The years of my career where I worried about what people thought of me were the worst: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
I didn't get into bellydance for fortune or fame. I got into it because my soul called out for it. I remember attending a world music concert where the band did a short piece inspired by the Zar, and the ayyub rhythm sounded like the voice of a long-lost friend I never even knew I had. The beauty and sensual power of the oriental dancers I would see live at the local restaurant transformed and transfixed me. The images and VHS tapes I would soon see of Tribal dancers moving together sung out to my heart. The music, the movements, the cultures, the costuming, the mystique - it all spoke to me.
It also whispered to the little girl deep inside who never had any sisters and had a long line of "best friends" who ended up moving away, going to different schools, or were more concerned about stuff than actual friendship. It touched the bruised young woman who was too skinny and flat-chested, too smart, too much a tomboy, too weird, too artistic, too not interested enough in the popular, typical things. It wasn't that it promised her sisterhood, but it showed her women working together beautifully to make art in motion - and that was inspiring.
And I think that same whisper comes to many women (and men as well). That not only does this dance offer all of the amazing history, music, movements, and culture AND a chance to foster self-esteem and self-expression, but it hints at a place that feels like home. It suggests a common language, a unique understanding, and a social ground for those who don't quite fit in.
"Welcome to the Toilet" brought up a few discussions that made me think about that promise and appeal. Several dancers talked about the feeling of being unwelcome and/or not a true part of the classes they were in or festivals that they attended - which was very sad and distressing to me.
Sure, you could suggest that maybe those individuals who found the classes/events unwelcoming just aren't good at socializing and it was all in their head - that it was them, not the teacher, the rest of the class, or the event itself. That perhaps they expect for the teacher to instantly be their buddy/friend or for there to be open arms at registration check-in. But I don't think that's fair nor accurate. Unfortunately some folks in certain positions have confused exclusive and inclusive - and forgot how to be welcoming to newcomers and others.
I think some people come into this dance to feel accepted, become empowered, and think that this is now their opportunity to make up for whatever slights they experienced in their youth. That now is their time to be "cool" and begin to structure classes, troupes, and events around that model. Human beings are very social animals, so we naturally want to foster groups where we feel we belong - but the issue comes when we start to believe our group is the only/best/coolest/whatever group. Those individuals end up re-creating the very scenario they felt slighted in from years ago. And then it stops being about the beauty and power of the dance, but whether or not anyone else "belongs." The popular opinion of the perceived elite becomes almighty and a cult or clique is formed.
But one style is not "cooler" or "better" than another - we're all in the same boat. Yet folks get hung up with being part of the "one true style." They want to feel that their style/group/troupe/event is THE best - but why? Being different doesn't equate to being wrong (or right). Your path is exactly your path, not anyone else's, and there's no way to compare it. Dance isn't religion. And throwing around canon (yes) balls around only damages the boat we're all on.
I certainly wasn't prepared to handle a lot of what I experienced from around 2004-2009. I was muddling around doing this thing that was inspiring to me, and suddenly I was under the magnifying glasses of many people I didn't know, being told what I was doing wrong or right, how I met or didn't meet their expectations or definitions, what I should or shouldn't be doing, complete with sudden new best friends, advocates, frenemies, and adversaries. Dance stopped being so much about this beautiful exploration of culture and self, and about what other people wanted/didn't want. There were several times I seriously considered quitting dance altogether.
Then I re-discovered dance for myself, and what drew me to it in the first place. I found inspiration from within, as well as considered what it could mean for others and their own experience. Most importantly, I stopped caring what "everyone" thought and found happiness in reaching across ALL the borders. Why be just be or think one way when you enjoy the diversity of many?
I have worked hard to make sure that my classes, events, and workshops have been and are welcoming for all. We have joked that it's a bit like the Island of Misfit Toys, but I wouldn't have it any other way. The dance should be available to everyone to learn and enjoy responsibly and safely. It's not about being cool or special or popular - it's about sharing the dance. We can do that across styles, genders, and origins - and have a fantastic journey together.
I'm pretty sure we all learned about sharing somewhere around kindergarten. So let's go back and remember those important lessons, kick out the high school behavior, and grow this dance in healthy, positive ways.
I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Groucho Marx who said, "I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."