One of the first questions I’m asked when people find out I practice the art of Bellydance is: how did you get into that? Among the most curious, no surprise, are the other writers I meet at conferences and colonies, as well as longtime literary friends who I haven’t seen in awhile. So it seems fitting to begin at the beginning, and even more so that the answer to the oft-repeated question how did you start bellydancing? has everything to do with my life as a writer.
It boils down to this: I likely would have never discovered Bellydance had I not been a writer.
In fall of 2007 bellydancing, let alone becoming a bellydancer was about the furthest thought from my mind. Like scores of other emerging young writers, I was juggling a hefty class load while earning my MFA in Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts, shuffling back and forth between teaching at UCF during the day and Rollins College in the evenings. The Rollins College students were older than the typical undergraduates, struggling to balance day jobs with earning degrees at night; in many ways my students and I were in the same boat together. The class was a challenge to teach in an entirely different way—they whined more briefly about their assignments, for one. But they also tended to leap into their learning with more enthusiasm and vigor. One such assignment that provoked immediate groans and fretful questioning was my favorite to give out: the Immersion Essay, in which students had to play journalists, go out and undertake an experience they had never done before with the intention of writing an essay about it afterwards. One of the students, Judy, decided for her “immersion” she would take a Bellydance class.
Judy’s essay was fantastic—vivid in sensory details and thorough in her exploration of her expectation and the end results. As I scribbled my comments on the last page of her essay, I thought, I think I want to try a Bellydance class. Judy had earned her A, but in so doing had accomplished exactly what great writing is supposed to do—persuade others to think a different thought, take a different action, perhaps wildly out of the norm. As a writing teacher, it reinforced in me the power of words. As Pat Schneider, author of “Writing Alone and With Others,” and founder of Amherst Writers & Artists says, “A writer is someone who writes.” Never underestimate the power of anyone’s words to move you.
This student’s paper literally did—move me.
But not right away. Like many other well-intentioned goals, “try a beginning Bellydance class” remained on my bucket list for another couple of months. Until New Year’s came around. My younger sister was visiting between her college break, and scraping my brain for a fun, sisterly activity to do, I said, “How about a Bellydance class?” She was game. We looked up the studio, Orlando Bellydance, and emailed the owner and teacher, Suspira, who confirmed.
“Suspira,” my sister remarked with a wry grin. “She even has a cool name.”
I recall getting a bit nervous then, wondering what to expect. What had I just gotten myself into? I was a writer. I had been a skinny couch potato-bookworm for most of my life. My dance experience amounted to a year of ballet when I was five. I didn’t think of myself as being particularly coordinated. What if I was about to make a fool of myself?
Several days later we showed up to the tiny studio, then near the Rollins College campus in Winter Park. Suspira was a petite, curvaceous woman who crossed the room briskly with a bright smile. She invited us to don hipscarves from the baskets near the door. We stretched and warmed up to Middle Eastern music, and the class began. Quickly I realized we were in the hands of a master teacher, someone centered on the students’ learning, not her own ego. She broke down all of the steps clearly, kept our interest with the lesson’s variety; in no time at all the hour had vanished and I was facing myself in the mirror, thinking, I want to do this again.
And do it again I would. My sister went home, and the following week I was back at Level One Bellydance.
What was it about those first classes that so captured me about the experience? Perhaps it was the change of reality, of just doing something different from the pattern that life had fallen into: campus, car, computer, and back again the next day. Perhaps it was a semester of grading, reading and writing for so long that my back and neck ached, and I forgot what it was like to move and to feel my heart in shape. Perhaps it was arriving to those first classes and chatting with the other women as we stretched, interacting with people out of the realm of my ordinary life—psychiatrists, Disney employees, cancer survivors, frazzled moms. Perhaps I’ll never know. All I knew was that I was hooked, because I had encountered this same compulsion before—as a child, when I first discovered writing.
Fast forward three years. I’m at my after-dance class pit stop, Whole Foods on Aloma Avenue (shortly after I started attending Orlando Bellydance, the school outgrew the space and is now located at a spacious studio on the other side of 436). I’m dressed in fitted, purple flared pants and a cropped dance top, my hair so long it sways down my back. I’m slightly sweaty, wearing plum lipstick, blush and mascara. In the pasta aisle, I run into Judy. We exclaim hello and exchange pleasantries. She says, “You know, I still remember that essay I wrote for your class, the one on Bellydance. It was my favorite assignment.”
I must have laughed. “I do too,” I said. “Would you believe because of that essay, I’ve become a bellydancer? I’m in the master classes now.” And I gestured to my outfit, her expression turning to awe.
Looking back, I have to admire the natural progression of events coming full circle in running into Judy at the grocery store. I couldn’t have invented a more perfect ending to the story of “How I Became a Bellydancer” if I was writing fiction, my usual medium. But I ought to have known, shouldn’t I, that this was only the first of many surprises in store. I’ve heard other writers proclaim, only half-jokingly, that artists cannot serve two masters. And they are correct in their skepticism, for the path to doing so is rife with conflict. For if you pursue two art forms seriously and simultaneously, one form dips into the other, feeds, informs and shapes it—and inevitably threatens to smother the other altogether. Sacrifices must be made.
But I write fiction. I hunt down conflict and spear it with my words. I don’t like taking no for an answer and I believe we all have many talents and should use them (i.e. Leonardo da Vinci), are required by the universe to use them, once they appear. This is my vision for “The Shimmying Writer”—to explore my journey of serving two muses, writing and Middle Eastern dance. I hope you will be moved to think, to learn and be inspired, as Judy’s essay those years ago inspired me to create another version of myself, free of words, of body over mind—a bellydancer.