Empowered. Beautiful. Joyful. These are just some of the adjectives I would use to describe Michelle. I met her a few years ago and was immediately drawn to her animated smile and open heart. She’s simply a lot of fun to be around! When I asked her if I could write this story she said, “Of Course!” She’s always eager to share what excites her with others. We started our conversation with Michelle telling me about her newest dancing love – belly dancing. Wouldn’t you know it, she used the same words in talking about the belly dancing community: Empowered. Beautiful. Joyful.
Ever since Michelle was a young girl she’d dance for any audience she could find. Family, friends, and pets all got to see the routines she choreographed herself. When no one else was available, she’d dance in front of the mirror, enjoying the uplifting feeling – the freedom of moving! Throughout high school, Michelle could be found on the stage in theater productions, spinning a banner in the flag core, and at every school dance. (Except one, when she was sick with strep throat. That’s a pretty good track record!) After graduating, even though her career in the Air Force had nothing to do with dance, she always found her way back to it. Clubs, community theater productions, and classes all helped Michelle fulfill that need to shake her groove thing through the years. And in recent months she’s found a new style of movement to love.
“When I started, I realized belly dancing gives you an instant pile of girlfriends. It is an extended community and a big family.
Originally, women belly danced for each other as a sense of camaraderie and it was also used to aid in labor and childbirth. When it first came to the US, it was left to seedy nightclubs, and it got a bad reputation. Most activities that involve a confident woman in revealing clothing without regrets eventually get a bad rap. It is so not like that today. Belly dancers have more clothes on than most women at the beach. Especially tribal belly dancers, who tend to wear layers of clothing.
Although some family and friends still wrinkle their nose when I talk about it or try to share a video of a performance. I remind them I am not a stripper or a hooker…..I DANCE. I am not trying to seduce men, I am dancing for me, for joy, for kinship of women.”
Michelle’s path to this liberating and confidence building community of dancers wasn’t direct or clear. During those years in the military, and even after she got out and started her family, she explored a variety of styles. Tap, clogging, and hip hop were her favorites because of their rapid movement, which fits with Michelle’s spirited personality. She also tried out ballet, modern dancing, salsa, and African dance.
Then, back in 2006 Michelle went to a ladies’ night out dinner at a Mediterranean restaurant that featured belly dancers for entertainment. She was fascinated by what she saw during the show. The poise and skill required for the dancer to move her body the way she did caused Michelle to engage the dancer in a conversation after her show. She was hooked. Michelle knew right then that she would belly dance someday. She didn’t know it would take almost a decade for that to happen, but that little spark was always burning during the years she was living the rest of her life.
Along with the confidence and ability of belly dancers, Michelle was also taken with the dance itself. I mentioned earlier that her favorite styles often had rapid movements. Belly dancing has those strong actions that she likes. But it also has moments of more intentional and quiet movements. The mental, physical, and emotional focus it takes to achieve a balance of those opposite actions was something that intrigued Michelle and helped keep her interest in this particular art.
The military life took her away from the dancer she’d been so impressed with. Between that and feeling a bit intimidated, she didn’t attempt belly dancing until earlier this year. “The lady I met at the restaurant was Middle Eastern. I thought maybe that was a prerequisite to being able to do the slow, graceful parts. I also thought long hair and big boobs might be necessary, as many images you see in the media suggest. I had all these misconceptions, but belly dancing stayed in the corner of my mind.” About six months ago, Michelle was manning a table at a wellness fair and heard some music that had her dancing in her seat. She probably would have gotten up, but didn’t want to leave her table. It was meant to be, though, because she had a perfect seat when three women made their way to the stage and started belly dancing!
She was awestruck again as that earlier flame was fanned. These belly dancers swayed and shimmied to the soul-stirring music as Michelle looked on. She noticed that each woman looked…well, normal. Their body sizes weren’t all super-thin with large breasts. One even had short hair, like Michelle. Their costumes were not only bright and stimulating, but they covered more than she expected. She talked to the dancers after their performance and, “became a groupie for a month and a half,” going to see them dance at haflas (belly dancing parties) in the area. She loved every show!
“I had all these misconceptions about belly dancing. Then I started classes at Farfesha World Dance Studios in April 2015. So many women! So many shapes and sizes and backgrounds! I was finally in my element. And I picked it up like I have been doing it all my life.”
I want to take a second here to pause and smile. I want you all to think about that woman in your life who’s charismatic. Think about that woman who’s shy. Think about the women who are tall or short, fat or thin, outgoing or reserved, comfortable in their skin or worried about every line and wrinkle. All of these women are represented in this community of dancers. All of these women can learn to love themselves for who they are and can feel appreciated by others without judgment. That’s what belly dancing can be.
“I suggest belly dancing to all women I meet. Anyone can do it. It’s low impact. I know a 70-year-old lady who does it, among other forms of dance, and gets around better than me! You never age out of belly dancing. It accentuates the beauty that all women possess and brings out the confidence to be yourself and not apologize for it.”
Michelle used to want to be famous for dancing. As a young girl, dancing for family, she thought maybe she’d go to New York City and see what happened. Her path was a little different than that, though. And, although, her name isn’t synonymous with Broadway, she’s found a stage she’s right at home on. Michelle is a belly dancer.