Screw Yoga, I'd Rather Belly Dance

Screw Yoga, I’d Rather Belly Dance

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This post was originally published on January 28, 2015.

I hate yoga. I’ve always hated it, but when I forced myself to take a Vinyasa class at Gold’s Gym in downtown Los Angeles, I started hating it even more. Holding those downward dog and plank positions for minutes at a time annihilated my wrist—if I moved it just slightly up or down a stabbing pain cut through each and every nerve. When taking a bath and trying to push myself up off the tub with my hand, I’d slip back down due to the agony in my ligaments and bones and cartilage.

Fuck yoga.

Nearly all of my female friends in sobriety do the yoga deal. Yoga. Yoga. Yoga. It’s part of their meditation practice, it’s part of their therapy. They do it in 110 degree heat. They do it outside. They do it half-naked. They do it Bikram style, Hatha style and Power style. They do headstands and they walk up walls. Then they’ll post pictures of these difficult poses on Facebook as if they’re performers in Cirque de Soleil.

It’s almost become mandatory—if you don’t do yoga and you’re in recovery and you’re a woman and you live in Los Feliz (AKA uber-liberal veganland) you feel like a bad AA. The same goes if you drink coffee instead of herbal teas or $10 bottle cold-pressed juices.

No thank you.

Even if I could do yoga, even if I hadn’t busted my wrist doing downward dog, I don’t want to. To me it’s boring; it has no rhythm and no excitement, it has no soul and no flair, it’s expensive, and, despite its Indian origin, it’s the whitest and most middle-class thing you can do. Why should I have to pay to meditate? Something tells me that’s diametrically opposed to true spirituality.

I’ve got Armenian blood. Growing up, we danced in circles to vibrant melodies—think Miserlou, the opening song in Pulp Fiction—with our pinkies tied together. It was joyous, festive and rhythmic.

Since I wanted to start exercising while enjoying myself in the process, I started taking dance classes at the Edge Performing Arts Center in Hollywood, mostly in ballet. The strict Russian taskmaster, who scolded me when my elbows were hyper-extended or my toes were not pointed out enough, came down with the flu one evening, and my class was cancelled.  I had already driven through gnarly Hollywood traffic to get there, so I checked the board to see what else was scheduled at 8 pm.

Only one class was left—belly dance.

I was a bit hesitant. Is this the same as exotic dancing? Is this going to be some trashy strip-tease to Middle Eastern techno? Trying not to condemn prior to investigation, I decided to give it a whirl. After all, I could gyrate my hips and torso pretty hot on the dance floors at those clubs throughout LA, and with my ethnic blood and dancing background, certainly it couldn’t be that hard.

Wishful thinking.

After I entered the studio, Layla, a young sensuous woman with a voluptuous figure and long curly hair hanging down to her ass, started the class. Vibrant Middle Eastern music filled the studio, and she started rotating her hips in fluid vertical circles (Amaya, it’s called) then into horizontal figure-eights, all while keeping her legs together and her knees almost entirely straight. I tried to copy her, but failed miserably. So instead of trying harder to do it right, I just danced as I did in those clubs, keeping my bent low and my legs wide apart, because my ego was bucking all over the place, and I didn’t want to keep failing.

“Keep your knees straight and your feet shoulder-width apart,” Layla said the moment I started cutting corners.

It was impossible—I couldn’t do any of it. Over the years, I’d taken some hip-hop classes, jazz classes, tap classes and even salsa and swing dancing classes, and none of those were as tough as this class, which required me to perform extraterrestrial type movements with muscles I didn’t even know existed.

They started locking their hips down in sharp staccato pops. When I tried to do this, I moved my knee down instead of my hip, which propelled me sideways. My brain just could not tell my muscles what to do—they weren’t connecting. Sometimes my left hip would twitch when I tried to move my right. When Layla threw her arms up in a classic Egyptian pose, the left diagonally in front of her and the right behind her, both arms completing a single lovely line, I clumsily threw my right hand up and dropped my left down below, both with locked elbows, neither of them in line.

It was hopeless.

You’d think I would have walked out of there humiliated and determined not to return. But something about that rhythmic Egyptian music, the sensuality and empowerment Layla demonstrated and the stunning movements she and the others had mastered made me return. And return, and return, and return again, then go to new teachers. Seven years have passed, and I’m still dancing.

Layla once told me, “If you can’t check your ego at the door, you can’t be a belly dancer.”

You cannot master belly dance unless you devote the requisite 10,000 hours to practice. To master the technique you must be willing to be the worst one in class, to not see results for weeks, to fail and fail and then fail some more. And once you nail a particular move, there are hundreds of other moves you’ll suck at, so you’re in a perpetual state of failure and a perpetual state of victory—depending on your perspective, your humility and your willingness.

When you’re trying to layer four dance moves while playing finger cymbals or flying a veil, you can’t be thinking about anything else—there’s no room in your brain. The boy problems, they’ll have to wait. The financial worries, those will wait too. Your resentments, they can’t take up any space in your mind because all you can think about is “Play the one, play the two, play the three…Amaya down, shoulder shimmy, watch your wrists, soften your elbows, try to breathe, and for god’s sakes smile.”

After years of practice not only was I able to take the stage as a confident, joyful and sensuous dancer, but I also gained entry to a phenomenal community of enchanted, supportive, spiritual, inspired and loving women—young and old. We dance at Griffith Park inside drum circles, attend festivals together, dance at restaurants, have costume swaps and celebrate the holidays with haflas—casual Middle Eastern parties with live drummers where you eat a bunch of hummus, pita, dolmades and bakalava and dance until midnight.

I am proud to say I can now do a downward Amaya on relevé while simultaneously busting out a shoulder shimmy with snake arms while playing Baladi on my zills (finger cymbals). But it’s taken seven years of repeated failure, and seven years of exhausting drills, drills and more drills to get to this point.

Belly dance is almost as vital to my mental and spiritual health as regular meetings. When I’m not dancing, my soul gets dark and heavy again.

Almost as dark as when I try to do yoga.

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.