“Belly dancing is the way for the body to smile.” –Soheir Zaki, late 1960’s
Just as there is no single face type required for a dazzling smile, neither is there a specific body type required for the timeless art of belly dancing. Nonetheless, many people admire the art of oriental (belly) dance from afar, never actually thinking that could be accessible to or for them. The reasons are many: “I’m too skinny.” “I’m overweight.” “I’m not pretty enough.” “I would be too self-conscious wearing those costumes in public.” “I can’t keep a beat, no less shake my hips to one.” “I could never be as good as the dancers I see on stage.” “I’m too old.” “I’m not graceful.” The list continues. This tendency can be even more amplified in men, who may mistakenly believe that the beauty of this art form is reserved for women only, and that societal conditioning requires them to keep any personal interest in dancing to themselves.
In fact, it was iconic male Indian belly dancer Esahn Hilal who famously clarified the accessibility of this dance form to anyone who might even have the slightest spark of interest, as follows: “Belly dancing taught me that there is no perfect body, size, or colour. It taught me to accept myself and it has taught me that I am beautiful the way I am.”
Medical Daily recently described an Australian study that showed that belly dancers have a statistically significant positive body image. According to the study: “Belly dancing is an activity associated with positive body image, because participants tend to focus less on their external appearance, and more on the experience and what they are able to do with their bodies.” Similarly, a 2010 study in the Journal of Gender Studies reports that “While research on various forms of dance has emphasized unhealthy body image influences, belly dance offers a counter-example, indicating broad and inclusive body image norms, lack of pressure for body image conformity, and high levels of body satisfaction among dancers.”
Along with body image, another very common misconception about belly dancing is that is strictly for younger people, and that any latent interest in being a dancer is “too late.” In fact, there are many advantages to starting your belly dancing journey in your 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and beyond! First of all, it’s great exercise, and the key to aging with vitality is to keep moving. Best of all, unlike some other forms of dance, belly dancing is low impact and hence easier on the joints. Second, belly dancing is a great place to flaunt the sexiness, sauciness, and personal power that can only come with age; this gives the older dancer an edge that younger dancers simply haven’t earned yet. As the old adage goes: “if you’ve got it, flaunt it!”
So, if you have even an inkling of wanting to belly dance, listen to it. You might find that the hardest part is simply letting your self-doubt keep you from going to your first class; wrap yourself up in self-compassion and go anyway. If you can take Hilal’s quote as an invitation to bring not only yourself but also all of your self-proclaimed awkwardness, heaviness, skinniness, tone-deafness, general unworthiness, or whatever other judgmental labels you’ve assigned to yourself, you will likely find that those labels naturally dissolve away once the music begins, and you can lose yourself to this age-old art form that literally celebrates the human body and its beautiful capacity for emotion and expression, exactly the way it is. Thought you were too heavy? Lose yourself to the celebration of curves and shimmies, to the voluptuousness capacity of movement. Thought you were too bony? Marvel at how movement and music soften you, how hip scarves find shape you didn’t even know you had. Too awkward? Twirl with a gossamer veil, and enchant yourself. Unable to hold a beat? Learn technique and how to follow the music. For every perceived personal obstacle, belly dancing has a solvent.
Whether you just want to have fun and learn some general techniques to simply start dancing or follow a more rigorous path of becoming a professional dance artist (more on these two pathways next blog), allow yourself the honor of your presence, exactly the way you are!