Belly dance and body acceptance through different life phases
Dragging the two big shopping bags filled with costume items, water, gifts for my students and video equipment to the car was a bi-annual event for me. Teaching weekly classes, I had the opportunity for a short student recital every half year. This year I was celebrating my ten-year anniversary as a teacher. But that was not all I was celebrating: this time I was 17-weeks pregnant with my first child.
Starting as a professional dancer ten years ago, I was what I’d call ‘a commercial looking dancer.’ Young, slender, with long luscious locks and no idea what my career path would be. At one of my first gigs, the client welcomed me with a relieved sigh: “You look exactly like your pictures! We’re so happy to see you!” Soon I gathered several of these experiences; people remarking about my size, my weight, my stomach. It drove the message home that being a professional dancer requires looks that are considered beautiful by my clients.
Through the years my weight fluctuated a bit, always within a size range that stayed within the acceptable standard for pretty women. My hips never complied though, as I have a good amount of junk in my trunk. They were and are a couple of sizes bigger compared to the rest of my body. This worked well for belly dance, as you can imagine. At that time, I couldn’t imagine the changes my body would be going through during the different phases in my life. I did not yet experience the fat shaming and insecurities that women are subject to.
During my classes I touched upon the subject that belly dance is a dance form for women of all ages, shapes and sizes. A woman in her early fifties approached me after class, telling me that the message about body acceptance is a good one, but also that it was obvious I had not experienced being an age or size that is considered unattractive yet. She encouraged me to keep on dancing and teaching and gain the experience needed to understand why this was such a complex subject for many women.
About five years after becoming a professional dancer, I changed career paths. I didn’t get enough work as a dancer to cover my living expenses. Working a second job for a low paid salary, I decided that if I needed a day job I might as well search for a day job in the area of my Masters degree. That would make it easier to pay the bills! I set off on a two year traineeship that was intense and very satisfying. It also meant a desk job, lots of sitting, more situations that involved food and drinks. My weight was slowly creeping upwards on the scale.
I didn’t care. I was still teaching weekly belly dance classes, I took up classical ballet for adults (finally could afford it!), and breathed a sigh of relief when we were gathered for the first class. Women in a range of different sizes and shapes were standing along the barre, some wearing the traditional tights and leotards while others sported sweatpants, leggings and t-shirts. I gained 12 pounds and was getting insecure about the tight fitting outfits, showing how the elastic of my tights were digging into the padding on my hips. My brother told me, “Your belly is bigger,” pointing to my expanding abdomen. “That’s where I keep my uterus,” I told him.
At this time, I got less commercial gigs. Partly because I needed to work and study, the other part because I was becoming insecure about my size. I started tracking calories and working out five times a week to keep my weight stable. It worked but it was also exhausting. Somewhere during this time I could have lost my way, could have decided to stop dancing because I was no longer commercially viable. Instead I met up with other teachers in my province and we decided to dance together as a troupe, organizing events and workshops. The main reason was that we all loved belly dance, but many of us weren’t ‘commercial looking’. A varied group between ages 30 to 60, and between size M to XXL.
We created events and local haflas that were informal and fun. Meeting up with the ladies once a month for intervision, sharing stories and experiences broadened my horizon. One of dancers was recovering from a life threatening disease and couldn’t stand up or walk for longer than a couple of minutes. I looked forward to our meetings and events, as we created an open atmosphere where everyone was respected and equal. I was at home.
The deep end
I finished the trainee program and was looking for a job, when my boyfriend told me he “needed space.” Considering that we’d been together for a decade, had been living together for four years, and we rented a four room apartment, I didn’t quite get the message at first. “I am looking for my own apartment,” he told me and then the message hit home. This was a break-up. In the ten months that followed, I had to accept that the future I thought we had was no longer. To make things worse, I couldn’t find a job and I spent seven months on unemployment benefits, in the apartment we previous shared, echoing with memories of when we were together. It was not a happy time.
I lost 20 pounds; grieving for my loss meant my appetite was gone. Instead I wandered outside for runs along the water (I read somewhere that being outdoors helps to sooth the mind), or locked myself up inside my living room with a big pile of belly dance instructional dvds. I looked for distraction and found a partner in crime in another local teacher: we organized a big belly dance show in our city, and I gratefully dove into the dance studio a couple of times a week to work on my solo for the show. My bellydance class flourished due to the extra efforts I made in making lesson plans, choreography and new ways to practice. The bi-annual student recital was a big hit, with nearly all of my students participating.
Going through the apartment I cleared out stuff so I could sublet one room to a flatmate I found my box of unfinished costuming projects. With no money but ample time, I beaded a beautiful pink and gold Turkish style costume for my performance in our show. On the day itself, I received many compliments from the audience members for my dancing, my costume and lean looks. The well meant praise felt hollow. My clear defined abs were no compensation for the emptiness and pain I felt when I cried myself to sleep at night. I did a bellydance photoshoot in my new costume where I looked amazing but my eyes are sad.
And then, things changed for the better.
Sisters in dance
A job vacancy drew my eye and much to my own surprise I was hired. I auditioned for a belly dance theater project and got accepted. It came with a busy schedule of rehearsals, eight fellow dancers who were just as crazy about belly dance as I was and a creative director with over 20 years of experience in belly dance. The creative director picked dancers that were older on purpose, and included once more dancers of varied shapes and sizes. The theater show was centered around the full length song “Alf leyla we layla” by Oum Kolthoum and told a story of women who had loved and lost. We grew closer together during that time and from this project came a second theater show, called “Living apart together.”
My appetite returned, I spent more time sitting behind the desk and I gained weight accordingly. I started enjoying my single life and discovered online dating. One more area where men eyed my figure carefully, weighing if I could be a suitable partner. It felt uncomfortable, as if my looks were the most defining part of me. On a cold, clear winter’s day I arranged a date for a hot cup of tea and was swept of my feet. The man sitting next to me was funny, thoughtful and considerate. We married 18 months later.
Like most brides to be, I vowed to live a healthy lifestyle and try to lose some weight before the big day. I didn’t. I kept my regular schedule of teaching classes and taking ballet, but when I tried counting calories again it just felt pointless. Life is too short to spend it being unhappy. Instead I accepted my size as a fact, bought a beautiful wedding dress that showed off my good features and enjoyed a relaxed and fun wedding day. My dance teacher friends performed to an upbeat Egyptian pop song and my sisters in dance surprised us with two beautiful performances, including a shamadan song that lead us to the dance floor for our first dance. It was magical and we were both so happy that we got to share this day with our friends and family.
Looking back on the past 15 years, I experienced what it was like being a skinny dancer, a slender dancer, a medium-sized dancer and a fuller-sized dancer. The woman who told me as a beginning teacher that life experience would help me understand the issues around body acceptance was right. Being on both sides of the wall, experiencing the remarks and comments about my weight helped me understand that I am so much more than a number on a scale. Belly dance means so much more to me. It is what kept me going through the ups and downs. Belly dance connected me with amazing, vibrant, creative women and continues to inspire me to reach further and develop myself as a person and as a dancer.
This story doesn’t have a happy ending, because it is a story that keeps evolving through the years. We are happy to announce that we are expecting to meet our first baby at the end of November. As I drove the car to the cultural center, I wondered if my pregnancy will forever change my body in such a way that I won’t be hired for belly dance performances any more. Will I be ashamed and embarrassed of my changing body and growing belly, or will I be proud?
At the cultural center my students are one by one dropping in, one group consisting mostly of young college students. Most of them cover their belly for the performance, afraid to show the world a look at their midriff. I fold my tank top to show my 17-week pregnant belly and step inside. Let’s have some fun!
Kyria works in IT by day and teaches belly dance by night. She lives in Utrecht, The Netherlands with her husband and dog and eagerly looks forward to the new addition to the family at the end of 2015. She is a member of two belly dance troupes: Sense of Bellydance (Utrecht) and the Dalla Dream Dancers (The Hague), teaches weekly classes at the Utrecht University and enjoys making belly dance costumes. She blogs about her costuming projects and all things belly dance at kyriascostumes.com In her civilian life she is a full blown geek, loves gardening, drawing, writing and chocolate.