After much thought, I’ve decided to share the experiences I’ve had during my ten year bellydance journey in terms of my body image – how my personal identity has been forged as a result of starting bellydance in early adulthood, and how expectations as a performer (or my own imaginary expectations) have impacted the way I view my body image and self esteem. (this is a long read, so grab a cuppa and settle in!)
After finishing high school, I felt a deep sense of loss of female connection. Like many, I didn’t have the best experience, I was bullied and made to feel unworthy because I was built differently to other girls, with a large ‘bubble’ butt, wide hips, big thighs but a narrow waist. Clothes didn’t fit me, boys my age didn’t like me and other girls didn’t have the same kind of body shape problems I felt like I did. In hindsight I guess this is all part of growing up but I felt an innate sense of not belonging anywhere that truly resonated with my whole being. I was never great at making friends with girls, I’d always been a tomboy and got along much better with boys, so I felt like I was missing something now that I was free to choose my own path. It was for this reason I spontaneously decided to give bellydancing a try, after all it was all about being a woman & perhaps I’d meet people to make a connection with.
I honestly had no idea what to expect. I’d seen a bellydancer at a relative’s birthday party but the performer at the event didn’t pique my interest at the time. I remember my first lesson vividly, where I learned how to do snake arms and proper posture. I was really astounded at how simple it all seemed – the movements we were being taught were so natural and fluid it didn’t feel like effort at all. A couple of weeks later we were starting to learn hip movements and I bought my very first hipscarf, which I still own to this day. I remember feeling a satisfying heaviness on my hips and watched my movements in the mirror – and I had an epiphany right there. All of a sudden my too wide hips were making beautiful shapes accentuated by the curve of my waist, and my Kardashian butt was powering through hip circles with no worries! It dawned on me that my body was made for this dance, and that I shouldn’t be ashamed of my body any more. And so I was hooked, and took up this newfound hobby with enthusiasm, accepting each new movement as an exciting challenge to eventually earn that hallowed honour – to have my very own costume and perform on stage.
When I think about ‘a bellydancer’ my mind’s eye sees an impossibly leggy, voluptuous, long haired woman with dark hair and tanned skin. Each time I was hired for an event I did my darndest to fulfill this expectation I believed the audience needed. I covered my lily white skin with fake tan, darkened my hair and tried to create an aura of mystique and character, this is where Kalikah Jade was born. It was a lot of effort but I loved feeling exotic, beautiful, womanly and feminine doing something that seemed so natural to me at the time!
Fast forward five or six years and I had continued to explore my path as a performer. The hobby turned into an obsession but again I began to feel a disconnect with my peers as I realised I could channel my dance to reflect the kind of music and stylization that really resonated with who I was at the time. I was always aware of the Tribal Fusion movement, but early on in my training I was so busy learning the fundamentals that it never hit my radar until later on. I saw ‘fusion’ as a way to ditch the fake tan and thigh high split skirts and become more authentic in cultivating a persona for myself as an artist, so I could put to use the technique I’d learned in a way that suited my own body type and musical tastes. Youtube exploded, and suddenly I was watching videos of sinous, long limbed women performing feats of flexibility and strength that boggled my mind but intrigued me all the same. I had a wealth of information at my fingertips as I realised that I had only just begun to discover my art form.
With the increasing dominance of social media and internet use in general, slowly but surely I’ve found that though the community has been given a voice it’s also allowed an identity to seep through which brings me back to the earlier conundrum of feeling like ‘not belonging’. Every aspect of bellydance is now being hyper documented to the point where it almost feels fetishized – Pinterest being a huge example where costumes, makeup, hair, photoshoot ideas, props and body shapes become an aspirational want, an item to be collected and added amongst a long list of other equally beautiful and often unnattainable objects. (Does this then add the bellydancer ideal as an art form in the classic sense….? I digress!)
The new ‘ideal’ in my imagination became more apparent to me as I delved deeper into fusion style expression. My dance partner at the time was just about the opposite of me, tall and lean with long, graceful arm lines who loved making shapes with the upper body. The emphasis on balletic shapes, poses and patterns coupled with a more technical approach to dance really didn’t suit my short, thick arms and curvy figure, and for the first time in a long while I began to feel as though perhaps I wasn’t suited to bellydance after all. It did take a long time for me to realise that this of course was not the case, and that different dancers have different strengths and preferences, however at the time it was a bit confronting to have lost confidence in myself after finding it through dance to begin with.
I kept my insecurities to myself, teaching others instead that every body moves differently and has its own beauty, in all shapes, sizes and ages. I began to take some time out from dance as I think my internalized pressure to live up to a certain ‘ideal’ really knocked around my self esteem and I focussed on nurturing my body in other ways instead.
As a performer and teacher, I am putting my body on show for better or worse. The initial confidence I discovered from learning to bellydance waned over the years as I felt like I was caught up in what I should be instead of what I am. And what I am, is human – it’s completely normal to feel insecure, to be unsure or to fear change. In pursuing the dance I have been most happy when following my own path in choosing costumes that work for me, moving to music that resonates with me, using techniques from a myriad of teachers to express something that is uniquely me.
Contrary to many views, I don’t think that there are any rules in what constitutes bellydance as a whole. We all learn the fundamentals so that we can discover our own identity and flourish while sharing in an ancient art form that celebrates femininity and diversity. As the dance evolves and changes direction, ideals of beauty will continue to shift, but if you are authentic to yourself, realise that YOU are the ideal, so own it, share it and embrace what it is to be human.