Hips, Shoulders, and Veils, Oh My!

There’s something very exciting about committing to take a belly dance class. And last Monday, evening I did just that: I took not one, but TWO of Hip Expressions owner/director Johanna Zenobia’s most popular classes in a row: Drills and Combos and Beginner Belly Dance. For a middle-aged working mother of two like me, it felt thrilling, indulgent, and a bit scary to show up, but in the span of even just the first few minutes of class, I was liberated. Allow me to share my two hour journey from nervous to exuberant, from awkward to sensual, from self-conscious to self-celebratory.

A quick sidenote for context: I was a trained modern and jazz dancer in my teens and twenties, with a healthy dose of tap and Polynesian training along the way, but those days were long ago. Thirty decades of yoga maintained a good amount of flexibility over the years, but belly dancing is completely new to me. Attending class as a newbie to this form but with some dance experience made me keenly aware that Johanna’s compassionate and empowering teaching style is not the norm. Despite the name “Drills and Combos” and the fact that she is a master at her craft, she is no drill sergeant. To wit:

I entered the space and was immediately taken with it. Hip Expressions has two studios; the main home studio is located on Tyrone Boulevard. On Monday nights, she teaches at a satellite location called the Centre in St. Pete Beach, a place that feels like a hangout from the first visit. The dance room is light and inviting; the buried dancer in me yearned to start moving right away. As if she could sense this yearning, Johanna started the Drills class by immediately putting on some playful music and inviting us to start moving freely around the room. “Not just in a circle!” she offered “Play! Can you change directions? Go backwards? Go right when you want to go left!” Within just a few minutes, my whole being was a moving body of gratitude. How wonderful it felt just to move without fear, without constriction or intimidation, to be invited to play! I looked around. It seemed that the other women in the class were equally enlivened. We were a diverse bunch of young and old, smaller and larger, in person and online. Our diversity only enhanced the feeling of belonging. As if the opening dance were a friendship spell, we also became bonded through our shared release through simple free movement.

Johanna then asked us what our interests were for today’s class…what would we like to learn? Well now, there was a twist. There was no command given, but rather another invitation that made me feel empowered as a student—no—a dancer! I found myself wanting to learn how belly dancers move different parts of their bodies separately. “Isolation!” she affirmed. “Yes, we can work on that today.” Others shared their interests: releves, hand movements, simple routine work, rhythm and tempo.

We began facing the mirror in “home position,” which to an onlooker looks like we are simply standing up elegantly. To the dancer however, a lot is involved: second toe facing forward, knees pliant, arms gracefully curved, chest lifted slightly. From there, she taught us how to move our hips, our legs, our arms, and do a belly dance style releve “while holding a hundred dollar bill between your legs.” She coached us on which muscles to engage, which to release, when to move big and…the most cathartic lesson of all..when to move very, very subtly, showing how the tiniest of movements can have the most dramatic impact . All my big modern dance moves went out the window as I learned the power of small, sensual moves and their placement in time, rhythm, and space. Mind Blown. By the end of the very quick hour, I had the basic gist of the form and was able to do a small routine with confidence. I felt like a dancer again. No more label needed of modern, jazz, belly, mom, middle-aged, etc. We are simply all dancing, after all! In the space of one hourlong class rather unceremoniously labeled “Drills and Forms,” Johanna invited us to explore aliveness through movement and music and form, and the result was liberating. And there was still another class to go.

She began the next class by offering each of us a large, luxurious, gossamer-thin veil to take and twirl and prance around the space with evocative Middle Eastern music stoking our possibilities. Now that my body was in full movement mode, I swirled like a whirling dervish. It felt wonderful, sexy, and fun. From there, she welcomed us to explore various ways to move our hips and arms to different rhythm patterns, and I even had the chance to practice some of the isolation techniques learned in the first class. As before, my fellow students were a diverse bunch, immediately connected by our shared journey through the hour.

By the end of both classes I felt voluptuous and alive, and despite my humble recognition that my shoulders went up and down when they were supposed to shake from side to side, Johanna’s teaching was a confidence-building experience that I quickly realized had nothing to do with mastering rote belly dancing techniques. As an art form, there is no doubt that belly dancing is a powerful celebration of for both women and men. Johanna teaches in this way, and as such she demonstrates that a dance class can be an experience of transformation and self-awareness, available to all.

I went home feeling like the sum of all of the parts: Hips, shoulders, veils, feet, releves, arms, isolations, rhythm, body awareness, and more. Wow, I actually learned a lot! But most of all, and most importantly, I learned to love to dance again.