A few weeks ago, I did a bellydance party in Bristol for the hen night of an old school friend. We had a wonderful time – everyone from the bride’s little sister to her grandmother joined in, and I was amazed by how quickly the assorted friends and relatives forgot their awkwardness and began smiling as they shimmied and rolled their shoulders together. At the end of the evening, my friend’s mum told me how much she had enjoyed the dancing, and added “I would never have imagined you doing this!”. I suddenly remembered the girl I had been the last time she had met me – the painfully shy 18 year old, studying maths and physics, a tall and gangly figure in black trying ineffectively to not be noticed. And I wondered, how did I get here from there?
“I have been dancing since I was three years old” is one of the great clichés of the bellydancer’s biography. Well, I haven’t been. Whilst my schoolfriends were taken to flit around in pink tutus or learn tap and jazz, I was the strange kid reading fantasy novels and fashioning dinosaurs from old cereal boxes. I wasn’t one of those children who seemed born for showbusiness, singing and dancing and starring in school plays – I was the one hiding in a corner of the library, dreading the humiliation of drama class even more than the horrors of PE, and terrified of speaking to strangers. I loved drawing, painting, and playing guitar, but dance was something I could never have imagined myself doing.
So, what on Earth compelled me to go to my first bellydance class, some years later, whilst at home from university for the summer? I was so shy that I could barely bring myself to introduce myself to the teacher, and hid at the back of the room, shuffling clumsily through the unfamiliar steps. But something about the dance had captured my imagination years before – the undulating movements, rich fabrics, the impression of glittering coins and exotic perfumes… I knew next to nothing about this dance then, and most of what I thought I knew was wrong, but somewhere inside of my awkward and rather lonely younger self, something unusual was happening. I secretly imagined myself bejewelled and fascinating, dancing sensuously before an enthralled audience to the strange, foreign music that had quickly taken a hold on me, leaving me humming lyrics I didn’t understand and tapping my feet to new rhythms inside my head. It’s fair to say my family were pretty confused by this new development.
When I got back to university, I began classes with the Oxford Middle Eastern Dance Society (where I now teach). It wasn’t until I’d been taking classes for almost a year that I worked up the courage to speak to my fellow dance students or even to our teacher – but I loved the new movements, the way they made me feel beautiful and graceful for the first time in my life, and I practised as much as I could, coming to classes religiously. And four years later, some of the women I was too shy to speak to in that first class are now my closest friends.
My transformation was so gradual that I didn’t notice it myself, but people started commenting that I seemed to have got taller as I stopped stooping and hunching my shoulders. My clothes got more colourful, my jewellery more sparkly, and I increasingly listened to Egyptian and Turkish music in place of the Sisters of Mercy and the Cure (though I still love those things). And more strikingly, slowly at first, I began speaking to people… And realised it wasn’t actually that bad! I had also stopped seeing my own body as something ungainly and disappointing, never measuring up to the ideal of an attractive woman, and instead it became my own musical instrument, that had to be cared for and learned about in order to express the beautiful music that flowed through me. Little by little, for the love of dance, I confronted my fears – of speaking to new people, of performing on stage, of failure, of hard physical exercise, even of public speaking. And as I did those things, I realised that there had never really been anything to be afraid of.
At the time of writing, I have been dancing for four years. Bellydance has in many ways transformed my life, so that the shy student is now the confident teacher and glamorous performer (my inner geek is still there just the same, but these days she’s taking an obsessive interest in Middle Eastern music, history, language and culture)… But I still remember how it was to be that unhappy girl. I hope that through dance I can pass on the joy and creativity that have made such a difference to me. And I wonder what new changes I will see looking back in another four years…