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Feminism From the Gut

Posted: 11/20/06 06:27 AM ET

When I told one friend that I now belly dance, she nearly spat out her coffee. "How can you do that?" she asked, "It's so repressive."

I thought about it, and I understood where she was coming from. The paleo-feminist ideal of how women should be tells us not to be feminine, but rather to reject all traditional forms that celebrate being female. The image of the belly dancer is one of a jewel-bedecked, colorfully draped, bare-midriffed woman moving seductively around the room, ironically emanating from cultures where women are usually covered in black from head to toe and forbidden to exhibit any overt signs of sexuality. Both types seem to be an extreme, and geared towards the will or pleasure of others.

But coming from a modern American perspective, belly dance is a huge step towards self-affirmation. Go to a typical American beach, and you will find that most upper middle class women over 35 do not show their bellies, especially if they have had children. If you have had children and are well into your thirties or beyond, you pretty much cover it up, unless you are in a small minority of women who are obsessively fit and or who have had plastic surgery. The closest most women my age come to baring their bellies is a tankini that has ridden up by accident in the surf. If a woman in her forties, fifties, or God forbid sixties wears a bikini and has not had surgery, she is a rarity who risks being scorned or stared at. Or at least she fears that she will be.

Belly dance class reversed this for me. In my beginner class, there were women of all shapes, sizes, ages, and colors. We all tied colorful silk coin scarves around our hips and gingerly tried our first hip drops and shimmies. Even the movements were new to us. Women - and girls - are taught, whether consciously or not, from day one, to suck that gut in and try not to wiggle or jiggle. And here we were, exhorted to shake our butt from side to side, faster and faster. I tried it, and felt like I was trying to make a piece of wood undulate. I did notice, however, that the fleshier women in the class were naturally better at many of the moves. Once they got those shimmies going, you were mesmerized by that body - not disgusted. I think that was a new - and I daresay, feminist - experience for many of us modern women.

The more I belly dance, the more I understand the power of the female body. One of the first things you learn is that belly dance originated as a method for training the body in giving birth. I can believe that: learning the belly roll is about isolating each abdominal muscle and the pelvic muscles, and one by one pushing and then contracting them, causing a wave-like movement down the front. It is also the way you would push out a baby. Giving birth is certainly not the only thing females can do but it is one of the few things women can do that men cannot. That is a wonder that we should always honor.

But the belly roll did far more for me than make me imitate the motions of childbirth. Learning the belly roll made me realize that I not only had to let my belly show; I wanted to. I, a forty-four-year-old woman, was willingly tucking up my top and letting it all hang out. The belly roll was one of the hardest moves I had to learn; I had been doing crunches and ab work my whole adult life but I had never isolated all of those stomach muscles. Once I learned it, and actually flipped my belly in that signature ripple, there was no going back.

Last summer I bought a sky-blue bikini. I loved the happy color and wore it to the beach for my entire vacation. I would like to say that I was utterly comfortable in my older-woman skin, but I wasn't. I will say, however, that I was more at ease with my body than I had ever been, including when I was a smooth-skinned teenager. I saw my body as being exactly as it should be: round, soft, somewhat jiggly, bedecked with faint stretch marks (my husband lovingly refers to them as my "racing stripes") from giving birth three times. The difference for me was knowing that this body does exactly what I want it to do. This body can really dance.