I began to learn Bellydance long after Shakira showed up with hips that don't lie. Seven of my lower vertebrae are fused together surgically, so suffice it to say that I'm the least likely student of Bellydance.
For a long time, I feared the future held maladies like arthritis and herniations as I aged. It's difficult to find anyone in my generation without a back complaint.
Then one sunny day a trained dancer from Russia appeared as an instructor at my athletic club and began to teach how to truly build abs and core through Bellydance. The instruction helped me release some of the anxiety of my entire spine permanently freezing. It turned out that there was sufficient movement there after all.
Not all Bellydance songs are Middle Eastern. The beats show up across a broad range of music. The teacher pulled out eclectic songs for the instruction.
Here is the first one she played:
Single, single, double. Single, single, double. It's a basic Bellydance rhythm. The song is a long four minutes, and the abs start to ache quickly if the gut is held in, which it should be. Aching is good. Building strength began to quell my nervousness.
After many, many weeks, I was ready for triples and shimmies.
Hips: 1,2,3. 1,2,3. 1,2,3. Then arms extend overhead, hands clasped together, the hips are held still, which requires effort, and instead of the hips back and forth, the whole ribcage moves 1,2,3. 1,2,3. Over and over. And over.
When the lyrics start in the above song, "Give it to me, Give it to me"...that's the cue for shimmies. I learned to plant my feet and vibrate the whole torso, not just my hips.
Believe it or not, the shimmy movement comes from the knees.
Here's the ultimate shimmies song:
Shimmies are difficult and frustrating to keep up for long, but I'm proof that it is possible after practice. And I'm usually relieved when the song ends.
Here's the classic teaching song, Tamally Maak. It's sung by an Egyptian heartthrob, Amr Diab. Ask any person identifying as female from that part of the world, and they'll know of this guy. I've seen women who understand Arabic in class actually tear up when he sings this.
Single, single, double. Single, single, double. Single, single, double. Hips. Then ribcage. Single, single, double. Then both hips and ribcage together: single, single, double.
Dancers call those repetitions Isolations. I began to gain confidence by feeling into the movements, and I allowed myself to feel scraps of joy here and there. Despite a stiff spine, my abs and ribs could follow along. Who could have guessed?
I learned eventually how the hips can move into a figure 8 movement, keeping the knees facing forward. My vertebrae can actually do this? Well, kind of. Enough to fake it anyway.
Here's a song with a rhythm perfect for Figure 8s with enough music to pause for closing the horizontal and imaginary "8" with one hip extended outwards as far as possible for the sweep back to start:
I'm no spring chicken. This is what was playing on the television when I was growing up and was my first intro to Bellydance! Fast forward about five decades, and I did learn how to dance a bit like the fantastical cartoon Jeannie from the bottle Major Nelson found in the South Pacific.
Dance can be relaxing when all is said and done. Yes, it takes consistent effort, but the satisfaction of mastery is the carrot that keeps me coming back.
Music, and more specifically freedom of dance to music, placated my anxieties about my spine and allowed me to face the future with more confidence and hope. And joy.
The human body is indeed, amazing. If we allow it to be.