What I learned when I went to jail for belly dance

Updated: Jan 14

As a woman who has had my existence devalued by my own father.... I treat my personal freedoms to think, practice dance, move my body freely, be a performance artist and ESPECIALLY to be a teacher and advocate for Arab dance very preciously... It is a complete and absolute privilege, and part of my personal practice is to acknowledge women or people before me who couldn't or weren't allowed to dance or express themselves freely. There was a time when I have experienced oppression, violence and shaming, this time in my life I am able to express freely and I am trying every avenue...what a time to live in as an artist!

Winter Morning Contemplations

I have experienced what I believe to be many privileges in life and in my journey though belly dance. Being able to travel the world teaching and performing, stay in hotels and experiencing different cultures through one's art is and ultimate privilege and a lot of factors hinge on meeting the right ....or wrong people.

One of the Right people I met was Pleasant Gheman.....better known as Princess Farhanna.In 2013 I hosted her here in Saint John, NB and we were up late talking and I asked about how one really becomes a "real bellydancer'..... you are doing it she said.... but just remember... .Bellydance is the most expensive job you will ever have ...

Bellydance is the most expensive job you will ever have ... - Princess Farhanna

The gorgeous Iconic Princess of Hollywood

She wasn't wrong, make up, up-to-date photo shoots, costumes, lashes, nails, costumes, training, rollerbags, workout clothes, dance shoes, finger cymbals, swords, and untold amounts of adornment. That was before the importance of hi-def videos and home studio recording, lighting and Zoom accounts....

It can really be quite hard to keep up with it all. Especially as I mentioned in previous blog posts that most smaller towns down have the populations to sustain a dancer through gigs alone its supplemented with teaching, and assorted side hustles.

Being on the international teaching circuit I learned that like any industry there are "standards" and if you wanna play with the big girls you gotta do it that way or you won't get seen amongst the glitter. When you show up to a gig there is a certain expectation, and it should be respected.

my dad's rural living junk filled yard
1.2 kilometres past the jail ...

Growing up in a large family, and with the type of person my dad was we learned always how to not waste money. In fact not to waste or ask for anything at all. All my clothing was primarily second hand ( you should have seen some of my polyester shirts), and my dad would often come home with his car filled with discount produce or bread, he would hoard deals of anything he could. Somehow he got a line on bags of clothing, I think it was intercepted from thrift shops before going to the dump) Like, garbage bags of clothing. And it was from these 'Bags"that I selected a lot of my clothes growing up. there wasn't really any room for anything that wasn't for survival.

When I started dancing all my investments went in to training and learning.

After all, I thought. I wouldn't need a costume if I wasn't that good of a dancer yet . I should just get good at dancing first. I learned not everyone thinks this way, infact, most dancers didn't think this way. And the dressing up part was massive for a lot of people that, made bellydance their thing. Its not just costuming, it was also having moisture wicking, booty hugging flatering yoga pants. Wether you were Oriental or Tribal style there were accessories for you! - there was also a "bellydancer casual" look, that was also not inexpensive. I had (deal with) a LOT of resistance to the processed necessity of the bellydance world. But this was where I had to be and I would do what needed to be done to present myself and my art for at a professional level.

Too cute for jail

When I was still a more "fresh" teacher and younger woman I got a contract through Woman's transitional housing to do one hour bellydance class for women in the Saint John Regional Correctional Facility, I was really teaching a lot of classes in this point of my career, and doing a lot of on-location classes for corporate locations. So the day came to drive out to the jail to teach this class to the women. It was a wild weather day in February and about 6 inches of slushy snow came down.

The class wasn't until the afternoon, I knew the road well as the jail was out towards where I grew up as a child and I drove past it every day on the school bus. Part of the directions my dad would give to people coming to the house was...1.2km past the jail.......

I took the time and drive out through the snow. Although cancelling did cross my mind, I felt deeply I couldn't cancel on these women. There would be no other time to 'make up' the time. The Jail was actually changing and would no longer have women inmates and so they were giving the women a "special activity". They had specifically asked for a Bellydance lesson...... and so here I was driving up in the slush.

I was not ready for what met me. Here I was all fresh and pretty and nicely dressed and these women were all dressed in boxy unflattering grey jogging suits, and for the most part wore no makeup, no jewelry ( I know from personal experience they take your jewelry when you are under legal custody.) or appeared to have anything beyond a very bare basic hygiene.

The sat on seats and benches with arms crossed and looked me up and down.. I walked in with my little amp and iPod and plugged it in the wall in the gymnasium.

Ok, I said...omg I sound like a mouse I thought... So we start in home position like this.....legs parallel, knees bent, spine long...

The ladies barley moved, they looked.....like a tough crowd to say the least . There was about 30 women there. About 8 stood to join me and 'participate' in the class. We started to walk about the organic shapes that could be made like 8's and circles... the few participants awkwardly gyrated their hips and gave the movement a quality I wasn't really going for.... One woman with obvious 'problems' kept doing the glue squeeze and giggling.....oh god I thought, now what.

Saint John Regional Correctional Center- Photo credit: Nawal Doucette
Saint John Regional Correctional Center

Wow, I kept thinking, I feel extremely guilty for being able to just leave here when I'm done. Are they resentful to me for that? I felt very uncomfortable about how eye catching my style was, and how I was wearing big earrings (not allowed in jail) and flashing an iPhone for time keeping and and iPod for music . .... I was feeling my privilege, big time....

and it was at that point in my adult life that I feel I truly understood what compassion is. Looking at all these faces I realized that its not just one "right' or 'wrong' decision that will land you in jail or in some bad situation. Maybe all of the choices before you are bad or not great options, or even the 'better' of the life choices isn't that great. Things are not so black and white.

I looked in to the eyes of these women who had all had something that was most likely painful, humiliating, and demoralizing in some way, happen for their live to lead them here. And they got me, for their one activity, I kept thinking...... OMG they hate this... wait someone smiled, oh my fuck..... The prison guard told them if they did not participate more they may as well go back .... they all rejected that idea, We have an hour, they argued..... I had to just keep it moving.....

And it was at that point in my adult life that I feel I truly understood what compassion is. Looking at all these faces I realized that its not just one "right' or 'wrong' decision that will land you in jail or in some bad situation. Maybe all of the choices before you are bad or not great options, or even the 'better' of the life choices. Things are not so black and white.....

This IS them doing it. even if they are not up getting a sweat on with me, that not what it's about for them....... so I just kept going, it wasn't about me, I was here as a vehicle of bellydance.... I kept Teaching the movements, then demonstrating them to a simple beat. I could see then intaking the information through their eyes even though they weren't moving their bodies.

These women chose bellydance as their "special activity " that they could have, this wasn't a regular thing, and they chose bellydance. I felt soo much weight to that, I may be the only bellydance teacher that they EVER see. Like I said, the women I met that day where going to have many challenges . And I hope that I was able to bring a bit of beauty to that stark reality they live in contrast to my own life where I come and go as I please and dress how I want, think about what I want to eat that evening, and I can, for the most part go do it. ( And although we are currently experiencing restrictions world wide I do live quite freely most of the time.)

SO what I learned, was to have more compassion for people. Even if they made a 'bad choice' . There is not always a defined right and wrong and it helps to have more acceptance of the chaos and messiness of the world and realize most of the time people are just doing the best with what they have. and unfortunately sometimes what they have isn't a lot or is shit. Privilege is relative to time and place and circumstance. Some time you are the one with privilege in a certain space, sometimes you are not.

Performance art and dance as a form of expression is powerful and is a privilege and as much as we dance teachers we would like EVERYONE to dance, not everyone has the privilege, and not just because of physical limitations and this is something I have come to under stand over time as well. There are a lot of mental topics/ limitations that keep people from being able to express themselves, and ultimately the root of all my work is in interest of fostering and promoting creativity, individuality within like minded community and safe space for people to explore concepts of self expression in whatever vehicle they are ready to try.

If you would like some guidance on harnessing that courage you need to start your next artistic project or some clarity for the project that you are in or is unfinished come experience a some different perspectives in my Glamour Alchemy Workshop. I also offer short consultations on look and general aesthetic.

Come mine our personal experience and actions day to day and see how we can infuse more presence and power. How to condense and concentrate your energy and direct it to influence your life.REGISTER HERE

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