Friday, 26 April 2013

How I learned to bellydance. The shocking truth!

This post continues from the story told here.

I was 25, not long out of college and I’d fallen in love. With a foreign culture and with a dance that seemed made for my body.

As a girl I'd been ballet mad, spending my Saturdays at the Lister School of Dance, the rest of the time reading and dreaming about ballerinas. I remember my first ever ballet class, aged five. I remember the pride and excitement of my first pair of pointe shoes, and the pain of the blisters that followed. I would paint my toes with surgical spirit and wrap lamb’s wool around them in a vain attempt to stop the skin rubbing off, but I have very soft feet and nothing would work. I also have a long big toe which made pointe work difficult and I really struggled with getting up and staying on those poor skinned toes during pirouettes and fouettés.

However, these problems paled into insignificance when I reached adolescence and the terrible truth emerged. I had hips. Proper childbearing hips. A nice small waist yes, but that doesn’t count for much in western dance. No, the big problem was those hips.

All ballet girls hold fear in them as they approach adolescence. Because no matter how hard you train, how dedicated you are, there’s one thing you really can’t control and that’s your developing body. It let me down completely at the age of 14 when I contracted a bad case of glandular fever and was ill for months. Banned from dancing for a year, by the time I was back in class it was too late - my adult body was well on its way and I was never going to be a dancer. I was too tall, too wide hipped, too chunky.

But if you’re a dancer you dance. It’s just what you do. And I always held the dream that one day I’d find a dance that could accept my body. So I trained to be a teacher, with dance as my primary subject and later took daily jazz classes at London’s newly opened Pineapple Dance Centre; working the phones in a marketing research company to pay the bills.

And then, in an Arabic nightclub I saw my first bellydancer and I knew this was it. This was a dance that was made for hips! A dance that seemed to celebrate a woman’s body rather than wanting to starve it into submission. A dance that gloried in the sensuality and sexuality of the feminine form rather than trying to keep women as girl children, denying them breasts, bellies or hips.

I would beg my Libyan boyfriend to take me to those nightclubs, night after night. And I'd sit staring. Trying to analyse what the dancers were doing. How did they move in such a sensual way but not seem overtly sexual? Music videos and R&B dancing these days use highly sexualised moves, but bellydance doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) pout or thrust, there’s something far more pure about it, almost innocent. It’s as if the dancer is just letting her body be taken by the music. 

At the end of the night I’d go back to my little flat in Clapham Junction and try to make the moves work on me. I’d stand in the middle of my room in the very early hours of the morning, shimmying and undulating. Then drop down to the carpeted floor to writhe and shiver like I’d seen that fiery Syrian dancer do just a few hours earlier.

Then I broke up with my boyfriend and I could no longer go to the nightclubs. The world of the Arabic nightclub was not one that Westerners ventured into alone and it was most certainly off limits to a young Western woman. I knew I had to find out more about bellydancing, but I had no idea how - in 1981 there were no bellydance teachers in London, no videos and certainly no internet.

It’s so easy to learn stuff today. Type bellydance into You Tube and you'll be presented with videos of dancers from every country in the world. A quick trawl of the internet and you’ll discover countless instructional DVDs and online courses, teaching you everything from absolute beginning moves through to the most complex specialist bellydance techniques. But when I started there was nothing. Even CDs hadn’t been invented!

I took a trip to the HMV record shop in London’s Oxford Street and there, in its then tiny World Music section, I found a single cassette tape. The Joy of Bellydance by George Abdo - a Lebanese singer living in America. With his long drooping moustache, sideburns, velvet bow tie and heavily frilled shirt, George Abdo was the very essence of 1970’s sexual allure. And the music, played by his band ‘The Flames of Araby’ was everything a young English girl wanted bellydance music to be. Exotic, sinuous, magical.

On the cover of the cassette a bellydancer, barely clad in skimpy chain-mail costume, posed dramatically, her nails long and silvery, eyes heavy with makeup. I dreamed of that dancer while George Abdo’s mellifluous voice transported me in my imagination to a perfumed tent in the desert. To be ravaged by a dark eyed sheik.

And then I found a book. A book on bellydancing. In a health food cafe in the scruffy south London suburb of Balham. I was riffling through the books on yoga and vegetarianism and there it was: How To Bellydance. I remember the moment I found it. Picked it up, flicked through it, saw the black and white line drawings. I couldn’t believe it! Beside myself with excitement I took it home and read it obsessively. I discovered the names of the moves I’d been trying to copy: figure of eight, snake arms, ribcage isolations. I learned how to do a bellyroll, how to do a backbend into a laydown. And how to use finger cymbals.

So yes, it's time to come clean. Time to admit the terrible truth. I might pride myself on my technique and my standards. Indeed, people tell me I'm one of the most respected bellydance teachers in the UK. And I'm proud to say that some of the best dancers in London come to my classes to learn from me.

But I can't deny it - I learned to bellydance from a book!


  1. You made do with the resources available with you, and it sounds like you made do quite well! Do you still have the book? If so, it must bring back so many memories!

    1. Ahhh! I so wish I still had that book!! Sadly I lent to someone I'd been teaching - it was in the very early days of the Glastonbury Festival and she wanted to go and perform there as a bellydancer. I lent her the book to revise and of course never saw her, or it, again.


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