My wife, who likes me to use the pseudonym "L'Ailee" (French for "She Who Flies" or "Winged One", which she earns when she practices gymnastics!) is the most beautiful woman in the world as far as I'm concerned. Sinead O'Connor is the second. (By the way, has anyone else seen the new Entertainment Weekly? I think I'm gonna become a reggae fan, between her and Willie Nelson's new CDs!) The following, pretty much, is the post I referenced in Stephen Bennett's blog yesterday. I am sharing it here to share...how my marriage and my life *work* sometimes, and how very good it can be, and how very bad it could have been. (I did not mention that part at the other blog because it still hurts a little bit. It is still a very tender spot on my soul.)
Another interesting thing to me is that if it weren't for L'Ailee, I wouldn't be doing things like that at all. I wouldn't be in NYC. I wouldn't have joined her gym where she works under the "domestic partners of employees" benefits (ie, I get in for free.) I wouldn't have taken this class. And I wouldn't even be performing at home, let alone in public.
And in all this, the song that leaps to my mind today is not a Sinead one at all. It is, instead, Lee Ann Womack's "I Hope You Dance." (I'm a hip-hop *and* country girl.):
"I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance
Never settle for the path of least resistance
Living might mean taking chances
But they're worth taking
Lovin' might be a mistake
But it's worth making
Don't let some hell bent heart
Leave you bitter
When you come close to selling out
Give the heavens above
More than just a passing glance
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance
I hope you dance."
This is a story of a woman finally learning, in so many ways, how to dance.
I performed at my instructor Yasmeen's house in New Jersey on Monday, along with Yasmeen and a few of her friends (also professional belly-dancers) and about 15 other students. About half of each of her two American Tribal classes were judged good enough to perform by her; I was in that half, and ohmyGods, was I nervous. So much so, I kept nagging my poor wife as our cab left Brooklyn: "Do I really look okay when I do it? Because if I was going to make a fool of myself, you'd tell me, right?" She finally responded, "I don't look for the same things that Yasmeen does, but I trust her opinion. If she says that you're good enough to perform for her friends, you are good enough. Why would she embarrass herself by showing off a student of hers who couldn't dance?" In retrospect, that makes an awful lot of sense, but I accused her of dodging. "Listen," she sighed, "you look really good when you dance. On some level, you know it, because you dance for me. And you will look good for them if you don't think too hard about it!" Okay, that was decisive enough. I was quiet the rest of the way there, although I kept obsessively checking to see that I had my djellaba and my coin scarf and my music and the ten icebox pies I'd made were staying cold. (And then I worried that I had OCD like some members of my family! It's amazing, though--at that point, L'Ailee climbed into my lap and started kissing. She knows when I'm thinking way too fucking hard.)
So we got there, and it looked like a regular Memorial Day picnic. A couple of other students had wanted to use food as a way to make friends with their audience, one with cole slaw, the other with potato salad. (The cole slaw was good, though none of us dancers ate until after the performance.) There were more people than I'd expected. Some dancers had brought multiple guests. Yasmeen and her husband had quite a few friends over. But I swallowed my nerves (and another antacid) and worked the room. Eventually, she told us to get into our costumes. Some women rocked variations of the traditional bare-midriff costume, a couple of others wore djellabas like me, one wore a long and wispy and floaty ensemble that Stevie Nicks would've loved, and my friend Mona wore jeans, a plaid shirt tied over her midriff, a cowboy hat...and her coin scarf. I loved my djellaba--black with lots of gold embroidery at the edges, somewhat low-cut, knee-length, and slightly sheer. I felt inspired to wear gold satin lingerie underneath--the kind that would be a really modest bikini--just to highlight what needed highlighting. The other women were jealous of me because I had brought my own stylist. :-) L'Ailee followed me into the bedroom that Yasmeen had designated the dressing room, undid the braid she'd put my hair into, artfully messed up the resulting waves, and applied my makeup. A few other dancers also had female companions, but none as talented as mine. Someone hollered, "Jayelle, you need to share her!", and she decided to help a few other women out, too. After all, she'd be seeing them in the gym where she works later.
We got out there. There were tons and tons of folding chairs--I don't even want to think about how much it must've cost Yasmeen to rent them. She and a friend went first. She was different than when she was teaching us--she wasn't explaining or illustrating anything, she just did it, and did it beautifully. I finally learned how to do a proper "zaghareet"--a traditional _expression of appreciation for the belly-dancer's art--after that one. Then there were a couple of other professionals. Then there were...us. I was in the middle of the rotation. Everyone's favorite performance was a hilarious and over-the-top provocative dance to a hilarious and over-the-top provocative song called "Don't Cha?" by the Pussycat Dolls. ("Don't cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me?/Don't cha wish your girlfriend was a freak like me?/Don't cha?") I kind of wished that someone else would follow with Gretchen Wilson's "Homewrecker". I leaned over to Yasmeen and hissed, "And I couldn't do "(I Want Your) Hands on Me" why?" A couple of other dancers had similar questions regarding similarly sexy songs. But that performance really was good, and it was just as comic as it was sexy. Mona, my friend and preferred partner for tandem dances, actually made a country song work! It was Dierks Bentley's "Lot of Leavin' Left to Do", which sort of scared her shiny-new boyfriend, who was in the audience. (The chorus: "Guess the Lord made me/hard to handle/so lovin' me/might be/a long-shot gamble/so before you go to turn me on/make sure that you can turn me loose/'cause I still got/a lot/of leavin' left to do.") My wife, one of his friends, leaned to him and said, "I'm sure she chose it for the beat." It certainly looked as if she had.
Mine came up. I was so jealous of the performances I just mentioned, and wondered if I could equal them. I kept thinking to myself, "I have something special of my own to bring. I can do this." Practice to my selection, "I Am Stretched on Your Grave," had been very spiritual and intense for me. I have long used dance as a way to feel closer to the Gods and to other people. Even as a little Assemblies of God girl, I felt so close to God, so much a part of His world, when I moved in worship, and sometimes my dancing to secular songs became worship, too. But my choreography to "Stretched" was a bit rote at first. Yasmeen told me to think of a time when I've grieved. She thought it would be for my father, or one of my grandfathers. Instead, the memory of the horrible time early in my relationship with the girl I would marry, when she was gay-bashed, came up. I hadn't worked through that one yet. She had--it's why she teaches martial arts now. But I always have to be the strong one. I realized that I had never allowed myself to express the pain I felt when she was hospitalized and bruised and swollen and couldn't speak to me the way I needed to. There were very few people I could've talked to about it then, even if I knew how. "I grieve for the girl that I loved as a child." I was so grateful that mine was allowed to grow up, and so thunderstruck by realizing, really realizing, how close I had come to losing her. The emotion whipped through my body. I even incorporated a bit of Egyptian trance dancing, the kind meant to contact the spirit world, that I'd seen on some National Geographic special someplace and half-forgotten--I didn't know that's what I was doing until Yasmeen pointed it out, but I kept it because it felt right. I hoped that I could make it work in performance.
One look at the encouraging smile on L'Ailee's face, and I could. It's hard to describe. I guess I could publish pictures online, but I hate how I photograph. I didn't consciously strive to be sexy, even though my hips moved a lot. I strove to communicate deep emotion through the dance, to scour my own soul with it. I worked my hair, I turned, I bent double and snapped up, I stretched, appropriately, my limbs to their limits. I clicked my finger castanets to the beat. Sinead's haunting vocal encouraged me to move wildly and seemed to absolutely forbid me from smiling as I did so. I closed my eyes and forgot I was at a picnic on a lawn with several of my friends; the air temperature even felt cooler around me. As it faded into the long drums-and-fiddles climax, I let the trance-dancing begin. I never realized I could twirl so fast, or bend back at the waist as far as I did. The song stopped, I breathed deep, and I slowly came back to reality and opened my eyes. Good thing--I was getting a lot of cheering and zaghareets.
Yasmeen's husband said that the song sounded like "a ghost story". I told him it was, in a manner of speaking. One of her friends told me I looked like my soul was fighting with my body. This seemed to be a complement. Another told me that my performance was "very moving and extremely spiritual". My friends just told me, "That was awesome" and "You owned," except for Mona, who said, "Wow, that must have come from somewhere deep." It did, I told her, and Yasmeen when she echoed that sentiment. My L'Ailee grinned knowingly and acted extremely proud to be with me for the rest of the afternoon.
It's amazing how much less stressful the whole picnic was after my five to six minutes of attention. I watched and cheered the other dancers, I ate, I talked with my friends and exchanged e-mails and phone numbers with a couple of possible new friends. But today, I feel much better for having done it. It always feels good to have taken the chance and made it work; it always feels good to have done despite your fears. Guess that means I'll have to get used to taking chances and doing and facing my fears first. :-)