Gilded Serpent presents...
Early in her
book, On Women Turning 50: Celebrating Midlife Discovery,
author and photographer Cathleen Rountree tells of a woman who
kills herself not long after her fiftieth birthday. What a terrible
waste, Rountree counsels in her wise and well-documented study.
Life has so much to offer, even or especially after fifty: how
pitiful that for this woman, as for so many others, this chronological
age represents, not a period of self-discovery or fullness, but
a wasteland of disappointed expectations and diminished possibilities.
myself, certainly, entering the sixth decade of my life
has been a bit like being dropped into Alice in Wonderland's
never on my mind, but I've lost my bearings. Menopause, which
Gail Sheehy so eloquently labels "The Silent Passage," comes
along just as what I believed to be a passionate and successful
marriage falls to pieces, leaving me frightened and embittered,
dealing with hot flashes, mood swings, weight gain, poverty,
physical deterioration, and moribund loneliness. More is wrong
than mere physical discomfort or even the gain of forty pounds;
a certain essence has been lost, a vivacity and verve, a belief
in myself as female, as vital, as worthwhile. My Goddess-worshiping
friends scold me: "At this time of life you become a Crone.
It's the inevitable next step, so you'd just better learn to
has ever prepared me to be a crone; despite the support of my
friends, it seems a penance, an evil, loveless state. A kind
of exile. Matters become worse. After a year or two of menopause
I'm diag-nosed with a serious heart disease which leaves me either
incapacitated by dizziness or uncomfortably overmedicated.
And then it's
all, finally and suddenly, too much. So much so, in fact, that
my only response is anger. Self-healing is necessary, I decide.
I go on a quest for the Perfect Doctor, and for the perfect regime
with which to heal myself.
My basic aerobic
routine at this point is walking the dog, a huge, furry malamute-mix
named Sam, whose mission in life is pulling me around, as a result
of which he gets much more exercise than I do. One day, however,
I find myself at an ethnic dance festival with a friend, and
suddenly, watching the flamboyant gyrations of a troupe of gypsies,
I get a flash of intuition. It's one of those moments at which
you know that something's going to change, even though nothing
much has happened yet.
to take a belly dance class," I announce to my friend. "I've
always dreamed of being a belly dancer, I need the exercise,
and right now is perfect, because even if I drop dead of the
heart condition, at least I'll have fulfilled one of my fantasies."
I check a recent
copy of The East Bay Express and telephone the first belly
dance teacher I see listed. Her voice is warm and pleasant, and
I feel immediately encouraged.
to be honest," I warn her nonetheless, perhaps trying to
get out of making a serious commitment before I've even gotten
started. "I have an illness and could collapse at any time."
no problem," she replies, not missing a beat. "If you
pass out I can help you. You see, I'm an emergency-room nurse." I
know immediately she's going be the right teacher for me.
The music is
the easy part. The music has been part of me, part of my life,
since childhood.The music is my grandmother. Born in Russian
Georgia, raised in the international city of Odessa, she was
a revolutionary in the early twentieth century, a wife and mother
and mental patient as the century progressed. A large woman of
a type I recognize later, traveling through Turkey and the Balkans,
she was wide in hip and shoulder, with olive skin, strong, even
features and dark, expressive eyes. During my entire childhood
she lived downstairs from us and had as much hand in raising
me as either of my parents.
would come upstairs and sing to me, and now, listening
to the music of belly dance, I recognize the minor key,
the rhythms, of my grandmother's songs. I remember her
lifting her handkerchief (or, lacking one, holding up a
woebegone Kleenex), one hand turning in a graceful swirl
as she moved, very slowly, across my room.
is Jewish. Dancing to Arab music, I recognize how deeply connected
the two peoples really are, and begin to find the Palestinian/Israeli
conflict increasingly painful. It's as if I'm watching two beloved
siblings in a struggle to the death, made even more virulent
because they're so deeply linked, so similar. Still, the music
itself liberates something within myself. Undeniably, it's the
music of my soul.
It's my body
that's the problem. As I try to dance, it feels as if my arms
are constructed of damp plaster. My chest and shoulders seem
almost fused. When I undulate, there's a creaking of bones. My
hands look like uncoordinated appendages flying around, out of
only parts of my body that function with the music are
the hips and my hips are, as one nasty dancer/vendor at
Rakkasah informs me as I'm trying on scarves, "the
widest hips I've ever seen, wider than anybody's."
studio, the dance recitals, the festivals, are a fantasy world,
for me. I am a very chubby, relatively immobile participant,
but I thrill to them anyway, finding myself in an element I've
craved throughout my life: rooms filled with smoky light and
music, market stalls hanging with coin belts and Bedouin dresses,
gypsy shawls, yards of Egyptian beadwork, cloth worked with beaten
silver. A thwarted traveler who no longer has time or funds to
return to Europe or India or even the East Coast, I can embark
on a fascinating journey without having to leave the Bay Area.
A day at Rakkassah has all the exhausting, thrilling energy of
a day spent in the soukhs of Istanbul, the open bazaars in Delhi.
of all, to me, is the sense of camaraderie with the other dancers.
My teacher, Lynette of Snake's Kin Studio, puts me through my
paces, demanding more and more from me, but only with encouragement
and positive reinforcement. She's never insulting, never mean.
Slowly, the steel bands around my chest and neck become less
constricting; when I watch myself in the mirror, sometimes I
almost look as if I'm dancing. The other women in class are supportive
and kind. They concentrate on what I do well, keeping rhythm
on the zils, expressing enthusiasm. They push me to exceed myself.
(And sometimes they push me so I won't step on their feet.)
as if some part of myself has been restored, in another
not happen over weeks, or even months. I've been studying belly
dance, now, for more than five years, off and on. Sometimes,
when the pressures of work are too great, I have to quit for
a while. But my costumes and scarves still hang in my closet,
and I've never wanted to put them away, never wanted to say, "I'm
through with dancing." I'm not through; one of the beauties
of this dance form is that one never has to be. Eligibility as
a belly dancer isn't conditioned by size, by age, or by what
our society considers beauty. Attending a lecture on the history
of dance given by master-teacher Bert
Balladine, I see a rare videotape of the performance of one
world-famous Egyptian wedding dancer who, totally skilled, totally
erotic and suggestive in her movements and facial expressions,
leaves almost nothing to the imagination. From her seated position
she moves her hands, face and torso in undulations, smiles, belly
rolls, and gestures that make it easy to understand how a very
young couple might want to lose their innocence after watching
her for a few hours.
most inspiring to me about this particular wedding dancer, is
that not only is she extremely overweight (by our standards),
she's also over eighty years old! Here I am, suffering about
turning fifty and gaining a few pounds, imagining that my life
as a woman is over and that I can't possibly ever dance in public,
and I'm suddenly confronted by the image of this unabashedly
sexy and graceful woman, thirty years older and many pounds heavier
than myself. She isn't the last such role model whom I encounter.
At a Desert Dance Festival I watch another woman joyfully
announce that she, too, is over eighty, as she does a rollicking,
joyous shimmy across the stage.
there's more to this than mere vanity at being able to
do well in old age what most people can't even accomplish
in youth. There's an attitude here toward life, toward
the art of movement in general, which expresses the affirmation
of a belief in the human spirit and its manifestation in
oneself, one's gender, one's position in society.
When I think
about the differences between belly dance and the kind of movement
we value in the West, I realize that, traditionally, Western
dance has been governed by air. The dance forms of ballet, Broadway
show dancing, and even American folkdance, involve a great deal
of leaping, extension of the limbs, and lifting almost always
of women, who naturally have to strive for extreme slenderness
in order to be able to soar through their movements as the choreography
on the other hand, seems ruled not by air, but by the coordinates
of the human body itself, by the earth. Dancing becomes an expression
of unification with a matrix, with one's own physical center,
rather than with the limbs, which are such an important focus
in Western dance. And the foundation of belly dance appears to
be a celebration of the functions of the female body eroticism,
childbirth, nurture rather than a flight to escape them.
as I move further in belly dance, I come to meet my own center,
all the crannies and hesitations of my nature. And then, there
it is: my sexuality. Which I'd put aside, a few years before
(why else so much weight gain after the failure both of my primary
relationship and my hormones?) But put aside, only, not destroyed.
So here's my sexuality back, a little battered maybe, but intact,
ready to arise as I move into the wonderful, suggestive rhythms
of this music, a music which also brings me back to my origins,
to the grandmother I loved, to my childhood, to my blood. Back
obviously, is not such a penance. What's made it all so painful,
I realize at last, is the attitude of our modern, Western, industrialized
society an attitude which, despite the fact that I've always
believed I was a nonconformist, I've actually shared. The belief
is that older women should be invisible; that we're too undesirable,
too awkward, too fat and gray to have any place in a world which
is sleek and modern, slim and trim. That thus nobody can ever
want us, in any capacity, not even ourselves.
bought into that attitude all my life, I realize. But there's
nothing to stop me from buying out.
I also remember
something that Margaret Mead, the great anthropologist, used
to call "post-menopausal zest." With the help of the
Perfect Doctor, yes, I found him, I'm beginning to feel healed.
My heart beats steadily; I've lost the original forty pounds
I'd gained, and then some. The hot flashes, the nausea, the mood
swings have begun to subside. A transition has been forged, a
delicate suspension bridge between two continents. I teeter in
the middle, feeling, not fear, but a renewed hunger for experience,
a zest for life.
Yes, I decide.
The thing has happened. I've become a Crone. Life stretches out
before me, filled with possibilities.
dance, I've found, is endless.
I plan to go
on learning all the steps.
it my way by
me, dance is not cerebral, but highly emotional.
Artwork of Marie Soderlund
Bay Area artist Marie Soderlund's watercolors express her passion for color,
dancing, friendships and the many wonders of life!
in Yemen, Part I - Tafruta by Jalilah (Lorraine
A simple question
was all they needed to get them into motion!