“You should go for it!” Claudia said after we had shimmied our hearts out. I was sweaty and utterly exhausted, and had no patience for whatever she was babbling about. She gestured excitedly to the poster hanging on the studio wall. The large, colorful advertisement shouted at me: One day, six workshops! Sepiatonic presents Samba, Bollywhack, Expanding Movement, Afro-pop Fusion, Waacking & Vogue Fusion, and Isolation Drill Bits…We are Bridging the Gap! “There is still scholarship money available!” She told me gleefully. The application involved several essay questions and a video audition. “Oh,” Claudia mentioned quasi-casually, “and the application deadline is tonight.” How in the world did she think I was qualified for this kind of scholarship? I’d never even heard of half of these dance styles! And how would I stand out among so many talented dancers? I imagined them all recording their auditions on a stage in front of a live orchestra, finger cymbals winking in the spotlight and $900 costumes flashing to the sound of the audience’s ooohs and ahhhs, while my audition would most likely consist of me in my clammy workout gear in my living room.
But Claudia never doubted me, even when I had little faith in myself. She had been my belly dance teacher now for over eight years. Yemaya had been my first mentor, and the one who helped instill solid muscle memory and strength in me. Several years ago, when she moved out of the country and I expressed panic at losing her—just when I was beginning to perform—she reassured me that a new teacher would guide my dance education from then on. Claudia had been nothing short of amazing. In addition to the solo performances I had already taken on, duet, and troupe performances had been checked off under her watch. I built my style, and learned to better understand my strengths and weaknesses during her classes. I also admired her insistence on learning from a variety of teachers—she was all about building the self through a community. She knew my uncertainties and apprehensions almost better than I did… so I tried to trust her conviction in my ability.
I went home and thought about it, determined to make a decision that was based on fact, not fear. Normally I would have pushed all hopeful thoughts out of my mind and gone to bed, making excuses of why I couldn’t do this. I’m tired. It’s too late to submit. I’m not qualified. What was bridging the gap, anyway? I Googled the group’s website: Bridge the Gap is a way to stay connected, to collaborate, to innovate, to celebrate diversity, and to keep making art and growing community in these fearful times of oppression. The more that different artists, thinkers, feelers, and awake people of our communities unite, the stronger of a power we are against forces that strive to annihilate free-thinking, passionate creativity, and diverse and alternative lifestyles in our country. It sounded like something magical and daring… It sounded fantastic…it sounded like it could be perfect for me. My dance community was wonderful but small, and expanding mine could only build me up as a dancer and a human being. Suddenly, I knew I needed to do this.
I started with the essay questions. I’m excellent at tests, especially long form writing ones. I considered each question, and wrote each answer with loving intention in my heart, excited to share my passion for dance and the experiences it had provided me up to this point. Then, the video. I propped up my phone, pressed play, and performed my best 30-second belly dance/Latin fusion that I could muster after two solid hours of dance class and a full day of work. I watched it, then re-watched it at least three times, then re-recorded it at least three times, then took a deep lungful of air—don’t forget to breathe—and clicked send on the application.
A few days later I received a reply. I opened it nervously. I had submitted my application literally at the eleventh hour. Was it possible I actually got in? I had to read it twice for it to truly sink in. I had won a scholarship—for the full day of dance!
I walked in that Sunday feeling terribly nervous and only somewhat physically prepared. I had packed way too many snacks and not enough confidence, but it didn’t matter. I was here now, and the embarrassment of running out the door trumped embarrassing myself in the classroom. First up: samba. I had taken a few samba classes over the years, but I was absolutely overwhelmed by this style. My arms were on fire after the first few rounds of choreography and my feet were constantly playing catch-up, but I grinned through the sweat. Overall, I was keeping up! I could do this! The smile didn’t leave my face for the rest of the day.
Bollywhack was next. Kumari Suraj is a force, a stunning, feminine presence that I was immediately attracted to. As a curvy woman, I was ecstatic at the sight of someone larger than a size two teaching the class. It turns out that this combination of Bollywood (The dance form used in Indian films) and Waacking (Waack/Punk is a form of dance created in the LGBT clubs of Los Angeles during the 1970s) was exactly what I needed to experience. I instantly fell in love with the crisp, energetic movements introduced by two seemingly opposite styles of dance, but it worked, and Kumari stole a piece of my heart. Following were Afro-pop Fusion, Expanding Movement, Waack and Vogue Fusion, and the last, which unfortunately I had to miss due to a previous commitment, Isolation Drill Bits. The workshops made me feel weightless. Nothing mattered but the movements, and my physical body was almost secondary to the energy and spirit I exuded.
This community of dancers was a diverse one—not only belly dancers, but those who samba, waack, vogue, play, flounce, whirl. People who aren’t one type of beautiful. Men with giant braided ponytails of hair, flinging them madly, within dangerous distances of other dancers. A big and beautiful dancer like me, who astounded the crowd and made me want to rip out my eyeballs and send them away with her, to continually watch her dazzling generosity of movement and flair. These people were all so human, so robust, boisterous, and raw. I could read it in their eyes; they proudly polluted the definition of societal allure.
My definition of what a dancer is has forever been altered. There is nothing like the rush of power I feel when I move to the ancient Middle Eastern music. Belly dance makes me forget to feel self-conscious and be proud of who I am; I forget to crave the comforting stability of the status quo. Dance obliterates my worries and wraps me in a bubble of protection that I yearn to hold on to in my everyday life.
A dancer of stunning feminine essence was born in a basement studio. My name is Maysam Janan, meaning beautiful heart and soul, and dance has set my heart on fire. Shaky or strong, my breath keeps the fire going, and the community I continue to build will hold me up when I can’t fuel it alone.