How Belly Dance Saved My Life

How Belly Dance Saved My Life July 20, 2015
Me, during grad school, performing at the local roller derby.
Me, during grad school, performing at the local roller derby, with my fantastic troupemates at the time.

I had a couple of rough patches in grad school.

There were a few semesters during which I was in a relationship that’d gone bad, and a living situation that’d gone bad, and my coursework wasn’t doing so great either. I’d hold my act together during the week, and once a day on weekends, drive to dance practice, where I would sit, clutching a coffee mug, sobbing, until it was time to dance.

I’m naturally prone to anxiety, and in certain circumstances that can develop into depression. This chunk of grad school was one of those times, and aside from being in and out of therapy, I wasn’t sure what would help. Dance did.

Aside from the physiological benefits of exercise, which help reduce stress and all that, I found in dancing a solace that ushered me through that difficult time. Simply knowing that I would spend a few hours with people who cared about me (the sentiment went both ways) went a long way toward helping my mental and emotional health. The creative and expressive aspects of the dance certainly helped, too; I could utilize muscle isolations and arm undulations and spins and turns to dance out what I was feeling, to emote and in turn process my emotions.

Being able to spend time with the group of women in that dance troupe, doing the strange but fun dancing we favored, did tons for my mental health. And I don’t know that it would’ve been the same if I’d done another style of dance.

If I’d been doing ballet, the body image issues that’ve plagued me my whole life probably would’ve been prominent enough to pile onto my existing problems (yes, I feel good about my body now, but you try growing up in Los Angeles as a girl with some curves and see how you do). I don’t know that modern dance would’ve offered the cohesiveness of style that drew me to belly dance, and kept me interested for half my life. And so on with the other dance styles that are out there – none of them speak to me, resonate with me, as much as belly dance does. The main style I do, American Tribal Style®, focuses on group improvisation and is intellectually fascinating as well as creatively engaging. How could I not love it?

To borrow a concept, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi explains the concept of the flow state as that perfect balance of being competent and being challenged at a given task. You’re not bored, but you’re also not frustrated. Due to what makes me “me” as well as inherent aspects of the dance itself, belly dance has been able to help me transcend into a flow state for the better part of a decade. And when you’re in a flow state (or when I am, at least), I know that I am blissfully, mindlessly absorbed in that given activity. Minutes or hours spent in that carefree state can make me feel ecstatic, perfect, loved, wonderful, wondrous.

My depression during that time was bad; it could’ve been worse, but it was bad. Having access to this particular dance, and this particular dance community, improved my life immeasurably. I’m not sure what I would’ve done without it.

Saying that belly dance saved my life might sound hyperbolic, but that’s how it felt at the time. I wouldn’t be the same person I am today without belly dancing. And I’m okay with that – it’s been an undoubtedly positive influence in my life where other influences (relationships, academia, anxiety) have been ambivalent if not outright toxic. As such, I’m glad that I get to teach it, perform it, and immerse myself in it.

So, shout-out to the ladies of Different Drummer Belly Dancers who were my troupemates then, and the wonderful women of Indy Tribal, who are my troupemates now. My life is richer because of you all.

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  • Margaret

    RIGHT BACK AT YA’ HONEY!!!! YAY for belly dance!!!!!! 🙂

    • jeana

      Indeed, yay for belly dance! Thank you for being such a warm, supportive presence in my dance life! 🙂

  • Michelle

    AGREED!!! It sounds so cliche, but I often say that belly dancing has changed my life. I was a bit of a wallflower before, afraid to stand out, with so many self confidence issues. Added to that were my husband’s health issues which affected our marriage, and my insecurity was at an all time high.

    I agree, I’m surrounded by such supportive people, with the natural yet challenging nature of the dance, all of the positive comments, and that I just feel good doing it.

    A while ago I had a chance to teach a short belly dance class to a group of middle school girls. At the beginning, they were told they didn’t have to participate if they wanted to. I saw one girl say something about it not being for her and sitting down immediately. I could tell right away why, that she was insecure in her looks. So I chimed in, “BUT! If you are sitting out because you think you won’t be good at it, or won’t look good doing it, I want you to reconsider.”

    She stood back up. And like I suspected, was one of the best shimmiers and caught on quickly. She was obviously having fun. At the end of class, she came up to me asking about regular belly dance classes. She said that she was worried how she looked, but now she was going to ask her mom if she could take belly dance classes.

    I was so proud of her! I want to do that again. I want to spread the belly dance love!

    • jeana

      Thanks for sharing about your experiences, Michelle! Given that I’ve only known you post-belly-dance, I would’ve never pegged you for a wallflower (funnily enough, lots of people are surprised that I identify as an introvert).

      That’s wonderful about teaching the girls class. I love how empowering this dance form can be for young people!

  • This makes me happy. I have a similar relationship with belly dance, although I can’t quite articulate with words yet. I’m glad that you found belly dance, and that you are able to inspire others with your experiences.