Updated: Apr 23, 2022
And I enjoyed every damn minute of it. No apologies.
I blasted Celestria with my finest feminist are-you-out-of-your-damn-MIND face and exploded, “BELLY DANCING?”
“Yeah, wouldn’t that be cool? I want to get Chabi to teach a class.”
Chabi was a new addition to our Society for Creative Anachronism medievalist re-creation group. We learned the skills, created medieval ‘personas’, called each other by those names and lived a pre-Renaissance life in the past lane.
“Come on, it’ll be fun!” Celestria teased. But I was a feminist, dammit! My recollection of belly dancing’s heyday in the ’60s and ’70s tasted a bit sour, shimmying visions of background decoration in movie nightclubs or a half-naked woman dancing for men’s, and particularly Sean Connery’s James Bond’s pleasure in From Russia With Love.
It seemed vintage now, like beehive hairdos and pedal pushers. And while I didn’t object to flirting or suggestive dancing— Belly dancing?
“I don’t have the body for those costumes,” I replied, cutting through to the heart of the matter.
“We don’t have to perform, let’s just have fun.”
It’s good exercise, I rationalized. Without the embarrassing belly-baring costume, and no need to perform publicly, I was in.
Ha. Ha. Ha.
Yah, okay, this is good.
You can call me a witless tool for ‘The Patriarchy’ if you like, but I enjoyed every damn minute of my 15-year side hustle.
“I’ll teach free weekly classes on one condition,” Chabi said at our first class. “You all have to dance for the Mongolian Horde this summer at Pennsic War.”
That struck a level of terror historically reserved for the words ‘Mongolian Horde’. Okay, so this re-created SCAdian subculture to which Chabi belonged was far more civilized than the original Horde and treated women a helluva lot better than the era’s affluenza-addled yuppie frat boys. The ‘Pennsic War’ was a giant SCAdian weeks-long extravaganza featuring epic battles (of course) at a western Pennsylvania campground.
This is what I did on my summer vacation for the next seven years
Perform for the Horde? Oh what the hell, they’ll all be drunk anyway.
“I don’t want to wear a skimpy outfit,” I said. “I don’t have the body for it.”
“No problem,” Chabi said. “It’s not period anyway. Women covered up. You’re thinking of modern American cabaret style.”
You mean like this? (Three months later.)
I still felt sort of embarrassed and unfeminist about the whole thing.
Then came the first lesson. Chabi taught us some hip moves and a simple ten-second dance routine set to the sexy throbbing, thumping Middle Eastern music of Eddie ‘The Sheik’ Kochak.
As my hips swung, I felt an unexpected sexual thrill race through me. I felt strong. I felt confident. I felt, and I couldn’t believe I was feeling this, damned sexy. There it was. The Power.
Moving and feeling like a beautiful, desirable woman flooded me with an unfamiliar wave of empowering sexual confidence. I am woman, watch me dance!
The high school wallflower, about as desired as a pop trigonometry quiz, who’d agreed to this adventure never wanting a man to see her making an idiot of herself in a (too much belly)-baring costume suddenly wished her male friends could see her, even if she was only wearing a T-shirt and shorts.
I imagined one of those stupid costumes. I’d be like those women in the movies! The Power felt anything but degrading.
Feminism was deadly serious in the ‘80s. Women moved into the boardroom, with big-shouldered suits to emphasize their power in male-dominated corporations. A woman who’d murdered her abusive husband was considered a feminist hero and sexual assault was a bigger threat than it is today (The 63% reduction in rapes since the early ’90s is one of feminism’s greatest victories).
Many feminists had no sense of humour, as I found when the biggest feminist in my feminist literature college class caught me dressed as a Playboy bunny for Halloween.
The feminist narrative, enmeshed in a circle-the-wagons worldview, didn’t yet acknowledge the need to be yourself, or explore the many facets of being a woman. Female sexuality was a bit taboo except for those edgy and outré enough to chose lesbianism as a statement. Popular literature of the era abounded with political lesbian characters.
We’d have to wait for the ’90s before women could explore pole dancing, stripping, burlesque and Girls Gone Wild before we could shake loose our restrictions and argue such actions were ‘empowering’ and ‘embracing your sexuality’.
As I moved and shimmied in that first class, I reveled in the assertive confidence of The Power.
I’d joined this class on a lark, figuring it would peter out after ‘Pennsic’. Now I was all-in, along with everyone else.
"Hot buttered puppies!"
In the months after Chabi’s classes began, we emerged like butterflies from a lifelong cocoon of never being attractive enough.
We started losing weight. It was good exercise! My roommate Liliana and I belly danced to the music on the radio. Anything with a beat! Even The Monkees.
JoAnn’s Fabrics drew excited neophyte dancers to purchase yards of fabric on sale for big brightly-colored Middle Eastern ‘circle skirts’ and bras. Excited, Liliana and I debuted our belly-baring costumes to Chabi and her partner Torogene, who exclaimed, wide-eyed, “HOT BUTTERED PUPPIES!”
I still don’t know what that means but I think it was a compliment!
In the fall I followed my parents to Connecticut after my father got a new job. I hated leaving Chabi’s class. I’d transformed from a baby butterfly into both a medieval and modern sex kitten.
Feminists didn’t talk about ‘patriarchy’ much back then, but I was sometimes challenged for being a ‘tool for sexism’ . I never felt I was a ‘tool’ of something degrading, maybe because SCA men treated all women, of all body sizes, so well.
About a year and a half later, Chabi encouraged me to explore doing ‘bellygrams’. I wasn’t sure I was good enough. Belly dancers weren’t common in New England SCAdian groups. I practiced and performed at SCAdian medieval events, but felt like I knew just enough to be dangerous.
“You’re good enough,” Chabi assured me, having seen me dance again at my second Pennsic War.
It was Gisele, not Giselle, but whatever.
I insisted on covering up my face (rather than my belly!) for the next ad. I didn’t want my outside sales clients to recognize me.
I terrorized forty-year-old (on average) birthday boys in a tri-state area for the next fifteen years. Fifty+ was my favourite age range. The older men got, the less they gave a crap who thought they looked like an idiot. They happily got up and danced with me.
Feminism and I broke up in the ’90s, citing irreconcilable differences.
My ex was fabulous in many ways, having pulled off numerous victories, real accomplishments that had made the world more equitable to women in the thirty-odd years I’d been alive, but feminism just got too — embarrassing.
Women’s financial and political power grew, but so did a dismaying sense of ever-increasing female victimhood, rather than the accompanying personal responsibility that joins new power.
Feminism seemed stuck in the ’80s, unwilling to admit it was making a real difference. Now it was the ‘90s. Why was it the more empowered women became, the more disempowered many seemed to feel?
The lack of recognition for individual responsibility, the growing demonization of men and a nascent ‘political correctness’ disturbed me. I began calling myself an egalitarian. I still believed in equal rights for women, but I could no longer bear the f-word with pride.
As a belly dancer, it’s ironic I received as little pushback from feminists as I got. A few made snide comments suggesting my activity was hurtful to women. I didn’t get mad. I’d felt exactly as they did before Celestria dragged me into this. So I explained and educated.
How confident and assertive I felt, how I loved my audiences. How with few exceptions, men treated me very well. How men and women are different and we should embrace that. Vive la difference!
The extra income for better accoutrements than the handmade costumes of my early, low-wage temp job days, and how I could afford to visit Europe didn’t hurt either.
In an Irish bar in Torrington, CT.
I never removed more than a few veils. I made that clear to those who confused belly dancing with stripping.
I didn’t look down on strippers. Celestria and I, early in our tutelage, had a Stripper Adventure.
We wanted to experience a strip club, so we asked a couple of our guy friends to take us to one of the better ones. We wanted to see good stripping, we stipulated, not amateurs.
“We know just the place,” they said.
These gals were impressive, with obvious formal dance training. Ballet. Jazz. Gymnastics.
They were beautiful, slim, and seemed to enjoy teasing men, seated beneath them in supplication to the goddesses.
I admired their joy in their bodies, and their hypnotic influence over their audience.
They had The Power. It looked like patriarchy and objectification to some, but I recognized an unspoken mutual agreement between the dancers and their audience. By day they got paid for clerking and managing. By night they got paid for dancing.
“The men aren’t allowed to touch them,” one of my friends whispered. “The guys get tossed out if they do. This place can lose its liquor license if they’re reported for anything sexual. The girls can’t touch them either, but they can accept money.”
The dancers couldn’t show their breasts or nether regions. They pulled out their flimsy bikini bras and revealing panties (no g-strings), but my friend noted, “You never see anything. They know exactly how to do it.”
Later, Celestria looked for me when I didn’t return from the bathroom. She found me teaching one of the strippers some of our belly dancing moves.
The dancer made a fair chunk of extra money in addition to her regular job. Like me, she didn’t tell employers what she did. This was Bible-thumping Ohio, after all. She laughed about it. She didn’t seem to feel degraded, not unlike Celestria, myself, and the other aspiring goddesses in Chabi’s class.
It was an art form, and it took a helluva lot of labia to do that. The only performing art harder than stripping, I think, is stand-up comedy.
I know of darker corners where women who perform for men’s pleasure are treated very poorly. I know about the seedier side of stripping, along with stories of what it’s like to be a Playboy bunny or a Hooters waitress.
The touchers. The misogynists. The sexual assaults. The harassment. The fat-shaming. For strippers, even worse if you’re not fortunate enough to perform in a ‘nicer’ bar. (The term ‘gentlemen’s club’ — ha! — wouldn’t be coined for several more years.)
I once found myself in a dirty, grungy strip club. I forget why. The dancers were sad shadows of the women Celestria and I had watched, shaking in poorly-fitted makeshift costumes. They reminded me of the way I used to look at the end of a long nightclubbing evening.
No one, I’m certain, was watching out for them.
Nothing feminist about that. Period.
I’m sure some belly dancers can tell grim tales depending on who they were, where they worked, and how much self-esteem they possessed.
Belly dancing was a big tease for me, done with fun and enjoyment and rarely men-only. I adored my biggest fans, excited, wide-eyed little girls. I understood why. I was small during belly dancing’s heyday, when it was everywhere. And, growing up in Florida, I witnessed many hula dancers and wanted to be one when I grew up.
I ‘got’ the sensuality of The Power on some deeper level even when I was three or four. These ladies were beautiful and I loved the way they moved.
I lost that joy somewhere.
Sensuality is almost verboten today, in an age ruled by a renewed feminist sexual puritanism, political and religious fundamentalism and men who are afraid to so much as look at women lest they be publicly excoriated for ‘misogyny’.
Female sensuality/sexuality comes with many choices, complex and faceted.
Some women argue they’re empowered by pole dancing.
I agree. I understand. The Power.
Other women find it degrading and downright embarrassing.
I understand that too. I would never pole dance. Female sexuality and sensuality offers a strange dichotomy.
First Night Hartford, 1993
As for ‘objectifying’…we all do it. Witness women lining the streets waiting to catch a glimpse of George Clooney during the Toronto International Film Festival. Or Beliebers screaming for their idol Justin. Girlfriends chucking down pinot grigio
and rating the men in their social circle, married or otherwise, in the order of who they’d like to have sex with first.
Belly dancing taught me how to move my imperfect body more confidently, to sew my own garb and create new ideas. It taught me how to flirt, how to play the doumbek and how to break down music. I performed in a troupe for a year. I learned how to dance with a sword — always a crowd-pleaser. I taught others, and watched them emerge from their cocoons as Chabi had once observed us. I was responsible for that. That’s a greater feeling than The Power.
I made people laugh and feel happy when I danced, including a terminal man in a hospital just days before he died.
Learning to belly dance is one of the most feminist actions I’ve ever taken.
I was no tool for anything.
Je regrette rien.
This first appeared on Medium in June 2020.