Belly Dance Should Be Inclusive, Part I

Belly Dance Should Be Inclusive, Part I July 9, 2018

In Part 1 of this two-part post, I explain one of the fundamental belief I hold when approaching belly dancing, as both as a teacher and a student of the dance: that the dance should be accessible to most if not all bodies.

My troupe, Indy Tribal, performing. Photo by Thomas Dove.

I’ve been belly dancing for over 20 years, though granted I’ve only been teaching the dance for just over a decade. One of the things that is deeply important to me is ensuring that this dance form is inclusive at the classroom and workshop level. This is in part a social justice thing, and in part a response to how different dance forms are perceived at the pop culture level.

I was always quick to pick up certain things. Put me in a classroom where we’re absorbing literary, cultural, or historical information, and I’ll soak it up like a sponge (yeah, I was that annoying smart kid in school). Put me in charge of cooking something, and I’ll rapidly be able to improvise it. And – relevant here – put me in a belly dance class, and I’ll quickly learn the basics of what we’re doing.

However, I know that dance classes aren’t just for me, bringing my smart-kid brain and 20+ years of experience to the table. Belly dance classes – unless otherwise noted – are for everyone.

In This Is Why I Perform, I noted that “I perform in order to reach out to people and demonstrate that anyone can dance.” And I’ve had numerous experiences where people will compliment me after a set and say things like “…but I could never do that.” In that blog post I also write:

It saddens me that people internalize the false message that they can’t dance because they don’t have the right body type, or because they didn’t start lessons early enough, or whatever. It’s not like I’ve been training in some conservatory since I was three years old – I just practice, a lot, because I prioritize dancing in my life. I don’t think I’ll ever be good enough to fully go pro, but that’s fine – again, I do it because I love it, and because I get something out of it, and because it helps me spread the message that anyone can try this and pick it up and enjoy it.

So when I have an experience where I attend a workshop that is not earmarked as being for a certain level of experience, I expect it to be accessible to all. And when it’s not, I’m deeply disappointed in the instructor and in our dance form for allowing that to happen.

Speaking as a teacher, I try to make shame a non-issue in my dance classes. Obviously I can’t control other people’s emotional states, but I can set the tone by not using judgmental or shaming language to apply to others or myself, as tough as that might be given that I am the kind of teacher who’ll sometimes veer into using self-deprecating humor. But I want to make it clear to my students that while this dance presents plenty of challenges, they’re free to take those challenges at their own pace, and nobody is judging them for falling short or being slow at first.

I’ve pondered whether belly dance is for cisgender, heterosexual women above the rest (Part I here and Part II here), and now I’d like to add that I think belly dance should be inclusive of aging bodies, differently abled bodies, and bodies in different states of health. If you’re teaching a workshop that won’t be accessible to all those bodies, you should say so up front in your workshop description. Some examples might be if your workshop will include lots of floorwork, or giant leaps, or partnered work that requires load-bearing. Put that information out there in advance, and restate it at the beginning of the workshop, urging dancers to take care of themselves and practice self-care.

Last year after a bunch of belly dance adventures I observed that teachers centering their students’ dance experiences is a beautiful thing. The opposite is, unfortunately, painful to watch when it occurs.

I’m not saying not to hold advanced classes, where the annoyingly quick learners like me can set the pace and get our asses kicked. Those classes certainly hold a place in a dance curriculum or a dance convention. I’m urging teachers and organizers to label them clearly, so that nobody gets left in the dust.

Because, as I’ll detail in the follow-up post to this one, how we treat our newcomers and how we manage our dance genre’s public image both matter, and are related in ways that we need to be talking about.

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