Friday 17 October 2014

Bellydance and body image

A study came out recently that demonstrated what those of us in the bellydance community have known for some time: Bellydance is great for body image and self esteem.

Body positivity and body acceptance is often born out of an appreciation for the function of the body. A mother may come to terms with her postnatal body by considering the amazing function it has performed. A bellydance student learns to love her body because she knows that when she dances, it can do beautiful things, or she appreciates the joy that moving her body in dance can bring her.

I am ceaselessly amazed at how those who come to this dance blossom, over time as they grow in confidence, poise and grace; in the moment as the music starts and they transform from their everyday self, into the dancer, into a vision of the music itself.

One of the things I love about this dance is its inclusiveness. Bellydance is available to people of all genders, races, ages, shapes and sizes. None of these is a barrier to learning, or performing, everyone has the opportunity to express themselves, and to share their dance in the safe, accepting environment of the dance studio or halfa. Bellydance, is for every body.

When news of the above research came to light, there was a murmer in the background. Some experienced dancers were asking “what about the professional performers?”

For while it is true that a student or hobbyist is surrounded by encouraging peers and supportive audiences, the same cannot be said for those who choose to become entertainers for the general public, where employers and audiences, unaware of our more accepting (and dare I say, realistic) aesthetic demand and expect a dancer who fits within a narrow, “conventionally attractive” image.

When I was a fledgeling dancer, in a student troupe, our teacher related to us an enquiry she had had for a party booking. The organiser had specifically asked that she sent only the “young, slim” dancers. Our troupe was made up of dancers between the ages of roughly 18 and 60, dress sizes 8-20. Our teacher politely declined, and explained that this request was contrary to her dance ethos, and the spirit of the troupe itself.

I was reminded of this recently, when Shira reshared an old article from her site. It was based around a question from a dancer whose teacher had asked her to cover her stretchmarks for a performance.

The reaction to this was incredibly powerful. A few dancers agreed with the teacher, citing professionalism, client/audience expectations etc. Some moderate responses stated that the teacher was correct, but only to spare the dancer from the judgement of the audience. An overwhelming response, from dancers and dance teachers, was in support of the student, stating that it should be the individual dancer’s choice what to cover and what to reveal (within the bounds of culturally appropriate costuming).

My stance on this, was that as a teacher or mentor, I would avoid exposing students to a toxic environment where they might be judged according to their appearance rather than their dancing in favour of a safe opportunity to express themselves as they choose. As a performer I know that a critical audience can have a horribly negative impact, even on those who do “fit the mould”, because none of us will ever be “perfect” in the eyes of every observer. Striving for that perfection is not a route to happiness, but perhaps self-acceptance and appreciation of our reality might be.

I am left considering how this goes forward. In our insular community we have happy, well adjusted dancers. People who step out of their everyday lives to be together, to appreciate each other and learn to appreciate themselves. These people leave the studio and take that attitude with them, they walk taller, dress more adventurously. They model self-acceptance to their children and their peers. Little ripples. Can we make waves?

What happens when an older dancer, or a plus sized dancer goes out to perform professionally? What happens if the public audience doesn’t see the “young, slim, pretty” dancer they were expecting? Do they fall in love with the performance and broaden their perspective on beauty, or is the dancer ridiculed as an oddity. Sadly the latter is all too common and sadly this means that the less thick-skinned dancers find themselves having to cherry-pick their performance opportunities. If I had a pound for every time I heard the “oh she has the belly for bellydance” comment (and I am sure you can imagine my geektastic rebuttal regarding the misnomer, you don’t need a belly, just hips, bone ones or titanium ones, or not even, I’ve seen some lovely chair dancing too)

But if we could get out there, just a little more. Share our art and show people the power, grace, joy and beauty in out dance. Maybe we could inspire more people to be a little more comfortable in their skin.
Finding the bellydance joy - Kash performing with Doum Tekka on darbuka, photo credit: Jenny Balkam

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