How Belly Dancing Helped Me to Embrace My Naturally Curly Hair

My Egyptian curls were an embarrassment, then they became my greatest asset

Illustration: Michelle Durbano

“W“Why don’t you straighten your hair?” Tiffany, the girl with the pug nose, asked me in theater class. “You would look better with straighten hair.”

I pulled on a stringy curl. My curls had already started to frizz and it was only 10 a.m. No matter how much mousse and gel I had put into it, my hair refused to calm down. My curls stuck out in every direction. Even when I put them in a bun, a few managed to escape.

“It takes too long to straighten,” I replied, setting my curl down. I wished that Tiffany would go back to her own group and finish her scene.

“How long does it take?”

“At least an hour.”

“That’s not that long,” Tiffany huffed. “You should really consider it. You would look so much better.”

I sighed. Tiffany wasn’t the first person to have told me this. At least once a day a classmate asked if I had straightened my hair or why I didn’t straighten my hair. Sometimes they pulled on my curls without my permission, marveling at how unruly they were. When they were really feeling invasive, they would try to braid it or fix it for me, grunting about how this would be much easier if I had just straightened it.

When I went home, I was accosted by advertisements of girls with long, shiny, and straight hair. Their hair didn’t have a bend or wave in it. Beneath their perfect manes were various products that promised that I too could have shimmering, smooth hair. I tried every product. I tried using the dime-sized amount. I tried using a quarter-sized amount. Then a handful. Regardless, my hair rebelled and was still a wild bush. I resigned myself to my hair, accepting that I would be a gangly skeleton with a chia pet growing out of my head.

II hadn’t intended to take belly dancing. I didn’t even sign up for the course. My academic advisor in college felt that I needed an outlet besides writing. He shuffled through the college’s course catalog, muttering to himself as he ticked off various courses. With a triumphant wave, he flourished his pen and marked down belly dancing. A week later I was standing in front of a mirror, a neon green hip belt interwoven with gold chains wrapped around my waist. I didn’t get the movements at first. Two weeks later, I was better than the girl who’d had formal dance training. I wasn’t sure what clicked exactly, but belly dancing became as addictive as writing.

I just never thought that I would actually perform.

I flipped my hair forward. I could tell it was getting poufier, wilder, but instead of mortifying me, I actually felt confident.

I shimmied backstage. The other girls shimmied too. It’s how most belly dancers prepare for a performance. It loosens the muscles and gets one in the right headspace to dance. I readjusted the gold bangles on my wrist. I tugged at the tight fabric woven around me. It was paisley. I don’t look good in prints. But I didn’t have much choice, this was the costume my teacher had that fit me.

“Are you ready for your first performance?” Deborah, our teacher, came around my side. She had a glowing smile.

“A little,” I smiled sheepishly. It had been one thing to dance in front of a mirror, in front of other girls (and one boy named Adam). It was another to perform in front of a rapt crowd, including my crush and all of my male friends.

“You’ll be great!” She toyed with my hair. “You’re one of my best dancers. You’ve got such gorgeous hair.”

I whipped my head around. I have heard many things said about my hair, but I had never heard it called gorgeous. “What?”

“Your hair.” She set the curl down. “It’s beautiful. It’s perfect for belly dancers. Curls are great on stage. They capture the mystery of the dance.” She giggled. “Be sure to use your hair. It’s to your advantage as a dancer.”

She clapped her hands. The other girls sauntered over, clinking with each step. Vibrant belts adorned with sparkling chains slapped around their waists. Despite the muted lights, I could still make out the careful etchings of eyeliner and scarlet lipstick.

“Make me proud girls! And Adam,” she winked at Adam, who winked back. “The crowd will love you!”

We shimmied and shook to show our appreciation. A few moments later, we were called to the stage.

I took my place toward the front. I couldn’t make out the faces of those watching us. The lights were far too bright.

A drumbeat kicked on and my hips shifted into motion. I felt myself stumble over a move. I winced as I turned my back and hoped that no one in the audience noticed. As I waved my arms, a single curl drizzled down my arm. I remembered what Deborah had told me: use your hair.

I flipped my curls from side to side, hoping the lights would reflect the blonde streaks. I flipped my hair forward. I could tell it was getting poufier, wilder, but instead of mortifying me, I actually felt confident.

Some of the crowd was as into the dance as we were. They cheered and clapped. Others fell silent, their hands firmly folded in their laps. Others looked away. Every audience reacts differently to belly dancers. It seems to depend on their knowledge of our dance and how comfortable they are with themselves.

Since belly dance is accepting of all women and promotes all shapes and sizes, it helped me to recognize my own assets.

The final beat hit and we struck a final pose. I sighed in relief. I had messed up a few steps. Hopefully, no one noticed.

We strutted backstage as the next group pranced out. The girls (and Adam) surrounded me.

“You looked so beautiful — ”

“Your shimmies were great — ”

“Your hair is incredible! It’s so great on stage!”

Once again, my hair was noticed. It was an asset. No one demanded that I should have straightened it. No one yanked on my curls. For the first time ever, they were admired, not admonished.

We changed and headed out to the front of the theater, where my friends came to greet me.

“Shimmy again!” One cried, pulling out a dollar bill. “I want to try the thing where you put a dollar bill in a belly dancer’s belt.”

I tied my belt around my waist and shimmied, giggling as my friend failed to secure the dollar in place.

“Damn how do you do that with your hips?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m half Egyptian. Maybe it’s in the blood?”

My crush approached me timidly. He shuffled his feet. He brought up his eyes to meet mine.

“You uh, you dance good.”

“Oh,” I smiled back. “Thank you.”

“Can you teach me how to dance?” Another friend cut in. “I want to learn how to do that!”

II have now been dancing on and off for the past 10 years. I’ve even ventured into other dances — salsa, swing, and musical theater, but I always come back to belly dance. I love interacting with the audience, the movements, and the costumes (I have upgraded to a few in red, my favorite color). Since belly dance is accepting of all women and promotes all shapes and sizes, it helped me to recognize my own assets. Whenever I am not feeling bold, I slip on a bright hip belt and shimmy in front of the mirror. I let my curls go free. They rave in front of the mirror, shaking just as much as I do. They don’t need to be straightened. They look best when they are untamed.

I’m a writer, teacher, and belly dancer living in Los Angeles. I’ve written for Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, and Matador Network. Follow me: @SarahMinaOsman

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