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The Gilded Serpent presents...
Crone Dance

by Mimi Albert

Early in her book, On Women Turning 50: Celebrating Midlife Discovery, author and photographer Cathleen Rountree tells of a woman who kills herself not long after her fiftieth birthday. What a terrible waste, Rountree counsels in her wise and well-documented study. Life has so much to offer, even or especially after fifty: how pitiful that for this woman, as for so many others, this chronological age represents, not a period of self-discovery or fullness, but a wasteland of disappointed expectations and diminished possibilities.

For myself, certainly, entering the sixth decade of my life has been a bit like being dropped into Alice in Wonderland's rabbit hole.

Suicide was never on my mind, but I've lost my bearings. Menopause, which Gail Sheehy so eloquently labels "The Silent Passage," comes along just as what I believed to be a passionate and successful marriage falls to pieces, leaving me frightened and embittered, dealing with hot flashes, mood swings, weight gain, poverty, physical deterioration, and moribund loneliness. More is wrong than mere physical discomfort or even the gain of forty pounds; a certain essence has been lost, a vivacity and verve, a belief in myself as female, as vital, as worthwhile. My Goddess-worshiping friends scold me: "At this time of life you become a Crone. It's the inevitable next step, so you'd just better learn to enjoy it."

But nothing has ever prepared me to be a crone; despite the support of my friends, it seems a penance, an evil, loveless state. A kind of exile. Matters become worse. After a year or two of menopause I'm diag-nosed with a serious heart disease which leaves me either incapacitated by dizziness or uncomfortably overmedicated.

And then it's all, finally and suddenly, too much. So much so, in fact, that my only response is anger. Self-healing is necessary, I decide. I go on a quest for the Perfect Doctor, and for the perfect regime with which to heal myself.

My basic aerobic routine at this point is walking the dog, a huge, furry malamute-mix named Sam, whose mission in life is pulling me around, as a result of which he gets much more exercise than I do. One day, however, I find myself at an ethnic dance festival with a friend, and suddenly, watching the flamboyant gyrations of a troupe of gypsies, I get a flash of intuition. It's one of those moments at which you know that something's going to change, even though nothing much has happened yet.

"I want to take a belly dance class," I announce to my friend. "I've always dreamed of being a belly dancer, I need the exercise, and right now is perfect, because even if I drop dead of the heart condition, at least I'll have fulfilled one of my fantasies."

I check a recent copy of The East Bay Express and telephone the first belly dance teacher I see listed. Her voice is warm and pleasant, and I feel immediately encouraged.

"I have to be honest," I warn her nonetheless, perhaps trying to get out of making a serious commitment before I've even gotten started. "I have an illness and could collapse at any time."

"Oh, that's no problem," she replies, not missing a beat. "If you pass out I can help you. You see, I'm an emergency-room nurse." I know immediately she's going be the right teacher for me.

The music is the easy part. The music has been part of me, part of my life, since childhood.The music is my grandmother. Born in Russian Georgia, raised in the international city of Odessa, she was a revolutionary in the early twentieth century, a wife and mother and mental patient as the century progressed. A large woman of a type I recognize later, traveling through Turkey and the Balkans, she was wide in hip and shoulder, with olive skin, strong, even features and dark, expressive eyes. During my entire childhood she lived downstairs from us and had as much hand in raising me as either of my parents.

She would come upstairs and sing to me, and now, listening to the music of belly dance, I recognize the minor key, the rhythms, of my grandmother's songs. I remember her lifting her handkerchief (or, lacking one, holding up a woebegone Kleenex), one hand turning in a graceful swirl as she moved, very slowly, across my room.

Our heritage is Jewish. Dancing to Arab music, I recognize how deeply connected the two peoples really are, and begin to find the Palestinian/Israeli conflict increasingly painful. It's as if I'm watching two beloved siblings in a struggle to the death, made even more virulent because they're so deeply linked, so similar. Still, the music itself liberates something within myself. Undeniably, it's the music of my soul.

It's my body that's the problem. As I try to dance, it feels as if my arms are constructed of damp plaster. My chest and shoulders seem almost fused. When I undulate, there's a creaking of bones. My hands look like uncoordinated appendages flying around, out of synch.

The only parts of my body that function with the music are the hips and my hips are, as one nasty dancer/vendor at Rakkasah informs me as I'm trying on scarves, "the widest hips I've ever seen, wider than anybody's."

Still. The studio, the dance recitals, the festivals, are a fantasy world, for me. I am a very chubby, relatively immobile participant, but I thrill to them anyway, finding myself in an element I've craved throughout my life: rooms filled with smoky light and music, market stalls hanging with coin belts and Bedouin dresses, gypsy shawls, yards of Egyptian beadwork, cloth worked with beaten silver. A thwarted traveler who no longer has time or funds to return to Europe or India or even the East Coast, I can embark on a fascinating journey without having to leave the Bay Area. A day at Rakkassah has all the exhausting, thrilling energy of a day spent in the soukhs of Istanbul, the open bazaars in Delhi.

Most wonderful of all, to me, is the sense of camaraderie with the other dancers. My teacher, Lynette of Snake's Kin Studio, puts me through my paces, demanding more and more from me, but only with encouragement and positive reinforcement. She's never insulting, never mean. Slowly, the steel bands around my chest and neck become less constricting; when I watch myself in the mirror, sometimes I almost look as if I'm dancing. The other women in class are supportive and kind. They concentrate on what I do well, keeping rhythm on the zils, expressing enthusiasm. They push me to exceed myself. (And sometimes they push me so I won't step on their feet.)

I feel as if some part of myself has been restored, in another form.

This does not happen over weeks, or even months. I've been studying belly dance, now, for more than five years, off and on. Sometimes, when the pressures of work are too great, I have to quit for a while. But my costumes and scarves still hang in my closet, and I've never wanted to put them away, never wanted to say, "I'm through with dancing." I'm not through; one of the beauties of this dance form is that one never has to be. Eligibility as a belly dancer isn't conditioned by size, by age, or by what our society considers beauty. Attending a lecture on the history of dance given by master-teacher Bert Balladine, I see a rare videotape of the performance of one world-famous Egyptian wedding dancer who, totally skilled, totally erotic and suggestive in her movements and facial expressions, leaves almost nothing to the imagination. From her seated position she moves her hands, face and torso in undulations, smiles, belly rolls, and gestures that make it easy to understand how a very young couple might want to lose their innocence after watching her for a few hours.

But what's most inspiring to me about this particular wedding dancer, is that not only is she extremely overweight (by our standards), she's also over eighty years old! Here I am, suffering about turning fifty and gaining a few pounds, imagining that my life as a woman is over and that I can't possibly ever dance in public, and I'm suddenly confronted by the image of this unabashedly sexy and graceful woman, thirty years older and many pounds heavier than myself. She isn't the last such role model whom I encounter. At a Desert Dance Festival I watch another woman joyfully announce that she, too, is over eighty, as she does a rollicking, joyous shimmy across the stage.

Surely there's more to this than mere vanity at being able to do well in old age what most people can't even accomplish in youth. There's an attitude here toward life, toward the art of movement in general, which expresses the affirmation of a belief in the human spirit and its manifestation in oneself, one's gender, one's position in society.

When I think about the differences between belly dance and the kind of movement we value in the West, I realize that, traditionally, Western dance has been governed by air. The dance forms of ballet, Broadway show dancing, and even American folkdance, involve a great deal of leaping, extension of the limbs, and lifting almost always of women, who naturally have to strive for extreme slenderness in order to be able to soar through their movements as the choreography dictates.

Belly dance, on the other hand, seems ruled not by air, but by the coordinates of the human body itself, by the earth. Dancing becomes an expression of unification with a matrix, with one's own physical center, rather than with the limbs, which are such an important focus in Western dance. And the foundation of belly dance appears to be a celebration of the functions of the female body eroticism, childbirth, nurture rather than a flight to escape them.

Therefore, as I move further in belly dance, I come to meet my own center, all the crannies and hesitations of my nature. And then, there it is: my sexuality. Which I'd put aside, a few years before (why else so much weight gain after the failure both of my primary relationship and my hormones?) But put aside, only, not destroyed. So here's my sexuality back, a little battered maybe, but intact, ready to arise as I move into the wonderful, suggestive rhythms of this music, a music which also brings me back to my origins, to the grandmother I loved, to my childhood, to my blood. Back to myself.

Cronehood, obviously, is not such a penance. What's made it all so painful, I realize at last, is the attitude of our modern, Western, industrialized society an attitude which, despite the fact that I've always believed I was a nonconformist, I've actually shared. The belief is that older women should be invisible; that we're too undesirable, too awkward, too fat and gray to have any place in a world which is sleek and modern, slim and trim. That thus nobody can ever want us, in any capacity, not even ourselves.

I've bought into that attitude all my life, I realize. But there's nothing to stop me from buying out.

I also remember something that Margaret Mead, the great anthropologist, used to call "post-menopausal zest." With the help of the Perfect Doctor, yes, I found him, I'm beginning to feel healed. My heart beats steadily; I've lost the original forty pounds I'd gained, and then some. The hot flashes, the nausea, the mood swings have begun to subside. A transition has been forged, a delicate suspension bridge between two continents. I teeter in the middle, feeling, not fear, but a renewed hunger for experience, a zest for life.

Yes, I decide. The thing has happened. I've become a Crone. Life stretches out before me, filled with possibilities.

The dance, I've found, is endless.

I plan to go on learning all the steps.

Ready for more?
Doing it my way by Bert Balladine
For me, dance is not cerebral, but highly emotional.

The Artwork of Marie Soderlund
Bay Area artist Marie Soderlund's watercolors express her passion for color, dancing, friendships and the many wonders of life!

Living in Yemen, Part I - Tafruta by Jalilah (Lorraine Zamora Chamas)
A simple question was all they needed to get them into motion!

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