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|Publisher:||Bedazzled Ink Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)|
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MIDWINTER AFTERNOON SUNLIGHT coursed in from three sides of the dance studio onto a smooth and well-worn wooden floor. The floorboards, clean and understated, exuded a tanned and healthy glow, pampered by dancers who didn't want them afflicted by the cold or salt or sand tracked in on most Minnesota floors in winter. I took off my boots and left them in the pile by the door. The footwear ran the gamut, from beefy Sorrels to sensible shoes and a smattering of heeled sandals. Later I learned the sandal-wearing gals were particularly noteworthy, donning floral socks and patterned pants after class. Around their necks were amulets in the shape of hands or crescent moons. This was the late 1990s, before mainstream fashion embraced tribal prints and music festival vogue.
The floor was soon packed with women in black yoga pants and tank tops angling for a place to stretch out. Some had scarves wrapped around their hips that sparkled from the beads and coins on them. Hips of all shapes and sizes. Belly dancers!
I was dressed in a baggy t-shirt and long hippie skirt, my tenuous heart shrinking by the second.
The teacher pointed to a battered box of scarves and veils and said I could borrow one. I put both hands into the fabric scrum. Different perfumes rose up to my nose, floral and musky, and a whole new world emerged through my fingertips. There were veils in a layer of pastels, some stiff and see-through, pink and lavender, a few were wrinkled castoffs, and others were smooth pools of silk-essence that even I could recognize had been held, pawed, fluttered and flung in the air, hundreds if not thousands of times. I heard the sound of metal and beads clacking together as I swished my hands through the box, drawn toward a waterfall. In a corner near the box I saw a dozen canes wrapped in silver and gold ribbon. There was also a clear plastic makeup kit that had been repurposed to hold extra finger cymbals. I aimed to pull all of these fabrics and scarves out of storage and look at each one, and to decipher what all those shiny things were for.
The instructor cued the warm-up music. I heard muted drums and something that sounded like a flute. It sounded like something out of a movie, Middle Eastern-y. The repetition was like a heartbeat. Women ceased their conversations and found their places on the dance floor. It was time.
I picked a well-worn lime green scarf with coins on it and tied it around my waist the way I saw others doing it. The knot rested on my right hip.
MY THERAPIST HAD recommended "movement" for me as a way to expend angst. I had gone to her initially because I told her I aspired to live a more artistic life. I was thirty-five years old, married, and childless, and even though I'd had a few short stories published, I worried that I'd reached the end of my creative capacity.
Betsy had just ditched the social service agency she had worked for to open a private practice coaching people. I found her advertisement in the local literary center's newsletter. She and her husband were drummers and singers and her office was in her home. In session, her husband's drumming was the rhythmic undercurrent to our conversations. This might have bothered someone who wanted a quiet office setting to bawl their eyes out and hear "there, there, dear." To me it was perfect. Betsy was working out of her house, taking clients she preferred, and pursuing music — the artistic life.
One session I told Betsy about Habib.
Habib had emerged from the back of City Billiards in Minneapolis at a private party, an orange silk veil held above her head levitating behind her. Her movements were languid and deliberate. Her costume, a two-piece purple velvet belly dance outfit trimmed with rows of coins, flashed. She moved into the light and full view of the crowd. Habib wore jewels in her jet black hair and leveled her gaze at the crowd and executed a surprising and impetuous full turn. She looked exactly like a flame: purple velvet, orange silk, shiny coins blazing.
People like Habib are stationed in the universe to polish our haphazard lives. We need something to wish upon, after all. The first constellation I could recognize was the Big Dipper. Did you know all those stars have names? Megrez, Mizar, Merak, and so on. Little oaths. No matter what time of year, the dipper stays constant in the night sky, but it is most prominent in spring. I could feel the gentle lamp of those star lights warming my shoulders the night Habib danced.
"That's it!" Betsy said. "That's your physical movement."
There was no way prancing around like that was going to be a good idea. I'd look and be ridiculous.
Then the day had come when a doctor gave me a prescription for Elavil. The doctor had been a full hour and a half late to my appointment. While I waited for him I felt resigned and sad, moving my fingers in figure-eights over the white paper on top of the examining table. Anger and helplessness streaked through my veins. My body stored up lactic acid and doled out cramps as a punishment. I was hunched over and breathing hard. Anxiety. I needed more than just Betsy's meditations.
When he finally arrived, he touched pressure points on my shoulders, knees, and hipbones with unabashed apathy. I tried to look into his eyes when he told me I should take antidepressants. Resentment surged through my limbs and lingered in the pit of my stomach. That's when the Big Dipper's carefully arranged bucket tipped over.
When I got home, I called the Cassandra School of Middle Eastern Dance and ran the prescription with the doctor's indecipherable handwriting through my shredder.
THE DAY OF my first belly dance class, the tall blonde instructor wore pink leg warmers and a ballet neck top over a blue leotard. She looked to me like a refugee from Flashdance. I felt disappointment stiffen my neck. I needed a sultry Habib-type to show me how to transfix people. I took off my white tube socks and stuffed them into my purse.
The instructor moved gazelle-like — her long hair swung behind her straight back whenever she turned away from the mirror. I was pretty certain she'd never been diagnosed with "borderline" scoliosis as a kid, like I was. Our warm-up included a simple step and touch with our feet, and the teacher's hips gently swayed as she lead us through the drill.
"Touch right, touch left," she said.
Her hands were out to the sides, fingertips pointed away from her body. I touched one foot then the other, barefoot, lightly toeing the floor. Me in a lime green hip scarf!
What drew me to Betsy was not trauma, but the idea that I should be more accomplished. But I had difficulties being sexual, that were causing big fights with my husband. I couldn't get pregnant. I was uncertain about my place in the world. I wasn't tough at all. But I assumed all I really needed to do was to find out the formula for success.
I come from a long line of shotgun weddings. My maternal grandma fell for my delinquent and scrappy grandpa and found herself, at the top of her high school class, pregnant, suddenly married, and on a train heading to the west coast where she would live with him before he shipped off to Japan in World War II. Ma was a waitress in California when dad ordered a cup of coffee. Soon, she too had a bun in the oven, me, her senior year. Teenage pregnancies afflicted my aunties, too, each one, right after the other. A fortune teller once told me that "a woman in my family" was a thwarted artist channeling herself through me. It could have been any one of them.
I also come from men who were restless seekers. My paternal grandpa was in his prime a handsome man and a mercurial alcoholic. Throughout his whole life he dragged the family place to place, first sharecropping, and in later years, working odd jobs on farms and shipyards. He loved Louis L'Amour westerns and liked to talk about them when he got sauced. He was attracted to frontiers, tough guys, and vigilante justice. By the time I came along, nobody could remember his good qualities. Dad spent his childhood pulling him out of bars to keep the weekly paycheck from disappearing completely.
Dad was as deeply kind and understanding as he was impatient. People naturally relied on him, and he did his best to be reliable. He worked hard all his life, too hard, but never doing anything that made money or made him happy. Dad had a quiet magnetism that he used to save souls after he turned everything over to Jesus. Cirrhosis killed my grandpa, but long hours and too many cigarettes did my dad in.
My family's history is textbook. The opposite of art. My dad's two brothers drowned in a Florida swamp when he was ten. My cousin was shot six times by a deranged neighbor who was obsessed with her. Another cousin died in a car wreck with her best friend, fleeing her violent, drunk-ass husband. My youngest sister's bipolar husband died popping wheelies on his motorcycle. My brother is in recovery. Many of my aunties had abusive husbands. I was looking for an escape hatch, and instead of the freedom I thought I'd find in college, I got raped trying to pass through it.
I grew up with people with certain struggles, who needed therapy, but couldn't afford it. Therefore, therapy was something fluffy, indulgent people did. You would never admit to anyone you were so fucked up you needed a shrink. So the problems piled up like unpaid bills until, bang, someone flipped out, smacked someone, hit rock-bottom, or was court-ordered to go.
When I finally admitted to Betsy I was one of those people with big problems, sans court order, I was certain she would gasp with the admission. It was news that she took as if I'd placed an order in a drive-thru window.
I was the same person as always, who just happened to be sitting in a therapist's office.
I imagined the woman I really wanted to be was outside making a wide circle around the block while she waited for me, idling in my getaway car.
Betsy gave me a tape she made of a meditation, and I listened to it every day, prone on my bedroom floor after work. Her voice on tape was verdant, soothing. A singer's voice. While the tape talked, "Imagine you are a balloon. Orange. Full with air. Breathe in. Breathe out. You are floating in a clear, blue sky," I knew this was definitely something fluffy, indulgent people did. They rested after working all day. They listened to a soothing female voice. They filled their bodies with breath instead of cigarettes or drink.
IN THAT FIRST belly dance class, we did more calisthenics. Raising our arms, stretching our sides, doing crunches, raising our legs while lying on the floor. I was stiff and sore, but I speculated: when would we quit with all this boring stretching and dance? Soon enough, after touching our toes, we were standing. I stood up and looked ahead. A new world of women looked at me from the mirror. Women who might have had dance classes as children. Who knew what to expect. I wished I hadn't worn the crazy skirt. I stood out as a raw recruit.
The teacher told us we were going to learn basic undulations. The movement Habib used in her entrance. I held my breath.
First she demonstrated. Her body was serpentine as she controlled the forward and back rocking of her body, undulating from the top of her chest to the bottom of her tailbone. It was as if she was shaking out a rug with her body in slow-mo. She looked sinuous and strong. A Nordic belly dance goddess. Now she wanted us to get into position and try it.
"Turn your right side to the mirror," she said.
We turned our sides to face the mirror. My chin jutted forward, my shoulders slumped. My front facing view of myself was better, but the side view was truer.
"Ok, put your right foot out in front of your left, about hip bone distance apart," the teacher said.
I did that.
"Lift your chest." She demonstrated by lifting her own. Her breasts seemed to pop forward of their own accord. How did she do that?
"Think about reaching your chest up to the place where the ceiling meets the wall." She told us to use our abs to hold ourselves up. "Relax your shoulders. Get them down and away from your ears." She walked around the room, checking to see that everyone's chest was lifted and shoulders were down. When she got to me her cool hands touched my shoulders. "Relax them," she said in a voice that sounded like a cross between a massage therapist and math teacher.
I made an effort to drop them, but they inched up again when she turned away from me.
"Do not be intimidated by your own breasts," she told the class.
Everyone tittered. What woman does not have a conflicted relationship with her breasts?
"Be proud," she said.
The teacher exhorted us to keep breathing. I held my breath.
I started with simply aligning my feet and raising my chest.
I remembered snowflakes swirling to rest in a snow globe. The pile of grandpa's beer cans. Grandma's hunchback.
Our teacher encouraged us to use stomach and back muscles I didn't know I had. I pulled my chest up and straightened my shoulders again.
While I was still in college, I worked for a social research professor who also ran the Program to Prevent Woman Abuse at a local mental health clinic. Every day I talked to women with abusive partners, dutifully recording their experiences on a scale of violence that would allow the professor to draw conclusions about the nature of domestic abuse. We learned that men who tried techniques for managing their emotions did much better in changing behavior than those that only did talk therapy for their problems. Despite that experience, it was a long time before I internalized the idea that change happens when people take steps to change rather than lashing out and dwelling on past hurts.
I organized and collected data for the professor's study with greater efficiency and zeal than he did. I remembered all the women, all the things done to them, and kept their stories alive in my caved-in chest.
Those women were my secret compatriots. They inspired me and horrified me. I'd referred scores of them to the Rape Crisis Center, but I never contacted the center myself. I was the victim of a lack of good judgment, among other things. The story I needed to bear witness to was my own, but I didn't have the wherewithal to do so. One in four women is sexually assaulted at some point in their lives, but even now, women rarely talk about the violence that happens to them. I was raised to be nice and think of other people's comfort first. Rape is not considered well-mannered conversation.
"Let the movement flow from the top of the sternum through to the pelvis," the teacher said.
How many women in that dance studio had experienced the same thing, and also held a complicit silence?
Will I ever forget the way he jammed himself into me?
I took a deep breath and lifted my chest, pulled in my stomach and then released it. I felt the warmth of the midwinter sun through the window of the dance studio on my body. It looked rough, but I did a real undulation from top to bottom. As I did it I heard a determined jingle from the light metallic coins draping my hip scarf.
NOW, NEARLY TWENTY years later, the doorbell rings, and I know exactly what I will find. I hit pause on the music player and head downstairs. I've been rehearsing the finale to my dance troupe's show, and I'm breathing hard. It's the pop tune "Op" by the Turkish singer Tarkan. The song is infectious, high energy, insidious. The choreography is fast and demanding — I need to undulate, do forward and back hip hits with a shimmy, and then do a pivot turn in something like ten seconds. Someday I will be much too old for this. Different parts are close to broken down. But not yet. Not yet.
I should tell you the beat is danceable, seductive, but the video is sexist as hell. Tarkan going through his day, sleeping with and assessing every woman he meets, hanging out at fashion shoots, going to parties, being relentlessly pursued by the paparazzi.
Why do belly dancers love him? Why does anyone? Google him.
Op op op op dyamadim.
For the average contemporary woman belly dance represents a paradox — a lot of them — Tarkan for example. I have been studying the dance form for almost two decades now, and there's lots about it that is fascinating and empowering, and some things that give a feminist pause. Belly dance can be all that — sexy, thrilling, exotic — and none of that too.
The longer you study it, the more you notice incongruities piling up.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Shape of a Hundred Hips"
Copyright © 2018 Patricia Cumbie.
Excerpted by permission of Bedazzled Ink Publishing, LLC.
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