And the body, what about the body?
Sometimes it is my favorite child,
uncivilized. . .
And sometimes my body disgusts me.
Filling and emptying it disgusts me. . . .
This long struggle to be at home
in the body, this difficult friendship.
-Jane Kenyon (From “Cages”)
In my inaugural post I mentioned that perhaps I would never really know why I was drawn to Bellydance, but I’d like to dig a bit deeper into that mystery—partly because I don’t believe it to be entirely true. Like the legions of other modern-day Westerners living mostly sedentary lives, I believe I was searching for a different type of wake-up, one that I didn’t know even existed. I wouldn’t realize how starved my body was for strength and movement until many months after I started a regular dance practice.
If you are a writer reading this, my story may not apply to you. I have writer friends who were athletes through grade and high school, lovers of literature who now lead spin classes, swim, run, bike, play baseball and surf. If you are one of those sporty folks, I commend you for your longtime practice of being in touch with your physical self, for the enjoyment you derive from such activities.
But I am not one of you, dear athletes. Never was. As I coined in my inaugural post, I was a “skinny, couch potato-bookworm” ever since I can remember. After school I’d rush home, ride my bike up and down the driveway once or twice for good measure, then curl up with Judy Blume or one of my own notebooks. I despised gym class and had no interest in taking up any of the sports popular with my classmates—field hockey, soccer, cheerleading. None appealed.
Dance, however, did appeal, ever since I saw “The Nutcracker” at five and subsequent ballet recitals of my cousin’s. The problem was, of course, that dance is not offered in schools—at least not public ones. And my parents, busy with their multiple small businesses, did not have the time or money to shuttle me to dance lessons twenty minutes away. I faced a similar setback when I found myself drawn to acting. I took up the craft that was free aside from pencils and paper. Writing would be my calling. Dance faded to a distant memory of what might-have-been.
And so things remained. Until a student’s essay rocked my world at twenty-seven.
In the months leading up to my enrollment in classes at Orlando Bellydance, I could feel the inactivity of my literary lifestyle creeping up. When you’re naturally thin, people make comments your whole life akin to, “But look at you—not an ounce to lose!” At which one politely smiles and says, through gritted teeth, “Yes, but being skinny doesn’t mean healthy.” Health means strength, balance, and not getting winded when jogging up two flights of stairs. And since the only exercise I was getting happened when I took the stairs from the university parking garage to my classroom, I knew I was in trouble.
At twenty-seven I slammed up against the grim reality that if I kept up my literary couch-potato-habits for the rest of my life, I would likely be setting up a path to poor health. How would I write all those novels and stories I was envisioning? For writing lengthy, quality prose takes stamina, or so I was learning in grad school. If I wanted to stick around for another fifty years and write anything worth reading, I would have to take care of myself. And that meant being active.
The problem was I hadn’t found a form of exercise that I could really commit to. I had delved into a running regimen the year before, soon cut short by shin splints, among other conditions. So I had switched to swimming, which ended mid-October when the first cold snap descended upon Florida. And I’ve always hated gyms—the equipment, the TVs flickering, everyone minding their own business yet scoping the scene, since there’s nothing else to occupy oneself with. A gym was not where I wanted to spend my free time.
How many others fail to connect with their bodies because they feel the same way? And how many of the standard workout activities we are familiar with lack imagination, variety, and a mind-body-spirit connection? I shudder to imagine. As a child I loved recess but hated the competition which surrounded school sports and gym class. The message wrapped around physical activity was that it involved getting knocked around, striving for some (in my eyes) trivial goal, driving a puck or ball into a net. Some people thrive in such arenas, but it only made me feel uncomfortable, less of myself. Now I wonder how many others like me are out there—who would have thrived as kids, physically and mentally, if introduced to dance, yoga or martial arts as an alternative to gym or extracurricular sports, rather than suffer the humiliation of shrinking against the wall, being last pick for the team? How many carry these fears to adulthood, where such thoughts hold them back from exploring alternative forms of exercise?
But these are questions that have only recently begun to arise from my practice, nearly four years later. The self I was back in Level One & Two Bellydance was having no such epiphanies yet—for it takes awhile for the reawakening body to open up new pathways in the mind. I clearly remember the first “aha moment” brought upon by dance. I had only been taking classes for a few months when I sprained my ankle badly, jumping into a neighbor’s swimming pool. I was confined to crutches and the couch for four weeks, with nothing to do but write my fiction thesis for my MFA in Writing program. So I’ll get to write for a month, I thought. What’s so bad about that?
Except I was no longer the couch potato bookworm I’d been my whole life. My newly-toned muscles twitched, hating to remain still; my whole being ached to move, to walk. To dance. It was then I realized, for the first time, how much we take our bodies and youth for granted. That one day, if I didn’t take advantage of the physicality and health I was blessed with now, I would be an old, fragile woman, looking back with regret, thinking, “I could have become a dancer. I thought I was too old to start in my late-twenties. My God, what a fool I was!”
The restlessness I felt, the longing to resume the strength and stamina I had achieved in just a few brief months through dance, not to mention the fun of going to class, sealed my decision. Once my sprained ankle healed, I would learn to Bellydance to the extent that my ability, wallet and time would allow. I would never allow myself to fall so out of shape again, not when I was an otherwise healthy young adult. To do so seemed inexcusable, an insult to who I was as a human being, let alone to those in the world who lack the ability to fully move—the elderly, the sick and disabled.
I set this as my intention over three years ago. But it has not been easy. Unless you are someone who writes fiction by walking around with a recorder, writing requires sitting for long periods. For me, it requires long periods of stillness and quiet, (sometimes a strange trance-like state of staring at walls—I’m only being somewhat facetious). It requires long periods of research on the computer, reading, taking notes, editing, typing; in nearly every aspect writing is counter-opposed to dance. Yet I know I need dance as much as ever, and for the writing. Six months after starting Bellydance, my ankle healed, I was back in the studio. I received my first publication acceptances that fall; my writing was stronger than ever. The following year I would begin my novel, and I know I would not have made it through the first draft had I not shoved aside my laptop in the late afternoons, grabbed my dance bag and headed for the studio. I was awarded my first residency that fall and brought my music, veils and hipscarves with me, so that after a long day of writing at the VCCA barn I could dance for half an hour.
Would I be writing as well without dance? Was the breakthrough in my writing several years ago inevitable, independent my lifestyle change? There’s no way to know for sure, of course, if the same creative achievements I’ve made on the page might have resulted from long daily walks, tai-chi or meditations. But having written for decades without movement, I’m not willing to experiment with abandoning the practice. My health, and the health of my writing, depends on it.