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Finding My Inner Belly Dancer

Writer Suzanne Lafetra Silences her Doubts and Shakes Her Groove Thang


Standing in the doorway of the dance studio, I’m as rigid as an ice floe. Two women adorned with shimmery belts walk by, jingling merrily. Their tummies, bared and beautiful, are unlike mine, which is marred by stretch marks, C-section scars, and overdoses of crème brûlée. For an instant, I consider bolting, but the thumping music and the glittering costumes of saffron and emerald lure me inside.

On a good day, when I’m zipped into a dark suit with properly oriented stripes, I feel OK about the way I look. Not over the moon or anything, mind you, but not bad for a 40-year-old working mother of two preschoolers. But bare my midriff in an I Dream of Jeannie costume? Fat chance.

But I’m here to (ahem) expose myself to a fresh perspective. I’m bored with my litany of complaints about my body. Belly dancers exude a certain head-held-high sensuality no matter what their size; they are in tune with their life force.
I want some of that.

“Get to a place where you can see yourself in the mirror,” Leea, our instructor, commands. The seductive eyes of a younger Leea stare down at us from black-and-white photos on the wall. Today, at an age when many American women feel invisible, she remains a lean, sultry starlet.

“Arms wide, palms out. Let those finger cymbals ring,” she says, turning up the music. But I can’t get the coordination right. One of my cymbals is slipping, and I keep leading with the wrong foot. Everyone else is smiling like they have a delicious secret, like this is the best part of their day.

“Right, left, right,” Leea chants over the jangle of tambourines. Eventually I relax, follow the dip and sway of the violin, the pulse and thump of the drum: I am at last working with the rhythm of the music.

“Nice, Katie. Good, Suzanne. You’ve done this before?” she asks. I shake my head, already smiling. The air smells like warm cinnamon.
“OK, now hip circles. Slowly,” Leea says. “I want them big, really big.” I try to swivel, but I’m knock-kneed and off balance, my arms jerking instead of flowing with the music. The dancer in front of me is plump and smooth, her skin like a ripe peach. Her undulations are languid and rhythmic; I cannot fathom how she makes her body move that way.

My self-esteem plunges, wedging itself into a dirty crack on the floor. I squint into the mirror. “Geez, these pants make me look humongous. When did my arms get so flappy? Oh lordy, is that a double chin?” The negative tape loop in my head plays so loudly that pretty soon I have stopped hearing the music, stopped ringing my finger cymbals in perfect time, stopped enjoying myself.

“As a belly dancer, it’s assumed that you are sensual,” Leea says, with wide sweeps of her hips. “That means pleasing to all the senses,” she continues, her hand in a graceful arch. “It’s a given.”

A given. I notice that the woman next to me is no dainty reed. The man to my right must be 60, and he’s not exactly Fred Astaire. But he’s trying, and smiling like crazy. A large woman with a fringy red scarf rocks with graceful, serpentine movements. I close my eyes and press my palm to my belly. “My children lived in here,” I think. And I feel some of the head-held-high sensuality that I’m after. Leea asks us to pick up our veils, and I play a graceful peek-a-boo behind a sheer turquoise shawl. “The veil is the envelope, and you’re the surprise inside,” she says. “Eyes left, eyes right” she calls out, and I feel like I’m an Egyptian queen in an old Hollywood movie.
Then Leea says, “In the mirror, you’re all belly dancers.”

I stare right into my own face and see that it’s true. Granted, I am not exactly Mata Hari, but I look—dare I say it?—sensual. Even though I’m 40, even though I’m carrying around more weight than I’d like, even though I’ve got crows feet instead of exotic smoky eyeliner, I’m a belly dancer.

To shake your stuff, check out Belly Dance! Studio and Shop, 1235 Boulevard Way, Walnut Creek. (925) 937-7852, bellydc@sbcglobal.net. If you just want to watch, mark you calendars for the 2005 Belly Dancer of the Year Pageant, May 28–29, at San Ramon Valley High School Performing Arts Center in Danville.

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