Each week in The Female Gaze, Faith Newport engages the trends, events, and issues that affect women—and the men who care about them.
Whatever I had been expecting when I walked through the studio door, this wasn’t it. Four women, one of them our instructor, all older than me and dressed in ordinary workout clothes, barefoot in the center of a mirror less, windowless room. Plus me—yoga pants, faded sports bra, stretchy tee, ponytail. None of us looked like ballerinas, models, or dancers. But, for the next eight weeks, we were going to belly dance together.
Thanks to Hollywood, belly dance has acquired a sexually charged, glam persona—the hippie equivalent of a showgirl, or a gateway exercise leading into more raunchy performances like burlesque or stripping. A Vegas act, perhaps. I had signed up after getting bored by home workout DVDs, eager for a chance to burn off some mocha frappes and maybe unlock some exotically charming side of myself that could shake her hips enchantingly and hook her husband’s attention with one rattle of a coin belt. Shimmy, shimmy, ooh la la!
I was expecting Bollywood. Or Shakira, edgy tribal music and all.
What I got was a little less Vegas and a little more Lincoln Center. The fundamentals we started learning were almost ballet-like in their precision. No, not that muscle, that one. Tuck that finger under just so. But I’ve taken ballet, years of it, and ballet is at heart rigid formality. Everything sucked in, every muscle tight, your whole body reaching, reaching, reaching. Not this. The hardest thing I’ve had to learn as a beginner belly dancer is how to stop sucking in my stomach, let go, and let it hang out. You didn’t realize how hard you were trying to conceal your imperfections until you start trying to stop.
In belly dancing, everything that jiggles—everything our Photoshop culture tells us to hide—is beautiful, desirable, womanly.
That first night, I was surprised to learn from our instructor that traditional belly dancing was created by women, primarily for women alone. Men would play their instruments in one room, and the women would dance in a separate room together—observed only by other women. To dance for an audience was the exception rather than the rule. The movements themselves were passed down in this way from generation to generation, and the oldest dancers were the ones held in highest esteem. Furthermore, belly dancing is uniquely beneficial to a woman’s health, strengthening the spine and hips, as well as easing menstrual cramps and lower back pain. From start to finish, it’s an art for a woman’s own benefit and joy.
In sharp contrast, today our culture subtly ingrains in us that a woman’s beauty is not for herself, and neither is her sexuality. Women are adorned and displayed, not for their own gratification, but for that of others—often at a cost to their well being. Watch any pop music video. The gyrating star is the center of attention, and her attention is focused on drawing an audience. The idea that a sensual dance can be performed only for the benefit of the person doing it is counter-cultural enough to almost be revolutionary.
Sadly, our current societal ideals tell us to hide our imperfections, especially if we want to be beautiful—another destructive blow to a woman’s spirit. But belly dancing flips that idea upside down, allowing the imperfections to become art and the basis for the beauty within the dance. Each girl’s unique “flaws” (all those jiggly, flabby bits we try to cardio out of existence) are the most mesmerizing part of the show.
As a result, my Monday night classes have become my favorite part of the week. They are a reminder to me that I am crafted of God’s hands—stomach, full hips, jiggles, and all. When I head into the studio, in between trying to remember the right movements while keeping my posture correct and my hands elegantly posed, my enjoyment is purely in and of the moment. I am beautiful, as I was created, no audience approval necessary.