, spirituality, authority, anger that are central themes in my thesis. Unfolding my power, sexuality, spirituality, authority, and anger through bellydance, has viscerally opened me to the material I have been studying. Taking up the dance at this time has assisted me in maintaining a level of body awareness through my transition into finalizing my Bachelor's degree at Lesley. I explore how bellydance and movement in general is the vehicle that guides me into being more fully in the world. In this paper, I discuss what I have learned and how bellydance has guided me. This writing is mainly about my personal learning as I weave excerpts from my journal with some of my perceptions of the reading, videos, and live bellydance that I attended.

Journal Entry: February 19, 2001:

Pulsing, Trembling, Vibrating of
Stuck, blocked, stagnant Energy -
Resistance, apprehension - What if I let myself go?
What then? Calm, smooth surface
Beneath: uproarious, seething rage spewing venom
But I don't, can't drop down - and I must let myself feel it
I want to listen to my vulva, ovaries, thighs:
Now, I listen to my self,
Now, I listen to my self,

It feels so good to have opened my body in this way again. Returning to bellydance is my channel to the deep, interior of my being. I feel restriction in my pelvis. There is so much holding and energy trapped in the crevices and tissues around my sacrum, coccyx, 'sits' bones and thighs. I want to feel my strength and power in my pelvis and legs. Rooted not rigid.

My healing journey is deepening as I grow more aware of my need to open in ever expanding ways parts of my body, mind and spirit that contract around pain and trauma experiences I had earlier in life. The Catholic religion that I was raised in was of course laden with the shame and repression about sex and sexuality so characteristic of patriarchy that developing healthy attitudes about my desires was impossible. It is enough to say that I experienced sexual trauma as a child that impacted me deeply. When I was a high school student engulfed in anger, defiance and rebelliousness, I was expelled from high school. The silence, anger, and humiliation that was reinforced by this event in my life and the shame I carried about sex has been at the core of every effort I have made since to understand rage and sexuality, my own and other's. Around my sexual identity, and response, there are many layers of numbness and shame and yet I feel I am stripping away these layers through the movements of bellydance and increasing consciousness around these issues.

I have consulted the book: Getting Our Bodies back for insights into the process of healing (1996). Author Caldwell illustrates the results of trauma as being removed from a direct body experience of the world and how we learn dissociate from our bodies to escape pain. She points out that the initial schism of being out of body is the foundation of all addiction. My body resonates with the truth of this assertion as I still occasionally lapse into numbness or coming out of body and though my only active addiction is chocolate, earlier in life it was mainly marijuana. A major reason that I am drawn to bellydance is exactly because it allows me to get into and move places in my body and in so doing, activate my center. I feel bellydance as a grounding force that guides every impulse, thought and action from a place of spontaneity rather than compulsiveness that drives addiction, the opposite of spontaneity. A supreme goal is to continue to learn how to activate my spontaneity and aliveness.

These are the issues that I work with through bellydance:
1. Freeing my Pelvis and Spine
2. Shame and Negative Body Image
3. Intimacy and Opening my Heart
4. Sexuality and Empowerment
5. Anger and Judgment

I have become familiar with experiencing how it feels in my body to isolate muscles through the movements of bellydance. The basic stance in itself realigns my legs and the muscle attachments between legs and pelvis. Bringing my legs together, relaxing the lower back and engaging the psoas muscle, and other muscles of the pelvis creates a foundation of strength and frees up old holding patterns. Because of body image issues and the subsequent body tension from those issues, I developed a torque in my pelvis that causes my right leg to be slightly shorter and I had a lateral scoliosis in my thoracic vertebrae. However, when I do the pelvic circles and the undulations, I feel my right leg lengthening and my hip shifts into more balance. That is so exciting! This next journal entry talks about my discovery with this:

"It is such a relief to feel the energy moving more freely between my ovaries, perineum, vagina, labia and I need to feel these places. These movements connect me to my sex. I begin to feel more fluidity and the specificity of muscles, organs, and bones, gives me an experience of clarity in my body, mind and spirit. I love to feel differentiation between these structures, for instance: the presence of my ovaries being gently stimulated by the swaying of my hips, as compared to the tightness of my psoas and adductors moving and shaking like the cables of a pulley that needs oiling! I want to free my Kundalini."

The title of the chapter on the pelvis in Grandmother's Secrets is aptly named: "The Snake of Spontaneity is Coiled in the Pelvis"(110). This chapter illuminates so many of the implications of this dance regarding female sexuality, power and strength that I have been exploring. As restrictive as sitting and writing or reading about bellydance can be compared to actually doing it, the use of imagery in this book augments the dance because it is so viscerally written. The image alone of a "snake being coiled in the pelvis" is such that it helps me sense the roundness, the grounding weight of my viscera. When discussing doing the hip circle the author says:

The source of all your strength grows over and beyond the limits of your body. Your skin becomes more porous and you take in all the space around you. It pushes you further, beyond the room; your hips circle and take in all your surroundings, the trees, the houses, the streets, over and away from the city, over the mountains, the fields, the forests, all the way to the rivers and the oceans. Your lips are salty and you stretch over the steppes and the deserts, over the whole great ball, further and further into the stars, into the whole, into the universe. Limitless, endless…(111).

I understand what she is saying here and my interpretation of this is the metaphor of undulating into community. It seems the movements connect the individual to the environment. The 'corrective experiences' in my body from simply the bellydance stance alone has had this rippling effect in my perception. It works this way: when I occupy the deepest center in my chest or my pelvis and put my consciousness there, I contact a core sense of embodied self. From that awareness of embodied self, I take in my environment and come into relationship. This exploration in bellydance parallels and integrates the knowledge and learning at Lesley and the process of making subjective knowing, connected knowing. I find that rather than isolating in my healing, bellydance facilitates the transition in contacting others through my own humanness. It heals my shame of seeing and being seen.

Through bellydance I am healing my self-perception around what it is for me to be expressing myself artistically: that I can convey the essence of my femaleness.

Journal Entry: March 20, 2001:

Summoning my memories and their associative emotions feels kinetic, like body tectonics. I feel the shifting of vast slabs and slices, the buried pieces of my life coming up from the depths to finally be digested and assimilated. I have been regurgitating and purging my system of a poison I swallowed many years ago that seeped into my being and tainted my early years. This poison seems to have been passed on to me through osmosis and is the systemic disease known as denial. Denial and its close cousin shame, have so debilitating an effect that it sometimes is impossible to shake. So insidious is the nature of this disease that one is wont to ignore its existence. This disease wedged its way into the crevices, notches and spaces of my bones and cells and changed my structure.

I want to respond viscerally to people — from my gut. There is a feeling of rebirthing and awakening chakra centers in the season of spring that I want to really go with. This is part of an overall theme of relearning the spontaneity of childhood and living from a more embodied place. Spontaneity to me means having an immediate response to whatever is coming my way. Rather than absorbing it and holding on to energies, I want to let my emotional and physical bodies work in unison to turn the energy right back out. All my circuits are open like a continuous loop and I am ready to respond fully to life. I am actively centered with the appropriate response, giving and receiving neither too little nor too much but just enough. This is, I know, a life-long practice. Of course, things in life often need process time and yet there is a need I have to lighten up and that is partly to do with this convergence of closing at Lesley and opening up new chapters in my life.

The video, The Power of Dance, reflected this process I have been describing quite exquisitely. The narrator in this video describes the Eastern dance traditions as a union of the immaterial spirit activated within the material body through the ritual and sacred movements and gestures of dance. "Pioneers of Modern Dance in the west were inspired by a tradition that so openly embraced the spirituality of the dancing body." An Indian woman dances her traditional dance and says this about what dance is to her: You feel a kind of awakening inside - a deep sense of harmony. I mean I feel it when I perform. It changes you inside. And I think you have to feel this harmony. And I think feeling harmony is something which is not so easy because I think most times people are very fragmented. I think dance gives you a path - it gives you a way to harmonize.

I agree. This is certainly what I want to explore more of in bellydance. Having to write about this and articulate my experience galvanizes my experiential learning. I am interested in the combination of words and the voice in movement. Another featured artist in this video says the following about the use of words in dance: "Dance uses the body as a medium of expression. And we're dealing with words, music because everything is ancillary." I do not think of words and music as being ancillary - well, I suppose at times it might be when the dance speaks for itself. Yet, I also think words, sounds and music augment the dance. Certainly that is some of the practice of dance therapy. The combination of well-placed insightful words at certain intervals in the exploration of movement and dance is a powerful mix. It clarifies and transforms my thought-form enabling me to integrate body, mind, and spirit energies. That you Lorraine, are tuned in to the nuances in words and movement is a fabulous instructive style that works for me. Thank you and I look forward to continuing our work together.

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Embracing Aphrodite, Column #6

Healing Through Belly Dance, Column #5

Belly Dance to Inspire Healing, Column #4

Belly dance as Storytelling Art, Column #2

Belly dance as Healing Dance, Column #1

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