Bring in the noise, bring in the fat

I had my first belly dance performance last weekend. Let me tell you, nothing tests your body-positivity more than having your belly out on stage alongside 14 identically-dressed women, all of whom are smaller than you. I wanted to come through that with flying colors and then post right afterwards about how size acceptance had allowed me to sail through the performance with nary a negative thought.

Observe that it’s now Thursday and I’m just now writing the post. It took me that long to process what really did happen — because I had a great time, and I did happily shake my gut all around on stage, but I felt very aware all weekend of the role that fat plays in dance and performance. I couldn’t banish it; I was always noticing whether I was the first fat person to go on stage, whether I was the fattest person performing, whether the fat women were sent to the back in the choreography. I noticed that one of the student companies, the tribal one, had plenty of fat women, but the cabaret group — which is supposed to be more feminine and pretty — had none. There were thicker women, but they were still fairly slender, with smooth tummies and no real rolls. And (here’s the embarrassing part) I was painfully aware of the way that some moves only looked good on these women — women whose tummies were smooth, whose every muscle twitch was evident, and whose body movements were more classically graceful. (In my particular association, and probably that of a lot of people, “more classically graceful” means “closer to a ballerina.”)

So I came out of the performance fired up about doing some tribal for next year’s show — I love their costumes, too. But I also came out feeling like my fat, or more to the point my body shape and the fact that I rock the double bubble (i.e. I have a distinct upper belly roll when standing), would hinder my progression in dance. I came out thinking “maybe if I were just a little fat all over, these moves would look right on me, and I could get into any student company I wanted… but with the way I’m shaped, how far can I really go?”

Thus, you can imagine that I had no idea how to write about the experience for the blog. I figured I would just not mention it at all, and in fact I felt like enough of a hypocrite that I avoided the movement entirely for most of this week. But eventually I realized that even this self-consciousness represented an enormous improvement over where I would have been even a couple of years ago. Not only was I willing to have my belly out on stage without once apologizing in the first place, but even the way I got down on myself was a total coup. I came out of the performance worried about maybe 15 cubic inches of belly and whether they would have a genuine effect on my dance abilities — not about the “fact” that I was a generally fat lazy clumsy slob who couldn’t possibly be any good until she was thin. (I mean, I am very aware of being lazy and a bit of a slob, but that’s got nothing to do with fat.) A few years ago, a challenge like this might have sent me completely off the rails, if I undertook it in the first place. Being secure enough about my body to wonder, more or less objectively, whether a single part of it would pose a hindrance — while simultaneously wiggling it unconcernedly in public? That’s a really, really big deal.

It’s important that we give ourselves credit for small improvements, the little strides we make in liking ourselves. You can’t expect to be Kate right off the bat, because not even Kate is Kate; she’s got moments of being down on her body just like anyone. When you notice yourself backsliding into negative body talk and thought, ask yourself: Am I better at liking and forgiving and not being judgmental about myself than I used to be? Isn’t it already better that I notice the negativity in the first place, instead of accepting it as my due as fat woman? Am I giving myself enough credit for how far I’ve come, or am I making positivity into a new club to beat myself with?

Nobody likes every part of herself every day, but isn’t it enough not to hate every part of yourself every day? I know I did that for a long time, and you probably did too, and we’re all getting constant messages saying that’s how we’re supposed to live, and I think we deserve credit for every day we resist.

(Oh, and as a fat-positive dancer friend pointed out, the tummy roll probably won’t hinder me unless I’m only trying to dance well in the same way that a thin dancer dances well. Some moves don’t look as good with fat, and others look better with it. Trying on dance is like trying on pants; you just have to find the one that looks right on your body. So don’t let my brief negativity discourage those of you who are interested in belly dance!)

77 thoughts on “Bring in the noise, bring in the fat

  1. YOU are Kate Harding!

    Hee.

    If only for this:

    Am I better at liking and forgiving and not being judgmental about myself than I used to be?

    I remember my first modern dance perfomance in college. It involved Maynard Ferguson and SKIN COLORED LEOTARDS. With paint on them.

    That’s right, people. I will stop there. It is still morning and, therefore, too early for the rest.

    So who brought you your post-performance flowers?

  2. So who brought you your post-performance flowers?

    My teacher! She had a flower for everyone.

  3. she’s got moments of being down on her body just like anyone.

    NO KIDDING. And this is brill:

    Am I giving myself enough credit for how far I’ve come, or am I making positivity into a new club to beat myself with?

    Yesyesyesyesyes! Simply changing from “I’m not thin enough!” to “I don’t love my fat ass enough!” doesn’t help all that much; you’re still beating yourself up. (Ditto, “I’m not good enough at HAES!” and other thoughts along those lines.) And getting to the point where you really do love your fat ass (or belly or thighs, wev) can take forfuckingEVER. You have to celebrate all the baby steps in the right direction, or you’ll go nuts.

    Awesome post, FJ.

  4. This is a lovely post.

    I took a belly dancing class once. I went to the first one, and lucky me, I could see the whole class reflected in the mirror, including the fact that i was the fattest one there, no joke.

    I never went back.

    I like to think that maybe now I could try something like that again, but I’m still getting there. All of this is a day by day process. Thank you for the reminder.

  5. Yeah, doesn’t the “I’m not sassy and confident enough, I suck!” thing just burn your marshmallows? Thanks for this, FJ. And congratulations on getting your belly-dancing bod out there!

  6. You have to celebrate all the baby steps in the right direction, or you’ll go nuts.

    Seriously. What the hell good is ditching an impossible quest for nonexistent perfection, if I’m just replacing it with a different brand of impossible quest for nonexistent perfection?

    Also: go, Fillyjonk!!!

  7. You know, Robotitron, I’ve almost always ended up being the fattest person (usually the only fat person) in class too, but I’m far from the fattest person in my studio — belly dance is actually very accepting of fatties, for the most part. (Many of the other fatties at my studio are in the tribal student company — i.e., much higher-level dancers than me!) Plus, after that initial shock of looking at everyone in the mirror, I guarantee you’ll be much too focused on what your own hips are doing to check out the size of anyone else’s. I recommend trying it again if you can!

  8. Abso-frakking-lutely, FJ!

    Changing your entire outlook is always going to be a work in progress, but the progress is worth celebrating. I’ve had some down moments this week, myself, and this reminded me of how far I’ve come and how much better I’ve been feeling about me. I kind of needed this about now. Thanks.

  9. The anti-fat aesthetic goes so deep into our visual values — what we think looks good performed by whom — that it probably influences everything we see in dance. The same way that we work to rethink that and free ourselves from those values in terms of everyday attractiveness and beauty (and so much else in fatpol) — I think it would be wonderful to work on those in relation to dance too. To try to be suspicious of which dance moves we think work better for thin people or for fat people.

  10. Hee! I love you FJ

    I saw a dance recital this weekend at my old company (that I danced in as a child) and there were two larger young women who were of the four graduating seniors and they were both exceptionally graceful and beautiful and had each been dancing for 13-15 years (and they’re 18 years old, so that’s a long time)

    Anyways, congrats on your performance and I”m sure your shimmies were fabulous!

  11. P.S. I read this headline as “Bring in the Noise Bring in the Fart” which while having less to do with the subject matter is much funnier.

    P.P.S. I should have said that the graduating seniors had two *fat* women instead of “larger”
    but one wasn’t really fat she was just larger than a willowy ballerina, though she probably thinks she’s enormous :( The other one was fat and fabulous though

  12. It makes me sad (and possibly disgruntled) that, now belly-dance is becoming more popular in the West, it’s being seen as a dance almost exclusively for thin women. I guess because we’re so used to only thin girls/women being successful dancers due to that incredibly disordered world they live in (and I went to a dance school so I know what that world is like, and it is as anti-fat as you can get).

    A lot of dancers in places like Egypt, for instance, do not meet our arbitrary Western standards of beauty. I bet they’d be confused that so many larger women feel alienated from the practice. It’s not that belly-dance is massively FA friendly since a lot of the very famous dancers are still slender, but fat rolls are not something that has held a lot of Middle Eastern dancers back, and I’d hate for it to hold back anyone interested in the dance.

  13. You know, Gemma, I hear this all the time (including from fat dancers who live in the US but have danced in the Middle East), but I haven’t seen visual evidence. I would love to see pictures if you know of any.

  14. I don’t work in bellydance, but just about any other form of dance will bring up the same questions for me, about how well the underlying movement is being seen on the outside, after being transmitted through a hefty layer of fat. I remember one particularly self-doubting stretch of time for me, after I was just starting to feel really at home in both hip hop and standard training/workout movements. I think within one month I got two slams:

    1) my hip hop teacher including, as part of a review for a midterm routine that I performed, that I needed more precision because the moves kept… moving. I took that to mean (and later confirmed with her) that my fat kept on moving after I had stopped a movement, which she saw as blurring what was supposed to be the “tightness” of the move.
    2) I was doing the practical portion of testing for one of the physical fitness/training organizations (can’t remember which one, now). I passed everything except my ab work, because the reviewer couldn’t see whether or not I was engaging my abs in the crunches. Grr. So Angry! I didn’t just have a six-pack at that point, I had a whole fuckin’ CASE underneath my belly fat, strong muscles! I had been training in those exercises for well over a year. But she couldn’t see through my fat, and so I didn’t pass that exam.

    For the sake of my shows, I do look at “what will be seen” and a particular effect that I am aiming for, and I am not above using this situation as a reason to push myself and the dancers just a little farther; if the viewer can’t see a move at X percentage of effort, then we’re going to push it up to X + 5 percentage and see how that works.

    Sometimes a move just doesn’t look the way I want it to or thought it would, on fat or thin. At that point I think about, well, how much of my expectations are from a purely artistic viewpoint, and how much are still affected by what I have absorbed (and still have not gotten rid of entirely, even after 10 years of dancing!) about what a dancer’s body is supposed to look like and do? That bit of reflection happens almost instantaneously these days, and the answer is not as important as the process.

    Then, I think about the effect or feel I wanted, and work with the dancers to find that feel some other way. And that is okay. That is the way a lot of choreographers work, trying things on, and then discarding or modifying if it ain’t quite right.

    I totally am with you about trying not to beat myself up for not always being a right-on fattie. Type A, all the way!

    To finish, I just want to point out one line that really jumped out at me from your post, FJ:

    >> nothing tests your body-positivity than having your belly out on stage alongside 14 identically-dressed women, all of whom are smaller than you.

    Were you really identically dressed, you and the other women? If so, please take a moment and appreciate what a rare and wonderful thing that is for a fat dancer! A lot of fatties have a first-time experience, in mainstream studios, of needing to have a costume custom-made (at greater expense) or just having some half-ass, jerry-rigged thing, and either way standing out from the rest of the students. Having the same costume is a great thing!

  15. bigmovesbabe, I actually meant to mention what a big deal it also was that I blamed my costume, not myself, for the fact that I had to have it altered. They had tops to accommodate all of us — at a 16 or so, I was wearing an L, and they went up to 2X — but the “one size fits all” skirts were a trial even for several of my thinner classmates. Some did jerry-rig it with safety pins; others got it altered or altered it themselves. But the costume mistress was really great about letting it out for me! (Well, after she rather bizarrely tried to just hook it to another skirt, thus making something with twice the diameter that was thus way way too big for me.)

    Thanks for your thoughts on dance… really interesting and, as always, super-inspiring.

    And in case anyone is wondering whether fatties can be flexible enough to dance, check this out.

  16. My former belly dance teacher and good friend (i took ONE class before i quit) is fat. and she is sumptuous and absolutely MESMERIZING when she dances. she moves like a snake and when she’s dancing, you cannot take your eyes off of her. she commands the attention of every single person in the room. I’ve seen her dance at many events, though i never thought about it until you mentioned it here, FJ.; cabaret IS predominantly thin women, whereas tribal tends to be more open to all body types. Needless to say, my friend/former teacher is a tribal dancer. I had no idea that cabaret was considered more feminine than tribal – which in my opinion is the most enchanting, alluring, feminine thing ever.

    Good luck which ever style of dance you choose, FillyJonk. Your progress is very admirable. As i said, i never made it past one lesson because bellydancing is HARD.

  17. i’m just coming back to say one more thing… bellydancing is HARD because we’re taught as women to keep our hips tight and square when we move, in order not to appear lascivious or move too wantonly. It’s sad that the natural instincts of our hips are checked and corrected at such a very young age, that it makes something like bellydancing (a movement that should otherwise be natural for a woman) quite challenging to learn.

  18. Madge, I only really meant to say that cabaret lines up better with Western ideas of femininity — all sequined bras and chiffon and flirty coquettish looks.

    You’re absolutely right about people having a hard time letting go of their hips. While I’m a little worried about being over my head in my new “low intermediate” class (I’ve been dancing for about a year and a half, but that’s how long it takes to get past beginner classes around here) in terms of arms, balance, etc., I have always gotten praise for having the hip stuff down pat. Why? Because it doesn’t scare me to see stuff shake. Most girls rein it in, to the detriment of the dancing — it makes me think of Margaret Cho’s routine about people trying to get into flattering positions during sex.

    To their extreme credit, teachers at my studio are always talking about letting stuff jiggle, eating tasty food to get your shimmies bigger, etc. Even the ones with backgrounds in less forgiving forms of dance.

  19. I don’t have much personal experience with dance, so perhaps someone will help me out – what exactly is “tribal” dance? The term makes my hackles raise.
    I’m accustomed to hearing dance as referred to specifically by it’s name (mostly for European & N. American forms) or by it’s region or cultural affiliation.
    Also – any thoughts about some of the underlying messages/meanings behind the gravitation of fat women to “tribal” dance? I totally buy that different bodies interact with different styles, but I’m also thinking about cultural associations here.

  20. Congratulations on a great performance – and doubly so for having the courage to go out there and DANCE. I am so incredibly self-conscious even when I’m social dancing that I can’t imagine doing it on stage when you know everyone is watching! I’m in awe.

    I’m in agreement with your assessment of “it’s a process”.. I’ve come to the conclusion that there IS no end because as soon as you’re accepting of yourself…. you change, so you get to do it all over again. It just becomes easier with practice!

  21. What great timing on the post! Just yesterday, I was giving myself a mental lashing for “just” walking rather than going to the gym before class, when suddenly a rather youthful-sounding voice in my head exclaimed, “Dude, stop being so *mean* to yourself!” And just like that, I felt better.

    Baby steps, y’alls. :-)

  22. And the reason fat women have been gravitating to ATS, in my opinion, is that the moves are less “sexy sexy, cutesy cutesy” and more strong and grounded, plus the focus is more on your group of dancers (because you have to focus on one another to pick up cues) rather than on enticing a (presumptively male) audience.

  23. plus the focus is more on your group of dancers (because you have to focus on one another to pick up cues) rather than on enticing a (presumptively male) audience.

    This is absolutely one of the things that appeals to me about it… the improv aspect intimidates me, but I like the inward focus, towards the group instead of the onlooker.

  24. “What the hell good is ditching an impossible quest for nonexistent perfection, if I’m just replacing it with a different brand of impossible quest for nonexistent perfection?”

    Brilliant. I have so many moments when I still hate my body and then I hate MYSELF for not being all accepting! But it isn’t a miracle that happens overnight so the reminder was definitely good!!

    As to feeling certain moves look better, just take a moment and reflect that the dancers who can make a move look good have been dancing a LONG time. Some have a natural feel for certain moves (for me I know that Mayas are really awesome but I have a tough time with figure 8s looking nice); some have practiced FOREVER to get a move to flow right….even though at one point I loved hearing that having more “curves” meant making moves better I have found over time that shape really DOESN’T have near as much bearing as ability and practice!

    Hope that helps with accepting those small steps regarding dancing and keep it up; it is so fun! Maybe find a local place that concentrates on having members dance only for nursing homes. We do that and it is so encouraging as a starting place for your mind/body as you begin to dance in front of others!! :D

    Happy Shimmies!

  25. for me I know that Mayas are really awesome but I have a tough time with figure 8s looking nice

    Me too!

  26. Just a small toot about the theraputic qualities of DANCE (this is my first time wandering around this blog and I totally enjoyed reading about you bellydancing)…I’m a believer. I have *always* loved to dance…the times in my life (NOW is one of them! *haha!) when I’m not dancing, I’m…in trouble! Reading about your experience reminded me of when I first began swing dancing and had so much fun!! At that time I was at one of my highest weights (200 lbs if you must know) and also the first time in my life my weight meant absolutely nothing. Not only did I learn how to swing-dance, I was out almost every night! I got a regular partner and learned a couple of aerial moves! I cannot describe the exhillaration of being upside-down in the air after having a lifelong hate/hate relationship with gravity. Anyways. Right on for you. If you like dancing, I hope you find the style that’s right for you to really let loose, whether bellydancing, tribal, jive or whatever!!! Remember that dancing is never really about how you look to other people while you’re dancing, it’s about how you feel on the inside while you’re doing it!

  27. SIgh. I would love to learn to bellydance.

    I just know I can’t look at myself in the mirror with my stuff wiggling. I have no problem dancing. The mirror just turns on the abusive voices in my head. Uhg.

  28. And, hey, didn’t someone once post a beautiful YouTube video on here of a big bellydancer? She was beautiful, a wonderful dancer.

  29. “The mirror just turns on the abusive voices in my head. ”

    My suggestion, which I started using in my own classes, ask if you can simply NOT face the mirror. For our class I am lucky enough to have a private lesson and it was easy to ask to simply turn around (we’re using this not so we don’t see ourselves jiggle as much as so that we stop relying on the mirror and being so LOST when we get to a show and there isn’t a mirror! ;)). I realize if there are many people in a class it isn’t as easy to ask but if you really love the dance it might be worth it to seek a class or private session that would allow for turning the other way. :)

  30. Cindy, there have been a couple! Here’s Shapeling April D., who is actually shaped almost exactly like me and is for my money the best one in her troupe by rather a wide margin. And I once posted a link to this video, which is just insanely great.

  31. Oh, Cindy, important point: while you usually (not always! There are always ways around it) have to have your belly out at performances, you can go to class in just a tank top. Cuts down a lot on negative voices, because what you see is the outline of your body and whether it’s moving how you want it to — not whether it’s jiggling in a way that triggers you.

    And if you live in a reasonably metropolitan area and you encounter a class that requires bare bellies, you can find another class.

  32. Just a couple of random observations:

    One of my favorite people in the women’s studies program at my university is a large woman – for sure larger than you look in your photo, FJ, but I feel weird making comparisons like that. Anyway, this lady is a dance PhD candidate. Dance PhD! Awesome.

    Second, I took a bellydance class in college and it was wicked fun. Everyone was fairly slim, though… and our instructor reminded us every class how traditional bellydancing bodies are much rounder. She herself, a short stout woman, had often been accused by her teachers in Egypt that she simply did not have enough girth to do it right.
    It didn’t feel like body-shaming when she said it, not “real women have curves,” or whathaveyou. Actually it was quite freeing, since most of us were bashful about our hips and bellies despite being small. She helped us hang it out. I mention this in part to respond to your suggestion that some moves look better on smooth bodies… maybe, but maybe also those are Western-influenced moves. In any case, Egyptian-style bellydancing wants you. : D

  33. Kate, thanks for sharing your story. You’re amazing, as always.
    This thread is reminding me how much I want to take a belly dancing class! But, I’m a broke grad student, so I guess I’ll have to be satisfied with shaking my hips in my mirror for now.

  34. What the hell good is ditching an impossible quest for nonexistent perfection, if I’m just replacing it with a different brand of impossible quest for nonexistent perfection?

    Oh GOOD GOD, exactly.

    Also, in accepting-my-body-spilling-over-into-other aspects-of-my-life news, because I am me and an idiot I took on 6754 things to do this week and left it all to the last minute (becase If I Can’t Do It Perfectly! Why Do It At All!). I was trying to calm myself down long enough to get the two hours’ sleep I was allowing myself last night, and just laying into myself for being such a fucking WASTER who ALWAYS DOES THIS. Then out of nowhere some part of me was like, “It’s okay. You have a lot to do and you’re going to do it. You’ve left stuff to the last minute. That doesn’t make you a bad person. This exam doesn’t even count toward your degree. It’s okay. Really.”

    THAT VOICE IS ALL YOU PEOPLE. SOMEHOW YOU MAKE ME REMEMBER I AM ONLY HUMAN AND THAT IS OKAY.

    Thanks.

  35. I have a lot of bellydance instructors as clients, and they’re a wide variety of sizes. The thinnest of them has mentioned to me many times that the reason she went into ATS was because she felt she didn’t do Egyptian style justice, and didn’t have the right body for it. Additionally, the last hafla I went to had a performance by a fat cabaret dancer that was outright amazing. And now I miss dance class so much!

  36. Fillyjonk thanks for the video hit and the comment too. I have to admit that we usually DO use the mirror cause I like to remind myself that I’m doing alright and that hey, yeah those mayas DO rock so that I don’t get frustrated when there is a move I have trouble with.

    Turning around is a new thing since at shows we are sometimes forgetting things in choreographies since we’re so used to watching ourselves! I do think the mirrors are mostly useful though :D

    Charlotte if you want some good “learn at home” stuff to watch then try looking up QueenCassie in youtube for some amazingly helpful tutorials so you can still dance at home :)

  37. It’s sort of staggering just how much courage it takes to bear a round belly, even if one thinks it looks good. I actually love the way I look in a two-piece swim suit or a crop top, but I mostly confine it to my own home (or beaches where I’m guaranteed not to know anyone but my husband), because I’m so deeply aware of breaking a taboo. I was in a Bikram Yoga class recently, the kind where they turn the heat up over 100 degrees. Even there, when absolutely everyone is wearing minimal clothing, it wasn’t until I was actually concerned about passing out that I mustered the courage to doff my shirt and work out in my sports bra. As you might have guessed, no one so much as glanced in my direction–too busy trying not to pass out themselves.

    Ironically I used to be bolder about it when I was a teenager, when I was both fatter than I am now and much more ashamed of my body. But I had to fight for or about my right to dress that way all the time. I was always getting in trouble for it at school, with my parents, and actually with some of my “friends.” It really was something specific to big bellies, too; even in the case of the school dress code there was a double standard in that cropped shirts were acceptable if the midriffs they displayed were flat. When I was the captain of the dance team–composed of other teenage girls who were mostly thin by even a dancing standard–the coach pulled me aside after a dress rehearsal and told me I had to wear a black leotard under my costume, because she could see my belly when I moved. Now, you could see everyone’s bellies when they moved, because we were wearing shirts and stretch pants, and whenever we lifter our arms above our heads, you got some skin. No big deal for the rest of the team, but…I stalled for three days until the coach finally snapped at me that this was not “professional” and I caved.

    I still want to know what exactly is being signified by covering up my abdomen to the people who put extensive pressure on me to do it? So what’s so magical about a piece of cloth? It isn’t as though by covering my abdomen I disguise its shape or size—it just looks like a big, round belly in a shirt. It’s like little kids who don’t get that when they hide under the covers you can a big kid-shaped lump in the bed. For all its power this custom is incredibly silly.

  38. Some moves really are much better on women with fat. Fat was prized in my studio, we let it all hang out. I was always floored by the fattest gal in our troupe — she was an amazing dancer. Absolutely amazing. I adored her.

    I found that the whole climate of belly dance was so accepting and so friendly. I never once felt uncomfortable about my weight, or embarrassed about the shape of my body. It was a wonderful experience.

    I had to quit because of a leg injury, but I really want to go back. And how’s this for stupid: I am afraid to go back because I HAVE put on a lot of weight since I was there. Never mind that I never once saw a single instance of anyone saying or doing anything that would indicate this would make the slightest bit of difference.

  39. Sorry for not reading comments, but my former roommate was a pro bellydancer and although she was thinnish, she definitely had what she called “a J-Lo butt” and she thought that having fat on your belly and hips (and boobs) made the moves look better when you did them. Just her two cents.

    Obviously not saying that thin women can’t bellydance and do it superbly, but Roommate indicated that the rolls and stuff looked better to her when there was more flesh to roll.

  40. I’m going to hop in here with some of my experiences with bellydance (4 years as a student and briefly teacher).

    How fat-friendly belly-dance is depends strongly on what school you attend. Some schools can be almost as restrictive as other dance styles, but the majority are very body-positive. If your town is big enough, shop around until you find a class or teacher who makes you feel good about your body.

    As for the cabaret vs. tribal thing, I think it’s a combination of a lot of factors. Other people have pointed out ATS’s emphasis on group dance and its earthier movements, both of which I totally agree with. Cabaret is more ballet-influenced, so it has some of the same drawbacks for bigger bodies. Tribal costuming is also generally less revealing, and belly covers are more easily available for body-shy dancers. I’d also point out that ATS has been fairly fat-friendly since the beginning — one of the first and most famous tribal troupes is Fat Chance Belly Dance!

    But that doesn’t mean fat people can only do tribal. I’ve seen cabaret dancers of all sizes. My current cabaret teacher is a fantastic dancer, excellent choreographer, and NOT a small woman. Yes, some moves look better on small/thin frames. But other moves look better on big/fat frames (hello, shimmies!). Dance to match your body, don’t try to make your body match the dance.

    And for people who may still hesitate at attending classes or watching themselves in a mirror, there are always videos! There’s about a zillion of them on Amazon, but if people are interested I can try and dig out some that feature bigger dancers or a more fat-positive message (i.e. focused on the dance, not weight loss).

  41. I love to dance, and it’s just occurred to me that the type of dance I enjoy most is the one in which I’m least likely to be regarded as an object to be judged for my skill or beauty — folk dancing.

    Fillyjonk, those two videos you posted links to have changed my mind about belly dancing. I am mesmerized. My only experience of it previously was women shaking their hips in men’s faces and flirting for money. I mean, if people enjoy that, fine, but to me it’s kind of the equivalent of asian food being represented by China Buffet. I guess I assumed that bellydancing as an art form existed somewhere in the world, but not here. April, I think I am in love with your belly. And now I think I am going to go look at mine, maybe in a new light.

  42. My friend just talked me into taking belly dancing classes with her (something I wouldn’t have even DREAMED about doing a year ago!). At my second class last Monday, I was watching myself in the mirror and I swear, I had this internal conversation:

    “Man, this move would look better if only my hips were a little bit bigger- Holy crap! Did I seriously just think that??”

    Then I smiled, because it’s such a nice moment to realize that hey, in some circumstances, the Western ideal body might not actually be ideal. By then end of the class, I felt downright sexy (well, sexier than usual, that is).

    FJ, congrats on your first performance! I don’t know if I’ll ever be that confident, but I hope to be one day.

  43. After watching the YouTubes of bellydancing, DAMMIT I WANT TO BE ABLE TO DO THAT. Rather, I *need* to be able to do that.

  44. My beginner belly-dance class got to perform as part of a university troupe’s larger performance, and the interesting thing was that out of 30 women in the class, the only women who chose to do the performance were the older (uni, so late 20s) women, one of whom had kids who were so excited to see mommy dressed up. Lots of pressure for the younger women to look like thin dancers, but we older women were like little kids at their first dance recital.

    Obviously not saying that thin women can’t bellydance and do it superbly, but Roommate indicated that the rolls and stuff looked better to her when there was more flesh to roll.

    It’s easier to make the rolls and similar movements look bigger if there is more stuff to move. It generally helps to be pelvically blessed, which is not true of all dance forms. Belly dancing rocks.

  45. Fillyjonk, it’s hard to get a lot of photos using Google since the web is inundated with pictures of young, thin, Western dancers, but here are some examples I dug up from memory! All of them are from places like Greece, Turkey, or Middle Eastern countries, apart from one lady who was born in America but trained in Lebanon.

    In a lot of countries where belly-dance originated from or has been practised for generations, women of all ages will learn the art, so I’m positive there are larger women out there who are experts in the dance. Finding their photo on Google, however, seems almost impossible!

    I hope this helped some, anyway. :)

  46. Congrats on belly baring and doing it in front of other people. It’s like you did a desensitization therapy on yourself. The more you or I do it, the more used to it we will be to baring our bodies. Bodybaring phobia.

    We are so sensitive to what other people are thinking that sometimes we project a lot of our own negative emotions and thoughts onto other people. I realized a while back that I tended to judge my body and its abilities much harsher than other people’s bodies or abilities which seems to be true for other women as well.

    I am not that gifted in dance but like to dance and have taken different types of dance lessons just for fun. But I couldn’t performing in front of other people because I felt not good enough and awkward but now pffle, I just shake and dance without giving a hoot as to whether it is perfectly executed or not.

    I even like belly dancing even though I am always dissatisfied that I am not undulating fully because I’m as stiff as a board and shaped like it as well. But you know what, because I am doing belly dancing I am a bit more flexible with my hips and I feel good about my body and its abilities.

    Congrats to u again, fine job!!

  47. Yay, for fat bellydancers! I had my first performance in October and it was fantastic. It was the first time that I ever bared my stomach in public. Completely terrifying, but I felt so good afterwards. I’m moving in a couple months and I think the first thing I’m going to do is find a good, fat-friendly bellydance class. If anyone has any suggestions for ones in Seattle, I’d be really interested.

  48. @elusis et al

    Thanks for the clarification! I wonder if I was unfamiliar due to my very recent arrival on the West Coast.

  49. Do you realise April D is the one showing more skin in the video, even if the other girls are considerably smaller? Besides, the other ones look too shy and selfconscious. April was just out there and awesome. You could see their self-esteems, and hers was the highest. Love it!

    When I was 17 and hated myself, I took a few belly dance classes. My neighbour and her sister were my teachers. They had studied loads of belly dance styles in places like Egypt and Arabia. They were stick thin and always eating like it was the end of the world. Their teacher was one of the best and most expensive out there, Raqia Hassan, and she was ENORMOUS. (To me she was. Mind you, I wanted to kill myself because I was 80 kilos) She would always tell them that you needed to have enough curves and fat to be able to be a good dancer. My teachers went through the completely opposite thing ballerinas go through in the Western. They showed me a video of their classes, and she moved like a total diva. They were the few people who had ever sugested to love myself as I was (which was still a pretty revolutionary and impossible idea to me) and rock on the curves, instead of rushing to the computer and printing me a trendy Hollywood diet.
    I didn´t go back because I was surrounded by skinny girls on high heels who just wanted to dance like Shakira. It was hell to me.
    Maybe I could go back someday.

    Raqia Hassan: http://unaplauso.com/images/anuncios/34a1a8_3.jpg

    http://www.raqiahassan.net/

    My teachers:

    http://www.geocities.com/academia_raks_sharki/

  50. Seattle belly dance = Delilah.

    She’s fairly famous and has a very spiritual approach to belly dance. I don’t know her attitude to larger dancers, but considering how much emphasis she places on the female empowering aspects of the dance and the spiritual connections, I’d expect her to welcoming (but expensive!) http://www.visionarydance.com

    And I want to add my love for Raqia Hassan! Wonderful dancer, wonderful teacher.

    To Gemma, I’d say that acceptance of non-thin dancers depends widely, even in the Middle East. Women have danced it forever for themselves, but as a performance art it has a checkered history. Some places reject the Western ideals of beauty and thinness, and it is true that larger dancers such as the ones in your (lovely!) pics and vids can achieve success in the Middle East, but in other places it can be just as restrictive. I have had an Egyptian audience request a dancer cover her belly because she was too fat — but there was no request for her not to dance, and they loved the show despite our troupe’s varied sizes.

    But I would definitely agree that the “accepted sizes” are a much wider range than in many other kinds of dance, and that no one should let fat rolls or body shame get in the way of belly dancing!

  51. Congratulations on your performance!! Your post inspired me to post when I’ve never done so before. It’s funny that I thought to get on your site tonight, especially when I’ve had dance on my mind much of the day. I hope you don’t mind me telling you a bit of my own story. I started taking dance lessons when I was four, and continued into college, where I majored in dance on a scholarship. The story’s a long one, but I basically quit dancing, mostly because of many episodes of severe depression, etc. I just didn’t have it in me, and the longer I didn’t dance, the more I felt I couldn’t. As the years went by, my weight went up and up and up (because of no longer dancing? antidepressants? infertility treatments? Who knows? Who cares??). The more my weight increased, the more I convinced myself I’d never dance again. And mind you, I used to LOVE it. I found intense joy in it. But I simply gave it up. And even if I did dance again, there was NO way I’d do it in front of others. My body was something I’d grown to hate, and figured anyone watching me would be disgusted.

    Anyway, to speed things along….My 8-year-old daughter had been taking dance classes herself since she was four, and last year expressed an interest in taking Irish dancing. I finally found her a teacher who not only taught Irish dance, but Highland, Scottish country, Cape Breton step, and was really into Celtic culture. (Thankfully, she is non-competitive…I HATE dance competitions! It’s an art form, not a sport! Okay, end of mini-rant….). Anyway, her teacher and I got to talking one day after class and I shared some of my background with her. She proceeded to ask me why I wasn’t taking a class. ME!! Was she kidding?? Well, she wasn’t, and she did convince me to take a class. I’m sure many of you can relate to how incredibly afraid and self-conscious I was when I first attended class. What were the rest of the students going to think about the 45-year-old with grey roots in a size 24? Well, they seemed to accept me well enough. And you know what? I could still dance. It was different. There was more to move and my middle-aged joints aren’t as forgiving as they once were. But it felt good! And I even danced in a recital. (You should have seen me, kilt and all!) Now after saying all that, I can’t say that I’ve completely gotten over my fear of dancing in public. Those “I hate my body” thoughts still intrude. And it makes me angry that for so long I let my self-loathing keep me from doing something I loved. But I’m doing it now. And each time I put on my step shoes, the voices that once told me I could no longer dance are slowly being silenced.

  52. I used to belly dance, but I’ve also gotten to a point where my own self-hatred is currently too intense to allow me to try it again. Even though I know my former studio is a fat-positive kind of place, that doesn’t erase the voices in my head.

    But here’s one more video that captures what can be cool about a teacher or a troupe with an accepting spirit…

  53. To Fourlittlebirds ~ I’m so glad me having finally gotten to the point where I don’t hide my belly during dance class and shows (trust me; it took a while to get to that mindset!) has encouraged you to look at your own belly with more joy!!

    Gemma those pictures are beautiful. It is hard to find good pictures of non-thin-american-caberet bellydancers via google.

    Cyn thanks! I didn’t realize I was showing the most skin (had to go back and check!) but I definitely love dancing and I think that is always what comes across the most when all of us dance together. I’ve realized after a few years of shows now that no one will notice if you flub a move but if you fail to smile or enjoy what you’re doing; man do they notice!

    Victoria I think that Delilah is the woman that taught my instructor here in Mass! From what I hear; she is amazing!!!

    Honestly these comments today are making what started as a sorta bad-body image day for me just so much better. All these reminders of how concentrating on what amazing things our bodies can do regardless or sometimes because of our amazing and unique shapes has really brought me into a much better mood; thank you!! ^^

  54. Yaaaay FJ! For both bellydancing awesomeness and a great post. :)

    As good videos go, I have the first Goddess Workout one; yes, it includes workout in the title, and yes, the instructor is thin, but it’s actually much more positive and truly fun to do than some others I’ve tried.

    Hmm, maybe between the positive experiences on here and how much I like doing the videos, I’ll actually suck it up and try a class!

  55. April D., thanks for the YouTube recommendation!
    FJ, I sincerely apologize for not realizing off the bat that it was you and not Kate who did the belly dancing. You, Kate, and SM make up such an awesome trifecta of FA goodness, that I sometimes forget who is who. :)

  56. Great post! I’d love to take belly dancing, but the only place that offers it around here is booked up to the end of time.

    I started a once a week yoga class this week, and I was a little disappointed that some of the moves were hard because my big tummy got in the way. Child pose? My ass is still up in the air because my body just doesn’t bend that much. I beat myself up a bit, and then managed to turn it around – hey, I was doing yoga, and my balance is fookin’ awesome because I have a massive center of gravity that cannot be unseated. I was calmly doing the balancing table whilst my thinner friends were toppling over – I’m a yoga weeble, baby! One of my friends went with me, and she was so worked up about people seeing her body, and how much she hates her body, etc, etc., and I was just so glad not to feel that way anymore. So overall, it was a very positive experience. I don’t think that would have been possible for me a few years ago.

  57. Sherri, I’m sorry u stopped doing belly dance. You could do it at home with a dvd and it is still fun. I love dancing by myself with a great dvd, nobody staring at u. There are many out there and you’ll like some thing. Right now I really like Bollywood type dancing exercise dvds too.

  58. congrats on your first performance! sometimes i think i need to start up w/the dancing again! but more for fun, less for money. doing the student nights and workshop shows was always a lot more fun than dealing w/cranky restaurant owners. hmmmmm… perhaps i need to give karen barbee a call before my shimmies deteriorate any further!

    also, what’s up w/the mayas??? i always found them to really work for me too.

    also also… even though i did cabaret almost exclusively (i also luvs me some gothic bellydance), i also did improv almost exclusively. so don’t think you can’t improv in cabaret style! though, admittedly, it’s generally not a group improv.

  59. Hey Victoria! *waves* :)

    You’re totally right, of course. I was actually just reading about the ban on belly-dancing in some Islamic states, which touched on that issue slightly.

    I think the issue comes down to public perception and appearance. If you think of all the elderly women out there who are still dancing, that leaves a huge range of varied body shapes to imagine gracefully stepping through the dance. But are those women necessarily in the public eye? Not really.

    Not to mention the fact that in some countries women will only dance for women, and photography or video of the event is banned.

  60. Hi Gemma! Small world, eh? :)

    Yeah, belly-dance in the Middle East is quite a tangled web indeed. There’s a lot of mixed messages about who dances, who is allowed to dance for whom and when, how they’re accepted by the general public, the standards of body shape, etc.

    But yeah, outside the public eye, belly dance (or at least its movements) encompasses a huge range of ages and shapes.

    Have you read any of Morocco’s ethographic studies of belly dance? She spent time with the Bedouin and Ghawazee to investigate the true origins of the dance in childbirth rituals and as a community dance — it’s fascinating! http://www.casbahdance.org/ARTICLES1.htm

    And thanks, Sherri, for the youtube link! I’ve had the biggest girlcrush on Isidora Bushkovski since I started dance, but I hadn’t seen that one. (And I’d chime in, don’t give up on dance! Like viv said, you could try a dvd or just play music in your own home and dance your heart out!)

    April_D, if Delilah is your dance grandmother (teacher’s teacher, hee!), lucky you!! I’ve never seen her perform live, but I have one of her dvds, and WOW. If you get a chance to take a class or even a seminar, do it!! I’m still daydreaming about going on one of her Hawaiian dance retreats.

  61. Car- My big belly gets in the way of a lot of moves, too. For child’s pose, just open your legs to let your belly fall between them. I have large breasts, too, so I have learned many modifications…the best thing that I have found to do is just let my body dictate the most comfortable way to modify a pose.

  62. I think acknowledging the anti-fat aesthetic is important, and realizing you’re dug into it in ways you didn’t know. But it’s also okay to acknowledge that visual art forms advantage and disadvantage different appearances. I think it could be okay in a perfect world for some dances to look better when thin people do them, and some dances to look better when fat people do them.

    Think of, say, the difference between Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Each adapted his dance style to his body type, so that Astaire played to lean lines, and Kelly to muscularity. Bellies work nicely with some moves, and long legs work nicely with some moves, and so on, and I don’t think that’s inherently anti-fat.

    That said, SHIT I can’t really see getting the balls to dance in public, although my son’s dance teachers have often invited me to join the adult classes.

  63. Delurking to ask–does anyone know of any good streaming belly dance music sites? Reading all these comments and seeing these videos makes me want to dance like the fat fool I am, but i have no nice music to do it to.

  64. I took ballet for years. One of the best dancers at my studio was also fat. She was graceful, dammit! And strong, and had beautiful technique. It’s not just my opinion, either, this is recognized as fact at that studio. Of course she was always trying to lose weight, but it still taught us all something, to see a woman considerably heavier than any professional ballerina be so good at ballet.

  65. not to completely hijack the conversation, but i’ve wanted to take belly dancing for a while, cos my tummy’s cute and round and i like dancing…but my happy trail rivals male-bodied individuals. i’ve grown to like it, but it’s stopped me from wearing bikinis. part of me seriously doesn’t give a fuck, but part of me wonders if it’ll be an issue. i don’t know y’all, thoughts?

  66. Well, it certainly shouldn’t keep you from taking belly dance! As I said somewhere above, in most classes you don’t even have to show your belly if you don’t want to… and anyway your classes will be full of sweaty people who probably didn’t shave their armpits and definitely don’t care about your body hair. Class is not about looking pretty.

    As for performance… cabaret style would probably prefer you to get waxed, but tribal is unlikely to care (ATS is full of girls with tattoos and dyed hair, and is definitely unconcerned with bodily idiosyncrasies). And if it’s a student performance or a for-fun performance and not a professional one, it’s not as though anyone could require you to do anything. I can’t see any reason why it would matter, anyway. I guess it could potentially be distracting, but no more so than a birthmark, and I’d hope that if you had a birthmark you wouldn’t be worried that it would keep you from dancing.

    Another option if you’re self-conscious is just to wear your skirt or pants at belly-button level!

  67. What perfect timing for your post—this weekend was Tribal Fest, and it was the first time I had gone, although I’ve been taking both Tribal and Cabaret bellydance classes for a few years. I’ve always shied away from performing because of the belly-baring aspect. It seems that no matter how much I find everyone else’s body to be beautiful the way it is, I always think my fat’s spread out unattractively or that moves just don’t look good on my body. Tribal Fest was a great chance to see all sorts of bodies onstage dancing, and it was a real encouragement to me to suck it up and bare it all.

    If anyone is interested in seeing a beautiful, large cabaret dancer, I suggest searching for Magidah, a Portland-based dancer. She is one of the most amazing bellydancers I have ever seen, and she’s just come out with a new line of dance clothing called MagidahWear (for “the booty magnificent!”)

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