Bringing the Harem Into My Home

My first physical brush with belly dancing was in a yoga center in India. I was midway through a yoga teacher training program when an American belly dancing teacher joined our class. In response to my unbridled curiosity, she offered me a private lesson. Ironically, My first encounter with the sensual art of the Middle East took place only yards away from the Mecca of Hindusim, the holy city of Varanasi.

Class began. As I was shown the moves, I was amazed to discover that the movement phrases felt like words of a language my body already knew! I was certainly not fluent, yet this language does not feel foreign. I intuitively knew that, although I had never been taught, my body had been trying, even yearning to speak this dialect its whole life. Although it didn’t feel like a “workout” at the time, the following day by abs were strangely sore and I realized that my intensive yoga training had failed to utilize certain muscles that belly-dancing isolated immediately.

From that day on, I knew belly dancing deserved my attention. However, as life has it, in my hot pursuit of other forms of knowledge – yoga, meditation, nutrition and coaching – almost a decade passed in which I was “too busy;” belly dancing eluded me, remaining only a wisp in my imagination. Although the thought of it never ceased to taunt me, I felt paralyzed by everything else on my plate and took no action towards bringing it into my life.

Still, the signs persisted: on any dance floor, I constantly found myself gravitating towards women who turned out to be belly dancers. As a gift I received a coin-belt, and finally, after eight whole years of “thinking about it,” I took decisive action and opened the floodgates once and for all.

In typical Jena-style, I decided to dive into the deep end. No sensible beginner series at the local belly-dancing school for me. No, no, no, your faithful adventure columnist chose to jump straight into a three-day Middle Eastern Music and Dance camp! For three years I had voyeuristically ogled the happenings of this camp on the net. When the promotion email hit my inbox the third year in a row, I could no longer resist the temptation.

Unable to find a girlfriend adventurous enough to join me, and in absolute suspense as to how my body would react and whom I would meet, I signed up, a sole agent, for the Memorial Day weekend camp. With eight years of pent-up curiosity bubbling in my belly, since that random lesson in India in 2000, I prepared to submerge myself in the waters of belly-dancing, entirely open to the possibility that my life may never be the same.

Upon arrival, I set up my bunk bed and I passed out. When I awoke, drumbeats reverberated through the air. I had slept through dinner and the show, and freestyle dancing was in progress to live musicians in the throes of improvisation. As I came closer I began to hear more: the ornamentation of the clarinet reached my ear next, and soon the resonance of the oud and violin. The musicians danced with their intuition, half the time playing in unison and half the time inventing their own variations. It was magical to hear form and fluidity mesh so triumphantly.

And then, I saw the dancers. The women were mesmerizing, their eyes glittering, each dancing to her own whim. A self appointed harem of Middle Eastern music lovers, they tantalized each other back and forth. What could I do? My only option was to surrender to the dance.

I felt luscious, I felt languid, I felt fluid and I felt free. The music set me on fire in my heart and the flames radiated throughout my body, flushing my limbs with pleasure to match the physical exertion.

Thus the camp went on for three days, a constant cycle between meals, workshops, performances and freeform jams. I entered a virgin, and left deflowered. Everyday I attended several classes, exposing myself to a variety of teachers and styles from classical Egyptian, to Oriental, to Tribal style. As I danced through the weekend, the mystery of the elusive art of belly-dancing began to imprint upon me.

By the end of the camp I clearly surmised that belly dancing can be absolutely whatever you make of it. Fitness, glamour, mind-body-spirit connection, all of the above, or much more – this is your choice. For each individual, belly dancing conveys a tale as unique as the body that animates it. Dance is conversation in physical form – a pure, wordless method of expression that can be useful to say to yourself and to others, that which can be awkward in words.

Belly dancing tells untold stories, women’s stories. The whole spirit of the dance validates femininity. In my own upbringing, the particular “brand” of femininity I was raised to epitomize was characterized by wearing skirts, being polite and speaking in soft tones, but the cultivation of sensuality, as part of the treasure trove of feminine qualities that were my birthright, was conspicuous in its absence.

History has portrayed the full embodiment of a sensually empowered woman as something to fear, and in my Anglo-Saxon home the topic was practically taboo and certainly never overtly celebrated. Belly dancing does not adhere to these conventions and proudly, in an otherwise sensually parched landscape, belly dancing allows women a safe and supportive way to experience the forces of nature that are inevitably present in their bodies, sanctioned or not.

Fatheim, an established matriarch of the art, her presence so captivating to look at that it is hard not to stare, and one of the dance teachers at the camp, shared the transformation she sees her pupils undergo. “I have students who are police women and engineers who don’t want to stick out in their workplace and accordingly, have learned to dress, walk and talk in a manner than subdues their femininity. As they learn belly dancing, little by little they start rediscover how to wear colorful clothes and adorn themselves with jewelry and makeup. Their awareness grows and grows and one day they realize they are a woman!”

Her eyes lit up as she elaborated. “The private lessons I teach end up being therapy. Women who have difficulty opening up their pelvic area find that it reveals shyness and a sense of inappropriateness of moving that part of the body. When a woman realizes within herself that she truly has permission to move that area, something unlocks in both her body and mind. When the hips open, so much opens.” I could only agree and has my hips opened over the weekend I felt as if I had more and more access to a stirring pot of joy within me.

Back in class, the first hour was comprised of technique, the second, choreography. As if reciting a sacred litany in metered rhythm, the teacher called out the moves, “two small hip circles with your right hip, down shimmy, shoulder shimmy, pause… camel forward, shoulder wave, and big hip circle to the right.” I pictured my body as a willing marionette, my mind an ambitious puppeteer sending tugs along invisible strings to make my body move in extraordinary ways.

I didn’t expect anything close to perfection from myself, and was determined to have unapologetic fun no matter what! Everyone else was obviously on the same page. A distinction of belly-dancing is that it is particularly welcoming to bodies of all sizes. Because the crisp, clean dance moves that make belly-dancing look amazing are the product of flexibility and muscular tone, they are not contradicted by having a curvaceous, voluptuous body. In belly dancing, all stigmas of what a performing dancer “should look like” are shattered. In a world where the background hum of media tells us that it is not ok to have curves, yet we all seem to have them, belly-dancing is ecstatically liberating.

The culminating evening the harem dressed in their finery. I left the room for some fresh air and when I came back every single chair was empty, not one dancer seated, everyone was shimmying on the dance floor! A live band performed irresistible, sizzling music and magnetized I joined the crowd. As I danced I felt a unique doorway opening, a way of connecting to my body unlike any other.

I felt luscious, I felt languid, I felt fluid and I felt free. The music set me on fire in my heart and the flames radiated throughout my body, flushing my limbs with pleasure to match the physical exertion. If I retracted from the ecstasy, just seeing the other dancers pulled me back in. I was not one dancer finding my groove on a dance floor, I was part of a whole organism of women enjoying themselves to the utmost, reclaiming their bodies as instruments of delight.

Eventually fatigued, I took a rest and began to already feeling nostalgic for this cocoon of Middle Eastern culture and wondered now that I had been deflowered, how would I keep this aflame in my life? I pondered this as I wandered through the make-shift bazaar selling everything an belly dance lover could desire. As I pensively fished through skirts and scarves, my eyes lasered onto a DVD. A smiling blond, with hair as straight as mine is curly looked back at me from the cover with the title – Belly-dancing for Abs. There was only one copy and I immediately knew it was exactly what I was looking for.

I left the camp with new friends, new melodies animating my inner ear drums and a new found grace in my walk due to openness in my hips. The weekend has definitely rocked my world, but little did I know that that which I took home in my pocket, the innocent looking DVD, was a ticking time-bomb, the arsenal that would explode belly dancing into my home once and for all.

Stay tuned for Part 2 when Jena brings the dance of the harem directly into her home.

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