When I was a very little girl (four years old) my parents started me in ballet and tap classes. When I was a little older I stopped taking tap and started jazz and acrobatics in addition to ballet. (I started acro too late and was physically too large to ever be a gymnast, but the classes were worth it regardless because I learned proper layback technique very early on in my life.) I always prided myself on my abilities as a dancer as a kid. By second grade I was one of the only people in my classes who could do all three of her splits, a fact that made me feel pretty awesome. I loved to perform even though it made me sick with nerves. I learned so many things from those classes: musicality, rhythm, posture, grace, and kinesthetic awareness. When people ask me today, "How long have you been dancing?" I often forget to include these early years of dance education, despite how invaluable they are to me still.
I continued the classes until the seventh grade, when my family moved from New York to North Carolina. Our hometown here apparently has many traditional ballet schools which place a high emphasis on dance competition, or at least that's what I heard. To be honest, I never even tried to go back to ballet after moving. I was too scared my technique would be taken apart and the teachers would tell me I wasn't thin enough to compete. To complicate matters, I developed fibromyalgia syndrome shortly after moving, which completely sapped my energy and killed any interest I had in physical activity. For a very long time-- in fact, until quite recently-- I didn't see myself as having any physical capability whatsoever. My body quickly became an antagonist, completely seperate from my mind, a burden to be ignored as much as I could. Any exercise lead to pain, and inactivity to increased fatigue.
My interest in dance waned. I tried other types of performance to fill the gap. For a short while, I was involved in school plays, but my middle school drama teacher was replaced after a year with a lecherous creep, so that was enough theater for me. I continued playing viola (which I had been playing since the third grade) for slightly longer, but my high school had no orchestra, and with no public performance opportunities available I quickly lost interest.
Around this time I realized I was a fairly decent visual artist, so I started drawing fairly religiously and taking art classes. Art was for me a very individual and very competitive experience. The most frequently exchanged 'compliment', if you could call it that, between students in my art classes was "You draw (paint, sculpt, etc) so well... I hate you." I won the Art Award from my high school in my senior year, which brought both admiration and hatred. There was very little sense of community or peer support between the students. For the very most part, there was only the competition-- competition to get selected for contests, competition to win contests, competition for scholarships, competition for entrance to art schools. Until my sophomore year of college, I felt compelled to keep competeing simply because I had the capability to "win" most of the time, but the practice of it eventually failed to bring joy or fufillment into my life, especially as, in college, it increasingly threatened to devour any and all of my other pursuits (including participation in bellydance). I quit design school and abandoned an art scholarship feeling that the entire experience had been empty.
Meanwhile, bellydance. My mother started bellydancing lessons when I was 15. To begin with, this was mortifying. I remember clearly a family vacation to Disney World where she insisted on practicing her wrist circles and such nonsense in public-- how embarrassing and terrible for me! Not too long after the lessons started she and two of her friends, one of whom I have known since I was an infant, decided to form a troupe (which later was named Blue Moon) to begin performing in public. I must admit this was somewhat intriguing to me. They started practicing Fat Chance Belly Dance videos in our living room, because they wanted to go tribal. My mom egged me on to join them. My first attempts at doing the movements were embarassingly awkward, which immediately turned me off to the idea. (God! I have this extensive dance background, and these middle-aged women can do this better than I can? Forget it! Who wants to be a bellydancer anyway?) More awful still, my little sister picked up the videos and started dancing amazingly well seemingly overnight. I put a moratorium on the videos.
I probably would not have started bellydancing lessons had my teacher Nandana not moved to the Raleigh area. We met her by chance, having seen a flier she put up in the window of a store in Chapel Hill. Even still, I almost didn't end up taking classes from her. I almost decided to take doumbek lessons from her husband instead, because while I wanted to participate in Blue Moon, I had made up my mind that dancing was probably not for me. I think my sister convinced me to try the lessons once or twice, and, long story short, I was converted. This was the summer before my freshman year of college.
I see myself bellydancing until the day I die. No other pursuit has ever been such a positive influence in my life.