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.

7 responses to “How Belly Dance Saved My Life

  1. You are fucking fantastic darlin!! I’m so glad. No grace my ass! You could have fooled me. Here is to many more years of snake hips, lace slips, soft shifts, and eating babies!!!

  2. I love this article. It’s inspiring to hear about women owning their bodies, and dance seems like a particularly wonderful way to do it. And how brave you were to just walk on in by yourself with no experience! Good for you.

    Also, from what I can see in that photo, you are GORGEOUS!

    • Aw, thank you! I routinely extol the life-saving properties of belly dance. I would encourage everyone to try it at least once! (Or at the very least go see a performance!)

  3. I loved reading this! So well said and so inspiring. I’m glad you found belly dance, lady, you are a beautiful human.🙂

  4. I love this Staci!!! Your photo is truly inspiring. I have missed you and the way you fully own this journey of life. I haven’t tried belly dancing (yet) but my girls and I do often have panty dance parties at home and I am hopeful that my lack of inhibition around them leaves a lasting impression. Oh what our well meaning mothers did to us🙂

    • Thanks Cresta! It’s funny, I actually haven’t been dancing much at all lately but I firmly believe that belly dance was there at the exact time in my life that I needed it and it will still be again in the future.

      I remember you once telling me how your mother always complimented your girls with “pretty” and you insisted that she should use words like “smart” or “brave” as well. I have much hope for your girls. 🙂

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