Interview with the Hip Mix Membership Team about Belly Dancing

4 08 2011

1)     What brought you to belly dance?

I had just gotten into recovery of the most awful addiction I can think of (and I’ve had quite a few others, so I know): 19 years of non-stop bulimia.

19 years of binging and purging, day after day. A good day would be three times, but most days, I threw up five to 15 times. Even when I was not binging and just eating a perfectly healthy and low-calorie, vegan and balanced meal, the feeling of food in my stomach was unbearable and I had to get rid of it.

Every restaurant I went to, the first thing I did, was make a beeline to the restrooms and check out if the doors locked and the flushing worked. Only then did I order and eat. Most of he time, I managed to eat like a normal person, ordering what everybody else ordered and eat just that. But when anybody left food on their plate, I wanted to snatch it and stuff myself. I could not understand, how one could leave food on their plate – what a waste! I always cleaned my plates down to the last morsel and as soon as there was nothing else to munch on, I’d sneak off to the bathroom.

I could vomit without a noise. Even with somebody in the stall next to me, I flushed to scramble the sound of splashing, bend over and let it all come out. I had this insane believe, that since it was so easy, I was meant to do that. No big deal. No retching and burping, just a little splash and it was all over, all gone.

If the toilet looked like it might not be able to handle such overload, I’d just throw up in the wastebasket. Still today, more than four years later, I wonder how to make amends to the poor fuck who had to handle the garbage bags. I imagined a tired overworked janitor, lifting the bag out of the basket, ready to go home after a 12 hour shift of cleaning toilets and tables, getting splashed by a totally unexpected exploding and leaking bag of vomit.

Afterwards, I’d feel such relief, such a surge of adrenaline and dopamine, that I could return to the table and rejoin the conversation, high and happy, with much more enthusiasm than before my visit to the ladies room. Of course, this high never lasted. All too soon, I’d find myself hungry, shaky and desperately looking for the next food-fix. I’d suggest “Hey, what about dessert?” and greedily grabbing the dessert menu.

“How can you eat a whole meal and still have room for dessert?”

“Oh, I’m just blessed with a real good metabolism.  Look at my mom and my dad! That’s where I got it from” I’d lie with practiced lightness in my voice. The people who had met my parents nodded their heads.

“Your parents are really in great shape. Man, you are lucky! I wish I could eat like you and be as skinny as you. I guess it’s all genetic after all”

What I failed to disclose, was that both my parents were anorexic, obsessed with exercise and diets and that I grew up despising overweight people, as if they were the source of all evil in the world.

And of course, I never, ever let on how panicked and terrified I was to gain weight and join the group of humans that had obviously no self-control and dignity and no right to take up so much space in the world.

During dinner, when I had to live with my father and my overweight stepmother when I was a teenager, my dad told me that he had gotten into a shuffle in the subway. He was full of pride when he relayed his triumph:

“I was pissed that there was standing room only and when I saw this fat cow taking up two seats, I asked her politely if she had paid for two tickets. Of course she snapped at me, how to mind my own business, but I got right into her face and ordered her to get up and make room for others who had paid their fair share. Half the wagon got into it and agreed with me. She heaved herself out of he seat and out at the next station. Everybody was laughing. What a hoot that was and best of all, I got a seat!” he boasted.

Not funny, you asshole.  I kept that thought to myself and pushed the food on my plate around, high on diet pills, supplied by my grandmother, who was always on a diet.

Finally, alone at home, I did not have to keep the show of being a normal eater going. I prepared and ate such enormous amounts of food, plates and pots lined up in front of me before I sat down to read fashion-and literary magazines, and book after book; well written, convincing, intellectual and smart books and articles about politics, global warming, conspiracy theories and manifestos that would scare me to tears without the buffer of food between me and the information I was able to inhale and comprehend. I was able to focus and read difficult to understand information because I was stuffing my face with my drug that kept me emotionally just removed enough, to read on for hours.

I was very well read and informed during those years and could join just about every conversation. People thought about me as smart and intelligent and were in awe of the amount of knowledge I could provide during every discussion.

During those reading-and food sessions, I had to get up every twenty minutes or so to rid myself of the food I shoveled into me without tasting anything. Then I would go back to my books and magazines as if nothing had happened and keep going until I would either pass out from fatigue or because there was nothing left to eat.

I had heard of people who would eat what they threw up and that really grossed me out. I would never do THAT. That would be really sick and I was not that crazy. No, not me.

Until one day, I was out of food and sneaked to my neighbors trashcan to look for left over’s. They were spoiled and disgusting, but what did it matter? It would not be long enough inside my stomach to do any damage. I ate green bagels, gruesomely covered with fungus and rotting chicken wings, spoiled cheese and once – be still, me heart, I came across a half eaten birthday cake, fresh and moist, dripping with rich frosting and sugary letters on top. All I had to do was scrape off the drips of candle wax and – hell, what’s wrong with eating a perfectly good birthday cake from a trashcan?

I was sick a lot during those years, going from doctor to doctor, from quacks to healers, always complaining about the fatigue and the bloating of my hands and my stomach and the paralyzing depression that I could not explain.

Even during my pregnancy, I was binging and purging day after day, racked by guilt and fear of what this would do to my unborn baby. But no matter how firm my promises and decisions would be every morning to stop and eat like a normal person – by noon, I’d find myself shuffling tuna, corn and beans from the can, not even bothering to use a plate. I was a hopeless case of an addicted women, so out of control, that nothing, not even the concern about my baby, could keep me from gorging myself with food I did, for the most part, not even like or enjoy.

Then, after almost 19 years of this insanity, I stopped.

I was on an airplane, returning from New Delhi where I had spent two weeks in a factory, designing my new collection. The night before I left, I looked at the samples I was about to bring back to my business partners and knew with squeaky and shaky certainty, that each one of those dresses and tops I had worked so hard on, sucked and would certainly be rejected and ridiculed by my nasty French Business Partners. After I packed the ill-fated samples and my belongings, I called and ordered room service.

The cart with covered dishes arrived, complete with a set of four plates and I signed the check, made out to my room that was paid by my partners.

“Where is your company?” the polite and quite attractive waiter asked as he laid out the feast.

“They are on their way” I smiled “leave the covers on to keep it warm, they are delayed by an accident on the main road”

“As you wish, mam” the waiter smiled back and handed me the room-bill to sign.

“Would you like me to keep you company until they arrive?” he winked.

“No, no, it’s quite all right, they’ll be here any moment” I flirted back. Get the fuck out of here you smuck and give me space to do what I need to do.

He finally left and I sat down to my lonely dinner, not even bothering to get to the bathroom a few feet away to throw up in between stuffing the excellently prepared cuisine down my throat. I used the flimsy wastebasket to get rid off the shrimp and lamb, the chutney and rice to make room for more. I tried to pace myself and at least enjoy the excellent and quite expensive meal for four, but it took less than an hour until it was all gone. Now what?

My fear and apprehension about the ill-fated samples in my suitcase stuck to my brainpan like the sticky mango-rice I could not vomit up, no matter how deep I stuck the hotel supplied toothbrush down my raw and bleeding throat.

I woke up bloated and fat, tired and so depressed, that I could not even look at the array of empty dishes, covering every surface of my beautiful hotel room.  To the cleaning personal it must have looked like the end of a decadent party and I dropped a handful of Rupees and Dollars on the nightstand before I rolled out of the room, dragging my overstuffed suitcases out to the waiting taxi cab.

I did not know this then, but for reasons that I still don’t understand, this hotel-orgy was to be my last binge.

On the airplane, I asked the stewardess to remove my tray with gloppy and over-salted grub after a few bites. I snaked my way through a crowded isle to the dirty, piss smelling lavatory and before I could bend over to relieve myself of the few bites I had eaten, a vision of an enormous, old-fashioned picturesque scale with grains on both sides of the scale in perfect balance appeared between my face and the dirty toilet. It stopped me cold. I saw this scale and in a vividly bright and eerily colorful vision, I imagined how my self-destructive action would add the one-grain to cause the scale to tip over, causing a horrible earthquake, floods and worldwide destruction.

The precarious balance of our earth, already tipping towards irreversible damage and death was just one grain away from total annihilation and adding that grain would be my fault. Shivers ran down my spine and I sat down to pee. A wave of diarrhea gripped my body and I sat there for what seemed like hours, wracked with cramps and fear.

When I was finally able to get up, I had decided not to be the cause of the destruction of the world that was after all, home to my daughter and my friends.

I retuned to me seat. For the first time in 19 years, I had left a toilet without vomiting. A sense of peace and calm enveloped me and I joined a conversation between a professor of art who flew back after evaluating a collection of antique paintings and a women who had just gone through a serious cleansing process in one of the many ashrams in the South of India.

When I arrived in Los Angeles, I stepped into a limousine my wealthy boyfriend (and almost husband) had arranged for me to pick me up.

As I had expected, my partners in our fashion company rolled their eyes when I presented them with my work. I excused myself, claiming extreme fatigue from traveling and drove home to the crappy cottage cheese ceilinged apartment I had rented; so that my daughter could go to the High School she had begged me to go to for years.

I quit my job and spent the next few days at my future husband’s mansion in Mt. Washington. I was done with the bulimia. I ate very little and never once threw up. We got along and were in love. I attributed this to my sudden honesty and lack of secrecy and maybe I was right – at least during those first few, almost magical days.

But I was terrified of gaining weight, I fact, I was convinced that I would certainly get fat, so fat that somebody would eventually ask me to give up my seat – not in the subway, since I never had set foot into the LA subway (except once, when the only way to get to the anti-war protest in Hollywood was by subway), but maybe somewhere else, on a plane maybe?

My solution to that phobia was to spent hours at the YMCA. I did not enjoy this at all – to work out, run on treadmills, doing Pilates, Yoga and swimming, because I only did it to feel good after words and to calm my overwhelming panic.

To make matters worse, my back, that had been bothering me for years, started to hurt again. I was in constant pain, probably from over-exercising and at one point; it had gotten so bad, that I was scheduled to have back surgery. Thank God I backed out of it at the last moment. But now, with my new, even more brutal and Nazi-like regime, the pain had become almost unbearable.

One Saturday afternoon, on my way downstairs to the hateful smelly locker room and the torture machines, I noticed a belly dance class going on in the big hall upstairs.

It had been a difficult and painful day so far. My new husband (we had finally gotten married after 13 years of me nagging him to) let me know once again that he had done me a huge favor by marrying me and I felt unloved, unwanted and alone. From the moment I woke up, I could not stop thinking about food. I needed relieve so badly. I imagined and obsessed over the almost orgasmic pleasure I would get from buying a cake at the Glendale Armenian bakery, sit down with it at my kitchen table and read all the magazines that were heaped on a huge stack of things I could not read without food. I missed reading. I missed my best and always reliable friend to provide me with comfort and ease, if only for a few hours. I knew how horrible and disappointed I would be afterwards, but the tension that had built up inside of me over the last five months was about to explode and take me down. I ate my regimented breakfast of one egg and half of a toasted bagel and took a bite out of the other half.

I chewed for a few seconds, relieve and pleasure washing over me, the trance I was so familiar with, so close and so available, almost winning, when I remembered.

What the fuck are you doing? You know where this one bite will lead to!

I spat that bite out, jumped into my workout clothes and raced down  to the Gym.

I gingerly opened that door to the class in progress, guilty and scared because my new husband had told me at several occasions that “the last thing I want in my life, is a wife who belly dances”

Why? I don’t know. I was too sacred to ask. I was a co-dependant and scared little women and pretty much followed all his (sometimes quite bizarre) rules.

But as soon as I stepped into that room, I immediately fell in love. With the music, the clothes and the challenge of it. I had done ballet as a child and some go-go dancing, but I never was any good at it. I had tried Jazz- and Modern dance but quickly given up because I was to inpatient and un-coordinated to follow the simplest choreographies.

Now this wasn’t any easier either. But something inside me, the same power and determination that had kept me from being bulimic for five months by then, made me stay inside this room. I was totally bad at it, I could not even make a turn without bumping into somebody and I was anything but graceful. I was a wooden stick figure, ungraceful and ugly. Every glance into the huge mirror reflected a stupid and ridiculous creature back to me, an untalented creep who drew undisguised contempt from the other dancers and what had to be annoyed disgust from the pretty and snake-like moving teacher.

But I stayed. I tried. And suddenly, that one step and move that looked like I could never do would never be able to conquer fell into place. I was doing it! Damn it, I did that little combination without stumbling and falling over my own feet.

I dared to take a closer look at the teacher. Something about her felt familiar. Her voice? Her dark hair with the bangs that fell over her eyes? That small, but curvy little body, clad in tights and a shimmering hip scarf?

Before I could figure it out, she walked over to me, took my hand and announced to the rest of the class: “This is Monah Li, one of my oldest and dearest friends in the world. Please welcome her. I am so happy to see you here!”

Oh my God! Now I remembered her. Eloise, the long time girlfriend of my ex husband, the father of my daughter. I had stolen him from her, just as he came out from rehab. He was the most beautiful man I had ever seen, a Billy Idol, but way more attractive and hot. We fell in love immediately. The fact that he had a girlfriend, who had been standing by him through the years of his heroin addiction, was lost on me.

Now, almost 20 years later, this same women offers me, not exactly friendship, but kindness and welcomes me into her class. I start to go to every one of her classes, two times a week for two hours and slowly, but steadily, I learn the moves that save my life.

2)     In what ways has belly dance improved your life?

First of all, my back problems have completely disappeared. I became friends with some of he women in my class and I needed those friends when I finally left my husband. Going against his rules was my way of taking my life back and I started to ask myself what I wanted, not what he asked me to like.

I wanted to become good at this and I started to go to other studios. Soon, belly dance was all I did  – in regards to exercise – and every little success, every little step I mastered, made me more confident. I realized that I could learn if I put my mind to it. No more watching the clock or the treadmill read-out, hoping that the hour would be over soon. The hours I spent learning to belly dance went by way too fast.

I also watched other women with bigger bodies and I was able to see their beauty – every women of every size became beautiful once they danced.

I stopped being so paranoid about gaining weight, because I could see a different kind of beauty that did not depend on size. To my surprise, I did not gain any weight, even though I had stopped all my other exercise routines and allowed myself to eat more. I actually have a better body now, more shapely and defined than when I was slogging through boring routines.

3)     How long have you been dancing/performing/teaching?

I have been belly dancing for more than three years now and have performed in a few showcases in different dance studios and street fairs. I take classes 5 times a week, about 7 hours per week and I’m steadily learning and progressing.

One thing is sure: I have talent in many areas in my life: fashion design, writing, meeting new people and making friends , painting, even some singing and playing guitar– but dancing is not one of them. I lack the natural ability that I see in other dancers who pick up moves and steps much faster, with way more ease than I do. I have to make up what I lack in talent and natural ability by working really hard.

4)     How does belly dance make you feel?

Happy. Pretty. Accomplished and excited. It has influenced the style of clothing I design and I have new love and interest in designing. Most of all, it helps me to say abstinent from the bulimia – because I dance almost every day, I never want to be to weak or too ashamed to show up. Whenever I learn a new step, I new move, a new cill-combo; I realize I can learn in small steps and it all adds up eventually. No step is ever too small, a achievement too little to let me know, it pays to be humble and willing to admit that I don’t know something, so I can be open enough to learn it.

5)     Who is your biggest inspiration?

Mesmera, Oceana, Kat Scraba, Brandi Centeno, Jen at Dance Garden – almost every teacher inspires me.

6)     Who is your biggest supporter?

I think my teachers. Most of my friends. One of them, Jane Cantillon just asked me to do a little solo performance before her next show, her band “Dick and Jane Family Orchestra” (Good bluesy rock and roll) at TAIX Restaurant in Echo Park. It’s at 10.30 at night and with most people in the audience, including myself, being a little intoxicated by then, I think I can do it. I’m working with Brandi on a cute little 4.30 minutes choreography. But the best part of doing it solo is that nobody will know that I’ve messed up.

7)     In what ways has belly dance boosted your confidence?

I think I described that in detail in my answer to your  first question. Basically, the fact that I’m able to learn and get steadily better gives me confidence. And of course, dancing at parties and clubs and getting attention for dancing the way I can now, makes all this a lot more fun than it was before.

8)     How do you practice?

I go to different teachers 5 times a week and have no time to practice at home, unless of course before a performance. I do little moves in my car, like hand-rolls and hip-shimmies at read lights.

9)     What was your “Ah-Ha! I’m a belly dancer moment”?

One was when I bought the red belly dancer sandals from Mesmera and they made me look like a real belly dancer.

The other one was when I could do a shoulder shimmy for the first time. After almost a year of trying, suddenly, there it was.

10)   How does belly dancing help balance your life?

It gives me something to look forward to, especially on days where I feel like smoking cigarettes or relapsing into bulimia. It gives me much needed structure that I don’t have as self-employed artist/ businesswomen. I am not so much tempted to skip meals, because I don’t want to collapse during class, so my way of nourishing myself has greatly improved.

11) What made you want to try belly dance?

Ten years ago, when I opened my first retail store, the guy who designed and organized my fashion show at the store, hired belly dancers and drummers for life-entertainment and life music. The sow was a huge success, mostly because it was totally different than most other fashion shows. But I was so scared of my husband’s disapproval; I did not even dare to look into the possibility of doing it myself. Plus the knowledge that I was so devoid of talent when it came to dance, kept me away from it for another decade. Until that fateful day when I stepped into the class at the Y, instead of getting downstairs into the gym-torture chamber. Please refer to more on this in the first question.

11)   Where would you be without belly dance?

Without being too dramatic, I probably would still be married and be mousy, quiet and scared little women. I might be dead, because if I hade gone back to bulimia, I would have been dead in a year. Women, who suffer from this illness, usually die in their late 40ies, when their bodies just give out. At the very least, I would still be dragging my starving little body to the gym, to Pilates and onto the treadmill, counting the seconds until I could go home again.

12)   Any obstacles that you faced or still face as a belly dancer?  Please share.

My lack of talent for dance in general – it does not come naturally to me. That I started so late in life, when my body was already battered by my disease – I have full blown Ostheo Porosis – and that I have to be extra patient with myself and my progress.

13)   What advice would you give to a newbie?

Enjoy and take it easy. Belly dance is not a competitive sport. It’s okay to feel like the last person in the class to get it. Make friends with other dancers and develop a friendly, kind and helpful atmosphere. Be patient and kind to yourself and others – you will learn it, no matter how long it takes. And last, but not least: appreciate and celebrate every tiny success.

14)   What’s in your practice bag?

A few skirts and tops that are light and not too heavy (it does get very warm sometimes) to change into, since I usually come to class from work. Ratty ballet shoes. A bunch of hip scarves to loan to newbie’s who show up in sweats. A few veils to loan out. Cillls and a hairclip – my very long hair, as pretty as it looks, sometimes feels like an extra blanket of heat. Dance cards and fliers for upcoming events.

15)   What do you wish people outside of belly dance knew?

That belly dance is meant from women for women and has nothing to do with strippers, even though they use a lot of our movements just because they are sexy, looked at it in the wrong light. The moves are sexy, but because this empowers us as women to experience our selves as sensual beings, that enjoy our connection to our bodies. Belly dance is therapeutic and spiritual. It’s no coincidence that the Eating Disorder Community of therapists and doctors has started to recommend belly dance as an additional tool to healing.

16)   Anything you want to leave us with?

I said already so much, too much – please feel free to edit my ramblings and story telling.

I do credit belly dance with my new, really awesome life.




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