It was a chilly, misty day in downtown Brunswick. But a burst of billowing cobalt cut through the gray, as a woman draped in a bejeweled outfit slipped through the side door of Golden Isles Mindful Movement on Newcastle Street.
Inside, the rooms were awash in color and laughter. Chiffon skirts swirled and coined belts jingled as the members of Golden Isles Belly Dancing prepared for one of their typical Friday night sessions.
Their fearless leader, Elena Harrison, took a sip of her wine and smiled. She then took her place at the front of the room, calling the group to attention.
“OK ladies, thank you for being here tonight,” Harrison says in her sleek Russian accent. “Let’s get ready for our warm-up.”
The music begins and the ladies take their positions. Arms and hips begin to sway. Soon, the room is alive with twirls and smiles.
Among the sea of women, Stephanie Holland beams. Clad in a deep purple two-piece outfit, she is clearly in her element. But, she admits, that taking that first step — coming to class — was a difficult one.
“I first started in February. For my first class, I was pretty nervous. I remember coming in in yoga pants and a long sleeve shirt,” Holland says with a laugh.
But it didn’t take long before she was coming out of her shell, ordering her own Middle Eastern inspired outfit to match those of her fellow dancers. With each class, her confidence has continued to build. And today, she rarely misses a session, even when she had a recent knee replacement surgery.
“I only missed one class then. I wanted to come,” Holland says. “I just love it. It’s the most encouraging place I’ve ever been in with this many women. There’s not one judgmental person here.”
That is precisely the type of environment Harrison was looking to create when she started teaching in 2006. While the group does learn techniques and routines, even performing for the public, the most important element is offering the freedom to grow in both skill, as well as self-acceptance.
“We have women from all different walks of life. And they come in all different shapes, sizes, and ages. We come here to dance, yes, but it’s not just about learning the movements, it’s more than that,” Harrison says.
“And it’s not like it is when you take dancing as a kid, where everyone is trying to outdo one another. You come here and you can put on a beautiful outfit — if you like, you don’t have to have one — but you end up wanting one. Then, you let your hair down and dance. All of your problems go away when you’re here.”
That was particularly helpful for Catherine Riveria. She feels the class was a key element of healing following her divorce.
“I turned 60 and I got dumped,” Riveria says, clad in a crisp white crop top and skirt complete with jewels. “This has made me feel so much better. You put on the outfit and you do the moves ... I have two left feet, but you do what you can. Everyone is so supportive. I used to be worried about getting older, but now I’m not. I can’t wait. I can’t wait to see what happens.”
The dancing has also helped Molly Riggins, who has cerebral palsy, stay active and upbeat.
“I took ballet classes when I was younger, but I needed some kind of regular exercise, and I love to dance. So when I moved here, I found this,” she says with a smile. “It has been great.”
As the class (and shimmies) continued, it became more and more apparent that the session means a number of things to these women. But everything — the exercise, the camaraderie, the beautiful outfits — all becomes an avenue of appreciating and celebrating one’s self.
For Becca Randall, belly dancing has become an empowering expression of beauty, honoring the unique way in which a woman’s body can move.
“It’s a celebration of different body shapes and sizes — and a love and acceptance of self and others. I feel that each and every one of us is beautiful in our own way. I love that we’re all on the same page, learning the same routine, and all in adorable, shiny, and beautiful attire. I’ve formed new friendships with these women through this class,” Randall says.
“I look forward to seeing them each week and appreciate that we all share the same passion for this ancient and beautiful dance.”
Of course, like her fellow dancers, Randall also had to face her own sense of doubt. Not only would she have to try to tackle the moves, but by nature, the art asks that women showcase a very vulnerable spot — the belly.
Whether it’s age, bearing children, or stretch marks from adolescent growth spurts, a woman’s stomach proves to be the seat of a lot of insecurities. It’s a constant source of focus, one often assaulted by a barrage of diets and crunches. But, these belly dancing divas are not fixated on a six pack, instead they are content with the way they look — and honestly, they look good.
It may be the sense of confidence the classes cultivate that accentuates the dancers’ beauty. Of course, Randall notes, each one had to cross the threshold of their own fears.
“It takes a lot of courage to join a group of unfamiliar women and to bare your belly at the same time. There is a certain level of vulnerability mixed with lightheartedness that makes this such a beautiful art,” Randall says.
Rachael Walden agrees. Like many of her fellow dancers, it took time and patience to build confidence. But once she did, there was no going back.
“It started as just something new to try, a reason to get out of the house, and be social. Over time, it has turned into something that makes me grow as a person. I started out like most of the ladies, not really confident. I had zero dance experience and I was unsure of everything — how to do the dances and what I’d look like in the outfits,” Walden says.
“Over time, you get more comfortable in your own skin. You want to be on the front row, doing performances, and perfecting all the moves.”
A farmer, who also works at a construction company, Walden says that the class has given her an outlet for her femininity, all the while creating a new network and support system.
“Mostly, I enjoy it because everyone is so kind and welcoming. I’ve met so many wonderful ladies that I probably never would have crossed paths with otherwise. We encourage and support each other like a tribe,” Walden says.
“You can’t get too down on yourself around this group of belly dancers. Someone is always there to lift you up and push you to be a better version of yourself, and to enjoy the adventure of life. I think a lot of women are looking for that kind of connection.”
All of these elements combine to create a beacon for the dancers, lighting the path to self-acceptance.
“Belly dancing makes me feel beautiful by being in a safe place to be feminine,” Walden said.
“Coming to class, you get to wear the long, flowing skirts in bright colors plus all the sparkly bling and beaded details you want. It’s hard not to feel beautiful when you are literally sparkling.”