In the last four years I have taken a few African dance classes provided by the instructor of a local dance troupe. There hasn’t been a single time in which I felt confident enough, or most importantly free enough to participate and feel like I could dance. I have studied the regular dancers (by regular I mean the ones who attend class consistently) with admiration, and marveled at their grace and coordination. The dancers are mostly women, who are anywhere from mid 20s to late 70s, and they are absolutely phenomenal! First of all, the strength and stamina that these dancers have is impressive to say the least; what with fast squats, quick steps, hip tosses, arm circulations, jumps, hip rotations, top & bottom body move separations, and head tosses! Adding on to that is the grace and coordination with which they move. There is such a womanly feeling about it, just an elegant and royal vibe that is palpable around the dancers who know how to move and groove.
When I watch them I cannot help but feel that I too want to be like them. I too want to dance with my womanly shape, and gracefully tell other women it’s OK to let go; it’s OK to be free! I keep hearing the instructor say that there is a main concept to the steps that she teaches, but each person brings a little personal spice to it. I see that you have to believe that you are free, and then you can’t help but add your own spice.
So, time and again I have joined this class. First I would only drum…or try to keep a single line whilst asking the master drummer next to me to please remind me what I was supposed to be doing (every time we stopped playing). Then two years ago I decided I needed to step outside of this ridiculous box I had placed myself in, and just dance. It would be OK for me to mess up, and there would be a lot of messing up until I learned the steps, and until I released any inhibitions and just danced! All inhibitors were self-made: all of them! None of them were real to anyone other than me. For instance, I would feel awkward moving in certain ways because of my height. I thought I must look even stranger than I felt, throwing my arm up here and taking this wide step there. However, I then saw a girl equally tall, who looked …tall, but graceful. Now I could no longer use height as an excuse.
I made sure to have other excuses as to why I couldn’t take the classes consistently, such as scheduling, and my daughter needing to do her homework. Thing is, I knew these were excuses. The question was: what was really going on?
I grew up in Italy until I was a tween. If you looked in the dictionary for the definition of ‘tomboy’ you may have found a picture of me next to it. I loved pink and girly things as a toddler, then one day I couldn’t stand pink, or skirts (eww… skirts!) or much to do with being a girl; except for liking to play with Barbie dolls, wanting to stop biting my nails so they would grow out pretty, and liking my ears to be pierced.
My friends and I played outside for hours. We rode our bikes, walked around, played soccer, had picnics in a huge field behind our homes, and got dirty. When our town would have festivals outdoors, we kids would line-dance alongside the elders, and my solo moves consisted of stomping the ground to the beat of the music. I wasn’t disliking being a girl, but I also wasn’t trying to do things as dancing like a girl. There would most definitely not be any hips moving left, right, front and back! That would have been way too embarrassing, as none of my friends danced like that. None of the teenagers (our role models) danced like that.
So it was, that by the time my family and I moved to Tanzania, I had no inkling at all about how to move my body gracefully in dance. My mom thankfully just let me play as a kid. I really am grateful for that. I also see that she may not have realized the importance in teaching me the ways of her people, of my female countrymen as applicable to dance. As I was learning this new culture, two new languages, and dealing with still having to wear a uniform in middle school (just when I thought I was going to be done with that), I really did not give African dancing any thought. I lived there for seven years, and never gave it any serious thought. I did learn how to move my hips alone, without the company of my legs and back (so I wouldn’t look like a bow that was swinging left to right to left), but I didn’t learn any Tanzanian dances.
Fast forward to me living in the States…and being around women learning cultural African dances…I realized I had truly missed out on something special, and kind of essential in my self-definition. Here I am, a woman from Tanzania, who doesn’t know any African dances! So when I saw how beautifully this local troupe danced (the women and the children), I knew I had to at least try. The reasons for my inconsistency with attending class were simple: lack of confidence as a woman, and shame for not knowing how to dance, and not knowing any dances from the continent in which I was born & partially raised.
With the acknowledgement of these reasons I asked myself why I felt that way. Well, I never embraced being a woman; accentuating my shape, you know…flaunting what my mama gave me. And I didn’t ask to learn any of the dances while I was in Tanzania because, again, I never embraced being a woman.
Now, however, I know how special a creation we women are. Men dance too, but I’m not talking about men right now. I’m talking about feeling FREE to be a woman. To move our hips in the face of the possibility that a man may feel aroused, or that other women may snicker and say you have a small butt or narrow hips. I’m talking about being a woman who moves freely, with graceful movements that excite the eyes and mesmerize the viewers because they don’t understand how a simple, ordinary person can look so majestic and powerful when she dances. I’m talking about feeling free to dance, to express happiness, sadness, struggle, strength, and other emotions, even if our breasts may draw attention, or if our triceps jiggle a little. I’m talking about being free to tell stories in a way only a woman’s body can through dance.
I realize that I, ME… I am one of these women. I also can tell stories through dance, and it’s OK if my breasts shake, if my brow sweats, if my butt doesn’t move the same way as the next woman’s. It’s OK if I don’t know the steps and if I feel uncoordinated. Once I let go and feel free, I will feel my body and hear the music with a new ear. I can then add my own spice to the dance, ‘cause no one can add to it like I can add to it.