Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Never Surrender Blogfest

Here's the blogfest badge! Look at that
awesome hummingbird in a jar. SO
probably. I am glad the jar has  no lid,
 because as we have established in this
post already I do not advocate cruelty
to birds. Pretty sure shutting a
hummingbird in a jar would be cruel.
  Howdy, folks. So today I am writing a post for the Never Surrender Blogfest hosted by lovely YA author Elana Johnson, who is debuting her new book, Surrender. The premise is simple and groovy: blog about a time you didn't surrender. She says, I'm looking for inspirational stories that you have experienced. Hard things you've accomplished because you didn't give up. I want to be inspired by you! Well, unsurprisingly enough I think that's pretty swell, and I'm so going to kill two birds with one stone multitask (what the hell, bird killers? I don't do that) and give you a story about a time I didn't surrender that is ALSO a followup to yesterday's post about joy in the body and how to go about finding it, because if I don't eventually write about that I'm just gonna be a mean tease who dangles this whole "joy" concept in front of your nose like a delicious fresh-baked pie without ever telling you the recipe or giving you a bite. So I'm going to tell you the story of how I became a bellydancer, which is all about me being an awkward teenager and totally involves a silly photo of me from high school. YOU KNOW YOU'RE CURIOUS. At the bottom will be a blog hop thingy, so you can totally see other wonderful stories that people are telling about a time they didn't give up! Because let's face it, even if motivational speaking gives you the wicked cringes, sometimes it's really bloody nice to read about people just going for their goddamn dreams or whatever.

 Okay. So. Bellydance. Here's the deal: when I was a kid, my mom (whose mother is Israeli) listened to a lot of really amazing Middle Eastern music. She had one tape in particular (yes I said tape, what) called "Best of Bellydance" that had all kinds of lovely jangly bellydance music on it, and yes I totally found the cover for you because obviously it had a bee-yoo-tee-full dancer on it who I totally wanted to be like. (Side note: the song "Big Pimping" samples a track from this album. I didn't encounter Jay-Z til well after I had heard this album, and you can imagine how excited I was and also how completely uninterested everyone else was when I tried to tell them. I'm so not making this up you guys. Look, this is what Wikipedia says about "Big Pimpin'": "Timbaland samples 'Khosara', composed by Egyptian composer Baligh Hamdi in the mid-20th century and originally recorded by the famous Egyptian vocalist Abdel Halim Hafez for the track's beat leading to its Middle Eastern sound. A version of 'Khosara', arranged and performed by Hossam Ramzy, can be heard on a CD compilation entitled, 'The Best of Bellydance from Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey' which also contains another song that Timbaland sampled for the Petey Pablo track, 'Raise Up.'" I am vindicated!)

So my mom always kind of idly talked about wanting to try a bellydance class with me, and I kind of idly agreed, and she had lots of beautiful silver Middle Eastern jewelry that I loved, and I looked at it a lot and basically felt that I was sort of next to being a bellydancer, even though I hadn't actually ever done it. Cut to high school, early sophomore year. This really pretty girl in my history class comes in wearing a pair of stunning silver earrings in an unmistakably Middle Eastern style. My high school was not noted for its ethnic fashions, and I'd never seen a white girl with jewelry like that. "Whoa, I said, where did you get those?" "Oh," she said, "a bellydance festival I went to."

"A what now?" (I'm paraphrasing.)

"A belly dance festival. I take bellydance, and our teacher took us to one."

I sat back in horror and resentment. Bellydance was supposed to be my thing! Okay, so I had never taken a class, or really even seen any, but - now someone else was better at it than me! It wasn't fair!

So, of course, I made up my mind to go. I found out where she took classes - turned out one of the most renowned bellydancers in the world, Suhaila Salimpour, had her studio less than a mile away from my house. So me and a friend of mine went to try out a class.

Turns out I hated it.

It felt kind of like this, with me as the
severed head. Via Big Duck. Weird thing?
I tried googling all kinds of things to find
a picture of dancers being mean to each
other, and I couldn't find any. Which is
very weird, because dancers are often
mean. (Not bellydancers, though, as it
turned out later. Yay!) Also? Don't google
'nasty ballerina' with SafeSearch off. Ever.
But wait! Here's why: it's because I was totally, utterly, and completely lost. I had no dance training of any kind. I was totally inflexible (couldn't get near my toes) and turns out? Suhaila's studio is kinda run like a ballet school. The instructor was very pretty and kind of mean and ultra-flexible and there were all these super-intense stretches I couldn't even begin to do. My friend, as it happens, had done jazz and things for years, and there she was, quietly doing pushups and whatnot while I flopped around like an awkward teenage fish, blushing furiously, all my muscles screaming. And that was before the dance part started. To this day I don't know if I wandered into an advanced class by mistake (although my friend seemed to have very little trouble) or if it was just, well, really hard and unfriendly to beginners. Everything was fast fast fast. I seemed to be expected to know everything already. And then? After the teacher had explained a combination that everyone was going to do in a line around the room, we all had to get up and do it. In a line. I was dead last and lagging quickly. I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. Finally the teacher, seeing me twenty feet behind the rest of the group, came over and told me I could just stand in the back and practice. I think. I was burning too hot with shame for anything to be especially clear beyond the being-singled-out-for-sucking-a-lot thing.

I came home completely and utterly humiliated. Turns out this thing I thought was mine, my special thing, precioussss, was not only mine but apparently everyone else's instead. Oh, it was horrible. Dreams dashed ALL over the place. I felt as gawky, awkward, ugly and unsexy as a fifteen-year-old can possibly feel - and at least half of you know how wretched that is. Not only was bellydancing not my private magical special thing, it was also something at which I was, apparently, the worst. Like excruciatingly the worst. And listen, I was a cocky little snot in high school. I was used to being brilliant at everything, the best writer, the the biggest talker, all that obnoxious teacher's pet stuff. I was good at things. I was always good at things. Sure, maybe not at running the mile, but sports were for people who weren't smart like me, so that was okay, right?

See, doesn't she look nice
and magical? Via her bio on
The Gilded Serpent
In fact, with the vivid clarity of hindsight, I can say it was a damn good thing that I got my butt completely kicked at something I desperately wanted to excel at. How I got up the guts to try another bellydance class I'm actually not sure. My dad's girlfriend suggested one at Ashkenaz, and I guess that seemed like a nice hippy-dippy low-key thing to me, so I went. And? It was awesome. It was taught by the lovely & talented Amy Luna, and it was so fun. Instead of a bunch of young, hip, sexy twenty-somethings, the class was full of ladies in their later decades. Luna was wonderful at explaining movements, took time to help everyone in the class, and never put anyone in the spot or made us do horrible combinations. She noticed the abilities and struggles of each of her students and never rushed anyone. She let everyone work at their own pace and corrected accordingly. She was also super-knowledgeable about the history of bellydance, and she talked a lot about the community of the dance, the awesomeness of the body, and the delights of having a belly that can jiggle on command. In other words, she was a really great teacher. She also hosted this really groovy thing called Cafe Bellie, which is still running - three times a year, she would put together an open stage consisting of dancers from all over the SF Bay Area, which is home to some of the best and most influential bellydancers in the country. They performed for free, and the door fee of $10 for audience members got them an evening of spectacular dance and a lesson from Luna. The money went to the Women's Daytime Drop-in Shelter, a nonprofit providing food and services for homeless women and families. Awesome? Oh yeah.

The thing was, bellydance was hard! I struggled to learn it, all the while thinking why can't I just be naturally good at this, I should be naturally good at this, it's my thing! But slowly, slowly, I got a little better and a little better. I mastered more complex movements. My muscular range increased. And eventually I got to perform with Luna's troupe at Cafe Bellie - and then I was invited to perform with them at the 2005 Beijing Cultural Festival. In, yeah, Beijing. I got the costume and everything. (Are you ready? There's a picture of me coming up. Age 16. In my purple costume. I was so excited about having the pictures taken, but when I got them I was so disappointed - I didn't look nearly as awesome as I thought I did.) I didn't go to China. I went to visit colleges instead. I kept doing Luna's weekly class. And then, in 2006, I moved to Massachusetts, and so did Donna Mejia.

Here is Donna:

Now, I learned a lot from Luna. But Donna? Whole different universe. Donna was teaching at Smith College, and lucky for me, Hampshire students can take Smith classes for freeeee! So I took her Tribal Fusion class. I took it seven times. And when I couldn't take it anymore, I was very sad. I was also a very, very different person. I had learned more about my body than I had ever imagined. I knew about the history of pelvic dance and about repression of the hips and belly and about dance as a tool to fight and celebrate. I knew about the way that the story of bellydance is intricately and inextricably braided into the crazy & upsetting story of the West's involvement with the Middle East since before Napoleon. I knew about strength, and love, and glory in the body.And actually, when I look back on that photo of me? I'm not disappointed. I was right where I needed to be for a sixteen-year-old: I was learning. I was trying. And I actually think I look pretty okay for a rank amateur.

...and 2012

So I know that so far I haven't said anything about here's how to get joy! I haven't even really told you how I got my joy, except that I had wonderful teachers and learned to bellydance and didn't give up and so on and so forth. But don't worry. It's really pretty simple. Here's the thing about bellydance: in essence, it's the art of playing with your body. You take bits of it and you move them over here and you move other bits over there and you try and express a piece of music by doing cool things with your belly and your arms and your hips, and you let everything shake, hell, you make it shake harder, you get fabulous costumes, it's mahhhhvelous, dahling. And everyone can do it. Any gender, any age, any body type. You don't have to have legs; I've seen amazing photos and videos of bellydancers in wheelchairs doing exquisite veil dances. But I'm not suggesting that everyone in the world should bellydance. (Okay, that's a lie. I totally am. But! If you don't want to, that is okay. Really. Just keep reading.) What I'm saying is that it is pretty much impossible to be a bellydancer without having a relationship with your body that is fun. (If you are a miserable unhappy bellydancer who hates the body you're using to dance, trust me, that shit shows.)

Your body is fun to play with. In sexy ways, of course, but also in not sexy ways. It can do things. It can climb mountains, and jump on beds, and relax in hot tubs, and man, it can dance. Even if you have less rhythm than a baby gopher. It's like the world's most complex windup toy - like, you know how in Hugo there was the cool automaton that turned out to be completely beside the point and not that magical? Imagine that had been as cool as you were hoping it would be, and then multiply it by a millionty. That's how cool your body is. Treat it like a toy. Take it for adventures. Feed it nice things. Make it laugh. Try, as often as possible, to catch yourself when you're totally out of it, just sitting inside it like it's a car or something. Then go lean against a stone wall and feel how strong and sturdy the bulk of it is. Lie down on some grass. Skip, dammit. The thing I've learned from bellydance, more than any other thing, is the the body can be really, really fun - if only you will surrender the controls and let it be joyous, no matter what anybody tells you. Because those people who try and stop you? Aren't very nice and should probably be ignored forever.

Aaaaand here's the Blog Hop! If you've got an awesome Never Give Up! Never Surrender! story to tell, hey, turns out you can still sign up!


  1. What a fabulous story! I'm so glad you didn't quit at that first studio, and instead found the place that was meant for you! And you rock those pictures, girl! Woo hoo!

    1. Thanks, Elana! I just loved the theme of the blogfest. I'm so glad I stumbled across it.

  2. This post is total synchronicity. I was at the gym this morning doing my usual routine and there was a woman in the classroom area belly dancing. I couldn't stop watching her, and I'm one of those people who won't even look at you if I'm at the gym cuz I'm in the zone. She was doing all this crazy stuff with hula hoops. I love to hula hoop and I was like, dang, I want to do that! So, if you know of any good places to take lessons in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, let me know. (Or, I could ask the lady at the gym if she's there tomorrow.)

    1. I totally just did research like whoa for you. Including watching videos and all. I don't know if there's much tribal fusion in your area - that's the style I do - but here are a couple studios I found right away with dancers that look to me like they know what's up: Nadirah Johara (Ft Worth) and Isis and the Star Dancers (Dallas).

      Oh wait no, there's totally Tribal! Check 'em out - Troupe Bellanatana. They look pretty awesome actually. Tribal tends to be darker and more serpentine, with silver coins and dark colors, while more classical Raqs Sharqi like the two places I named above tend to be faster, more upbeat, and more sparkly (although that's a wild generalization). I love 'em both and you might too.

    2. Well, thank you for doing that. I think I like dark:0 Big surprise there.

    3. I think you'll like are two videos to give you a further taste, from Sera Solstice and Rachel Brice,two of the greats. If you dig them, you will LOVE tribal.

    4. Turns out the Isis place is less than a mile from my house. Hmmm.

  3. I had a similar experience the first time I snow skied. The lessons the first day were horrible, and the instructor singled me out.
    But, now, I love skiing, even if I haven't been in 20 years. Unfortunately, it's expensive, and you can't do it just anywhere. >sigh< Oh, well.

    I'm glad you stuck with it!

    1. Isn't it lame when something you really like is ultra expensive and kinda inaccessible? That's how I feel about hang gliding. Which, notably, I have not done, but oh MAN would I like to.

    2. Oh, me, too! Not sky diving, though. I'm not sure why I'd like to hang glide and not sky dive, but there it is.
      Leave me off the bungie list, too.

    3. I'd skydive except for the jumping out of a plane part. If I could just go off a cliff, or something...I guess the difference is that hang gliding is like flying, and sky diving & bungie jumping are just basically giant ways to fall?

    4. Exactly! I never thought of it that way before. I want to fly, not fall!

  4. Great story..I LOVED it! I have never considered belly dancing, but this post makes me want to try it!


    1. Thanks, Angela! And you should TOTALLY try bellydance. In addition to being a unique & beautiful art form with an incredibly rich history and a tradition of honoring individual bodies, it is ALSO a wonderfully good way to exercise - it builds core strength, accesses deep muscle groups, and provides a low-impact cardio workout. And it's super fun. If you let me know a general metropolitian area near you, I'd be delighted to look into classes that look extra awesome in your area for you!

  5. Stopping by from the blogfest....Great story of perseverance! I enjoyed reading it!

  6. What a wonderful...and unexpected story. Love your attitude, then and now! :)

  7. I have a friend who took belly dance and it made her so much more confidant and poised! I love this story esp. how you didn't give up after that first experience! (sorry I'm late visiting the blogfest - but what a great collection of inspiration!)

    1. Thanks, Margo! And I'm glad you made it - after all, a blogfest is really just an excuse for us all the get to connect.


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