How Did You Learn To Dance?

Last night when I was out at a slightly terrible club one of my new gay boyfriends complimented my stylin’ dance moves and asked me how I learned to do it.

“WHAT?” I screamed on the dance floor, pulling my scandalously low-cut top back up onto my shoulders.


“I’VE BEEN BELLYDANCING FOR EIGHT YEARS,” I yelled back. We then got into a weird discussion about downbeats and offbeats which culminated in my counting him in to that remix of “I Want To Dance With Somebody” by good old Whitney Houston: “One and TWO and three and FOUR” and by my telling him, annoyingly, “I don’t know, you just do it, you know?”

Today I had four hours of dance: two of my weekly tribal jam session and two of a Bollywood workshop. Since I took a long time off dance class while I was in Australia I have been reeeeally rusty so tribal jam has been really challenging lately, but I’d had high hopes for the Bollywood class. It ended up being fun for the most part because shoulder drops are always fun, but a little disappointing for me too, mainly because I tend to like very structured classes where you come away with, like, actual knowledge or whatever, and because I have a very weird antipathy to the encouragement, when uttered by an instructor, to “dance however you feel!” because I can dance however I feel in the club on a Saturday night, or, you know, bedroom mirror in my underwear for free.

I was explaining this all to Sylvia and Renu after the workshop and told them about the conversation I’d had with my friend in the club the night before.

“Actually,” I said, sipping my trim hot chocolate. “Actually, counting ballet and everything when I was a kid, it’s been more like twenty years. Or, even, like, twenty-five.”

And that was a pretty stunning revelation for me; at that table, between the three of us, we probably had something like seventy years of dance experience in all different areas. I often think of myself as an amateur (because I am an amateur) but it was kind of interesting to think of my life story through this lens.

I started dancing when I was a tiny kid, like possibly three or four; I have a vague memory of being in a dance studio where my mom was taking a class in what must have been the late seventies, when we were still living in upstate New York, and getting lost on the way to my own baby class. Much more clear is the school auditorium stage of my elementary school on the island, where the curtains were drawn every Wednesday afternoon and where about half the little girls in my class took ballet from our beautiful teacher Diana, the curve of whose neck and dark pulled-back bun I can still picture perfectly as she went to the record player to reset the Giselle LP for what had to have been the thousandth or ten thousandth time.

I was pretty good at ballet (though now I recognize I had a swayback even then, which continues to curse me today and makes keeping my tribal posture a continuing struggle) because I was quite flexible and because I could do the moves and positions fairly easily, I guess, and because I loved my beautiful teacher. She was part of a dance company that was located in what was, at that time, way down south in the sawgrass, and after a couple of years Mom started taking me down to Saturday morning classes too. It was pretty standard: there were leotards and shoes and disdainful older girls to idolize and a very angry Argentinian teacher who pulled my leg up above my head and slapped it while screaming—to a third-grader, mind you—“TIGHTER! TIGHTER! TIGHTER!” We had rehearsals and costumes and recitals and one time Key Girls Ashley and Marah and I were all in Peter And The Wolf, where I was the cat (white unitard and a tail made of a feather boa) and Marah (blue sequined tutu that I coveted) was the bird and Ashley (red pants and a black hat with a rifle) was a soldier. The Miami Herald did a story on our class once and in it I am quoted, at age eight, as saying something like “I take this very seriously—not like those little kids.”

Mom, interestingly, got into ballet around the same time I did, going en pointe when she would have been around forty and I was nine (e.g too late and too early, respectively). She and I were even in a production of The Hobbit together, performed on that same elementary school stage where she was Elrond and I was a dwarf. At the time I didn’t think it was out of the ordinary that she and I would share this hobby—she took me and my sister to see Flashdance in the theater, assuming that we’d like it because the promo posters involved someone in legwarmers–but now I think that it was amazing that we did that, that she would be willing to be a beginner alongside me and that she would enjoy it for her own sake instead of just as one of my after-school activities. Her feet are still jacked up from going en pointe when she did but I still remember her in her high eighties drag on that tiny stage in her elf ears, dancing with a bunch of kids, elegant and extended, unselfconscious in front of all the parents who probably never dreamt of doing such a thing themselves.

I quit ballet when I was about twelve, just before I gained a lot of puberty weight that probably would have forced me to either commit to a serious eating disorder or give up anyway. I started to want to just hang out with my friends instead of go to rehearsal and classes, and I started caring more about scrunching three different colors of socks perfectly one over the other than about tights and tutus. I was in drama classes and did plays when I was in middle and high school and those sometimes involved dance routines, but it wasn’t a part of my life at all outside of that; I was starting to identify as a fat girl and wore the biggest, baggiest clothes I could find and didn’t think about my body unless it was to hate it.

The first time I ever danced to non-musical-theater, non-ballet music, like you do at a club or a bar, was also the much-discussed occasion of my becoming friends with my dear Anna, my first year at college when I challenged her, upon meeting her in a Bible study, to a dance-off at an upcoming dorm party. Now she says she was intimidated by what we’ll just call my complete lack of shame and/or social filters, but of course she didn’t know I’d never done that kind of dancing before, the kind where you hop up and down and wave your arms semi-rhythmically to “Blue Monday” by New Order in the black-lit East Dorm lounge in 1993. It turns out that kind of dancing is pretty fun, and also that science geeks are a pretty forgiving and non-judgmental group to hang out with, in terms of the stylin’ dance moves, and I started doing it more often.

I was dancing at parties (TELL ME NOW HOW DOES IT FEEL) and had started taking a modern dance class at school, which was four hours a week and introduced me to yoga and to which I wore the same leggings and gigantic gray t-shirt every session. At the same time, for some reason the cool thing amongst my dorkily awesome friends became to take social dance, which I’m pretty sure correlated pretty closely to when Strictly Ballroom came out. Anna’s partner Rob became my first dance partner and all of a sudden we were all learning how to waltz and lindy hop and tango. My engineer friends used to host this event a couple of times a semester wherein they’d clear out the dining hall of their college and put on fancy clothes—formal dress was “admired but not required”–and put on music and light candles and everything. My sophomore year I think it was like eight people whirling around looking like idiots and having the best time. By my senior year it was so popular that the floor would be too crowded to comfortably polka on; that year I wore a dress Ashley had given me, that had belonged to her very glamourous grandmother who had been a model in the forties and which had an actual rabbit-fur neckline, and I have never felt so fancy, before or since.

But that’s the thing about graduating from college, isn’t it: no more sponsored activities, and all of a sudden you have to go to work every day and make your own fun. While I was still living in California I would occasionally go swing dancing at the Pasadena Ballroom Dance Association (Swingers had just come out) or go to a Gaskell up in the Bay Area when I was visiting Rob and Anna (who, by the way, one time lent me her wedding dress that she’d made herself for one of these) but that was it.

So I don’t exactly know why, when I already knew I was moving to Seattle for grad school, I typed “bellydance class inland empire valley” into that new-fangled Yahoo! thing on my work computer. I think I must have been going through yet another bout of severe body image issues and I was discovering how much I hated going to the gym. They say you should find exercise that you like and I think I’d read about bellydance online or something and I thought that maybe it would be something good for a fat girl to do—after all, it has “belly” right in the name, you know? It turned out there was a class in the back room of a crystals-and-incense shop right down the road from me on Foothill Boulevard, and I took myself over there one afternoon, wearing, if I recall correctly, a huge t-shirt and the blue skirt.

That first class, even as I was struggling with the concept of a hip circle, I remember realizing that even though I didn’t know what I was doing, I knew what I was doing. The language—find your center, shift your weight–made a sort of sense to me and at the end of the hour one of the other students complimented me, asking how long I’d been doing it. “It’s my first class,” I said, and I thought right then and there that it wouldn’t be my last.

Seattle, it turned out, is a city where you can take a different bellydance class with a different bellydance teacher every night of the week if you can afford it, and even that first year I was up there I performed in the solstice parade, carrying a red veil and wearing pearl decorations that my mom helped me sew onto my costume. I wasn’t very good and I bounced around a lot, doing different styles with different teachers for something like four years. I didn’t progress as quickly or as well as I might have—I always feel like such an oaf when I tell people I’ve been bellydancing for nearly a decade because I feel I should be so much better than I am, for having done it so long—because I stayed at the beginner one-class-a-week for a long time. I haven’t been to any of the big dance festivals yet; I didn’t then and don’t now have much of a gear collection, because I perform so rarely that I always feel I can’t really justify the expense; I also didn’t get very involved in the dance community for a really long time, not even after I’d finally found tribal and started to see some visible improvements in my dance. I have been on the outskirts, it feels, for quite a while, both back in Seattle and here in Wellington. I have often felt that I am just one extra class per week from improving the way I want to.

But I have never stopped going, even if I am not as good as I want to be. Even when I was unemployed I still found money to go to class, and when I got here one of the first things I did to try to get settled and make friends was to find the bellydancers. As you might remember I was invited to be part of a student troupe literally the month before I left Seattle, and I still think about those girls all the time and follow their progress and wish, very often, that one of the prices I paid to come to New Zealand didn’t have to be missing out on the chance to dance with them on a regular basis.

Happily, though…and we are lunging up to the present in this history…I have found excellent dance sisters here and am slowly finding aplace for myself in the dance community, even getting up the nerve to perform every once in a while. The scene here is very different to that in Seattle and sometimes I find myself getting a bit frustrated, the way I did today at the Bollywood workshop, because the vast array of bellydance options just don’t exist here the way they do in the States, not yet. But usually I get over myself and realize that even if the teacher wasn’t a good fit for me or I feel I didn’t get everything I wanted to out of a class: hello. I just spent two hours listening to awesome music and doing mudras and step-ball-changes with fantastic women, and I don’t know about you, but that’s a pretty good way to spend a Sunday afternoon, you know?

Ooh, also, I don’t know how this all connects, but this entry is already over two thousand words so why stop now: Wellington has been the place where I have, for the first time in my life, also started doing more dancing in clubs. I can’t not do some variation of some tribal move somehow when I’m on the floor, even if it’s just an undulation, and it’s been a source of some pride that random non-bellydancers will often express appreciation when I get out there and start shaking my thing. It is one of the quiet little triumphs in my life when a civilian compliments me on something that a bellydancer would find quite ordinary; I just love the idea that this is something I do in the world outside the classroom too, that the technique and emotion that we we learn something new in our dance lives can actually make the rest of our lives better and more awesome. In fact I like the idea, actually, that our dance lives and the rest of our lives are one and the same.

I just love to dance. That’s it, that’s all: I love it. It’s become non-negotiable for me to do this, to use my body and mind and heart in this fashion. I think I will always dance somehow, some way—tribal or swing or salsa or just plain booty-shaking or whatever, as long as I can. I hope to be out on the dance floor when I’m seventy-five, dropping my shoulders and rolling my belly, step-ball-changing and turning on the six, screaming into an elderly gay boyfriend’s ear once again: “I’VE BEEN DOING THIS FOR SIXTY-EIGHT YEARS!”

1 comment

  1. Yes, exactly!

    Something I remember reading in the past few years was a comment about picking up hobbies as an adult. Sure, starting belly dance (or violin or singing or painting) at, say, 30 may SEEM to be “too old” but if you live to an average “old” age (60) you’ll have been doing it for 30 years! Half your life!

    My troupe danced at a local hafla last year with a dancer who is in her seventies (and didn’t even start dancing until her 30s, I think). Sure, she may not be a limber young thing Turkish Dropping all over the place, but she loves belly dance and you can tell. Of course, she also called our troupe sex-a-licious or something like that, so I think she’s a bit of a . . . spitfire.