Shaken, and Stirred

Brookline Tab, August 3, 2006

Was it yet another symptom of my recent midlife crisis that prompted me to sign up for a belly dance class at Brookline Adult Ed? Or was it from watching that Colombian singer Shakira gyrate in her “Hips Don’t Lie” video — and seeing both my husband’s and my sons’ jaws drop in reaction to it? Whatever the reason, I craved a new workout, something that would burn calories and make me feel beautiful.

Of course Adult Ed had several classes to choose from. Whenever a craze has swept over me, I have always been able to flip through that elegant little booklet and find a course that sings out to me. Once, there was “How to Start Your Own Business,” back when I fantasized about owning a junque shop, with vintage clothing and beautiful funky furniture, lovingly restored (by someone else). Then, there was “How to Write a Feature Article,” which actually helped me with my writing career; before I took the class, in 1998, I only had one publication to my name, compared to around 70 now.

So I signed up for “Beginning Belly Dance for Women,” taught by Lolisha, a spunky woman, with wild salty blondish hair and smiling eyes. There were about twenty of us in the class, which met in a dance studio at Brookline High. We were all different shapes, colors, ages, and sizes. All of us female, all of us with at least one thing in common: the desire to dance in this particular way, seductively and in costume. Belly dance is different from the other kinds of dance, say, modern dance or jazzercise, because there is that sexy aspect to it. Just say to someone, “I’m taking a belly dance class,” which I did while hanging out with my little boy on the Lincoln School playground, and you’ll immediately get smirks. One friend teased, “What’s next, Sue? Pole dancing?”

Pole dancing? No way; the costume’s not nearly as fun.

Lolisha taught us real belly dance moves right away. From hand motions that looked like animal heads and twirly vines, to torso isolations, to all kinds of hip circles and shimmies. At first, it was incredibly difficult walking while shimmying; and just forget trying to do the hands at the same time! The second week we all had a nice distraction from our clumsiness: we got to use the hip scarves. These came in every color, with gold or silver coin paillettes sewn on so that they jingled with every move. So even if we were not doing the moves quite right, we sounded like we were.

At home I would practice at night in the living room, where the many dark windows gave me my reflection, and probably also gave the neighbors a good laugh. I would show my husband what I had learned, and because he did not know any better, he would say, “Hey, it looks like real belly dancing!” This encouraged me to practice harder, but for weeks it seemed like I was still floundering with the most basic steps.

Halfway through the sessions was my twenty-second wedding anniversary. A friend had told me about a place in Charlestown called Tangierino, where they serve Moroccan food and have live belly dancing. The place was beautiful: the booths were festooned with maroon gauzy fabric and tiny Christmas lights; the corner tables for two were heavy stone and sumptuous maroon velvet cushions. The waiter was charming and warm, and we settled in happily.

The dancer came out in a burgundy and gold outfit; she was a gorgeous young woman with a brown I-Dream-of-Jeanie hairdo and smooth skin. As I watched her move expertly around the room, my understanding of the dance steps took a leap. The next time I practiced, I experienced that wonderful feeling of crossing over from conscious effort to unconscious ease. Suddenly I was able to do both arms and hips at their different speeds. I was thrilled.

Even with certain levels of mastery, each of us in the class still messed up sometimes; but then Lolisha would gently call out, “I’m not sure what you just did, let’s try that again,” and no one would feel embarrassed, we would just redo it, all of us together. But the moments when we all knew what we were doing, our hip scarves were jingling, and the pink, green, red, and white veils floated around us like beautiful sails, brought me a joy I had not felt since I was a little girl, playing with my dress-up gowns. I think that’s the greatest thing about belly dancing, other than feeling just a little like Shakira: it’s like playing dress-up, and yet it also counts as a workout.