Like a hummingbird attracted to pollen, I was always drawn to dance,one day finding myself signing up for adult education classes in belly dance.Some might have labeled my instructor heavy. but when she started moving on the dance, her rolls of flesh worked for her, making her look snakelike and powerful. "Oh, wow, heres a dance I can do when Im fat!" I happily thought during my short stint with Weight Watchers in the 70s. Unlike ballet, tap or other dance forms, belly dance seemed to enhance every womans beauty, even friendly to the abdominal swells that most women tried to suck in. So initially I looked upon belly dance as a refreshing, slightly rebellious oddity, never guessing it would change my life. Right away it started messing with my mind.
First there was the business of dancing in bare feet. As soon as I took my shoes off and felt the gritty floor, I remembered my mothers warning: "Keep your shoes on or else youll pick up some disease or stub your toe." I relived being five years old, stepping on a bee, and feeling frightened watching my big toe balloon up. A few dance steps later, I remembered having an infection on my toes and how wearing shoes was painful. I thought about shoes as protection or hindrances while now feeling vulnerable dancing in bare feet. But as I glanced down at my liberated toes, felt free and liked feeling the ground beneath me. Belly dance was already helping me let go of past fears from the feet up, allowing me to enjoy a new connection with the earth. I felt a power coming up through my bare feet as I finally plugged into the Great Goddess Generator.
Dancing barefoot provided other gifts, like giving me a better awareness of my surroundings. It prevented me from "spacing out" and leaving my body.Soon I realized there was a connection between being barefoot and being safe. Houses are burglarized when "nobodys home" so maybe women get attacked when they space out and leave their bodies I reasoned. If true, then dancing barefoot in belly dance class made the world a safer place for me.
During the 80s a second belly dance instructor entered and changed my life, teaching me as much off stage as on. She had studied magic, so at first I viewed her as a professional entertainer who successfully employed magical concepts to create convincing stage presence and persona. Although she seemed a bit pushy about getting her students to perform, she was also supportive and nurturing. But as I got to know her better, I glimpsed a darker side. She told me she had problems bingeing on food and had been sexually abused as a child. I suspected there was a connection between the two but when I suggested counseling she said "Im afraid to go." I didnt know how she was able to perform with a broken heart while carrying it off with dignity, grace and beauty.
I worried about her until it occurred to me that she already WAS working on her issues
by healing herself through bellydance. Since she had spoken about "taking control of the audience" and"getting men to eat out of the palm of her hand" I sensed that her dancing was an attempt to regain lost control after being sexually invaded. Her urging her own students to perform when they said they werent ready might have been another facet of her healing as she attempted to work out her own fears about being seen and vulnerable through them. What I absorbed at the time was her "can do, will do" attitude, admiring her ability to visualize."I create an image of what I want the audience to think and then project that. If you think you are a good dancer, then the audience will, too" she said. I watched her use her secrets to fuel performances, creating mystery on stage. I still wonder how many other dancers perform from a place of woundedness and how many men are also working out their inner conflicts
while watching these dancers dance. Why we dance, how we dance and who we dance to make belly dance an interactive, therapeutic process.
This same instructor changed the course of my life one afternoon.Onstage she performed an ancient temple with candles burning in each hand.The sacredness of her movements triggered my desire to visit Egypt,especially the sacred temples along the Nile, where she said the dance originated. Soon a flyer came my way, advertising this exact itinerary.But as soon as I paid for my trip, I was severely tested. A devastating earthquake hit Cairo. Militant fundamentalists were shooting and killing tourists in social upheaval. Although warned to stay away, I still wanted to go, causing much inner turmoil.
The trip was a test of fire but highly transformational. My life was in danger several times; my roommate was attacked. Power struggles within our group added to the chaos there. But healing accompanied disorder. Encounters with male and female bellydancers, Sufis, musicians and many other Egyptians catapulted my growth, causing old beliefs to crumble. Visiting the Nile temples accelerated our evolution so much that some of us had paranormal experiences around the pyramids. With little time to process events during our wham-bang itinerary, I took my journal home and spent the next several years writing. Now "Suitcase Down The Nile: A Spunky Womans Transformational Journey Through Egypt" is ready to take readers on this mysterious journey. Its interesting to think what would have happened if my "wounded" belly dance instructor hadnt gotten up to dance. Thats why its so important for all of us to just get out there and do what we like to do because we might inadvertently help another person grow.
As a writer, I had become aware of how society, particularly the fashion industry, erodes womens self-esteem by making them think theres something wrong with their bodies. Making women feel badly about themselves is big business when it comes to advertising, specifically selling products that promise to fix these "flaws". Constant media barrage tells women theyre too fat, too gray, too old, too ugly, too smelly "down there" but that their particular diet products, hair dyes, cover up cosmetics, camouflaging clothes, deodorants or even risky surgeries will fix the problems, making women more acceptable, even to themselves. Despite knowing all that, I hadnt realized how brainwashed I still was until later in my belly dance classes when my own body issues began surfacing.
These issues seemed tinged with religious and political overtones. For instance, I always felt shy about showing my belly and traced that inhibition back to a religious upbringing which taught me that modesty was a virtue.Therefore, showing the belly during belly dance was immodest or "bad." But bad for whom? For the men whose carnal desires were supposedly ignited by the sight of my bare belly? For their religious leaders who assumed that OTHER mens carnal desires were raised? Or for anyone who might be afraid enough of their own sexuality to institute dress code rules controlling how other people displayed their bodies? My struggle about showing my bare belly seemed to be about being female living in a patriarchal society where someone else makes the rules. Ignoring the unspoken code of keeping the belly covered sometimes results in unpleasant consequences ranging from dirty looks, getting leered at, fondled, or, in some cases, even assaulted byself-righteous attackers. Interestingly enough, women also uphold and enforce patriarchal standards. So the piece Id been missing was how my own female relatives had contributed to my current inhibitions. Whether they did this out of love or fear for me was now unimportant. What was important was freeing myself from their social conditioning, particularly the idea that there was something basically wrong with baring my belly. Belly dance classes woke me up. As a result, I cleaned out my own belief system.
During the 90s I took some classes taught by The Goddess Dancing collective, a group of women focusing on ancient, sacred dance. My inner healing continued by coming in contact with women who had trouble accepting their own bodies. Some were beautiful but so critical of themselves that they always kept their torsos covered. They pointed out "flaws" that I never would have noticed otherwise. Listening to them was therapeutic because I realized how false self-criticism can be and how widespread a poor self image is among women brainwashed by a society that upholds the size 4 emaciated model look as a paradigm of feminine beauty. Statistically, the average woman is a much more substantial size 14 but even the very thin, tall women in my class were critical of their bodies
because of their small breasts.The very act of baring the belly seemed to bring out everyones vulnerabilities or even shame about failing to live up to someone elses unattainable ideal of perfection. Suddenly I became intrigued with anyone who actually liked her own body, zeroing in on one woman who always seemed to be admiring herself in the mirror. How shocking to think she could actually be her own best friend, able to sustain loving contact with herself in the mirror! I then noticed how my acceptance of my own body fluctuated,depending upon how much weight I had gained or lost. Major healing occurred when I stopped weighing myself on the scale. The woman who loved herself in the mirror taught me to love myself, too.
Mirrors have always been powerful devices. Historically, they and other highly polished surfaces were used for scrying, i.e., seeing visions related to questions asked about the future. According to June Bletzers"Encylopedic Psychic Dictionary," (p.40), "Mirrors serve as good psychic tools for advanced physics. Two ways of using them are: "After a meditation period one can clairvoyantly perceive ones own past incarnations that will be revealed by a change in facial features" and, in the same alpha state,"(mirrors) reveal ones own aura." Small wonder then that the wall mirrors in Lorraine Lafatas later classes both fascinated and terrified students
enough for them to request she cover them up with veils! But since she is a feminist therapist specializing in self-image issues, Lorraine covered the mirrors. Self-acceptance comes easier when seeing only misty images of yourself at first. Some women avoided looking at themselves at all. Others seemed to have a love/hate relationship with the veiled mirrors. I began to see that the degree to which a woman can stare at herself in a mirror is related to self esteem and how intimate she can be with herself. My challenge with the mirrors was sustaining eye contact with myself. I had to remove more religious programming about how looking in a mirror was a "sin of vanity."One healing insight I had from doing this was that my mothers comment, "oh,what, are you in love with yourself or something?", when she caught me looking into a mirror was probably more about her religious programming or even low self-esteem than about trying to make me feel self-conscious. But even then, sustained eye contact with myself wasnt working. Something else was still wrong. Whenever I looked deeply into my own eyes I felt like crying, so I quickly looked away. Deeper digging revealed that my remaining distress was grief that hadnt been processed. Some of it was so old, it dated back to toddlerhood! It had to do with feeling unloved, "not being good enough" and not having the right to simply exist unless I was doing something to "earn"that love. I felt some anger about being a people pleaser in order to feel safe with adults who I felt I had to placate.
So now I saw how I needed to give myself permission to just "be" without having to "put on a show."Lorraines "mirror therapy" taught me to be nicer to myself, to ask "what can I do to make ME happy today?" rather than trying to appease an imaginary someone else. Letting go of other peoples expectations of me was also part of this healing. This included letting go of putting any pressure on myself to perform, even as a belly dancer on stage. Because at one time I would have thought "I MUST perform
because, after all, whats the point of taking belly dance classes unless I perform?" Now I say "there doesnt have to be a "point"
my process is enough. Im having FUN dancing when I want, how I want and with who I want. And no matter what I choose to do, Im always going to be learning more life and myself." Im free. I stopped"shoulding" on myself.
I may have started belly dancing on a lark but now dancing heals and opens up doors for me. Surprisingly, it "made" me write a book that I had no intention of writing. Its helped me start a business by melting away shyness. Its improved my cooperative ability to work with my husband on the book project. It led me back to Egypt a second time to finish up business.It spurred me on to visit Peru, then Turkey where I discovered more of myself while dancing with gypsies. Im a different person now, much more expanded,because I dared to take that first belly dance step. Yes, belly dance is more than just an excuse to wear funny costumes.Its gotten me to visit other cultures and understand how dance is a subtly powerful way of communicating ideas. Its a crucible of ancient knowledge and a way of transcending language barriers by exchanging nonverbal information that neither terrorism nor oppression can destroy. Belly dance is a dance of power, of self-empowerment, and a healing vehicle for self and others. Its my favorite way of understanding global history and my part in it.
For an autographed copy of my book please mail a $19.95 check payable to Nancy Wright to: Lexigram Books/ PO Box 693/ Westford, Mass. 01886. For more information, visit http://www.lexigrambooks.com/.