I’m sitting on my yoga mat in a dance studio in East Van. It’s 5:40pm and my legs feel solid like rocks as I stretch them out before class starts. My feet ache. I realize I’ve been storing stress in my shoulders. I breathe. I let go.
I love to dance, it lightens my heart and connects me to joy, and I have taken classes in more free-form styles like 5Rythmns, but this is different. It is structured. Today is week 12 of the Luciterra introductory class, my first attempt in adult life to take a dance program, and the first time I’ve leapt into such a class out of my own free will.
Luciterra Dance is a feminist, body-positive approach to muscle isolation dance forms, from a perspective of decolonising the attitudes that have inspired the dance styles that have informed what we do. Some might call it ‘belly-dance’ or ‘tribal-fusion’, but the attitude in the class is one that is mindful of the problematic nature of Orientalism, and the fetishisation of Cultures and traditions that can come about when learning something that isn’t indigenous to one’s own people. Alongside the dance classes, Luciterra offers a series of lectures on the history of belly-dance and the evolution of their company, as well as Intersectional Feminism and Decolonising Dance.
I twist and stretch, feeling tight knots in my glutes. These past few months have made me so much more aware of my body, and its limitations.
My body doesn’t always do what I want it to do. My right leg will move gracefully in the choroegraphy about 90% of the time, but my left leg seems to get stuck, like the muscles just don’t know how to fire. I imagine my left hip flexor sassing back at me, “You want me to do what now?” I try to move my arms at the same time as moving my legs, but my timing seems to be one count behind everyone else and- which way are we turning for this move?!?
I’ve struggled in my relationship to my self over the last few years: sexual trauma, emotional trauma, bullying, community ostrazisation, loss of family- I’ve been thru a lot. When I look at myself in these mirrors I see the armor I’ve erected in my body to protect myself while I have kept on engaging with the world through all the pain and anger. I see my reflection and imagine a medieval knight attempting to rotate their hips in a figure of eight while shimmying their arms in “A-Frame.” Is it too late to drop out of the showcase? I wonder to myself.
Learning this dance is important to me. Getting back into a good relationship with my body matters.
But that’s not the only reason I am here.
In our classes we have looked at the history of Belly Dance: the origins of the dance amongst the Romani peoples, how the dance was reframed for the Western Gaze in British occupied Egypt in the early 20th Century, and then imported to the Hippie West Coast during the era of ‘Free Love’. We look at the problems inherent to the crafting of a form of dance from traditional roots as a means of objectification, and the way women have accessed it to find “sexual empowerment”.
I believe there’s a reason so many White women are drawn to belly-dance. For so many centuries, White women were forbidden from loving their bodies, forbidden from taking any pleasure in even an inch of movement. Bound up beneath corsets, the smallest incline towards enjoyment of one’s own body could lead one to be burned at the stake as a witch. And dominant White/Imperial/Colonial cultural history doesn’t offer a form of dance that is free and allows women to feel and express pleasure. If ever it did, that was so many centuries ago it has been long forgotten. And I believe White culture suffers for this loss. Generations drilled with religious guilt, devoid of permission to experience self pleasure- and redirection to the pursuit of capitalist servitude- have left those who have nothing else but Whiteness with a void in their souls, a void they look to fill by seeking out (and yes, fetishising) the traditions of those they’ve tried to annihilate.
I present as White, but I walk between worlds. I benefit from the privilege of being a cultural chameleon, and the insight of lived experiences in three continents. I have predominantly pushed aside the Non-White aspects of my being as a matter of social survival. I dress to fit in, and tone down my eye make-up to fit in with the average femme. I continuously work on my Canadian accent and vernacular. My thick, wild, curly dark hair, is tamed daily with straightening irons, braids, and buns. I have learned how to fit in with the colonial narrative of North America. And, I yearn to find a way to decolonise myself, to rip out the internalised narratives from the imperialistically-framed education I was indoctrinated with.
This is a dance I am connected to. It bridges the divisions within me.
I’m the grandaughter of refugees, the last in a line of generations of determined women. My Grandmother, giving birth to my Mother in Greece during Nazi-occupation in 1944, was sterilised by doctors who knew she had a Romani background. The trauma this left her with later impacted my Mother’s childhood in ways that would go on to impact mine. And yet- in part due to the shaming of ‘gypsies’, and in part the repeated migration and displacement of my family- I have almost no relationship to this Romani heritage. When they moved to the Americas, my Mother worked hard to embrace being more White as a means to survive and thrive. I am left with only a recollection of a story my Grandmother would tell me, of a King in love with the Tailor’s Daughter- a story which I’ve since found a fragment of in a book of Iraqi folklore tales.
My Father’s side of the family don’t dance. They are Anglo-Irish, stoic, ‘proper’. My Father was the ‘black-sheep’ in the family, an artist and architect who enjoyed a prestigious international career. I grew up with the privileges of a White-presenting middle-class girl in England- aside from the bullying I faced at school for having a Mother who was a foreigner. But I never felt at home in the world until we moved- my parents and I- to Kuwait, when I was 13.
Kuwait gets a bad wrap from some of the British expats there. “The armpit of the Middle East” some say. It’s hot, dry, dusty- and culturally it’s like living in many different centuries at once. With a local politiq that is best described as democratic feudalism alongside a continuous clash between hunger for Western luxuries (like Starbucks on every corner) and traditional Arab values, some find it challenging to navigate the cultural complexities. In Kuwait, I felt at home. I went to an English School, and almost all of my peers were ‘foreigners’. My friends came from all over the world: India, Poland, Mexico, Egypt, Pakistan, Malta, Syria, Lebanon, Australia, Zimbabwe, the UK- and, of course, Kuwait. With little to do, we would throw our own parties. We would dance how we wanted to dance, and it didn’t matter to us if we were copying someone else’s dance. We were teenagers, growing and learning together. Most liberating of all, I no longer had to pretend my way into Whiteness. I could embrace the part of myself that never identified with the cultural norms of my Father’s background, and I found a different, more authentic identity through that. When I moved back to England, and I was shunned for dressing and behaving differently than my British peers, I felt like something inside me died as I sought out a way to fit in again.
I have the privilege to present and pass as White. But doing so has not brought me happiness, joy, or prosperity.
Today, in my mid-thirties, I live in Western Canada, on the unceeded territories of the Coast Salish peoples. I embrace my identity as a queer femme, relate polyamorously, give voice to many facets of my authentic self, and embrace an ongoing journey of learning and growing. I feel more empowered than at any other time in my life. But one thing has been missing: I still feel divided between cultures; I am tired of playing to my Whiteness in order to ‘fit in’.
And so, as I engage my core into a full body roll, and send love to the armor of fat around my belly, I realise I’m not just doing this dance for the sake of my body, but for the sake of my too-long divided soul.
I look at the shape of my maturing body in the mirror and I see my Mother. I see my Grandmother. I see the images of women before them, whose bodies bore the burden of childbirth, abusive relationships, displacement from war, the loss of loved ones, the struggle of adapting to live in cultures not their own. I see an echo of the women in my Father’s family: of women told to be small, restrained, restricted, held back from their power and potential by a patriarchal world. I see their determination to survive and thrive. And I know I have that determination too.
I’m here to dance for them. For every ancestor of mine who was forbidden from dancing. For the grandmothers and great aunts who were prohibited from experiencing pleasure. For the women I know and love who are still denied the freedom to revel in the delight of their own bodies and beings.
I’m dancing to heal.
My body shudders and shakes as I leave class and walk to my bus stop. I am terrified of our showcase performance on Sunday. Though my theatre background means I am no stranger to being on stage, I have no words or song to hide behind. I will be raw, and visible, and- feeling low in confidence in my body- I am scared.
And so, I resolve to write out my thoughts, and to be raw and visible through my words. Sunday isn’t just our showcase, it’s also my birthday. I will be turning 35. It feels like a good time to be taking bold steps in new directions. And maybe I will stumble in the choreography, or ‘derp-out’ with two left feet. If I do, it’s okay. I will try to be kind to myself and remember that I’m not dancing to be ‘perfect’. This dance is about doing something I have ignored for far too long: healing my relationship to my Self.
With gratitude to Naomi Joy for her compassionate teaching, Laura June and Athena Affan for their wisdom, the amazing students of the Ruby Introductory Class for being on the journey, and to Jessica for inspiring me to take the leap and sign up to do something for myself.