Thursday, 26 February 2015

Of Zills and Pink Slippers

I've been thinking a lot lately about connection. And other "-tions": Motivation. Inspiration. 

I've also been pondering the slings and arrows of growth and change. Of running after, and letting go.

I think it might have started when I got the letter from my student loan company, laying out in brutal terms how much I would be paying per month and over the lifetime of my loans. Before that, I'd thought I understood how lending worked and that I'd done my due diligence by carefully reading all the fine print. But the demon of compounding interest had me by the hair, and it was too late. 

I was a newly graduated university student and professional bellydancer. And I was going to have to pay as much monthly on my loans as I did for rent in London--one of the most expensive cities in the world. I'd been applying for jobs, and no one was responding; this was 2008, and the financial crisis was really hitting the city, resulting in massive layoffs in the banking sector, flooding the job market with ambitious folks with experience. 

And there I was, foreign, all my references in another country, armed with my anthropology degree and an overwhelming sense that my can-do spirit was not enough.

That's when I knew I had to dance. The lucky break I'd gotten as a bellydance teacher while studying was my only viable employment. My hopes of keeping dance for myself and developing a career in my area of study were met with only endless unpaid internships I couldn't afford to take.


Over the next few years, I kept dancing. I loved my students and my classes. I was proud of the festivals I was privileged to help grow by teaching and performing, all over Europe. I felt like I was part of a new tradition of bellydance that was vibrant and exciting, and that I was doing something meaningful to help it thrive abroad.

I was also wearing down. Unbeknownst to me, I had a serious digestive ailment that was making me sicker and sicker. I kept going, though--taking all the workshops I could, drilling daily for hours, teaching several classes a week, travelling frequently. There were a few scary times when I felt dangerously depleted, almost in shock, but I pushed through.

It started to add up. I began to feel diminished. My husband and I talked about what would come next, and we casually discussed the possibility of moving to San Francisco. 

Then, suddenly, it happened. The offer came. And, if we said no, we might not have another chance in the foreseeable future. We debated, we cried, we held hands, and we jumped.


In retrospect, I don't think I ever recovered from losing my students. I loved teaching. As the years have gone by, I've remained intensely proud of the dancers they've become. Some of my most precious friendships came out of curious forays into classes I taught, and I am so incredibly grateful for the presence of those women in my life. 

In my naiveté, I had assumed that I would simply start over in San Francisco. I thought my accomplishments would come with me, and that I would jump right into the place I had previously called home. I underestimated the emotional impact of shutting down a healthy business I had grown from scratch, and the challenge of learning to feed myself again as a dancer with dietary restrictions. I needed to build my strength and get settled, and those things require time and attention. But I hadn't realised that yet.

I offered to be a substitute teacher for a friend's class. Her negative response stung. I started to realise that all those years working on my own did not add up to being part of the local tradition. I felt disconnected and disappointed with myself. It seemed that the things I had achieved overseas had evaporated. My motivation began to wither.

I tried to reconnect with the things I loved about bellydance. There were some moments of inspiration, and times of profound sadness. Grief. My body started to interfere with my ability to keep up. Family drama overwhelmed my emotional resilience. Loneliness set in. 

The first human profession I remember wanting to pursue was being a ballerina. From the ages of about five to nine, I took classes. I remember the way the cement floor of my teacher's basement studio felt under my little pink shoes, the dusty sound of a rond de jambe at what must have been a tiny barre. I remember a yellow costume that reminded me of the teardrop Johnson & Johnson logo on my baby sister's shampoo, and the first time I got lost in a choreography onstage. (A fate I was destined to repeat even as an adult dancer, and--in retrospect--the first evidence of my right/left confusion from learning dances in a mirror.)

When we moved to the countryside, away from my teacher, my dancing days became shows improvised to my parents' record collection, performed to imaginary audiences. I climbed trees, read books, and imagined I would become a veterinarian. It was a long time before I had a dance class again.

Twenty years after I stopped, I went back to ballet. A search for classes revealed a school with an adult program a few blocks from my home in San Francisco. I started packing pink shoes with me in my purse. 

I started, then life got in the way. I started again, and then I bought a house, and that took all of my time. I started again, and, by this third start, I had discovered that my creaky back was increasingly intolerant of the undulations I'd worked so hard to install as a bellydancer. The harder I pushed, the more physical and emotional pain I felt. Ballet started to put me back together. 

There's something to be said for revisiting your first love. I will never be a ballerina, but several times a week, I make an investment in keeping my identity as a dancer. While I hope that I might one day learn enough to integrate the dance forms that have shaped my body and spirit in some sort of personal expression, I think it might be enough for me to just go. Maybe I'll be able to contribute something beautiful to the world this way, even if it is only carrying myself with more strength and ease. I'm getting older, and I want to see what can happen while I have time. I have things to express in this mortal form, and I want to expand my reach and means to do so.

I am so grateful for all of my teachers. Over twelve years ago, Rachel Brice got me dancing again when I was just a little raver gyrating under laser beams. Now, I feel so lucky to restart an old journey of a thousand tendus with Zory Karah, Joshua Trader and Rubén Martín Cintas. You all help me to be a little more alive in a very special way, and I am glad for it.