Mind and Belly in Motion

Although class is conducted in front of a mirrored wall, my eyes are usually steadily trained on my instructor, not only because I am trying desperately to mimic her dancing, but also because I don’t want to see how awkward I look trying the new movements.  After initial timidity, I embraced the mid-section baring “Is Your Belly in Motion?” T-shirt I had purchased for class.  But it’s still hard to watch.

Sometimes while dancing, my mind wanders.  I think back to the first time I ever wore a bodysuit, those ridiculous snap-at-the-crotch shirts that my friends and I started wearing in the eighth grade.  My first bodysuit was purple, and although I had been excited to wear it to school that morning, I lost my confidence when I walked through the doors of my middle school.  I made a bee-line for my best friend’s locker and said, “do I look like a slut in this?,” suddenly uncomfortable with the small breasts that the top was made to show off.  “No!,” she answered; “you look really nice.”  I was relieved, although it was several class periods until I was comfortable enough to take my jacket off.  For many girls at that age, there is both a sense of shame and pride at burgeoning sexuality; you’re proud that you (finally) have breasts, but you’re also ashamed at the attention they attract.

In contrast, I’ve been more comfortable with my body in athletic settings.  When my high school volleyball team moved to the short, tight, spandex shorts that had become popular for the sport, I didn’t bat an eyelash, even as my teammates bemoaned the way the pants molded to their hips, thighs, and butts.  I was proud of my body on the court.  I was not a natural athlete, but I had long legs and arms that made me a valuable team member despite my difficulty learning new skills.  When I did master a skill, I felt powerful.  There was no shame because the attention I attracted was on account of something I had learned to do, unlike my sexuality, the development of and attraction to which seemed largely out of my control.

This love-hate relationship with my body has continued into adulthood.  I’m not embarrassed to wear tiny tanks and shorts when playing sports; the activity is less about what my body looks like, and more about what my body can do.  In other parts of my life, I’m more conservative.  It’s unlikely that I’ll play up my breasts with a low-cleavage shirt, or highlight my behind with a tight dress.  My preferred skirt length is right at the knee.  A large part of this is just maturity: at my age, I know that some things are best left to the imagination; that classy and sexy are not mutually exclusive.  Admittedly, though, a part of it is still a lingering discomfort with this aspect of my sexuality.  When my shirt is low-cut, or my skirt a little tight, I become that 13-year old girl again, wondering if I “look like a slut,” proud of my figure, but unable to shake the feeling that my sexuality is on display for others and out of my control.  I realize that these conflicting feelings are the result of growing up in a society where women are taught that their bodies normatively belong to men, and the shaming that results when women either fail to perform as expected or choose to control and enjoy their sexuality for themselves.

Bellydancing, however, has been a different experience.  Although it is undeniable that the movements celebrate female sexuality, the performance is not necessarily for men.  Rather, bellydancing is a folk dance passed down from mothers to daughters, learned in the company of women, and often performed for other women.  Bellydancing teaches that a woman’s strength is in her stomach and hips, not because these are the areas that are most attractive to men, but because these are the areas that house miraculous child-bearing abilities possessed only by women.  In learning the dance, I am encouraged to embrace my body in a place other than an athletic court.  Yes, I am baring my stomach, moving my hips, and rolling my body in ways that connote sexuality.  And, people passing by may enjoy it, as the young men who often stop to peer into the classroom on their way to the bathroom do.  But I dance for me, and for the women around me.  I control this display of sexuality, and for the first time, I like it.

The words of my instructor snap me out of my reverie, and my focus returns to the studio.  I steal furtive glances at myself in the mirror, and actually think, “not too bad.”  For a second I see that 13-year  old girl in the mirror as she confidently smiles at me, totally at ease with her body.  Right before my eyes dart back to my instructor, I smile back.

5 thoughts on “Mind and Belly in Motion

  1. I became comfortable with my sexuality when I took Belly Dancing class a age 50. Somehow learning those moves brought the awareness and pride . I did not need to relate it to a man. Just seeing myself in the mirror swinging those hips or isolating the muscles of my belly was enough for me. Yes, I am a woman , I felt , looking at my reflection.

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  2. I took one belly dancing class. It didn’t make me feel better about my body, which I’ve always been self conscious about. I think it’s the huge mirror in the room. I feel the same way in the gym, or at yoga – what’s the reason for the huge mirrors? I like my Congolese dance class I went to this weekend, where moving my body just “felt” right, or my yoga studio where there are no mirrors for me to see if I “look” right, because the movement just feels good. It’s only through those classes, in those places, that I can make peace with my body, that I can appreciate what it does and how it moves, and not get caught up in what it looks like.

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    1. As you suggest, there is definitely a difference between dancing “just because it feels good,” and dancing for the sake of mastery and/or performance. If you want to learn to do a dance “correctly” (whatever that means–out of respect to a cultural practice, or in accordance with a school of dance, or in accordance with a choreographer’s vision), you have to, at some point, actually see what you’re doing. Instructors can verbally give you feedback, but often that will not be as impactful as the instant feedback you get from seeing what your instructor is doing, and seeing what you’re doing with your own eyes.

      Even in yoga, however, where the movement is arguably and ultimately about mental clarity, there is benefit in getting the visual feedback, so that you can master the pose that provides mental and physical benefits. Moreover, maybe there is a lesson in accepting our bodies for what they are, awkward reflection and all.

      In any event, I’m not so much caught up in looking “wrong;” I want to get the dance right, but really I’m focused on how the dance–mastery of my performance of the dance does–affects my thoughts about my body and expressions of sexuality.

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      1. Even in yoga, though, there are debates about the efficacy of mirrors. In some linages, postures are to be adapted to your body, so there is no “right” way to do them. You can’t look at another person, even the teacher, so see if you are doing it right. Mastery of a pose is about what is going on in your body, and things you can feel – no matter what it looks like, if it doesn’t feel right, it’s wrong. There are basic principles, like lengthening the spine, pulling the belly and the ribcage in, etc, but beyond that, each body is different so each pose will look different in each body. Many times when a teacher adjusts a posture in a yoga class, they ask, “do you feel that?” because the point is to feel the pose and the adjustment in the body, not see it. So no mirror is needed. I also think mirrors make people fake it, or go farther than they should. They encourage competition, ’cause you can see everybody. Just my observation.

        I think in this westernization of yoga, mirrors are provided because people are more interested in the physical benefits of yoga, rather than the inner transformation. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, I just personally find it distracting because I was taught according to a lineage that doesn’t use mirrors, and the studio I frequent here doesn’t use mirrors. So when I go someplace that does use mirrors, it changes the experience for me.

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