I grew up with a single mom who made sure I was involved in Girl Scouts and later with a girls-only masonic group. I went to a single-sex college. Grad school was really the first time in my life I wasn't immersed in a female-dominated environment, and I made some interesting observations. The female students were rarely in the front row in class. In the auditorium, I noticed that the men used both armrests, while the women frequently used neither. In discussions the women rarely pushed their right to speak when they started talking at the same time as a male student. Small things all, most of which I only put my finger on later, but there really was a difference between female community and mixed gender community.
Around that time the director of my performance arts troupe brought a belly dancer to give a workshop. I discovered a dance that made sense to my body, that wasn't a complete struggle. I began bellydance classes I tagged along with my teacher's Tribal troupe as their resident henna artist (and groupie). One of the first gigs I went on was a revelation. Preparing for performance was bedlam; a riot of coins and fringe and safety pins; a jumble of shared mascara, bindis, bangles, and practice beats. It was glorious! Then a horde of painted and bedecked belly dancers took to the street to walk the few blocks to the performance venue. Passersby gawked; jaws dropped; a few eyes flashed in envy. Walking alone, any one of us would have felt awkward, exposed, abashed. Together, we were proud and sassy. For the first time in my life I understood what empowerment feels like. A trained feminist since adolescence the E-word was an entrenched part of my vocabulary, but now I had the taste of it in my mouth, not just the word. It made my step a little saucier, lifted my chin a little higher, did wonders for my posture.
The world may tell us to strive to be strong, accomplished women who are at home in our skins and lives, yet for many of us the reality is a bit less robust. Television fashion programming teaches us how to find clothes to hide our flaws; studies show we still only claim one armrest. In dance class, I see some women find it difficult to extend their arms fully for Snake Arms, baffled by how to move their hips off center; ashamed of jiggles in their thighs. I see that bellydance can transform them into women who show their bellies (stretch marks and all), who not only extend their arms but toss in shoulder shimmies. It delights me to see women develop a new standard of beauty—one based on fitness and strength as opposed to slimness—and to find themselves a part of a tribe, a female community. This is the real gift Bellydance gives us, the incomparable taste of empowerment.