Gilded Serpent presents...
One Dancer
A Journey of Self-Acceptance
by Melodi
previously published in Papyrus,
Newsletter for the North Texas Middle Eastern Dance Association

I was a dancer at birth. My father said that I would get up at age 5 and put on little shows of what he called “my own brand of exotic dance.” So, I am sure that to my mother it was only natural to sign me up for dance classes. Thus began my dance career: I was an overweight, over-exuberant, 7 year old in jazz class. I thought I was fantastic! Correction, I was fantastic! I gave 110% every time; I loved to dance! Any time, any place, and in any style (or no style at all) would find me dancing.  

However, it wasn’t long before I started to realize that the other girls were different than me. More importantly, I realized that I was different from them.

It started simply enough. I was always in the back, but that made sense since I was tall for my age. Then I noticed the other girls spending more time in their groups, leaving me out. They just didn’t know me very well. If they knew me better they would like me, wouldn’t they? Well, of course they would. What’s not to like?

I was a little girl dealing with self-confidence issues for the first time. I tried to ignore it.

I kept it to myself deciding not to tell my mother or my friends. I pretended that I hadn’t noticed anything and it was all in my head. Maybe it was my imagination, but did that make it any less painful? No, even if I created it all myself that imagined reality was real enough to hurt. I stuck it out for a while thinking it would get better. I knew in my heart how much I loved to dance and I wanted to dance every day, whether anyone wanted to watch or not. But in spite of my best efforts my little dancer heart finally shattered.

The day had come. The day I had waited for like Christmas morning. My pictures from the dance studio were finally in! I just knew that I was going to have a great photograph that captured my love of dance perfectly. My name wasn’t in lights yet, but I had pictures to show I was on my way. Where I was going exactly I didn’t know, but I knew I was a wonderful dancer and soon I’d have pictures to prove it.

My mom bought the studio pictures for my jazz class. Seeing my picture confirmed all my doubts and fears; cataloged on paper for all to see.

All my paranoia became real that day. I was different, I was fat. In my young brain I had already decided that dancers shouldn’t be fat. I must not be a dancer after all. Once again, I dealt with my pain in my own way, I swallowed it along with cookies, candy, and Twinkies. I never told my mom why I quit. That day I vowed never to dance again. Who would care anyway? What did it matter if the world were short ONE DANCER.

Fast forward 15 years. Single, overweight, and living a mundane life I kept my vow. The world was still short ONE DANCER.  Stifled, I felt like a painting stored in a dark attic; an unread fairy tale gathering dust on a shelf. Still, I wanted to dance, like the need to breathe, I yearned to dance.

I don’t remember how I was introduced to Middle Eastern Dance. I can’t recall if it was in a movie or a flyer or possibly a recreation center but it seemed like exactly what I needed. Excited by the idea of mystery, the feminine allure, and the glamour, it enticed me. I dreamed of a veiled dancer that seemed to float though the room made up of silk and sparkle. She embodied feminine power; all that is intangible, indescribable, and inexplicable. I wanted to know her; I wanted to be her. I researched the area and found instructors. One was not even five miles from my home! That had to be a sign. I knew where, when, and how much the classes were. I was ready!

It is amazing how fast the tide turns. I picked up the phone to call the dance studio. I heard the dial tone and dialed the number. During the first ring I became fearful, not yet an idea but a dark, heavy, fog of doubt. The second ring formed my concern into thought. Belly dancers are statuesque, beautiful, elegant, athletic, graceful creatures of mystery and magic. More importantly they were thin. By the third ring, the flood of self-doubt turned into a brutal self-annihilation. My mind drowned my heart under insult after insult: “You’re too fat to dance.” “No one wants to see you shake anything.” “You have no grace, no posture, no coordination and no training.” “Everyone in the class will be thinner than you, more beautiful than you, more graceful than you.” “They will laugh you out of class.” I never heard that fourth ring.

I gently replaced the phone to its cradle and wept.

I convinced myself that I had dodged a bullet. Fate had intervened and saved me from the embarrassment of going to that class. Imagine how awful the humiliation would have been if I had actually gone. I imagined the instructor’s disapproving face as she tried to remain polite. I imagined all the beautiful women’s stifled gasps as I entered the room. I could hear them whisper amongst themselves as they gawked at the fat girl who dared to enter their presence.

So, how long did this mirage of self-destruction last, you ask; a day, a week, a month? No, for two long years I was awash in self-doubt and self-loathing, frozen in my own self-created fear. Then, one day I woke up with a new emotion. I woke up angry.

How dare the world dictate what I can or cannot be? How dare I limit myself in what I can do! Anger is a strong emotion and a powerful driving force for change.  I was mad at everyone who ever teased me, everyone who ever laughed at me, every man who ever rejected me. I was mad and I wasn’t taking it anymore. I decided to dance no matter what anyone else thought.

Empowered by my raging, indignant anger, I seized the moment and dialed the phone.

Yes, I still had the information after two years. The instructor answered the phone and I enrolled for the next session which was amazingly only one week away. As I enrolled for class I relaxed my resolve a bit and began to doubt again. I explained to the kind voice on the other end of the line that I was nervous about started dance classes because I was a larger woman. With patient reassurance she explained that dance was for everyone and that Middle Eastern Dance was for all people of all shapes, sizes, ages, ethnicities, and even genders. Genders? Not all belly dancers are women?  It gave me hope. If men could be belly dancers then maybe, just maybe there was room for me.

After so much time, the day of my first class was here. Still harboring doubt, I drove to class. With fear growing in the pit of stomach I opened the studio door. I stepped onto the cool hardwood floor and looked around the room. No one laughed, no one gawked. In fact, I was surrounded by 9 beautifully different smiling women: tall, short, heavy, dark, light, young, old and everything in between. There weren’t any men in my class, but the diversity of these women was staggering and all of them were smiling…at me!

The instructor moved toward me with a graceful and purposeful stride. With a glowing warm smile and an outstretched hand she introduced herself and ushered me into the group. I breathed a sigh of relief.

I was home; after seventeen long years, I was home.

The years came and went along with many changes in my life. I have changed jobs, moved, and even gone back to school to finish my degree, but one thing has remained constant in my life is the love of dance. Then my husband came into my life; the person with whom I should feel free to share everything, even my deepest darkest secrets. My husband never knew what dance meant to me because I never told him. It wasn’t until I began to write this story that my husband came to know the passion with which I dance. “It is great exercise,” I would tell him. Then I would proceed to spend hours upon hours in dance class, purchase costumes I couldn’t afford, travel out of town or even out of state for workshops, and do countless hours of research on the internet. No wonder he was confused. That’s a lot of commitment for exercise.

Why did I never tell my husband that my heart beat because of dance? Why had I never uttered the words, “I am a dancer?” That would mean that not only would I have to admit to him how much dance meant to me, I would also have to admit it to myself.  No matter how many years had gone by, no matter how many stages, I had danced on, the voice inside my head still screamed doubt. This is not a perfect journey, but it is a journey I committed to take.

Sometimes I am confident, sometimes I doubt, but I continue to face my fear and step on stage, ONE DANCER.

The last beat of music fades. Breathing heavily, lights shimmering off the sweat clinging to my face, I pose, hearing the applause of the audience. I scan the crowd and meet my husband’s gaze. I can’t help but smile a bit wider knowing he is proud of me. I bow and exit the stage. In the dressing room, I remember that little girl in the purple jumpsuit with its hot pink sequined trim. She is still here tonight. I find it hard to believe that after all this time I still catch myself looking through the crowd wondering if they approve. Do I deserve to be here?  Even now, I fear. The inner demons rear their ugly heads and roar, but less frequently and more quietly now. I leave the dressing room and find a seat next to my husband to watch the rest of the show.  He squeezes my hand and smiles a knowing smile.

The next dancer is on stage. I watch her and wonder if she hears it too? What does the voice in her head say? I silently say to her, “Its okay, just dance. The world needs ONE MORE DANCER.”

The chances are that if you do not struggle with self-confidence issues, you at least know someone who does. This is not just about weight. It is not just about dance. This is a story for anyone who has ever thought, heard, or imagined reasons that keep them from doing what they love and being who they know in their heart they are meant to be. Please, pass this article on, because the world is short ONE DANCER…one photographer…one musician…one singer…painter…


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