Snake Hips

Jul. 25th, 2009 01:06 pm
auraesque: Mad Men (Default)
[personal profile] auraesque

Chelsea breaks into a smile when I
tie my red coin scarf around her hips. She tentatively touches the
coins, each stamped with “God is great” in Arabic, and twists her hips
from side to side. She looks relaxed and grounded, but when she turns
to the mirror and looks at her reflection, she sees herself standing
awkwardly hunched over, feet splayed, and she freezes. What step comes
next? She is convinced she will make a wrong move and break the

I recognize myself in her static, uncertain lines. I do a quick spin,
small hip circle and broken body wave and end in a shimmy. I invite
her to dance with me. Her uncertain half-starts soon form full-bodied,
joyful shimmies that her class the hardwood floor at a glide with me.
The way she holds herself, the structure to her limbs and torso breaks
down into finer angles. Her arms look less like scarecrow and more
like snake and her belly, one she was uncertain about showing,
vibrates as rapidly as the rest of her.

I tell her she needs no special shoes, not special costumes, and her
hair is best not pulled back. Belly dance is the only dance in the
world that requires so little, but demands so much control to do well.
There are no distractions, no pre-formulated choreography, just her
and a drumbeat that pulls straight through her belly. She doesn’t know
the weight she dances with in her hips, but she doesn’t need to to
dance with joy.

In time, she will learn about the history of belly dance, how it is
painted onto the walls of the Pyramids of Giza, becomes the embodiment
of the Oriental Other, grew from roots in ritual dance in birth and
temple worship, how it was completely torn apart and rebuilt in the
20th century into a Hollywood version of its former self, and how a
dancer today can define herself as part of a tribe of women that is
uniquely American.

The desire for self-discovery and redefinition, something I had wanted
as a student in high school, but I hadn’t known that it would be this
dance that would become my grounding, my secret, my obsession, since.
Since it is best to never dance alone I love to share it with others.
What belly dance brings out of them is always intriguing to watch.
When Bonnie tries on Isis wings for the first time, she sways in front
of the mirror, humming. I ask how they feel. “Sorry, what? I’m singing
in my head,” she laughs.

This dance is addictive; once pulled into the world of bright, flashy
costumes and learning to execute impossible hip moves, it’s almost
impossible to leave its enchantments behind. It begins to affect my
outward life too. I count off everything in eighths and wonder what I
fun I could have with a cane down a busy section of Fifth Avenue. I
unabashedly dance in the empty G Train cars in heels at 3 AM after a
midnight movie. I also encounter people who never saw me as a dancer
before. My friend Zoraida dragged her boyfriend with her to a
performance in Alphabet City. Afterwards, he asked why I look so
familiar. Half an hour later of musing he stood up and shouted, “Oh my
god! You were my chairperson for that Model UN debate with my
professor!” He sat back down again and his mouth quirked. “You really
know how to cut loose.” What he doesn’t see is all the hard work that
happens before the performance.

I have become quite intimate with fishnet, flash tape, learning how to
wrap and unwrap myself in silk without tripping over it, how easily
kohl eyeliner smudges, and how quickly you lose your sense of
propriety when you take off your sweat-soaked bra in front of the wait
staff during a two-minute costume change, how you can clock somebody
on the head with your Isis wing and recover quickly enough for no one
else to notice. Screaming at your fellow dance partner to pull the
veil from your waist for you, because your hands are otherwise engaged
in a very loud club, finding out you brought no skirt, but a veil
instead and have to jury-rig a costume bottom on the spot, and waking
up with teal rimming your eyes and cheeks. Knowing a dancer so well
you can mirror her completely between crowds in suits and fanny packs
rushing by, lazily turning at the same moment, moving hips, chest,
arms, head, and feet in unison, all with a simple knowing smile a
flick of a wrist. These are just some of the many moments that inhabit
a dancer’s life.

I am a belly dancer. I enjoy it considerably to see people react to
that label, which carries all sorts of connotations with them, few of
which are actually wrong. With this dance, I can educate people about
the history of a thousand cultures from whence it came, all the ways
that dance and pleasure and morality interplay, not just in the Middle
East, but elsewhere. For many belly dancers, belly dance is a source
of power and a source for understanding one’s own body and
capabilities for seduction, humor, wit, and improvisation, and many an
antidote to the conservative current for women to suppress their
sexual identity and physical prowess, but my motivations are simpler
than that.

Belly dance is play, a pure unadulterated form for dancer and viewer
to enjoy themselves, a notion people in this rat race in life forget
as being important. It gives me, as a young woman, space to breathe
and move in a space I carve out for people I choose to perform for and
enlighten about an intensely personal side of myself that doesn’t get
expressed through my writing. You can’t write out play or joy in the
way you can dance it. Even performances, which require hard work to
execute, are one part memorization, two parts play, and one part
glitter. I always enjoy performing; sometimes we must seem like total
aliens from another universe to those who come see us dance.

A belly dancer does not hold herself or act like just any woman—she is
not the hyper-sexualized embodiment of the exotic and mysterious
either, because that would just perpetuate the popular myth of what a
dancer is, but rather, a dancer wields power over her audience in ways
far removed from the way a woman can use power in day-to-day life.

To appreciate a dancer, you must suspend your disbelief when she
balances a flaming candelabra on her head or dances barefoot on two
wineglasses, when she coils a veil around your head and wraps a turban
with two quick motions of her hands. She will flirt with you, raise an
eyebrow at you as she sweeps by you, or carry on a conversation with
you when she leaning over your dinner plate backwards and shimmying.
She will instinctively seek out the most reluctant man or woman in the
audience, and get them to dance, to pump up a leg up and down to the
music in an approximation of a hip drop. When she does three
connectively deeper back bends until her hair is touching the floor,
you’ll marvel as her core strength, but the best belly dancer won’t
exude flashy moves, she will display incredible control over the dums
and teks of the drum. She may be panting with exertion, but the
hundreds of tiny flicks, adjustments, and downbeats with her hips and
abdomen and fingers and shoulders prove her complete mastery over an
art form that writhes in energy and heat.

A belly dancer’s stance is alien to the average woman. A belly dancer
has both feet squared beneath her shoulders, is fleet of foot and
quick to change direction. A belly dancer who shimmies, slides, and
hops across a floor can only do those things barefoot. A dancer’s
chest is lifted. How many women do you know carry their
self-confidence between their shoulder blades? A good dancer glistens
through her veil entrance, her high-spirited choreography, within her
drum solo, until she drops to the floor in her finale. In some places
in the Middle East, you can stick bills to a dancer’s forehead for
certain arduous numbers; if she is doing the dance correctly, the
sweat will keep it there.

The power of a dancer lies in her ability to entrance. Admittedly,
there have been moments where I have considered how much I can mess
with a person’s perceptions if I danced for them. I’ve wanted to
entrance people and carry them away on my words, since middle school
but I have stories to tell through my hips and hands and feet as well,
and that requires a certain awareness of body and mind one can only
gain as an adult. But, I’m careful whom I share my secret with. Tell
someone you’re a writer and they pity you. Tell someone you’re a belly
dancer, and you’re met with a host of judgements. But I’m glad I’m a
member of a community of dancers, who may look no different than the
average woman on the street but we share a common way of movement—for
those who pay attention, we walk with a lower center of gravity than

For the first time dancer, I don’t overload her with all the petty
details about the fine lines of understanding, history, cultural
appropriation, and misunderstanding that transverse our art form. I
don’t tell her about the judgements she will encounter or how
expensive the costumes are. I do tell her this:

Always dip your fingers in honey-laced henna in celebration, carefully
untangle the glass beads from the lining of your bedlah, smudge the
kohl on your eyelids with your ring finger, when in doubt, shimmy, as
it always looks impress, and cradle your waist with both hands. You
have the most beautiful hips in the world.

Monitor Tina Again

Date: 2009-07-25 05:23 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I love belly dance. It's beautiful to watch.

Re: Monitor Tina Again

Date: 2009-07-25 05:59 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I just posted a video. ;)

I don't know why LJ ate my entry! Argh!

Re: Monitor Tina Again

Date: 2009-07-26 05:14 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Is that you in the image? Gorgeous.


auraesque: Mad Men (Default)

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