My Internship with Aunt Delilah
posted February 3, 2010
Three weeks ago, in no way was I a Bellydancer; yet, I found myself sitting in an airport terminal, waiting for the plane that was to take me to Seattle where I would be eating, breathing, and sleeping everything Bellydance for 21 days.
I am incredibly fortunate to be a junior at a very nice independent school in Toledo, Ohio. One of the programs they offer is called "Winterim". No one goes to their normal classes for a month; instead, all the students embark on some kind of intensive independent study program.
There are no bounds to the kind of places you can go or the different things you can try, as long as you can prove that it is, in some way, educational. I didn’t want to stay in Ohio for my project and my Grandma, whom I hadn’t seen in years, had recently moved to Seattle, so it would be a win-win situation for me to find something to do in Seattle–but what project could I do?
I contacted my uncle, in whose house I would be staying for my time in the rainy state, and we looked for a few different people with whom I could work. However, every opportunity seemed like it would turn into my getting people coffee and watching others do interesting things while I twiddled my thumbs, and I didn’t want that! I wanted to do something new, exciting, and fun—something that would be remembered as a fascinating endeavor. Eventually, one of my mom’s friends suggested something I hadn’t even considered: working with my Aunt Delilah, internationally-known Bellydancer, to learn the art of the Bellydance.
The idea was foreign to me. I had had lessons in ballet and tap dancing when I was six, but I gave them up quickly when my somewhat frank teacher told me that I had to practice more if I ever wanted to get out of the second row in recitals. This led me to believe that I had two left feet always, incapable of dancing more than the unimaginative swaying back and forth you can find at high school dances. However, I wasn’t about to sit in a cubicle for three weeks, so I decided to go for it!
Thankfully, being the wonderful and kind person she is, Delilah agreed immediately to let me follow her around and learn from someone world-renown in her field.
We agreed on making the project more than just dancing; I would be learning about costume making, business practices, culture, history, and more. I agreed to these terms, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
Aunt Delilah and I live on opposite ends of the country from one another, so she never had much influence over me as I grew up. I came west to Seattle around the time I was ten and was fascinated by her business, the studio, the costumes, the glitter, the glamour, and everything else that would capture the attention of a ten year-old. I was gifted with a hip scarf in my favorite color, a set of her how-to Bellydance series, and a great Halloween costume, which I proudly wore–once I returned home. However, as many of my obsessions from back then, Bellydancing was soon replaced by the next exciting thing, and the hip scarf, costume, and VHS tapes were put to the back of the closet.
Six years later, I tromped into my garage to go through our "to be given away" pile in search of that same hip scarf. Not all of its coins showed the same shimmering gold, and there were stains from years of neglect, but I put it on, and it sounded just the same, which meant I was one step closer to being ready for my internship. Again, I was a Bellydancer for Halloween, only this time, in preparation for the weeks that were to come.
I arrived in Seattle with a certain mind set: I had tank tops, shorts and sports bras in which to practice, I was going to learn some choreography that Delilah or some other teacher designed for me, I was going to use some famous song that I didn’t understand, and I would get through my three weeks of studying "Middle Eastern Dance." Most of you reading this probably already know how incredibly mistaken I was. By my first night, everything I thought about my project had changed. My cousin, Laura Rose, and Delilah took me out to dinner, and they talked about everything I would be doing and defined Bellydance. They spoke of concepts foreign to me such as "understanding your own body" and "being able to just let music move you".
I was also informed I would not be spoon fed choreography; in the end everything I danced would involve my making it up on the spot. As someone who had only taken ballet lessons and didn’t think she could dance, I was horrified! I was already self-conscious enough about getting up in front of my school and performing in a costume with my midriff exposed, but now I didn’t even have the crutch of pre-planned moves. I didn’t think I would make it through the experience…
With this new found discovery, I headed to my first-ever Bellydance class, and it was even less encouraging than dinner. My shorts and sports bra were out of place in a room full of swirling skirts, leggings, and flattering tops. I felt like a seven year-old trying to copy what the grownups were doing as the rest of the dancers shimmied, swayed, and rolled parts of the body over which I had no control. I never expected be able to do intense tummy-rolls on my first day, but even my shoulders wouldn’t cooperate as I tried making a circle-and-a-half. I was completely disheartened by the time class was over, and felt like throwing in the towel right then.
As time went along, I continued to struggle with isolations, layering shimmies, keeping time, and all the other technical aspects of the dance, but there were small victories. Usually when we get better at something it’s so spread out that we don’t even notice we are improving. Well, I was taking up to three classes every day, so I could see as my shimmy developed and when I understood the differences between forward, backward, up, and down figure-eights. With each class, I became less lost in what was happening around me, and I felt more and more like I belonged. My accomplishments weren’t just in the dance either. With Laura Rose’s suggestion and Delilah’s costume expertise, I designed and produced a five piece, sunflower inspired outfit, in just as many days. It was perfect for me—someone who is more attracted to subtle earthy tones than the bright rhinestones and sequins found on most costumes (although there was a place for them in my outfit, too.)
With each passing day, I was becoming more and more confident in my dance, and there was even a turning point at which I stopped dreading my final performance and started getting excited to show my classmates what I could do.
The final week arrived. I had my costume, my music, my hours of classes, and an entire day alone in the studio to decide how I was going to pull everything together. I danced again and again to the three different songs I had selected (two traditional pieces by House of Tarab, the house band of Delilah’s studio, and a pop song by RLP) until I was completely sick of them. I needed a break so I popped in Laura Rose’s "Techno Belly Mix CD" and decided to just have fun with it. As I just moved to the music I had never heard before, everything seemed to tie together in my mind. I could see all the influences on my dance, from my teachers here in Seattle, to my background in ballet, and even to the three years of karate I took in my preteen years. It was intensely personal, and my dance—not something that had been choreographed for me—needed no previous planning: it was all in the moment and spontaneous. Everything I had learned in my weeks at the studio made sense. I couldn’t believe that I ever wanted to come here to learn some strict dance with rules and specific guidelines, when this time alone in a room with dimmed lights, moving the way I felt like moving, awaited me!
Still, I wasn’t done. I had to perform and demonstrate that I could do more than just play with fun music on my own. I had yet to prove that I could become a Bellydancer in just three weeks!
It was the night before a big performance at the studio. Chairs had been moved, lights had been set, and a stage was marked out with white Christmas lights marking the dancers’ terrain. Delilah would be one of the dancers and it would be the first time I would see my mentor perform, but first it was my turn. Hours before the first professional dancer would take the stage, I stepped onto the floor to perform the piece I had been working on for three weeks for the first time before an audience of three. I wanted to show Delilah what I could do and prove to her that I had learned something in my time here. I took a deep breath and went for it. I could feel my heart beating as the music picked up, but every time I looked down I saw Delilah smiling and beaming with pride. Everyone cheered and I laughed as I pranced around the room. I felt so good once I had finished, like I had really accomplished something. As people started filing in for the real show, Delilah ran off to prepare and act hostess, while I kept having various people with whom I had worked come up to me, saying that Delilah had told them I had been a hit. When complimented, I usually shake off what the speaker has said and deny my success, but I felt like I deserved this one. I could accept it with a smile because I had come such a long way from not being able to do a shoulder circle my first day.
I am now preparing to go back to Ohio and perform for my school, and I am ready for it. I know that I am a Bellydancer even if I’m not yet capable of the amazing feats I witnessed later that night as dancers with years and years of experience took the stage. Now I have the confidence to just dance with the music, and I know what I am capable of dancing. It doesn’t matter what happens at my show in Ohio because my first performance was here, on the stage made of Christmas lights, with Delilah cheering the entire time. One more thing I learned here is that one of the most inspiring parts of the dance is the community and the connection between dancers and the support that that community can give to someone—even if they’ve only been a Bellydancer for twenty-one days.
Averill and family
back row, l-r: Uncle Steve Flynn, Shakti, Christine Hamby, Lori Green, Delilah, Erik Brown
front row, l-r: Averill, Grandma Rosemary Flynn, Laura Rose
Ready for more?
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In her book, Barbara Ehrenreich takes one back to the original motivations of dance along a historic journey of how human impetus to dance, has been repressed by societal hierarchy, and religious zealots.
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- 11-10-06 How I started a Bellydance Club in High School by Shazzadi
I expected hardly anyone to show up at the first meeting. I was shocked when over 40 girls showed up and were very excited about the whole idea. So I was able to prove interest.
- 2-2-10 Serena Wilson (1933-2007) A Student of Ruth St Denis, Part 2: Salome and Her Impact by Barbara Sellers-Young
When suited to the context, she also had no hesitation in using the term belly dance as she considered the dance as evolving as an Americanized version based on primarily Middle Eastern as opposed to North African influences.
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Twenty years ago when I told people I had worked with Shoo Shoo Amin in Cairo, the response was “Wow!” Now, people go “Who?” Today no one seems to know who she is. For belly dance purists, this is a tragedy. Every so often, someone my age or older will wax lyrical about her on-line, but for the most part, she’s an enigma – even to young Egyptians.
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- 1-21-10 Is Belly Dancing Provocative? by Maria Strova
This stereotype of Belly dancing has caused me a lot of displeasure; it has made me angry to see how imprisoned in negative models Belly dancing still is,and how much it had lost since it was formerly an ancient art that honors the female body.