This is something of an epic tale. Most things I do for the blog last a couple of hours at the most – learning to belly dance took three weeks. By way of background, for the last three years, the Department for Education has run a Strictly Come Dancing themed fundraiser at Christmas. I got in touch with the organisers to ask if any acts could do with an extra dancer. The belly dancers were short one. “Perfect!” thought I. “The belly dancing class listed in the Time Out book doesn’t happen anymore – this will save me having to track down another that costs £10 or less.” I signed up on the spot, and it was only two days later that the full implications of that began to permeated my consciousness.
Belly dancing, by definition, involves getting your belly out. I do not get my belly out. Ever. Whole holidays have elapsed without my putting on a swimming costume, much less a bikini. And I appeared to have signed up to getting out my belly in front of the entire Department for Education, including the Secretary of State for Education, the Right Honourable Michael Gove MP, who is the head judge. I felt sick. My mum’s cheery advice was to wear as much make-up as possible, so I was virtually unrecognisable.
I went swift as an arrow to my friend the Internet and ordered myself an instructional DVD (I went for ‘Belly Dance basics and beyond’ with Jenna). It arrived at the weekend, and I worked steadily through two hours of detailed instruction, twice. Jenna, the instructor, patiently explained how to isolate your rib cage, how to shimmy and how to move your hips in an omi. Frankly, I had no idea that the human body could be wiggled in that many different directions, but I did find that if you want to sort your posture out, then belly dancing is a blooming good way to do it and much more fun than yoga or pilates or some such. I told the office I had taken up yoga in case they noticed that I was beginning to stand tall as a willow, and with my daily practice, my belly was getting decidedly more slender. At one point, my beloved observed that I was beginning to develop a two pack, which was met with great excitement.
The other members of my troupe had been practicing already for three weeks, so I had a lot of catching up to do. Servet talked me through the routine, describing the moves in terms I might be able to remember – the Beyonce and the Brad and George. Jenna from the instructional DVD had given me enough of the general vocabulary of the dance for me to be able to keep up, but the fact is I always struggled with the routine. Chrystle, our choreographer, was very clear that the main way we might achieve victory was through smiles, winks and gyrating our body parts as hard as we possibly could. Suffice to say, she did not buy into Jenna’s delicate terminology around hips and ribs either.
Every morning I practiced – poor spouse covering his ears in shock as I muttered and swore as I forgot what came after the camel step and the triple back step. He took to clapping enthusiastically as he supped his tea, and referring to himself as Sheik my Booty.
Frequently, there were moments of great despond. My harem pants arrived in the post from Amazon on a day when I had had an unusually rubbish rehearsal. I quietly texted two of my bestest friends a photo, asking if I needed to get a new costume. They basically suggested more accessories, but thought that my waist looked admirably thin. This cheered me right up, as it was the great swathes of lard around the elastic of the harem pants that had caused me to worry. A further rehearsal with a young man called Daniel who was appearing in the street dance cheered me still further – he felt the act was good, and was getting remarkably hot under the collar. We were ready.
The night of the performance finally arrived. I kept checking my phone so I could sign Spouse into the building. Him being my best friend and all, and having put up with so much so I could get through the proceedings with some scrap of dignity, I was desperate that he be there as we performed. Eventually he arrived, and I awaited the moment. The other acts performed – the street dance and bhangra were incredible, I thought, and the jive (which always wins) did a frankly astonishing tribute to Britney. But nevertheless, we were determined to give it our all. Thanks to spouse, video footage of our performance exists (he stood next to the judges, which as he put it, put him on the axis of beauty that was Servet and Emily, I was at the end).
We got through the performance, and the judges gave us good marks. Michael Gove even went so far as to call us fit, “in every sense of the word.” This was an entirely unexpected career highlight. Spouse took a group photo as we waited for the results to be counted and verified. People kept coming up to tell us we had done really well. Spouse said that we had to at least have placed. We held our breaths. Jive had come in third. There was a shocked pause. Jive always won. Something had gone seriously wrong with the very fabric of the universe. In second place, there was a tie between… bhangra and street dance. The troupe began to look at each other hopefully. Spouse thought we had to place, and there was only one place left, but surely, SURELY, we couldn’t be in that place. Not when our objective had been to emerge with dignity alone. Our hostess called out the words that I had never dared to hear, “and in first place, with 14 points – the belly dancers!”
We exploded in a series of girly shrieks and shimmies, jumping up and down and hugging in simple disbelief and joy. We were given an astonishing motorised glitterball, but more, much more than that, we had raised about £2700 for the Epilepsy Society, a charity which meant a great deal to Chrystle as her sister had died of epilepsy in June. They were aiming to raise £50,000 that year – ours was a healthy contribution to that. I was just so pleased to have had a small role to play in that. To be a bit more selfish about it, I also got such a confidence boost from the thing. Four days after our triumph I turned 39, nearly twice the age of one of the members of our happy band. I wiggled along with the best of them, and was really proud of myself. I thought that would be it for belly dancing, but the other day I found myself cruising for coin belts on the Turkish Emporium website. Who knows? Perhaps I’ll be back.