I will never forget the first time I stepped foot into the legendary Serena Studios in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York City four years ago. It was the spring of 2012; my mother had died a year earlier, I had just ended a three and a half year relationship (well, I considered it a relationship, apparently, he did not) and my self-esteem was at an all-time low.
I arrived early for my first private lesson with one of the instructors, Ivette Oliveras, and witnessed the ending of a group rehearsal of the Serena Dance Troupe for their outdoor performance at the annual Ninth Avenue International Food Festival. What I saw was extraordinary: women of all shapes, ages, and races dancing happily in unison to percussive Arabic rhythms.
They each wore long, flowing scarves adorned with gold and silver coins that made their own jingle-jangle music with every accentuated hip movement. Their eyes were decorated with kohl liquid eyeliner that would have made Cleopatra proud. Each woman wore a chiffon skirt, brightly colored bra and choli top festooned with multi-colored sequins and crystals, and seemed unconcerned that their exposed abdomens jiggled with a few extra pounds that might have upset other women with six-pack ab goals. One woman even flaunted a noticeably visible scar, which made me smile and secretly applaud her confidence.
The first question Ivette asked me on that day of my introductory lesson seemed simple, yet in hindsight was profound. “Why do you want to learn belly dance?” I paused for a moment, and responded, “Because I want to feel better about myself.” Yes, I loved Arabic music. Yes, I loved the glamorous costumes and makeup. Yes, I loved the fitness component (gym memberships are not for me). But most of all, what makes this dance unique is that it embraces and exalts the divine feminine. It reveres a woman’s sensuality as sacred and beautiful. And in doing so, it creates a special camaraderie among the women who practice this ancient art form. Yes, belly dance has a long and checkered history with many diverse styles – classical Egyptian, Turkish, American Cabaret, American Tribal Style, Modern Egyptian, Folkloric, etc. – but I think those studying any of these styles would agree that feminine empowerment and building self-confidence are common denominators.
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I remember the first time Ivette and I practiced walking across the room. She glided like a goddess on a cloud. I, on the other hand, had a hard time keeping my balance. Now, four years later, I can walk across any room – whether at a party or at an office function – with confidence and ease – all due to my belly dance training. It has also improved my posture immeasurably by the practice of keeping my torso lifted. And after years of drilling undulations, I can honestly say that the results from these isolated movements are far superior to any abdominal “crunches” that are encouraged at traditional gyms.
Although I have participated in a few student productions, I never had any intention of performing publicly when I decided to study belly dancing. My goal was to rebuild my personal life by focusing on myself through learning the dance. I think it is important for teachers to ask beginning students the question that Ivette asked me that first day: Why do you want to learn belly dance? Otherwise, false assumptions or projections might be made. For example, if a teacher is a professional belly dancer by trade, then she may assume (incorrectly) that anyone who comes to her class has that same goal. In fact, most of the students I have met had no intention of becoming professional belly dancers. Most of the ones I spoke with have full time careers and have said they were studying the dance for fun, to relieve stress, as a hobby, to get in shape, to build their confidence, to feel better about their bodies, and for the community of women and social activities.
It has been more than four years since I took my first lesson with Ivette. There are still some basic belly dance movements I have not yet mastered and wish that I could. But I know my limitations. I also know that I will never be a Sadie or a Dina or a Serena. But that’s ok. Had that been my original goal, I would have certainly set myself up for disappointment. As I told Ivette, “I want to feel better about myself.” And I can say with 100 percent confidence that belly dance has helped me to achieve just that.