For people who think belly dancing is simply a sexy form of entertainment, teacher Michelle Dionne is quick to clarify: “Belly dancing is sexy,” she says, but she makes an important distinction: “Sexy for someone else [or] for random strangers is one thing. Sexy as power and as life-force energy and empowerment is different.”
In fact, Dionne’s approach to teaching the art — composed of controlled, core-focused movements and an awareness of the chakras (a Sanskrit term for energy points in the body) — is a big departure from the glitzy images you might get from pop culture. For Dionne, the dance is a sacred act, and it’s all about “healing the feminine.” A lot of that healing has to do with confidence, sexuality and body image. For a lot of women, these can be difficult subjects to confront.
“I hear women say, ‘I want to come to your class, I’m just not ready yet.’ ‘I want to come, but I’m not ready.’ ‘I don’t know. I don’t know if I can do that,’” says Dionne. “So yeah, it goes against everything that we were brought up to be for most of us coming from a Western background. We have so much repressed sexuality, we have so much repressed personal power, especially as women.” She explains that feminine power isn’t exclusive to one gender or one segment of society, and that men can be “wonderful” belly dancers too. “This is about femininity,” she explains. “It’s not about men and women. Moving with grace, moving with flow, moving with confidence in your femininity, has been forgotten.”
Dionne says it was never her intention to teach belly dance. She has taught healing dance in the area for 15 years, with some belly dance mixed in. Around five years ago, her students — who range from college students to grandmothers — began to request more belly-dance classes. She has been teaching them ever since.
The demand for belly dance didn’t surprise her. “They were seeing big changes in themselves. … I think that it just touches in on a primal feminine level that we don’t get anywhere else in our culture. Nowhere else in mainstream culture are we allowed to move this way. You take out the audience and then [belly dancing] is just about yourself and connecting with sisters and connecting with spirit.”
One of the biggest changes students see is a deeper connection and appreciation for their bodies, says Dionne. Confronting body image issues, she explains, is a large part of what the dance is about. “It’s a huge passion of mine because it’s related to the repression of the feminine. It’s related to how our whole culture is so wounded. ... It goes way beyond any kind of skinny, heavy type things out there — its about learning how to really love our bodies by taking care of them and also loving what it feels like inside. If you have both those things — if you’re taking care of yourself and you love how it feels inside — then you’re beautiful. The rest takes care of itself.”