We are so very excited to launch our dream, Your Body Raks, an Oakland-based business that introduces bellydance to women and girls with a Health At Every Size® perspective through classes, workshops and retreats. As we’re days away from the opening, we thought it would be helpful to understand our history and how we got from there to here. Why Your Body Raks?
Tammy and I both found our way to bellydance classes as a way to add movement to our lives. In 2001, I began to attend group classes at the Albany Community Center taught by Asata Iman. There were women of every size and shape in those classes. There were no mirrors. I looked inward, listened and felt the way my body responded to the movements and the music. I could turn off the judgment and the shaming, and turn on the joy that was filling me. This felt new and scary and liberating all at the same time. I connected to myself, and the bellydance bug captured me.
After almost a year of classes, I joined Asata’s student troupe, Raks Al Tasneem. I met Tammy in 2002. She attended all of our performances and claimed her spot as the “troupe roadie.” Helpful with a safety pin here and an encouraging word there, Tammy wanted some of the sparkle for herself and started classes with Asata and soon joined the troupe.
In 2006, we decided to form a duet as a means of mutual support and to celebrate dance at every size. We named our duet Raks Africa after the first song we choreographed together, “Raks Africa” by Paul Dinletir, and as an intentional claiming of bellydance as African dance. As a duet, we had more visibility and less of a safety net. We found that very few dancers looked like us or represented our identities. We embraced our visibility and dubbed ourselves Big Bellied Girls Doing Big Things! At the time, we had no idea exactly what big ideas would later bubble up to the surface for us.
As we started together, we took loads of drop-in classes with teachers in the East Bay in search of a mentor who spoke to our sensibilities. We knew that we wanted to be so much more than the spectacle of big-bellied Black girls dancing. We wanted strong technique along with being dynamic entertainers. We decided to study privately with a Bay Area treasure, Nanna Candelaria. We found ourselves as newbies in the dance again, trying to find our individual dancer voices and our collective identity as Raks Africa.
Over the years, we have had a shift. Bellydance has become so much more than a hobby. Our shift in identity is in seeing ourselves as professional dancers. This dance has emerged as a core passion in my life. I cannot imagine my life without earth-shaking shimmies and sensual full-body figure 8s. I have discovered hidden, buried pieces of myself through bellydance.
In 2009, we started to have an increase in non-dance meetings. We did a lot of brainstorming and visioning about how to give back to our communities through bellydance. We decided that we wanted to work with and mentor young women with bellydance as our tool. As a high school teacher, I was on the front line of witnessing the body image deterioration that so many of our girls are struggling with every day. We had an understanding that it was not enough to just teach girls some bellydance movements and choreography. We had to develop a curriculum that was beyond bellydance. Before the girls could even begin to engage with the dance, they required some “head and heart” time to have some tangible tools to resist the negative messaging about their bodies. How can we dance freely and confidently when we are listening to voices that shame and police our bodies? In our program, an intentional framing of a positive self-image before dancing supports the students’ musicality and technique. We are now in our third year of the growing Girls Raks Bellydance and Body Image Program, a fiscally sponsored project supported by the Dancers’ Group.
Two years of directing Girls Raks has been fulfilling. To witness the positive self-image and growth in young women has been amazing. Then something interesting happened. As Girls Raks grew, many women told us that they wished we taught a similar program for them. Somehow the gyms and fitness programs that they experienced didn’t speak to the need for self-definition. What they got instead were barking orders and a wagging finger of disapproval about who they are and what they look like. These women wanted to have the final say about their bodies. And they wanted to move, to have fun and to bellydance just like we did when we discovered the dance for ourselves. Your Body Raks is the response to this need. Our philosophy states it clearly:
“We believe that Your Body Raks is a necessary intervention for confronting body shaming and size policing of women and girls. Because of its history and culture, bellydance is the perfect tool for addressing these issues. Through our work with the Girls Raks Bellydance and Body Image Program for teens, we have witnessed the power of body image transformation and positive self-definition. We share identities with the communities we work with, and we have a calling to interrupt the institutional, interpersonal and internalized oppression of women and girls through conscious media resistance. Nutrition professor Dr. Linda Bacon counters this with a new approach: “Health at Every Size® is based on the simple premise that the best way to improve health is to honor your body. It supports people in adopting health habits for the sake of health and well-being.” We believe in dance at every size. Your Body Raks is inclusive, serving women of all shapes and sizes.”
We hope to see you in a class in the next few days. We want to shimmy with you! Remember…Your Body Raks!
Classes start February 13th and February 15th!