What Dancing Taught Me About Writing

I began taking dance lessons in the second year of my MFA program. When I was a kid, I’d done the usual run of ballet and tap, ending when I was around ten. I loved dancing, but I felt like I wasn’t really allowed to do it because of my body. The form-fitting leotards, the tights, the bare arms, and the jumping. It was a form of dance that always made me feel heavy, even though when I look back at those photographs I can see I wasn’t even chubby. I was a normal kid.

I stopped taking ballet, but I never stopped dancing. In undergrad, it was at dance parties at the International Student house or impromptu living room dancing with a group of friends after a night out. I thought I’d never take dancing lessons again, that I could never study dancing like I studied writing. I could only enjoy it for the moments when it came my way.

The second year of my MFA program was tough. Looking back, I’m amazed at how much I learned, how much the literature classes helped me in my writing. But back then I felt overwhelmed and blocked. I hated my stories. I compared myself daily to my classmates, the published writers we studied in class, and found myself always coming up short.

I needed to get off the campus. I needed to do acts of creation that were in the body instead of on the paper, ones that could live and exist and fade without hovering in a state of editing limbo. One day I stopped at the bulletin board in the library and saw a flyer for a tribal bellydancing class. I showed up the next week.

My teacher was Joyce Young. She’s my belly mom. She’s an amazingly talented and hardworking dancer, and if you happen to pass through Fairbanks, Alaska go and take some classes from her. Joyce made dancing fun for me again.

The Moment’s Performance

This is what bellydancing taught me: to focus on the performance of the moment. To hold it, then let it go.

If, during practice, we messed up – cued a move incorrectly, made a four-count move into a six – we were told not to make a face. We were not to call out “sorry!”, and definitely not to stop dancing. After the song ended we could ask questions, go through the movements again, drill a move until our hips and arms were threaded together by memory.

But in the space of the dance, we lived in the moment of creation.

I am trying to bring this to my writing, to lock the editor outside my bedroom door and turn the music up so loud that I can’t hear his voice at the hinges. And then, dance.

***

Here’s one of my favorite ATS bellydance sets of all time, performed by Devyani Dance Company and Out of the Darj.

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