Gilded Serpent presents...
An Inconvenient Body Truth
by Barbara Donahue

As a dancer from the point of view of a long life, I have always felt invincible, super human and as if I had a special kind of control of my physical instrument. I always felt like an artistic athlete who could control my fate with my body and my body with my fate. Dance has always been my best religion.

When I began studying the movement language of American/ Middle Eastern/ Belly dance (a dance of many names) I felt as if I had found another aspect of invincibility through what seemed to be a new secret source for body understanding.

Maybe this was because many of core the movements were initiated from the deep inside, emanating out in to the world. I felt like a vessel for the connection between heaven and earth when I did my first hip circle! What a wonderful source of body knowledge to discover for a new midlife dance career beginning in my 40s. It was perfect timing!

Continually, I feel amazement with the open passion and commitment of what seems to be the entire American ME Belly Dance community. Additionally, the open kvetching on every personal subject surprises me. Until I discovered the world of Belly Dance, my dance life was mostly strict modern/ ballet with creative movement, Pilates, Roth and art mixed together. Even now, I do not remember speaking so openly about so many personal subjects relating to the body. Of course because of the Internet, many personal subjects are talked about now through e-mail, which is different than talking face-to-face.

Nonetheless, e-mail communication and website listings of thoughts, questions and answers inspire personal information and conversations about almost everything. Intimate conversation with perfect strangers (who also can become close dance sisters) allows open-world discussion.

That process is allowing me to present thoughts on this delicate topic which maybe could eventually be called something beautiful like: “ Elixirs for dancing agelessly through the years.” I welcome possible suggestions for titles.

Belly dancers talk of almost every body part and the costume body solution for that body part with candor. They discuss bra sizing or bulging, belly bloopers, belly covers, no panties showing or matching if they do show, good hair versus bad hair and wigs or extensions, nails done or not, tattoos, diets, etc. I assume it is all for beauty, illusion, and performance power (or is it?). It is all for bringing out our ultimate and unique womanhood, but, sometimes I have wondered, is it.

In concerts, I have watched the most incredible beauty queen transformations! With tricks of the trade, a dancer who seems not to be of star material in class, becomes in only a few hours, a shining, glorious, ageless goddess in the limelight of the dance sisterhood. I have also seen costumes on bodies that looked as if they should cover-up, in a certain costume that was from long ago. This phenomenon has made me wonder repeatedly about the “ageing gracefully costume rules” of Belly dance.

It feels to me as if  Belly dancers were all part of a world-wide sisterhood. I have received help many times along my very confusing journey in an attempt to understand our amazing world of Belly dance. I have received help especially from my world Internet sisters, from a question about music, to how one should to start a show. A workshop dancer/ teacher encouraging you or a teacher appreciating your next accomplishment who will say, “ Don’t ever stop dancing and learning.”  There is always someone “out there” who will hear you and will be willing to take the time to answer your questions.

I began studying Belly dance at age 46. As any ballet or modern dancer might be, I was in shock at first by all the new dance rules—or lack of rules! The dance world as I had known it was completely different from almost everything having to do with Belly dance.

Getting past that initial phase, I, like many other dancers, fell obsessively and passionately in love with every aspect of Belly dancing.

Five years have flown by, the way they do, and I am 51 now. (Surprise and shock!)

Six months ago, I opened a new studio on the main road of my very small, conservative New England town. I am so proud to have my little studio sign that reads, “ The Art of American Belly Dance.” I am teaching five or more classes a week. I am doing all the same things I have always done (except chasing my 3 kids around, which is definitely different)!

However, my dancer’s body is suddenly changing, for no apparent reason except (maybe) I am just getting older and going through menopause like every other mortal woman. Could this be so?

This is a big thing, and all of you who are in this phase with me know it is. This is bigger than you or I would like to admit. Naively, I assumed that my dance religion would continue to make me invincible and young, or at least younger, forever. During the last couple of years, I have been so busy exploring every aspect of this dance and mastering each part of it, I was hardly thinking that my body would betray me like every one else’s.

During these recent years of pursuing the study/ teaching/ performing of Belly dance, I thought to myself, “I will dance forever, invincible like always!” Is it possible that I thought this because so many Belly dancers never seem to change? It seems they are forever young. Is it because their pictures freeze them in time? Is it because of the darned good photography? Is it that I have not learned all the many tricks-of-the-trade of the Art of Belly dance yet?

I am thinking that maybe these things are possible, now that I feel I have mastered the dance. It is not that I believe that I know everything, but now I am not working so hard at dance, practicing each move repeatedly like a million sacred prayers. I am not struggling so hard anymore either. I have become more confident and more relaxed now. Perhaps my dancer’s body is settling in for the second half with this new knowledge. Hummm! That sounds as if I had become a grown-up dancer! Oh, my! I wonder what a psychiatrist would say about that!

In the very beginning of my dance study, when I became aware of all the different costumes styles, every style to me screamed: youth, beauty, ultimate control of one’s instrument, etc. I recall my first few classes, in which many different sizes, shapes and ages of bare midriffs for the very first time in my life, suddenly surrounded me. I felt funny about exposing my lifetime’s leotard covered body. I remember my world famous teacher/ performer (who happened to be my age). She strutted around in her gypsy skirt and bra top very proudly. I thought to myself, “She knows something that I don’t!” What was that secret something? Did it have to do with dance, life force, attitude, or with the survival of come-what-may and against-all-odds? “Have I found it,” I ask myself now? Have I found it by feeling the freedom and confidence of learning the dance?

By losing those 20 pounds and by baring my middle, have I found it? After this discovery of freedom, should I be ready to give it up now that I am maturing? Is there a commonly understood rule about which I have not learned?

How well I remember: in a 10-day dance workshop, I watched what I thought was a magical moment for the many sisters of Belly dance! We were all standing in class. Some of us were still covered and it was very hot. One of the women suddenly pulled her shirt off from over her head, exposing her bra and belly. The entire roomful of 30 women burst into applause and yips of delight. The dancer stood bathed in light. I saw her bathed in light! From then on, during every class and every meal she walked, dressed, and made herself up like a queen. She walked and stood 2 inches taller than she had before. When I saw her I wondered, “ Is that the magic of Belly dance? If it is, I want to learn that and bring it home to all women in New England!” To this day, I do not know if I did succeed or if I can.

The pressure of the beauty/power combination, to which I choose to adhere, began at the beginning of my journey. I wanted to try to master it all. I wanted to learn to execute all the dance styles and wear all the costume styles.  However, I kept wondering if was I too old to start. All the costume styles that I saw advertised were mostly the bedleh type; they were body-baring and body-freeing. My training ethic taught me that one must be able to wear this or that style, even when one knows what one is doing and when one has everything completely under control.

However, that was not the main message I received from both students and some teachers. Some students that I met actually said to me, “Get the beautiful, expensive costume first because it will help your dancing.” For me, that was shocking! Some teachers tried to sell me costumes then that I realize (now) were way beyond my cultural dance ability or knowledge. This was just the opposite message that I understood from all my previous dancing years, which had been, “Learn dance discipline first; work hard; get your technique perfect, and costume yourself last.”

Therefore, here I am now, having worked very hard to learn as much as possible to master my body, invest in the costumes, and—Bam!—suddenly, menopause has hit me!

Menopause! Everyone mostly hears and wonders about it until they are involved in it actually. I remember listening to a close non-dancing friend talk about how strange it seemed and thinking to myself, “That will never happen to me because I am a dancer.”  How could I have been so naïve? I have read about it everywhere to educate myself. Honestly, I thought, “ I won’t even notice or feel it because of my dancing.” Surely, my teaching would keep me looking and feeling like myself (at least from the neck down) but suddenly, I am gaining weight through my middle! My arms are morphing, and my breasts are growing!  I am upset, surprised, and I feel betrayed. Am I not devoted enough to my dance religion or am I just really a mortal woman after all? Should I do it all double-time and pray?

In spite of these mostly very recent changes, I want to be the ageless, always energetic and forever-enthusiastic teacher, dancer, and woman. However, and I hate to admit it, it has become recently harder.

Last year, I succumbed to hair extensions after watching my hair on a performance video. I love to turn, and I noticed that, even though I had a hair extension clip in, my hair (which isn’t short) when I was turning, looked like a short tail instead of like a lovely trail. I went to have it fixed it as best I could.

As a nail-biter who never wore polish, I also began grooming acrylic nails. A well-known dancer I knew told me that acrylic nails gave her confidence, and who would not want that? So, I went to try them. I cannot say they give me confidence, but they are fun for dance. In the beginning of my journey, I read some southern beauty queen’s Belly dance rules that said, “Ladies, if your costume looks better than your hair, get a wig, and always groom your finger and toe nails.”

Philosophically speaking, I tell myself now, “ Barb, you’ve had a great run, --more fun than most, and you could be feeling and looking much worse! Some people still comment, “You are in your 30s; right?” I have to laugh!

I am proud of who I am, what I have learned, and especially proud that I am able to teach those whom I love: my students. I love to watch them grow, learn, and become more in touch with their own source of femininity and strength, which I feel is a benefit from the study of Belly dance.

However, I am also wondering what the rules are for this, new very inconvenient body phase. I am in it just like all the other mortals after all. The realization of this fact came as a big shock to me!

Here are some personal tips I have gleaned since writing this article:

  1. I have joined a gym for the first time in my life. Walking, breathing, and a million snake arms and circles are not enough anymore. I guess the good, modern gym machines are a wave of the future ageless bodies. I am even thinking of talking to a personal trainer. Yikes!
  2. I have been getting acupuncture treatments to align and open all my bodily energies. My acupuncturist suggested getting an 11-pound bag of rice, putting it on my belly for 15 min a day and concentrating on the weight of it to quiet my mind into meditative state. He says that a quiet mind is a calm and clean mind, which leads to a calm, clean body. I am trying it.
  3. I am using and have become a distributor of some organic skin care products. Ironically, since using these products, I am getting more compliments on my skin than ever before in my life, which is bizarre, but nice. I wonder where the compliments were 10 or 20 years ago.
  4. One beautiful dancer said to me on the subject, “Be mysterious. Cover certain body parts, while revealing others.” I will try.
  5. Another beautiful dancer said,“By 50 we need only a quarter of the food we ate previously.”  ‘Tis true. Therefore, I will try to follow suit, healthfully.

I appreciate all “tips of the trade” from the many experts. This is a journey for all of us, whether we like it or not, and this is the great age of information. Let us help each other along in this seemingly ageless profession, in a world pursuing

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