Friday, September 26, 2014

On being an Older Dancer, Changing Identity & Acceptance

  I brought my memoirs into the present recently, but I don't want to stop there & sit in my rocking chair. There's so much I have to say about this dance, about the present & about the feelings that come at the end of an almost 40 year career.

  After going back & reading my story I really regret that I only started studying Belly Dance seriously after my performing career had ended. There's something that comes with being a young professional dancer that makes them (us) feel they can put the training on pause. As a teacher I had to swallow my pride & realize there's a lot I don't know. The advent of Youtube & easy access to dancers from around the world keenly brought into focus my mediocrity.

  So as an older dancer I often find myself in workshops surrounded by hobbyists & young pro wannabes. I'm the one who doesn't drop in dramatic fashion to the floor, the one who doesn't always remember the choreography, the invisible one.

  The change in a dance career begins slowly - you're not even sure it's really happening. Suddenly you get passed over for a job. You hear friends whisper about a show they did as a group & realize you weren't invited to perform. You look in the mirror & notice the subtle changes, but convince yourself you still look pretty good. But pretty good isn't pretty young, & in the professional world of Belly Dance, youth is mandatory. I'm talking about parties, restaurants, nightclubs - paid work. This insidious rejection becomes more difficult to ignore, yet you fight to not succumb to the reality that your career is almost over. You are no longer young, you are no longer beautiful, you are no longer wanted.

  You know it's all over for you as a professional Belly Dancer when working troupes don't even pretend to be interested in having you perform with them. It's assumed by all parties that you are not working anymore. I have gradually become OK with that. Is a matter of fact the last thing on earth I want to do is go out there trying to make money performing. My last year at Burger Continental (& this was 2013) I imagined when I came into the room, finger cymbals blazing & the costume a little more modest, the audience must have thought "Yikes, this one's old". So I quit, & that part of my career is signed, sealed & gone for good.

  So what do you have left if you aren't ready to hang up the old bra & belt? Teaching is the logical progression, but it wasn't something I was comfortable with, especially since I hadn't really taken classes. Jazz & Ballet, yes, but Belly Dance - not since that first year way back when. But teach I did, & it's taken me 20 years to finally figure out how to best bring this dance form to my students. The fortunate part for people like me is the dance world has changed. It's now all about workshops & showcases. The older ladies are invited to dance as the classic Divas, & that's a good thing. Our audiences are comprised of dance students & other teachers, & we/they are more forgiving of the old, the heavy, & other flaws, considered to be repugnant by the general public.

  Maybe it's harder getting older if you spent half your life depending on your looks, I'm not sure. I guess there are plenty of women out there getting their faces "fixed" who weren't in a business requiring beauty. When you age you don't realize it as much because you don't feel different. You feel 20 inside, yet the outside clashes with the inside & you can't seem to make people realize you're the same free spirited young girl. They see someone old when they look at you.

  It always feels like a dream - like this is just a movie of my life & I'll eventually go back to the real me & shed this old skin. But then you come to accept that this is it. It's gone by fast, & you better make the most of this life, even as an invisible woman.

With fellow '70s dancers Zahra Zuhair & Nabila at 2012 Cairo Caravan's 1970s Bellydance Panel

  I don't want to scare the ladies who are crossing over into this older age business, but there's no denying it's not for the faint of heart. But the good part is it matters less & less. I am very fortunate to have many young friends in the business & they are respectful & genuinely interested in the knowledge that comes with years of experience. I am so grateful for that, & it's one of the main reasons I find old age bearable.  Being a mentor brings me satisfaction & pride. Passages are hard, but if you're lucky you find a new & rewarding identity.