Hearts Still Beating

The other day I had the immense pleasure of seeing The Mountain Goats play the Vic Theatre. I adore John Darnielle. Each of his songs is a carefully crafted story full of beautiful and tragic and doomed characters and he’s so very passionate about each and every one of them.  I connect with many of his songs on a very personal level, but none as much as the song above. The song isn’t on any album and has never been recorded to my knowledge. I had no real hope of getting to see it performed live but in an unabashed fangirl moment, I tweeted a plea to Darnielle himself a few days before the show. And I swear, he must have seen it. (At least that’s the story I’m stickin’ with.)

it’s good to be young but let’s not kid ourselves
it’s better to pass on through those years and come out the other side
with our hearts still beating
having stared down demons
come back breathing

I stood in that sold-out theatre gripping the railing in front of me, tears streaming down my face. Heart still beating. Surrounded by so many other hearts still beating, a room full of survivors.

you deserved better than you got
someone’s got to say it sometime because it’s true
people should have told you you were awesome
instead of taking advantage of you
I hope you love you life like I love mine
I hope the painful memories only flex their power over you a little of the time
we held on to hope of better days coming
and when we did we were right
i hope the people who did you wrong
have trouble sleeping at night

With that last line a collective howl of vindication rang out and it felt comforting to be amongst fellow misfits. It felt triumphant. In that room at that very moment, there were likely others just like me, transplants who escaped the cruelty of our homes and never looked back, maybe others from Appalachia, some from small Midwestern towns or places buried in the deep South. We were called freak, dyke, faggot, queer. We were spit on, shoved, shunned, some of us beaten. We grew up with scars that, though now healed over, still ache from time to time.

It was nearly 20 years ago but the memories remain fresh. There is still anger that resides deep inside for what was done to me, to us, though it doesn’t burn as bright as it once did. But over the years I have taken that anger and channeled it to become someone strong and determined, someone who fights for social justice, someone whose very being is a protest of the status quo. In a word, I am awesome. I hope all my fellow freaks know just how awesome they are too.

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How Belly Dance Saved My Life

Strong words, I know, but I do not exaggerate. All my life I have struggled with body image issues, due in large part to having a mother who has seemingly been on some type of diet for as long as I can remember. Weight Watchers, the Atkins Diet, the Cabbage Soup diet, the South Beach Diet… I was raised on aspartame and fat-free everything. I tried a lot of the same diets my mom did even though I don’t actually have any memory of feeling fat. Looking back at pictures from my teenage years, I wasn’t overweight. But dieting was the norm in my world, so I suppose I just went along with it.

In college, I gained the dreaded “Freshman Fifteen” (and then some). Then I lost it. And soon gained it back. I went on this way for years, much like my mother. I was almost always at war with my body. When I got sick in 2006 and was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, my body became the attacker. It hated me. My body was my worst enemy, now in a new and incurable way.

After a round of anti-TNF meds left me with a slip of an immune system and recurrent skin infections, I was exhausted from fighting my body. I wanted to make peace with it. Somewhere along the way, I developed an interest in belly dance, sparked by reading a book by a (then) local author called Snake Hips: Belly Dancing and How I Found True Love.

Moving to Chicago finally afforded me an opportunity to explore belly dance. In June of 2009, I nervously stepped through the door of Arabesque. With zero dance background and having jokingly been told my entire life that I had inherited my mother’s lack of grace, I was prepared to make a complete fool of myself. But I was determined to find a new me.

My teacher, Mae, put me at ease, assuring me that my lack of experience didn’t matter. It helped that she looked more like me than the Hollywood versions of belly dancers I had created in my head. I mean, she had an actual belly! Just like mine! In just a few months, I moved up from the beginners class to Mae’s Tribal Fusion Basics and by the fall,  I was performing with her beginners’ student troupe, Down Hips Down.

I connected deeply with tribal fusion belly dance.  I saw myself reflected in the duality of the movements, soft and graceful one moment and fiery and powerful the next. I adored the aesthetic, mixing heavy fabrics with lace and tulle, sparkly beads, clanking chains and coins, dramatic flowery headpieces. With Mae’s guidance, I began making my own costumes and learning about stage makeup. (It was also Mae who introduced me to the torturous beauty of false eyelashes.) I loved the theatricality of it all, the way the layers of fabric swished when I spun, the way my jewelry jangled as I shimmied across the stage. And finally, I appreciated my body for what it was: imperfect but beautiful and mysterious and yes, even graceful. When I danced, I felt connected to my body; we weren’t enemies in those moments. Slowly, the space between those moments decreased.

What I once thought would be a fun hobby has become a way of life. Belly dance has given me the courage to step into the unknown and embrace it and to embrace myself. It has taught me that my curves are beautiful and full of their own brand of grace and strength. It has taught me that I’m stronger and braver than I ever thought and that my body, while still often an enemy, is under my control.

Photo courtesy of Eugene Slowik, Jr.