After my first belly dance class with one of Atlanta’s premier professional belly dancers, a surprising thing happened: she ate a cupcake.
One of my classmates had brought snacks to the three-hour workshop and set them up on the cafe tables in the back of our rehearsal room for all to partake. Our instructor spotted a tray of desserts and made her way over to the table while the rest of us were putting on our shoes. She held up a cupcake and announced to the room, “This looks like the last cupcake. If anyone wants it, I’ll fight ya for it!” She laughed out loud.
Nobody rose to the challenge, so she took a bite of the chocolate cupcake with fluffy white frosting and proclaimed, “OH, YUM!”
That’s when it hit me: belly dancers eat real food.
They are not (at least the ones I’ve met) women who only pretend to eat; starving themselves because they have to look good baring their midriffs. In fact, one of the wonderful things about belly dancing is that you don’t really want to be so skinny that nothing jiggles when you dance. Seriously – belly dancers are voluptuous, curvy women. Some of them are even, dare I say…plump. All of them are beautiful.
I have been dancing all of my life – from ballet and pointe to jazz, tap, hip-hop, ballroom, and even country – but, never have I felt so beautiful as a woman in all of my performances as I do when I belly dance. I eat, too, and none of the other belly dancers seem to judge me for it.
- Belly dancing is an EMPOWERING experience.
I have seen women of all body types, all sizes, and all ages (from size 2 to 22; from 16 to 90 years old) perform belly dance routines and look beautiful doing it. I have seen women from beginners to professionals command an audience with either their skill level, enthusiasm, or often both. And by “command an audience” I mean people of all ages, male and female, cheering and clapping; completely captivated.
In my own experience, performing is a rush of adrenaline, excitement, empowerment, and so much FUN. When I am shaking what my mama gave me (and a little extra, since I honestly can’t control myself when it comes to dark chocolate or a bag of potato chips) I can’t stop smiling. I feel like the most beautiful and talented woman on the floor – just like every single one of my sisters in dance with whom I am shimmying. That is quite an empowering experience, for sure.
- Belly dancers are not strippers.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been out to dinner or at a party with my boyfriend and the husband of an acquaintance says, “Oh, belly dancing, huh?” Wink. Elbow my boyfriend for emphasis. “Does she dance for you at home?” or “Heyyyy…maybe after a few drinks you can show us some of your moves.”
My significant other, does not like these comments, as you can imagine. I totally get that. Neither do I. But, honestly, it’s not their fault – aside from the obvious reasons that men should not objectify women – most people (women included) really have no idea what belly dancing is. So, they just assume because we are wearing fringe and beads and shaking and shimmying that we must be strippers. If people knew how difficult it was to get into and out of some of our costumes, they would never make that mistake. From what I have seen, strippers’ costumes come off rather easily. Not so much for a belly dancer who is often safety-pinned into her outfit to prevent things from falling off.
I once took lessons from a professional belly dancer who told us before every show, “We are all good girls from good families.” She was right. Or at the very least, we are all girls and women who have worked very hard at perfecting our choreography and technique, because after all, belly dancing is a centuries-old art, not an act of seduction. In fact, in its origins to the Middle East, Egypt, Africa, and the Mediterranean, belly dancing was often performed by women for other women. Leave it to Americans to turn it into something that objectifies women in a negative way.
- Belly dancers are serious entertainers.
My current instructor, a college-degreed, extremely hard-working and talented performer, takes her art very seriously. She balances swords on her head, and plays the zills. She practices hours at a time; teaches all levels of dancers; performs several nights a week; sews her own costumes; and is committed to sharing her passion for belly dance with people like me – a woman who is excited to be able to continue doing something she loves no matter how old she gets. My instructor also eats fire, which is not something just anyone can master.
- Belly dancing does not have minimum or maximum height requirements.
As a result of missing the height requirement by a mere six inches, I gave up my dream of becoming a Radio City Rockette 20 years ago. I found belly dancing in my late thirties, when I had no prospect of growing any taller. Thankfully, there is no height requirement for belly dancing; five feet is totally acceptable.
- Belly dance classes are friendly, welcoming environments in which women support each other.
I have heard frightening stories from friends who take exercise classes at the local gym. Apparently, the “regulars” don’t like it when a newcomer stands anywhere she pleases, unknowingly obliterating the space of a regular. The regulars are always like, “How dare she stand in the front row. She has only been here one other time!” On occasion, arguments ensue as the women become competitive with each other.
I have never had an argument or heard of one taking place at a belly dance class. In fact, you might be surprised to learn I have met very few divas in belly dancing – they seem to be more the exception than the norm. For the most part, the women I have danced with over the years have been enthusiastic about offering costume and makeup tips; willing to help when I am having trouble with a combination; and generous with snacks during long rehearsals or a lengthy backstage wait.
For many of us, belly dance class is the most fun hour of our week. We are happy to be there. We start smiling as soon as the music begins and we start shimmying. There is even a move called the “choo-choo shimmy.” It really is as fun as it sounds, and you can’t keep from smiling or feeling happy when you are choo-choo shimmying around the room!
- Belly dancing is a great workout, but I never think I am actually exercising.
I have to admit, when I have the choice between sleeping 30 minutes longer or getting out of bed to exercise before my day begins, I choose sleep every time. I used to belong to a gym. If I actually got myself through the front door a couple times a week, I beelined to an elliptical machine, set the program for 20 minutes, and spent 19 minutes wondering how long I had left to go.
Not so with belly dancing. I change into my dance clothes, grab my water bottle, and sometimes spend more than an hour in traffic just to be on time for my one-hour class. I can’t wait to get there, and I’m always surprised at how quickly the hour goes by. Do I actually get a good workout, you are wondering? Let’s put it this way…the best shape I have ever been in after giving birth to my daughter was when I was belly dancing at least four times a week, just 30 to 45 minutes at a time. It is a great cardio workout, and does wonders for toning and strengthening your abs, arms, and legs.
- You can belly dance just about anywhere. No equipment needed.
Because I work and volunteer and have to help children with homework, make lunches and dinners, and get my ten-year-old to bed at a reasonable hour, it’s not always easy to get to a belly dance class during the week. Thankfully, I can belly dance in my office or my living room – or wherever I can sneak in a quick 30-minutes of practice drills. DVDs, online classes, or just turning on my favorite Spotify Belly Dance station, allows me to belly dance wherever and whenever I get the urge. That’s how I managed to belly dance four or five times a week when my daughter was a baby.
If you are a woman, at any stage of life, and you are looking to find your tribe of positive, uplifting, inspiring people, try belly dancing. You might be surprised to find that the benefits you receive – both physical and emotional – spill into every other area of your life. And that’s the real frosting on the cupcake.