Creating a Life of the Body Through Dance

By Patricia Cumbie

[Content warning: Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault]

Dedicated to all the survivors of domestic and sexual violence.

I was the first person in my family to go to college.  During the first week at school, I found myself alone for the first time in my life, and to assuage my anxiety about making friends and fitting in, I got drunk at a wapatui party hosted by a young woman in my dorm.  I was followed back to my room by a guy with the pretense of helping me open my door.  In my first act of self-determination, I quickly found myself drunk, raped and unmoored.

Disassociating from my body was part of the fallout from being raped.  When I finally started seeing a therapist, she told me that trauma that lives in the body needs to be released from the body.  What would I like to do that would provide a physical outlet?  I remembered Habib.  A belly dancer I’d seen perform.  Her warmth and dynamism made me think about her performance long afterward.  I knew then what I wanted to do.

Even in that first belly dance class, I started to understand the layers and years of damaging physical sublimation that had an impact on everything I did—my ability to stand up straight, speak my own mind, and move forward with my life.  When the instructor said to the class “Do not be intimidated by your own breasts” I believed she was talking directly to me.  The physical shame I felt was long-term and deep.

When I took up belly dance, my grandma thought I was a stripper, and a feminist friend was convinced it was objectifying.  This isn’t unusual.  There is a patriarchal and orientalist overlay on belly dance that does a great disservice to its real artistry and power.  From my personal experience, belly dance is a serious art form that gives me, and multitudes of women and men, the ability to transcend prescriptive narratives about our bodies.

Now when I put on my hip scarf, I can’t help but think about all the things I’ve tried to release and save.  I imagine walking through a doorway with the people in my life, the striking and extraordinary things about us suddenly seen in a luminous light.

Patricia Cumbie is a member of the Guild of Middle Eastern Dance and the author of The Shape of a Hundred Hips a memoir at the nexus of many contemporary concerns:  campus sexual assault, working class families, female identity and artistic expression.  It is available here for purchase.

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