Dried perspiration stuck to glitter, which stuck to sticky forgotten soda trails, which stuck to the bottom of my feet as I shuffled them back and forth on the cement floor, trying to warm up in place. There was a din slightly louder than an intermission at the opera echoing around my head, the sounds bouncing back and forth inside my eardrums, trying to distract me from the 5, 6, 7, 8; the hip snaps and longa; the dum tek-a-tek.
A painting of James Brown stared back at me from the wall, his arm stretched out gripping a microphone, holding the weight of his music, and below him an electric violin making a rich muscular meow, a sound that seemed to hold up the dancer in the center of the room. Her back bent and her head dropped in an impossible caricature of grace, her hair dusting the floor as she swayed. Then, the woman’s last song began, indicated by the tips that were readily being thrust into her costume as she made her way around the space. The cafe was tiny; it comfortably held 20 patrons. Tonight, it held no less than twice that. I could see a gaggle of my friends grouped into a corner, eyes wide and grinning if it was their first time at a performance, serene enjoyment if it was old hat. Many other dancers and patrons of the arts from the local community whom I had run across in my years of experience dotted the room. All were there to see belly dancers, and we were up next.
My thoughts flew briefly through a list of all the things that could go wrong tonight. Technical difficulties. Costume malfunction. Forgetting choreography. Forgetting everything I had ever learned about belly dance. I sucked in my gut and tried to remember I was in a safe space. It had a long time since my last performance, many moons and some pounds ago.
My mouth was completely dry, but I forced myself to speak. “This is it, ladies! We are going to raq this performance! Don’t worry about being perfect. Do your best and the fun will follow.” Four faces looked expectantly at me. The expressions ranged from excited to nervous to deer-in-headlights. I knew that last one well—I still experienced it occasionally when I entered the spotlight, but right now I had to be strong. I was troupe mama tonight. I couldn’t reveal my fears today, and I had to be strong for five of us, not just one.
The crowd began clapping as the last song of the set faded to an end. I stood up straight, rolled my shoulders back, bent my knees and lifted my chin, and double checked my zils.
The zaghareet sounded. I raised my arms into second position and let my feet follow the music.
* * * * *
The salt stripes of my sweat drew a map that started at the tall gates of St. Thomas Aquinas and ended under the black night sky, dotted with both Dippers and a smattering of other bright stars. A raucous cover band was shrieking out a song, and I was elated. My mullet was flying wild. I lifted my arms in ecstasy and raised my eyes to the gorgeous evening darkness.
It was after 9:00 PM and I had been left in charge of my own devices. Rather, my twin sister Sarah and I were expected to keep each other in check while my mom ran around the St. Thomas Festival gabbing with Mary and taste testing elephant ears.
I heard the enormous splash at the dunk tank and knew that my father had, once again, been thwarted by someone’s strong pitching arm. A cheer, then laughter exploded from the small crowd that was watching my dad throw an orchestrated hissy fit. I knew from experience that once he wiped the water from his face and threw the towel aside, he would wiggle his eyebrows and challenge the winner to try hitting the bullseye twice in a row. Generally, about one time in five, the challenger did just that, and down my dad would go into the water again.
The crowds had simmered down now that darkness had taken over, so Sarah and I took the opportunity to commandeer the dance floor.
Want to rock and roll all niiiiight
And party every day!
The immortal words from Kiss were all that we needed. My sister and I linked arms and bounced in a rock and roll style Ring-Around-the-Rosie, then separated to the far ends of the basketball court/dance floor to perform our famous Twin Sister Jive; never the same show twice. The older generation, wanting to rest their tired bones, and families with young children claiming the chairs scattered about, surrounded us and smiled as we gleefully showed off our rad dance moves. The lightning bugs had come out to join us as well, flashing their bio-luminescent hind ends to the beat of the music, making us feel like stars with our own personal paparazzi.
I was eight years old. I felt invincible. I felt glamorous. I felt perfect.
This is the first time I remember feeling the union between heart and rhythm. It’s a memory that stays with me, beside me throughout every performance when I am striving to feel that perfect again.
* * * * *
I was now thirty-eight years old, and I had no misconceptions about perfection, but I still loved to dance, and it was time to express my infatuation with it again after a long respite.
James Brown was giving me the side eye as I made my way forward, awkwardly dodging the waitress and moving in between patrons to the front where we were to begin the set. The hostess of the evening introduced us, highlighting the newbies of the troupe. I could not only see, but feel their bashful smiles shine when the hostess asked the crowd to give them a warm welcome to their first ever performance.
There aren’t many things in life more glamorous than a belly dancer’s sequined costumes, flashy jewelry, and air of mystery, which was very apparent as a hush went over the crowd when the five of us took the floor. The first stringed notes entered my ears and I left my brain behind, allowing for my body to take over.
I still feel that union between heart and rhythm. It may not look like perfection on the outside, but I know that when I am dancing, I am embodying all of my beauty.