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BABY BELLY DANCER: My First Belly Dance Class

Updated: Feb 21

Okay. I'm finally ready to tell you what happened after a coin and fringe bra literally saved my life. Many of the references I make in this piece come from that tale.


October 1992

19 years old


She is so amazing! She is the most beautiful woman I have ever met in person. Her name is Hala, and the way she dances? I mean, just the way she walks and gestures and smiles is so...


I don't know what it is.


But I want to learn that even more than I want to learn belly dancing. I don't know how to describe her because, where I come from, women like her only exist in movies. She's like Wonder Woman, Paula Abdul, and Cleopatra, all rolled into one. Thick waves of coffee-hued hair pour down to the middle of her back. Blonde streaks outline the waves like whitecaps on the crashing surf. These are no subtle highlights. They're not even frosting. They are bold and brilliant--the kind of highlights I've only seen onscreen or on wild-child rockers in the record store downtown.


Hala's eyes are the same deep brown as her hair, luminous and almond-shaped, lined with long lashes and more bold lines--black this time, sweeping across the curves of her eyelids into pin-sharp points beneath her equally sweeping brows. The rest of her makeup is more perfect than any music video star's--all garish clowns compared to her.


Yet her makeup is a dramatic masterpiece. It's simply been done in tones that match her natural coloring, calling more attention to her intrinsic beauty, rather than to the face-paint itself. Beneath the harsh work lights of the high school stage where she teaches this belly dance class, her skin still glows like it's been kissed by the sun. Miles of it show beyond her black sports bra and her black spandex shorts. Her body is another masterpiece, this time painted in the highlights and shadows of musculature.


She is a workout queen. Not only did she say so (she teaches fitness through the community college, in addition to this class), but her strength and athleticism shout it at first glance.


Yet it's so much more than the power and tone of her muscles. Her glow has little to do with makeup or skin. Something radiates from within her, and it is this quality that captivates me even more than her physical beauty or the luscious moves she's showing us.


She calls instructions over the sneaker-squeaks and whistle-laden sounds of high schoolers practicing basketball in the gym on the other side of the velvet stage curtain, and over the music emanating from the boom-box behind her. Her voice is rich and deep, but it is not just her heavy accent that is so foreign, so captivating to me.


It's the way she speaks, as though holding nothing back. Yet there's no aggression or force to it. She simply...speaks what's on her mind. And she asks what she wants to know. Directly. With no hidden inflection. There is certainly no high-pitched "feminine" affectation. She laughs from her belly, up through her throat, and out through her whole being. It sparkles her eyes. It tosses her hair, but not in that artificial way I've seen so many females do it, from little girls to silver-haired women. So choreographed. So perfected. Hala's daring locks sway naturally when she throws her head back--in a laugh, in a gushy move inspired by the orchestral strings of the music, or when she glances at us to check our progress.


We eighteen-to-thirty-somes follow her in a circle, stepping and twisting one hip forward, then the other. There are six of us in the class. As the new arrival today, I have been given the spot directly behind our teacher. Over her shorts, Hala wears a turquoise scarf thick with gold coins. They shiver and pop with her every movement--some of the moves Renee was showing off in the mirror that day, but now with a range of motion and precision acquired over a lifetime of dancing this way, inherited from countless other lifetimes.


Hala told me at our introduction that she had never performed onstage until moving to the United States--that it wasn't something a respectable woman did in her homeland. "This is the way the women of my country dance. In the kitchen, at a party...this is just the way we move."


Now that I'm following behind her, eyes riveted on that chinking, tinkling scarf, I understand: my body was born to the wrong kitchen-dances. My personality may not have been--I've never reacted well to the sort of restrictions and stigma she described--but this was how I was born to move!


Hadn't Laurie assured me of that?


You have wonderful hips. It’s like they were made for it.


Well, it turns out she was right.


I've missed more than half the class session already, but it doesn't seem to matter. I follow our teacher around and around like a puppy-tail at last free to wag without hindrance. After spending my entire freshman year in Ballet last year, tormented over my inadequate angles of flexibility and my Ox-Clod harrumphing, and even now in Modern Dance this semester, learning Hala's way of expressing music is like surfacing after being too long underwater.


The music itself is enchanting, too. I have never heard this kind of music, except maybe in those couple James Bond clips I can't fully remember. But I've never been exposed to percussion like this. It's so...clear. Like a fountain or waterfall, occasionally raindrops, rather than the relentless, heavy pound of rock music. Even when the strings and strange, high-pitched horns drop out, leaving only the percussion, these drums practically sing.


And that's when Hala's coins really get going!


The way she lifts and drops her hips--BOOM! And her shimmy--WHRRRRRRR! And the intricate pops and twists--Boom-boom, chickka-chickka-whrrrr-pop! It's not only the coins that vibrate. It's the weighty musculature of her thighs and butt. She is very toned, but she is also very curvy. All woman, and zero shame about it.


She is so glorious I can't take my eyes off her. All I can do is follow her commands and mimic her every move.


I shift my weight back onto one foot to get my own butt and thigh bouncing up and down. The same kind of reverberation shudders through me. Not as big, because I'm scrawnier than Hala is, especially after dropping all that weight when I got so depressed last spring. My moves also don't have her range of motion or well-honed power, but I can feel it starting already.


Flesh wiggling.


Thighs jiggling.


Butt bouncing--


Only sluts shake their asses.


Only sluts bare their midriffs.


Sluts have to sit at the front of the bus.


Thunder-thighs.


We thought you liked having your ass grabbed.


BOOM-badda-BOOM-badda--


I force my attention back onto Hala's coin belt.


Her dance is not slutty. Sure, it's flirty. It's definitely sexy. But there's also a sort of innocence to it, compared to MTV. Compared to so many other acts of seduction and sexiness I've ever witnessed. Overt acts. Slathering, panting, bedroom-hungry-eyes and lip-licking invitation like turning on the camera during that moment before the actual act.


I've always heard belly dance was basically stripping without getting nude, but now upon witnessing it up close, I see that it is something else.


This is the glance. The invitation where you just...know. Or rather...you suspect. It's more about the question. The curiosity, and the invitation into finding out, rather than the grind of flesh-on-flesh, with sweat and breath mingling in the dark and--


My heart cracks again at that image. For a half-hour, I had forgotten.


He doesn't want me anymore. He wants HER. Elissa. The good girl. The wait-until-marriage-kind. The worthy-of-marriage kind. Not the kind who really does lick lips and give hungry-eyes in the bedroom. Not the kind who shakes her butt and lets her thighs jiggle like this in her dancer leggings and--


Crack-crack!


I blink hard at the loud clap of Hala's hands. She shoos us off for a water break.


As I take a much needed swig from my water bottle and wipe my sweaty forehead with the back of my forearm, I can't help wondering if he would enjoy watching me dance like this. He never saw me dance onstage. I only danced for him in private, and he definitely liked that. I suspect he might like this even more.


Then again, probably not in the way that would remind him how he once wanted to marry me. No, it would probably just remind him of the way he "still can't help wanting me" when I came to help him with his Algebra homework--stupid. As though having sex with him would accomplish anything except--


"You're doing very well."


I glance up at Hala. Her smile echoes her words, inciting a flush from my cheeks. "Thanks," I say, thrilled that she noticed what I had felt while dancing, but couldn't be sure if it was all in my imagining. "I love it already."


"Good. You are a natural. I can see already."


My pulse thrums. My heart swells. I can see already, too: I will be coming back to this class next week, and the week after and the week after that. I also know what I'll be doing whenever I have no homework or other classes. It'll be me in elementary school all over again, stealing those fifteen minutes in the living room of an empty house every morning before school. It'll be me in the back yard all through junior high and high school, teaching myself back-walkovers and making choreographies.


But this time, I won't be wearing a shorty-short cheerleading skirt. I'll be wearing coins on my hips and I'll be shaking them like Hala and Renee.


--


November 1992

Three Weeks Later


She's invited me to perform with the troupe! That means extra rehearsals to learn the actual choreographies, instead of just the basic moves. Today it also means a shopping trip to find the supplies for a costume that will match what she and the other girls already have.


I have never shopped at Cimarron before. It's the kind of clothing store that rich ladies and elegant women come to. In fact, that's exactly how I'd describe the woman behind the counter and every other patron in this place, including Hala.


Everyone except me.


The still-teenaged, tomboy writer-geek, dancer-wanna-be. Good thing I'm also a theater-nerd, so I toss on my best imitation of Hala's confident cool as I follow her through the maze of circular racks stuffed with shiny, sparkly, flowy clothing: evening gowns and pants suits, sequined sweaters and cocktail dresses. She bypasses them all and goes directly to the back corner.


My eyes widen.


I am surrounded by lacy panties, negligees, and pushup bras.


"Take off your coat," Hala commands with a flick of her hand.


I glance down at the heavy gray wool of the winter jacket I found last year at the Army-Navy outlet. I love this coat, but I suddenly feel like the lead-hoof ox again, especially under the slitted eyes of a chic lady carrying a plum satin-and-lace dress to the counter. When I undo the big metal buttons of my coat and set it on the brocade-covered chaise lounge, I fidget in my oversized sweatshirt and leggings--also gray. The heel of my grungy right tennis shoe taps a few times against the toe of its mate. They're wet from the snow outside in the parking lot.


"That too," Hala says, waving at my sweatshirt. "I must see your body."


"Okay," I mumble, and peel it off to reveal a white-and-blue, long-sleeved t-shirt, even more oversized because I had inherited it three years ago from my first boyfriend. Mr. All-Star Quarterback was six-foot-two, so the thing hangs down to mid-thigh on me. But it's one of the only casual long-sleeve shirts I have, and it keeps me warmer than a t-shirt or tank-top.


Hala scowls as she approaches me with a bra. It has black lace and red embroidery on it. "Do you have another top under that?"


"No. Just my bra."


My unadorned, fleshy-toned bra. One of three. All the same. Utility. Not elegance.


Her hand flutters again. "Pull that tight."


I grab the cotton of my shirt and draw it behind my back, standing there like the chastened prisoner at attention.


Hala holds the bra up against my chest, gives a hum of consideration, and says, "Perhaps." She holds out the hanger and its fancy, molded garment for me to take.


I do.


She comes back and forth with several others, only two of which make it to the "perhaps" pile growing atop my coat and sweatshirt. But then she gasps from the far side of a rack. Bustling toward me with her bright eyes and smile a-glow, she holds up another top before I can get a good look at it. Within half a second, satisfaction floods her gaze. "Yes. This. Go now." A shoo toward the dressing room. "Try this."


"Okay."


Behind the silky curtain, I examine what she chose: a velvet bustier in black, emerald, ruby, and gold. The stretchy cloth has boning sewn into it like a tiny corset with eye hooks down the back. The cups are separate and fitted. I wriggle out of my tomboy top. After much hooking and scootching and tugging and hoisting, I get the bustier on and dare to look in the mirror.


It fits me perfectly.


For a few moments, I stare at it. It is one of the most beautiful pieces of clothing I've ever worn. Such a tiny thing. It just covers my ribcage and barely covers everything above. I give a little bounce to see if I'll shake myself out of the thing when I move the wrong way. Nope. Everything stays put. (Not that I have much to shake, but still.) I try harder. Huh. The bustier is so well-made that I can't jiggle myself loose, even with a ridiculous thrash of my torso and shoulders--nothing like the delicate shoulder-shimmies Hala taught me.


"Well?" she calls.


"It fits."


"Show me."


I gulp hard. Grabbing the curtain, I peek only my head out to see if anybody else is around. One elderly lady and her younger companion chat on the other side of the store with the sales clerk, so I open the curtain. Hala comes forward to scrutinize me. Her finger circles in the air. I turn. Turn again until I'm facing her once more.


"Move like I showed you." Her hands and shoulders waft. "Show me."


My eyes fly open again. Edging back farther into the dressing stall, I give another shoulder shimmy, waft my own hands a little. I pop my foot forward like she taught us and bounce my hip up and down. Then I go back to normal and shrug with my hands out like, "Well? What do you think?"


Her beam of approval brings out my huge goober-grin--nothing like the reactions I get at the university. Man, I love this belly dance thing!


She steps toward me and places one finger under my chin to lift it until my eyes raise from the carpet to meet hers. "Beautiful," she says, and I get the feeling she's not only talking about the bustier.


My first belly dance costume. 19 years old, 1992.


Over the ensuing weeks, I learned the troupe dances for our upcoming performance at a local retirement home, and Hala sewed a costume for me to wear. After our stop at Cimarron, we had gone to Claire's for more jewelry to add to the fancy brooch she had found for the bustier. I had also left the shop with a pair of black-and-gold velvet panties to wear under the skirt she planned to make. We found fabrics at Joann's, which she transformed into six long, rectangular panels--black glitter-dot framing the center panels of black chiffon, front and back, to which she hand-sewed sequins that matched my bustier.


It was one of the sweetest things anybody had ever done for me, and remains so to this day.


By the time I joined the troupe, our class and rehearsals had moved to the cafeteria of a middle school, a squeaky-clean expanse of white tiles and white walls, but it was quiet there. No pounding gym shoes, shrill whistles, or yelling coaches to compete with. Only the heavenly strains of ouds, drums, and crooning in Arabic, accompanied by the tinkle of coins and Hala's commands.


When she invited me to dance with the troupe for the news crew scheduled to interview her about the class and our upcoming performance, I could barely contain my elation.


Hala had us all come early so she could help us with our makeup. Once finished, I gawked at myself in the mirror. Once again, I didn't recognize the face staring back at me, but this time I loved what I saw. The way she outlined my eyes--they had never appeared so lustrous and vibrant before. As we stood side-by-side in the mirror, I didn't regret that someone else's makeover theory didn't look nearly as good on me as it did on their big, round, blue eyes. My eyes were nearly the same shape as Hala's, and brown as well.


I finally didn't mind that the bottom half of my hair was still darkest brown from that disastrous dye job last spring. It was nearly as dark as hers and Diana's, my partner in the dances and my new fast-friend.


Diana was a year younger than I was, a recent arrival from Italy where she had spent much of her childhood. We went each week to a local nightclub that had eighteen-and-over admission on Thursday nights. There we spent hours nursing a Coke and copious amounts of water while burning up the dance floor as a dynamic duo.


In the troupe, we quickly became the lone pair of back-up girls. One of the other ladies had to bow out of the group, so by the time we prepared for the news crew, it was down to Hala with Diana and me.


To top off the afternoon, my teacher held out the fancy paper bag from Cimarron, now stuffed with my complete costume. She had also finished a costume for Diana. As we stood before the mirror in our matching makeup and coordinated costumes, I felt a whole lifetime of misfit-dom begin to slide off my shoulders. It allowed me to push them back and open my chest, to stand taller and look at myself in the mirror without scorn and without flinching away.


I looked at those two beautiful, smiling women as well, and let their glows ignite my own.


I had finally found the birds of my type of feather.


--


I still have pieces of that costume. I also still have the skirt panels of Diana's matching black-and-silver one. When she quit dancing, I inherited it. The holographic-silver of that glitter-dot is still among my favorite pieces.


Ahhhhh, the days of large glitter-dot. How I miss it. Now they only come in tiny dots, which don't give nearly the same POW! as the originals.


Alas, the bustier died two decades ago, gone the way of the Velveteen Rabbit. I wore it until the velvet tore through along the boning. I used the brooch until it broke. Diana's fringe bra eventually fell apart, too, and both of our stretch-sequin belts stretch no more. Her black one now crowns a full waterfall of black panel-skirting, including my original chiffon and glitter-dot, and I still have my gold belt, but I haven't figured out what to put it on. It lives in the supply bin with the other large trims. My original gold chain necklace with the flat, stamped gold coins lives in the bin with the other heavy metal accoutrements.


I've never had the heart to give away any of those cherished pieces.


I don't know that I ever will, as long as I breathe.


The two glitter-dot skirts, my original gold sequin belt,

and my original two necklaces.


That most generous gift from my first teacher, sewn by her own hands, was such an act of love and belief in me. But in those eight weeks I got to study with her, she gave me so much more than shiny fabric and jingling metal. She gave me a glimpse into an alternative of femininity so different from the ones I had grown up with. She gave me an alternative in dance, too, and in the new modes of my self-expression that would be born of it.


A glimpse was more than enough to take full root.


By the end of my first class I was hooked. Belly dance felt right. It felt ME.


By the end of my first month, I was salvaged. I had found something I truly wanted again. This new passion had hauled me, shaking and shimmying, out of the abyss of repressed memories and desolation. It also derailed me from numbing myself out with alcohol, which I had taken to doing more and more in my sophomore year. It gave me a reason to jump out of bed each morning with excitement and enthusiasm that had been missing in my heart for too long.


By the end of my second month, I was a belly dancer and nobody could turn me away from it. People tried. But the trajectory of my life had taken a 222-degree turn. I barreled down this new dance path and refused to be derailed, no matter how many people tried to dissuade me, detour me, boot me off it, or throw up road blocks. The path disappeared multiple times into the toolie bushes where I lost my way. It took me screeching off the edge of several cliffs where I had to traverse lava or swim through piranha-filled waters, then mend myself and claw my way back up on the other side.


But it's worth it.


The Dance.


For better and worse, it made me who I am.



CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE

--UP NEXT: THE MAKING OF AN 8 WEEK WONDER--My Transition to Kismet

--Want the whole caboodle of dance adventures? Here they are.

--Are you as much of a costume fiend as I am? I've started listing the posts with my dance photo shoots here.

--Did you miss why that makeover was such a big deal to me?

--THE NAVIGATION TABLE OF CONTENTS

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