When it is time to walk away from belly dance
How most of us found belly dance is usually a happy story. It is a life-changing experience that causes many of us to embark on a lifelong romance. We started out just looking for a new way to get fit or have fun with our friends. We were looking for a confidence booster and wanted to try something out of the box. We were hooked by the sequins and sisterhood. Our normal heartbeat is no longer a lub and a dub but a doum and a tek.
But what happens when you become disillusioned with your lover? The one you thought would be there to catch you when you fall and carry you to the end? I am talking about belly dance burnout. Depending on how deeply entrenched you become in the belly dance community, this type of thing is very real and happens to more of us than would like to admit it. Instead of looking forward to our next performance, we feel like the empty shell of the dancer we once were. When once our hearts rose to the gentle caress of the ney, we now find ourselves wondering why we keep beating ourselves to death shimmy after shimmy only to face more heartache and disappointment.
The belly dance world, as amazing as it is, can sometimes be a cruel mistress. When there are far more dancers than jobs, it is a tireless struggle to be the best and come out on top. It is a clamor to make it in a cutthroat world where sometimes the cruelest words can cut us under the guise of sisterhood. Sometimes I feel like I am in the Japanese film Battle Royale have drawn merely a soup spoon to fight with.
Most of us do not have the financial means to simply be professional belly dancers for the rest of our lives. We have 9-5 jobs, families and responsibilities. Add on top of that, the stress of trying to make sure you have enough students signed up for classes to pay the studio rent and keep the heat on.
There often comes a time in a dancer’s career when she wonders, is this worth the struggle? Clients don’t see the countless hours spent sweating in the studio, time spent away from family traveling to workshops across the country, the hours passed studying the intricacies of Arabic music. They see a pretty girl in a pretty costume and by golly they are going to try to pay as little as possible for her services. And of course, there will be someone else willing to sell herself short and snap that gig right up. You wonder, “Why do I even bother? I am just stuck in this vicious cycle, like Sisyphus pushing his giant stupid rock for the rest of eternity.”
If you have ever felt these things before, let me say to you: This is very normal and THIS IS OK. This is something I have struggled with and sometimes it feels like I am betraying myself to even consider walking away from dancing. But sometimes we need a break. It is a perfectly natural part of the creative process to take some time for ourselves and recharge. We aren’t superwomen, we can’t do everything. Just like our bodies can only train so hard, our hearts and minds can only take so much.
I took a break from dancing for six months about two years ago and it is one of the most constructive things I have done for myself. I won’t lie to you, at first I felt very guilty. To take time for myself is not something in my nature and it was very strange. When events passed by it was unnerving to not be there. I often wondered if I was doing the right thing. But I came out of my 6 month break feeling much better. It was almost like I had completed a mental detox.
Before I stopped dancing my brain was steeped in negativity and stress. But as I began to unwind over the course of my “sabbatical” I began to reconnect with pieces of the dance that I had long since forgotten. I spent hours alone in my home studio listening to music and dancing to whatever I wanted to dance to. The creative juices began to flow again. In the quietness of my own space I began to find myself again. Sometimes I would just lie on my back on the wooden panels and it would just be Abdel Halim and I. And shoot, sometimes I would play my zills to Lady Gaga because why not?
I started to remember how good this made me feel and why I fell in love in the first place. It was like a one-on-one therapy session between me and dancing. Yes, sometimes the dance world did me wrong, but I was not without blame. I realized how unhealthy I had become, letting the negativity prevail against me. In the cocoon of my home, I was able to peel away the layers of the thick hide that I had built up over the years. At the end of my break I found that I did feel ready to go back to business. I missed my friends and the community. I missed the music and the stage. It was definitely time, and with a much lighter heart, I moved forward again.
I realize now that I may one day have to go back into my cocoon and recharge. And that will be OK. I think I will be less hesitant to do so now that I can recognize the signs of an impending burnout and realize that on the other side of it I will be fine. As dancers we often focus on the strength of our bodies and forget to take the time to heal our hearts. But hear me in saying that our hearts are the most important part of our dance. If you are dancing and your heart isn’t in it, then you are doing yourself a disservice.
Middle Eastern dance is not built for robots simply going through the motions. We are artists and our most important tools are the feelings and emotions we pour into our pieces. If you feel yourself burning out, know that it is something that happens to many of us. It is normal and it is OK. Sometimes we just need a break. Sometimes it is time to walk away. Recognize when it is time to walk away and don’t beat yourself up for it.
A dance sabbatical can be the best medicine for a sore and weary heart. Take the time that you need to heal. It may be a week, it may be a month, or even years. However long you need it is OK and you don’t need to feel guilty taking the time for yourself.
We all need time to recharge and remember why we dance. Remember the simpler times when you first put on a hip scarf and learned how to shimmy. Remember squealing with glee with your classmates at your first professional belly dance show. Remember when you first did a barrel turn with a veil or played through an entire song with your zills. Remember the magic! I promise that even in the face of the rat race that is the belly dance world, if you take the time that you need and recharge, these magical times can be yours again.