I used to encourage every female who seemed remotely interested in belly dance to give it a try. I said, “It’s great for your self-esteem and makes you feel pretty. It’s wonderful for feeling empowered and recovering from abuse.” It wasn’t until recently that I really examined the validity of that.
You see, at my first belly dance class, I saw older, heavier (than me) women who had pretty jingly things on. They moved more gracefully than I. They hung their large, child birth scarred bellies out in such a way that I wouldn’t have dared. I thought, “They must feel pretty good about themselves to look so poised and lovely.” I wanted that for myself. As I stuck around a while, my confidence and skill increased and I assumed that I had reached a new level of higher self-esteem through belly dance, so belly dance must be a healthy way for all to obtain better self-esteem.
…but then, I wondered, why are so many belly dancers jealous, unhappy, competitive and insecure? Does belly dance really build self-esteem?
The answer to that came to me one day as I was watching a belly dance show. I sat there enjoying the lovely, playful way that one dancer connected with her audience. She transformed from a coy, school girl to a vulnerable, heartbroken woman. She finished with a strong, fiery drum solo that showed she was powerful and in charge. The dancer’s body spoke honestly of her experience, pain, innocence, hope, and joy. She took me along with her. And all the while, I never thought about whether she was young, old, beautiful, plain, thin or fat. I just enjoyed her essence and her soul.
Later I mentally compared this wonderfully simple performance to some of the more dynamic performances that were more impressively costumed, tightly choreographed, and technically executed and I thought to myself, “Why is this one so much more compelling?” And then it hit me. Some performers use the goddess role, the sequins, the Earth Mother persona, or the vamp as another mask to hide their low self-esteem. They suck energy from the audience and search for approval. The lady on stage truly seemed to be at peace with herself just as she was.
She wasn’t hiding anything. She wasn’t trying to make the audience think or feel anything. She wasn’t asking for anything. She was just Being one with the music, herself and the audience. How cool.
It may seem simplistic, but that moment transformed the way I approach teaching. I realized that self-esteem doesn’t just come from being in a belly dance class room. It doesn’t happen by osmosis. It doesn’t come from dressing up or daring to wear your skirt below your belly button. It doesn’t come from getting a tattoo or wearing bright colors. It doesn’t even come from hearing that you are “elegant and beautiful.” Lots of insecure dancers have all those things.
No, it seems to me that healthy self-esteem starts with the acceptance of beauty. That acceptance allows others to see their own. I now see it as my duty to point out that beauty for those students who don’t yet have the eyes to see it for themselves.
When X dances with her sword and veil, one can choose to see technique or see that she’s transformed to another place. She transports you to a fantasy land for just a moment and shows you the pain of love lost then the joy of its return. When Y dances, she tweaks every joyous nuance from the music to make you laugh, helping you forget any troubles of the day. Z oozes with the memory of the first experience of being overwhelmed with passion.
When joy and passion take the stage, you don’t see stretch marks, wrinkles, sagging bosoms, or bulging bellies. You can see the juiciness of life.
And none of the physical things that we call “beautiful” matter anymore because the inner beauty is greater than all of that. Celebrating that beauty can allow us to see that we never were an ugly duckling. We were always the beautiful swan all along- and so was everyone else. And that’s where true self-esteem comes from.