92. Arabian Abs

92. Arabian Abs

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Shaping the New You

Arabian Abs

You wouldn’t worry so much about what other people thought
if you realized how seldom they do.
 ~Eleanor Roosevelt

You know those teenage girls who are able to gyrate and hiphop like they were born knowing the right moves? I wasn’t one of them. In fact, I spent many musical theatre dance classes watching those slender, toned girls execute perfect kick-ball-changes while I stumbled through the motions. I always assumed I just wasn’t a dancer. Or an athlete. There’s always that one kid in gym class who’s half a lap behind everyone else, struggling to breathe without blacking out. That was me. I was an academic and a musician, and I was perfectly content to leave fitness to the real athletes.

It’s interesting how university can change all of that. Struggling with the workload of first-year engineering, eating properly never once entered my mind. As exams rolled around, I quickly discovered that Kit Kat bars could soothe my frazzled nerves like nothing I had ever consumed before. As my jeans got tighter, however, my concern began to grow. I took to the university fitness centre with the best of intentions, but found myself intimidated by the regular varsity athletes who pumped iron and flexed in their Spandex. It felt as though even the professors were snickering at me as I sweated over the cross-trainer. My hyper-mobile patellae complicated matters and I soon found that 10 minutes on the cross-trainer would pinch my knees until I lost feeling.

Working out seemed pointless and frustrating, until one morning I noticed a new poster on the change room bulletin board. A beautiful woman in a sparkling costume twirled across the glossy page, prompting me to take a closer look. Belly dancing classes! Get fit while being sexy. I was instantly attracted by the idea, but tentative too. Belly dancers were like exotic dancers, weren’t they? Was this too brazen for me? More importantly, would I have to do a kick-ball-change?

It just so happened that my family sports club was offering beginner belly dancing classes the following fall. Being the trailblazing, adventuresome—okay, total chicken—that I am, I begged my younger sister to come with me.

“Belly dancing? You’re kidding, right?”

“It’s like a fitness class. I really want to try it. Pleeease.”

“I’m not showing my belly. I’m wearing baggy sweats.”

“Fine! Come on. It’ll be fuuunnn.”

“You owe me.”

We entered our first class with trepidation, almost wimping out completely and cancelling our registration. Gripping our courage tightly so that it couldn’t make a dash for the door, we joined our classmates and instructor in a circle on the floor. Our teacher was a young, kind woman who asked us all why we chose to start belly dancing. I cited fitness as my reason, but as the beautiful, unfamiliar strains of Middle Eastern music filled the room, I realized I was going to get much more out of this class. Much to my surprise, I quickly found myself mimicking the instructor’s movements without the same awkwardness that plagued me in musical theatre. Even arabesques, which at first glance seemed to be suspiciously ballet-related, didn’t trip me up as previous lyrical dance movements had done. After that first class, I was hooked. Bitten by the belly dance bug, I rushed out to buy my own hot pink coin hip scarf and signed out every belly dance library book I could find.

It wasn’t until a few months in that I first noticed the unthinkable. It took several minutes in front of a mirror to process what I was seeing, even as I flexed and twisted in different positions. Yes, they were really there—I had ab muscles! I could actually see the beginning of definition between the two major sides of my muscles. Pressing my hands into my stomach didn’t feel like squishing marshmallows anymore. It was the first shred of evidence that I really could become fit, toned and thinner.

Entering the winter intermediate class challenged me to finally look at myself as a dancer. As our class repertoire of techniques increased, so did my confidence. I took pleasure in watching myself in the large dance mirror, always aiming for a front row spot instead of the back corner position I had claimed in high school. The addition of floating veils and more sparkling hip scarves touched my soul with all the allure and beauty of an Arabian Nights fantasy. I learned about the cultural significance of belly dance and the traditions behind what I used to incorrectly assume was an exotic, stripper dance. I got to spend more time with my sister, perform with her, and admire the graceful skills she was acquiring as well.

Somewhere under all the glitter and undulations, I learned to love my body. I gathered up the courage to try ballroom dancing, salsa dancing and even yoga. Most significant, however, was how comfortable I now felt entering a fitness centre. Instead of feeling judged, I realized that everyone else was too busy worrying about their own bodies to be concerned about mine. The people who once seemed intimidating were now my fellow comrades in fitness. For the first time in my life, I felt like I deserved to be there and I let myself really enjoy exercise.

Three years, 10 classes and two shows later, belly dancing has become the brightest spot in my week. For two precious hours a week, I forget about my lab deadlines and looming exams, and I focus completely on the partnership between my body and the music. I’ve stopped worrying about the way other people view my exercise habits or my body, because through all of it, I earned the best reward of all—my abs. Err, I mean, confidence.

~Emily Ann Marasco

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