Someone flicks the switch. Flood lights scream through the darkness.
Instantly, she appears, casting everyone else in deep shadow.
Like a rhinestone-studded doll rotating in a jewelry box, she turns in slow motion with perfect, glittering stillness. Articulating through every regal, delicate, ring-laden finger.
An invisible mist rises around her with the music, circling through her the ethereal haze of her bedazzled skirts as they whirl and blur.
From kitten to barracuda, she shape-shifts through her dance.
Off this stage, away from these lights, she waits tables in a Philadelphia tavern, or changes oil in garage in Baltimore, or teaches Chinese history to freshman university students.
But in this tribe, she is a goddess.
(Please note: This post contains affiliate links. You’re welcome to read all about this practice on Moody Moon’s disclosure page. Spoiler alert: It’s pretty boring.)
Art of the Goddess
The origins of modern belly dance remain mysterious.
With movements derived from regional dance styles around the world, the diverse body of dance vocabulary we call “belly dance” is largely a modern construct that draws on many eclectic sources around the world.
Kind of like neopaganism.
The popularity of belly dance in the pagan community makes sense in other ways. Its celebration of sisterhood, the feminine divine and sacredness of movement all parallel common themes in goddess spirituality and offer pagans a unique way to explore the spiritual side of dance.
After years of struggling with my own body issues, I began my journey with belly dance partly in order to view my body in a more sacred way—–only to discover myself comparing my body to every one else.
So when the promoter for the DCBA (“Dance, Creativity, Body Acceptance”) Belly Dance Convention in Hunt Valley, Maryland, agreed to issue Moody Moons a press pass, I booked a room and packed my coin belt.
Shimmy, Shake & Shed Your Body Shame
I ask the creator of DCBD Yasaman Vrd’dhi, what inspired her put on an event that specifically addressed the issue of body acceptance and dance. Her answer sends a poignant little shock wave through my heart.
“My father died when I was really young. After that, I gained a lot of weight . . . I didn’t have a problem with it, but other people did. People said awful things to me. I wanted to make a place where that didn’t matter.”
A young entrepreneur, body acceptance advocate and full-time goddess, Vrd’dhi aims to inspire women to embrace themselves as they are.
A notoriously body-critical art form, dance in particular needs more spaces like this one.
Women of all sizes, ages and backgrounds walk confidently through the hallways of the convention with bare bellies, shoulders and even feet. No one sucks in her tummy here unless it’s to improve her dance posture.
Make no mistake: they are beautiful.
It’s no wonder why pagans like Cienna Rizza connect to an art form that so magically celebrates womanhood as sacred.
“Dance is ritualistic for me.” Rizza, a featured instructor at the DCBA Belly Dance Convention, sits across from me in a quiet corner outside the convention rooms in the sleek corridors of Marriott Hotel in Hunt Valley, Maryland.
With strands of Turkish and Egyptian winding through the swirls of her DNA, Rizza traces both her pagan and her belly dance roots back to the the rich, fertile valleys of the Nile and the Ottoman Empire.
Specializing in theatrical belly dance, her knack for acting serves her well, both in her art and in pagan life. She tells me about the time she spent in the broom closet while she lived with a family in a kosher household in Brooklyn, New York, and passed among them as Orthodox Jewish.
For a year.
My pagan self quickly relates to this blurring of lines: life and theater, secrets and sacredness, ritual and dance.
I ask Rizza if she had anything to say about body image, and how belly dance has had a positive impact on that.
She replies simply, “I have a metric ton of stuff to say about that.”
Bow to the Earth.
On performance night, the headliner, Irina Akulenko, embodies fully the porcelain-doll-goddess-inside-a-jewelry box, dazzling the audience with her precise, elegant fusion style.
From my seat on the far right of the audience, I catch a glimpse of her backstage in full costume, dripping with sequins and delicately adorned hair. Quietly, in a meditative stillness, she kneels before a small table in the left wing.
I think she’s praying.
I catch up with backstage her after the show to ask her about this curious ritual.
“It’s an Indian tradition of bowing to the earth before you dance to apologize for stepping on Her,” she told me. Among the chaos of royal-looking show gowns, another dancer cools the flush Akulenko with a fan veil.
The image reminds me vaguely of Cleopatra in her dressing tent . . .
My body, my temple.
A Russian-born New Yorker, Akulenko first came to my attention in 2016, when her unique fusion of belly dance with the classical Indian dance form known as Odissi hit the dance scene.
(If want to know more about this, I highly recommend her instructional DVD, The Sculpted Lotus. At the very least, check out this excerpt to be amazed by her elegant, regal, feminine style in this form.)
Akulenko and I both share a special relationship with the country of India, its people and its culture, so I enthusiastically arrived to her workshop on Classical Indian Dance the next morning with high expectations and a brightly colored hip scarf tied around my waist.
As we worked through the challenges of even basic mudras, I noticed something—-I hadn’t compared my body to any other woman’s in the class.
I was too focused on celebrating my own to worry about anyone else.