It was one of those scorching summer days, when all you really want to do is lie in the dark with a wet towel over your head. So why was I outside, jostling among a sweaty crowd in the baking sun? Because it was the Hootenanny festival, and I was there to see Chuck Berry. Unlike most other women at the fairground, I wasn’t done up as a rockabilly sweetheart in retro cherry prints and platform heels. Not that they didn’t all look adorable in their middy curls, but I’ve always been a sucker for comfort. When I’m not dressed all in black – my “city camouflage” – I gravitate toward hippie clothes: cotton tunics, long skirts, bare feet. Oh, I have moments when nothing but full drag will do, but I’m usually quite impervious to fashion. Still, I felt like a sore thumb as the only female there not wearing a girdle. But this didn’t stop me fighting my way to the stage for a good look at the Father of Rock and Roll.
After sitting through a lot of bands that didn’t interest me much, I was feeling sleepy when a bolt of lightning struck the stage. Old enough to be the grandfather of most of the festivalgoers, Chuck Berry had more spark than any of his opening acts. His set was energetic and the audience went berserk when he did his duck walk. Suddenly, he started pulling women up out of the audience to dance with him on stage. I was bopping along in the front row when he looked me in the eye, pointed straight at me, then beckoned for me to join the party. I was mortified.
Chuck Berry asked me to dance and I said no.
After the concert I was depressed for weeks. Why did I decline? Why didn’t I jump on stage like everyone else? Simply put, because I was fat. Not just chubby or “thick” as they now say, but morbidly obese. And regardless of what Chuck Berry thought, I was afraid I’d get laughed at if I went on stage in front of all those immaculately coiffed hepcats.
I’d struggled with weight and depression all my life, but things really got out of hand when I became a public school teacher. The stress of working a thankless job, with most of my salary going toward student loans, then returning to the crappy co-op I shared with a bunch of other strapped, depressed, alcoholic teachers, had reduced me to a shell of a person. Through the district mental health program I was assigned a psychiatrist, who put me on Prozac. Already sensitive about my weight, in six months I’d gained an additional 50 lbs. I was embarrassed, anxious, and depressed about my size, but Prozac numbed me enough to get through the day without upsetting everyone around me by crying. I wanted to kill myself.
One night I was at the bottom of a well of despair, hating myself, wishing I were dead, when a thought appeared in my head, clear as if someone had whispered in my ear. Take a bellydance class. What??? Why on earth would I do that? I had been teased on more than one occasion that I should be a bellydancer because I had a big belly (and boobs) but that was humiliating and certainly didn’t spur me toward lessons. But the voice was insistent. Out of the ether, forgotten memories shimmered into focus.
I’m twelve and at my first Grateful Dead concert. Beautiful dancing hippie-gypsy-flowerchildren. My world has just grown a thousand times bigger, with more colors than a rainbow.
It’s my thirteenth birthday and I am having a costume party. I’m going to be a Gypsy Fortune Teller with a great big twirly skirt, layers of scarves, and loads of jewelry, dripping with coins.
I’m fourteen, and all alone at home. I secretly put on all the jewelry I own, draping my favorite necklace over my forehead and dancing around. No one will ever know that this sullen tomboy has a secret identity as an exotic Gypsy Princess.
I had forgotten about my old Gypsy Dancer fantasy, but once remembered, it wouldn’t go away. I didn’t tell anyone my plan because I didn’t want it laughed to pieces. When no one was around, I looked up all the classes in my area and, heart pounding, snuck into the private teacher phone booth in the office on my lunch hour, feeling like I was doing something secret and forbidden. One of the few bright spots in my life at that time was my new boyfriend, the future Mr. Koz. He’d been around long enough to experience my mood swings, but unlike the other people in my life he never put me down or said I was crazy. He didn’t tease me about my weight either; on the contrary, he told me I was beautiful and that he loved me. Having chosen a class, I confided in him, and he encouraged me to go.
Stepping into that first bellydance class might be the bravest thing I’ve ever done. It was embarrassing to be the fattest person there, double the size of anyone else in the room. Being forced to look in the mirror was torture. The moves were completely beyond my scope of experience. I had spent so many years trying to be still, so as not to bump into anyone and be attacked or ridiculed for my girth. As a rank beginner, I knew absolutely nothing about the art or culture of bellydance. You’d think that with my exotic ancestry and world traveler pedigree, I’d have had some kind of experience, but no. The go-go dancers dressed up as harem girls on campy TV shows like the Monkees and the dancers at the Moroccan restaurant were all of a piece to me. The teacher I had chosen was an expert on Egyptian Folkloric dance, but I didn’t know that. I was a foreigner in a strange land where I didn’t know the customs or speak the language, and the music sounded to me like fingernails on a chalkboard. Part of me wanted to run away, but something stronger kept me there. It was as if I’d lived all my life in a desert, and had just tasted my first sip of icewater. I wasn’t sure how I liked it, but my body wanted more.
I didn’t last long in that first class. It pained me to see the teacher lavishing attention on the skinny blondes while ignoring me as I struggled to copy moves that looked like turning inside out. In a way, that’s what was happening to me. Mentally and emotionally things were shifting. Little did I know that this dance would take me to the fringes of insanity and back. But that would not happen for some time, because of another impulse even stronger than the need to dance – the desire to have a child. This new way of being in my body had stirred up some ancient life force I had previously been cut off from. I’d never wanted a child before, but now it was all I wanted. I was 30 years old, and it was time to enter a new chapter of my life. In fact it turned out to be an entirely different book.
The people around me expressed fear that pregnancy and childbirth would bring wild mood swings and post-partum depression, but nothing could have been further from the truth. I had been a heavy smoker, up to three packs a day, but now the smell and taste of cigarettes made me want to throw up. I never craved them again. I gave up alcohol, of course, and cut out processed foods in favor of whole, organic food. When I couldn’t find a prenatal dance class, I took yoga. By the time the baby was born I looked and felt better than I had in years. And when he was two months old, I returned to bellydance. Some people might look askance at my going off to dance classes when I had a newborn to take care of, but it was like a dose of strong medicine. It made my spirit soar in a way that nothing, barring the experience of new motherhood, could touch. Once a week Mr. Koz got to bond with our new Kozlet, and I got to bond with the new me.
But first I had to come face to face with the old me. I had gone off Prozac in favor of a new antidepressant called Effexor. The drug worked, but once I became dependent on the dosage the effect wore off and I needed a higher dosage. If I forgot my pill, I would become nauseated, bump into things, and fall down. Whenever the dosage I was on ceased to be effective I would suffer identical symptoms. I would also forget words, or worse, try to speak and say the opposite of what I meant. This bizarre problem was amplified whenever I got nervous and more than once I found myself in a sticky situation because I’d said something completely off the wall. But the doctors told me I had no choice but to stay on the drug, most likely for the rest of my life.
My second bellydance teacher I shall call Candida because she was as nasty as a yeast infection. She would begin each class by badmouthing her competition while preening in the mirror, and had harsh words to say about my belly fat, which prevented her from seeing the movements I was sure were happening underneath. No other students who came stayed more than a few classes, which I should have realized was a sign that my teacher wasn’t so great. I was so used to being surrounded by mean people that I didn’t recognize the red flags; on the contrary, I found myself, embarrassingly in retrospect, behaving like a dog who tries to lick the boots of the master who has just aimed a kick in its direction. One day, frustrated by my seeming inability to do a proper ribcage isolation, she shoved me to the side, injuring my back. I left her studio in tears and never went back. But, amazingly, I still wanted to dance.
I found a third bellydance teacher, and this time I picked a winner. Besides being a sweetheart, on my first day in class she taught me how to correctly perform a move I had struggled with for a year. Tamra-henna taught Classical Egyptian dance, or Raqs Sharqi, which was a real challenge. She also taught me to understand Middle Eastern music, and eventually I learned to like it. After about two years with her, a music project I had been working on with Mr. Koz started to demand more from me, so I began lessons with a second teacher, Anaheed, a specialist in American Cabaret style, to learn more about stage presence and how to dance with a sword. She ultimately became my mentor and “dance mom.” I was now taking four classes a week, performing on stage, and having so much fun that it came as a complete shock when I discovered I was no longer fat. I really mean that it was a total surprise. One day, I walked into class and stood in front of the mirror as usual, but I didn’t see myself. Stupidly, I looked over my shoulder, as if I would find my fat self standing behind me, but that was ludicrous. I turned to look in the mirror once more, and had to concede at last that the slim, pretty woman looking back really was me. I had lost 130 lbs. I was thin.
All my life, I had thought that if only I lost weight, my problems would be solved. Instead, a whole new world of problems opened up. I wasn’t prepared to have people, especially men, treat me differently. At night, lying in bed, I could feel my newly exposed hipbones, and would cry and grasp at the emptiness where once there had been a belly. I’d hated it, but now I understood what it had meant. It was my security blanket, distancing and protecting me from lecherous men and jealous women. Furthermore, it had acted as an insulating layer, separating me from my own feelings. Without it I was naked and bereft. And that is when I finally lost my mind.
People get really uncomfortable when you start talking about mental illness, and anyway there’s no room for that story here, so all I want to say about it is this: if more people could accept that we are possessed of a psychic metabolism as real as our digestive function, and treated mental illness with the same respect as physical illness, there would be less stigma and better cures for the afflicted. If there is a blessing to be found in my ordeal, it is that I discovered who my real friends were. As it happens, the ones with the most love and support to give were the ones I met in dance class.
While my relationship to dance has shifted in the time it’s taken me to put myself back together, it has remained the catalyst for movement and change in my life. I am happy to say that as I enter my 10th year as a dancer (and that includes jazz/modern and tap now as well as bellydance) I am happier and healthier than I have ever been in my life. I’ve gained back a few pounds, but I’ve been completely off pharmaceutical antidepressants for the last six years.
A few months ago, my dearest friend from dance class, who is among other things an amateur ethnomusicologist, introduced me to the best band I have heard in ages. Tinariwen are a group of Touareg musicians from North Africa who rock out on electric guitars. Influenced by psychedelic pioneers like Brian Jones and Jimi Hendrix, they don’t play bellydance music, but something I find resonates even deeper; their sound creeps into my bones and I simply have to move. Since being turned on to them I’ve hardly listened to anything else. Two weeks ago, Mr. Koz and I, on the rare occasion of a date, went to see them live in concert.
I’d been lucky enough to see Tinariwen twice previously, both times in standing room only venues where I danced my ass off. This time they were playing in a college theater, and I was disappointed when the audience remained seated. We had lucked out with front row seats, but off to the side, with a huge expanse of empty floor in front of our section, just begging to be danced in. The audience was enthusiastic, but I didn’t see any dancing. I tried moving around in my seat, but it wasn’t enough. I needed to dance so badly I thought I might become physically ill if I didn’t! But something held me back. Perhaps it was that time I went to see the double bill of Eric Clapton and Elton John. It really wasn’t a very good show, but I got up to dance anyway when immediately the people behind me started screaming at me to sit down. I didn’t actually think that would happen here, but every time I looked and no one else was dancing I got nervous. Finally, near the end of the show, I couldn’t take it anymore and flew up out of my seat to let the music take over. I saw people pointing and faces turning toward me, and then they started standing up and dancing too! By the last encore, many others in the audience were dancing. I was surprised when the house lights came up and people started drifting over to shake my hand and thank me for dancing. A couple of people just touched my arm and smiled, and a nice looking young fellow shyly handed me my hat, which had flown off when I first jumped out of my seat.
As we were exiting the theater, Mr. Koz excused himself and I went to wait for him outside. I was standing there wishing I had started dancing sooner, when a man dressed in robes and a turban, holding a drum, asked me if I was the one who had been dancing inside. I said yes, and he asked if I would like to dance some more. I said why not, and he started drumming, I threw off my shoes, and before I knew it a crowd had gathered around me, clapping and trilling along. Mr. Koz was still indoors looking at T-shirts and CD’s and didn’t know that I was at the center of all the commotion until I had been dancing for several minutes. Eventually he came out and joined the crowd, and it was a great relief to see him because the experience was so surreal I couldn’t believe it was really happening. There were a few women who looked like they wanted to dance too, and I beckoned for them to join me. One started to step into the middle of the circle, but just then a guard arrived to tell us we were too loud for the late hour and we had to go.
As I was catching my breath, a couple approached me to complement my dancing, and we ended up talking for a long time. It turns out they run an online magazine called FolkWorks, which covers folk music, dance, and storytelling for the greater Los Angeles area. I not only had heard of it, but coincidentally had been thinking about it a few days previously. It just happens that I picked up a copy of their last print edition before they went online several years ago. It had an article about warm-up exercises for singers which I had saved, and I was wondering where I had put it. There were many other synchronicities in the course of our conversation. They asked where they could see me dance and I told them I mostly do it for myself, but I go to events with open dancing and occasionally perform at showcases. They said they were interested in expanding their calendar to include bellydance events, and even finding someone to write about them. I got their contact information, and a few days later it was agreed that I would write an article for them. I called Anaheed to tell her the news, but before I could say anything she invited me to dance at her Holiday show, to live music, thus providing me with subject matter for my very first article! All because I dared to get up and dance.
Now if only I could get Chuck Berry to come to the show.