Almost two years ago I fell madly in love, and the time since, which has been spent almost daily with this love, has only served to strengthen my commitment and devotion. I’d even go so far as to say I might not be here today if I hadn’t had this love to center and support me during this transformative phase of my life. It all started one fateful night with the conception of a burlesque fundraiser to raise money for the local community radio station, WXPI. Burlesque had been a faraway dream and goal of mine for more than seven years, and during that long stretch of time I had tried to teach myself to dance, get in shape, come to terms with my body issues, and overcome a disabling shyness and case of stage fright. Given that the opportunity for my dream to quite literally come true had finally arrived, I decided to just suck it up and get through the show, hopefully managing to reveal all that I had to offer (wink, wink). To prepare for the prospect of getting virtually naked in front of a roomful of strangers and, even scarier, friends and family, I wanted to lose those last ten pounds, so I incorporated a cardio routine into my daily workouts. This seemed to do the trick, but I quickly found the routine monotonous. Enter my love. I had been doing a belly dance DVD once a week for the previous year as part of my rotation of workouts, but decided to substitute a daily cardio belly dance DVD, and within a week I was obsessed and forever changed. It was like looking across a room and suddenly realizing that the friend you never gave much notice is in fact your soul mate, the epiphany striking like a bolt of lightning. I had found the thing for which I’d been searching for longer than I can remember right in front of me, in all her luminous glory.
Growing up, I had longed to be a dancer, just like many other girls, but I never seemed to have the opportunities to learn and had no idea how to get started. The older I got, the more it haunted me that I was aging past the opportunity of becoming a “real” dancer, because the desire still permeated my entire being. During the seven years between my initial discovery of burlesque and my first show, I searched for burlesque dance moves and tried to understand just what burlesque was, but it still wasn’t popular enough for there to be a lot of instructional material available, and there were no events or classes locally where I could experience it directly. The closest I could find in the beginning was Carmen Electra’s Aerobic Striptease series, which was great, but I couldn’t understand how to incorporate these moves into a system so that my dancing style was “burlesque.” When I started practicing belly dance daily, I realized that I had found what I’d been looking for all those years: a system for becoming a dancer. Not only did belly dance break all the dance steps down into an alphabet of movements, it taught me how to “drill” these movements into my body so that they became second nature. Now when I would dance on my own or choreograph a new piece, my body would naturally flow into the circles and undulations I had taught it. Plus, there are literally hundreds of instructional belly dance DVDs, so I could learn to my heart’s content in the comfort of my own home, and all for a relatively low price. What more could a girl ask for?
As I started devouring belly dance DVDs, it quickly became clear that this dance was the language of the Goddess, and with it I could translate to the rest of the world all of the things she had been whispering in my ear for so many years. For the first time in my life I wanted to master something, and I wouldn’t stop until I had. However, just like a self-possessed woman, belly dance can be deceptively challenging and complex. In fact, the more experienced the belly dancer, the subtler the movements and the easier they can appear. It was surprising to realize how much it uses not just the abdominal muscles, but also the glutes, thighs, arms, and every other part of the body, and I soon found that I could eliminate all of the toning, stretching, and cardio workouts I had been doing separately and replace them with this one practice. Plus I noticed that if I diligently practiced every day, I was rewarded with accomplishment and enviable skills. Techniques that I would initially gawk at on my television screen and think “there must be some CGI going on here, because that’s just not possible” would one day “click” and soon enough become automatic. That sense of accomplishment cannot be compared to any other elation in this world. With belly dance you can become a living, dancing goddess, with a look I’ve learned to call “toned fat,” where the body is tautly pulled together into smoothly sloping curves, still retaining its luscious cushion that is so often evocative of the feminine body, but which now shakes in the most beautifully controlled ways when shimmied, just like young flesh. It’s a dance form that is innately feminine and natural to every woman, comprised almost entirely of myriad ways of moving your body in arcs, circles, and figure eights, not to mention pops and shimmies that jiggle a woman’s wobbly bits in ways that make men weak in the knees. Trust me, I can attest to this from many first hand experiences. Plus the sensual nature of belly dance immediately brings me into my body and the moment and the “feeling” of the music, benefiting the audience with the same experience as the movements are so mesmerizing and entrancing, just like watching smoke. The more practiced the dancing, the more fluid and hypnotic it becomes. It is one of the truest, and might I add oldest, celebrations of all that is feminine.
That one burlesque fundraiser soon became a fledgling burlesque troupe, of which I was a founding member. Now more than ever I needed to incorporate everything I had learned into the art of creating an act, which was infinitely easier since I suddenly could interpret the language that is dance. Before I could always dance instinctively and “feel” the music and translate that through the instrument of my body to the audience. However, I never knew how to recreate what I had done. I would just see a swirl of movements in the mirror but couldn’t understand how I had made them. Before, this had made brainstorming a new dance or act a nightmare as I would watch with devastation as everything I had so beautifully and spontaneously created disappeared before my eyes. But now, armed with my daily belly dance practice and all that it had taught me, I knew how to deconstruct those movements, no matter how ephemeral, so that I could watch anyone, including myself, and at once experience what they had created, as well as recognize all of the little pieces that had been used to build it.
I personally love the exaggeration and spectacle that comes with burlesque, as well as the subtlety, skill, and refinement that comes with belly dance. In fact, classic burlesque dancing, as we know it today, initially developed from dancers trying to imitate belly dance, only in a less refined manner. Burlesque takes the distinctly feminine movements of belly dance, which a belly dancer would show she has the utmost and strictest control over, and makes them bigger and more sensual. The whole point of burlesque is to make a spectacle of yourself, and what better way to do this than to make your movements as exaggerated as possible. Burlesque relies more on projecting the sensual experience of the dance and whatever emotions it evokes than it does on your particular skill level or flexibility, although many burlesque performers are unbelievably skilled and have years of dance training behind them. With burlesque, performing the simplest move can be enticing from the very first time you try it, simply by helping the audience to feel, quite literally at times, what you’re feeling. As you use your hands to touch your body and your facial expressions to reveal what you’re experiencing, the audience feels as if they are your lover and more than happy to act in that capacity. You might not be that accomplished of a dancer, but if you can get the audience to feel every inch of your grind with you, then you are one hell of a burlesque performer. When I incorporated my new belly dance skills, which allowed me to control even the subtlest movements precisely, into my previously learned moves and the theatricality that is burlesque, a magical thing happened: I had developed my own style, which I termed Bellesque. Essentially it’s belly dance with a burlesque flavor, combining the attributes of both into something that is uniquely beautiful.
As far as I’m concerned, both belly dance and burlesque are treasures for the modern woman. Oftentimes, people want to separate and distinguish between the two, pulling them apart into separate entities, but ultimately all I see are the things they have in common. Nothing makes you more accepting of your body than belly dance and burlesque. When the role models you look up to have curvier, more everyday figures, although often very shapely and toned, you can’t help but love your own curves a little more, no matter what the movies or magazines may tell you to feel. And not only do these dance forms come in all shapes and sizes, they come in all ages. With both of them, women are appreciated no matter what their level of life experience or how it is reflected in their bodies. You can still become the dancer you dreamed of being as a little girl, even with your acquired stretch marks, wrinkles, and extra padding. Both are empowering because they center you in your body so that suddenly you feel connected to it, and with that comes the beautiful radiance that is so enticing to anyone around. There is also a true sense of female camaraderie with both art forms, as both fields are dominated by women, and the expressions are a celebration of the divine feminine, in all her varied guises. Suddenly these women become your sisters and not your enemies or competition. The most wonderful thing about both belly dance and burlesque is that they make you feel beautiful, sensual, and feminine in the truest senses of the word. Even if you look in the mirror and don’t immediately see the divine incarnation of the goddess reflected back to you, the movement and expression of both dance forms are so beautiful in and of themself that they make you beautiful by extension. Suddenly you don’t mind the width of your hips because it makes the curves you create when moving them that much more luscious, and this can happen with your very first experience of either dance. Personally I would be lost without either of them in my life, and that’s exactly what I was for all those years. They have been the dual, yet parallel, roads that have ultimately led me back to myself.