In the same way that a President operating via tweets seems deeply suspicious, blogging can occasionally worry me, if too much energy is going into that particular space. A story involves a whole new layer of imagination and crafting. So today, a story, one of a series I’m working on which is about encounters between unlikely spaces. It came from attending a performance which the Top of the South belly dancing clubs put on at the end of a workshop in Blackball. One of the women danced very competently with a Mona Lisa smile on her face. I came away with the need to invent her.
The Belly Dancer from Stoke.
When you work in a bank it’s all about being careful. If it itches don’t scratch. Money. Keep an eye out for the crazy with a gun. No voices raised in a bank. Detail. Care. No mistakes. A mistake tracks you down. Despite their advertising, I think you could honestly say that banks are not about freedom. Small children and a bank don’t go together, even though we have our kids’ corner of bright plastic. Mouthwash as well. No bad breath. Hard to be a smoker, even though Julie still smokes. On your feet a lot. The uniform, the makeup, the lighting, the armed robber, the cameras…a day passes.
When Julie told me, in the tea room – we have a tea room, small and discreet, a Women’s Weekly and a House and Garden – about the belly dancing class, something in me responded, something physical, even though I said, ‘Really?’
She stood up and shook her hips, tried to shake her breasts. ‘Can’t do that yet,’ she said. ‘When you can do your hips and your tits together you’re a star. The costumes are neat. The costumes make me think of mysteries – harems and men lying around and women undulating.’
It was outlandish, in the bank’s tea room, surrounded by the duty of care, to think of harems and men and women in an oasis of sensual calm, smoking those hookah pipes.
‘Come along,’ she said.
‘I’d be too nervous.’ I could feel the tension in my shoulders. ‘Anyway, how could I? Guy’s busy with his thesis.’
‘What’s it about?’
‘Mollusks. Something about mollusks. And Brendon’s studying for NCEA.’
‘One night a week?’
I surreptitiously rolled my shoulders.
‘Must go for a quick puff. Want to give it up but can’t.’
Her husband left her. Shot through with a German woofer. They’d run a motel. She hasn’t got another partner, has a burnt look. Probably turns blokes off. Plus an aging mother to keep an eye on.
The afternoon passed. And the next day. Guy with his job and mollusks at night. Brendon with his head in his computer games and studying during the breaks. Guy’s got his cycling mates – they go for a spin most Sundays, kitted out in their lycra. Sometimes the silence gets to me. You see Isis on the tellie, refugees, bombs, rubble – could be on another planet. I tend the garden, but outside seems to be mainly fences. If you climb a ladder you can see the sea and the planes coming into land. House values are steadily rising.
I broached the subject at dinner time. ‘Might try belly dancing,’ I said. ‘Julie’s invited me along.’ Guy paused in his dismembering of a lamb chop and looked at me quizzically. I think it was quizzical. He’s an earnest man. At work he keeps an eye on the health of our waterways. Sandy brown hair, trim body, evacuates his bowels every morning, makes love like he rides his bike. Intently. Then he smiled.
‘Belly dancing? I didn’t realize you were interested.’
‘She just asked me. It’s an idea.’
He’s sufficiently modern not to try and lay down the law. ‘It’s your belly,’ he said, and we laughed.
Brendon screwed up his mouth. There were pimples threatening. ‘You don’t do it in public do you?’
‘I don’t know.’
I told Julie I’d come and she was pleased. ‘It’ll give us something to talk about at work.’
So I turned up at the scout hall in the park. Thursday night. Six of them, me a seventh. The leader was called Sarah and she hugged me. She was a real estate agent with a lot of energy. The other women were in need of something. They all had that look in their eyes. One a bit overweight; one middle-aged – in the old days would have been a depressive and ended up in the bin with ECT; a ragged one who had experienced drugs or gangs, or both, in a previous life; a comfortable matron used to getting her own way yet remaining dissatisfied; Julie who still smoked; and now me. Not a man in sight.
We spent five minutes on our knees getting in touch with our pelvic region. I got the giggles, like a school girl. ‘Sorry,’ I said. They were patient with me. ‘It’s just so unlike being a bank teller or whatever they call us nowadays’. Then we practiced some foot movements and already I’d begun to feel different, poised, in my own body space. Then we tried to vibrate our breasts, each of us with a silly smile on our faces. I started to yawn, couldn’t help myself. ‘Sorry.’
‘You’re just relaxing,’ said Sarah. She put a CD on, Arab music and showed us some steps, us lined up behind her. ‘Right ladies, costumes,’ she said, after we’d got the hang of it. They opened their bags and produced colour: skirts which floated and tops with sequins. They stripped off their everyday clothes and garnished their bodies. Suddenly there was flesh everywhere. Sarah threw me a skirt. ‘Try it on.’
Music, stepping, twitching the hips, lightness, a silly smile on my lips. I can be conscious of my lips.
At the end of the evening, Sarah sidled up and took my hand. ‘Coming back?’ I nodded. ‘I thought you’d say that. You’re a natural.’
I drove home, trying to sort it in my head. In a society where the women were normally, totally covered, the belly dancers, by simulating the sexual act, were an aphrodisiac for the men. And here we were, a group of liberated Western women learning the ropes because it felt liberating.
Guy was writing. He reluctantly glanced up. ‘How was it?’
‘I enjoyed it.’ He remained distant, still immersed in mollusks, suction strong enough to withstand stormy seas. ‘Brendon?’
‘Supposed to be studying.’
I tapped on my son’s door and looked in. He was lying in bed and stared at me with a half embarrassed, half sadistic expression. Masturbating, I suspected. Needing a belly dancer.
‘Sorry,’ I said, feeling stupid.
Now there was a bond between me and Julie at work. I’d catch her eye after a difficult or strange customer had left and she’d shake her hips and I’d try and wriggle my tits and we’d laugh. Feel above it all. Life wasn’t just about money.
I copied a couple of Sarah’s CDs, found a dressmaker to make me an outfit – Sarah had some patterns – and began to practice at home. Once, Guy opened the door and stood watching. I was confident enough by now to continue dancing. He half smiled. ‘You’re good.’ Brendon, with a group of pimples flourishing, appeared behind him. ‘Shame,’ he said. He grimaced and disappeared. Guy came in and stood in front of me, put out his hand and lightly touched my belly. I could see his erection. Then he was on top of me. I held him inside and wriggled my hips. He came in two seconds.
He pulled out of me and lay back, looking distraught. I smiled my knowing smile.
At dinner the tone had changed. Guy’s face seemed to have collapsed. Brendon’s lips tightened. The young are such puritans. What had I done? Practised my belly dancing, that was all. Aroused my husband.
In bed that night I straddled Guy and we did it again. Afterwards he seemed frightened of me. ‘You’ve got a new smile,’ he said. ‘Secretive. You’re not-‘
‘Having an affair or something?’
I laughed. ‘I go to the bank. I go to the supermarket. I go belly dancing with a group of women. That’s it, Guy. What’s got into you?’
Men can be ridiculous.
That Thursday, Sarah arrived with a new energy. ‘We’ve been invited to perform, girls. What do you reckon?’
‘For a rugby club breakup.’ We looked at her in horror and she laughed, ‘Just having you on. Arts festival at Mapua.’
‘I’m too overweight,’ said Patsy. ‘Baring my folds in public. I’d feel embarrassed.’
‘Your body’s yours, Patsy.’
‘You have it then.’
‘We work in a bank,’ said Julie. ‘What if there’s a customer?’
‘Do bank people play sport? Do they bare their bodies on the netball court? In the swimming pool?’
She had a point.
‘Well, it’s a bit like lap dancing isn’t it?’
‘For God’s sake, Jenny. It’s dancing. What do you see on television? Any music video. Is this some sort of anti Muslim crap?’
We sat, a depressed little group.
Sarah half screamed in frustration and started to pack up her things. ‘I’m going home.’
We watched her for a moment- shocked.
‘I still smoke.’
‘So?’ Her energy had gone. I saw another side to her. Something desperate. Perhaps selling houses make’s a person desperate?
Julie took out a cigarette, went to the door, stood outside, lit it, blew out the smoke, then turned to us and grinned. ‘So, let’s do it.’
We jumped up and down and clapped our hands like excited kids.
Now it was different. More disciplined. We were outside of ourselves as we danced, aware of being watched. Yet inside as well. Professional performers must be like that, always the audience eye in their heads, even at rehearsal. I began to find an essence, the essence of those women performing for those men. In the dim hookah light, the flowing robes, the bare belly, the imperfectly restrained breasts, the eyes. Always the eyes. Focused desire.
The husbands came and stood in the audience. They had the confused look of parents at a school concert. Brendon had refused. I think he’s got a girlfriend. Probably using the opportunity of an empty house. The crowd of spectators were disparate, an old man on a walker, eyes glinting with remembered lust, wide-eyed kids, envious young women ready to sneer, some indifferent shoppers, middle-aged matrons searching for hope… We had purpose. We were genuinely shocking. Until it finished and we went and changed and became like everyone else.
Driving home I was pleasantly tired, eyes shutting down. ‘Mmm,’ said Guy.
‘A group of Nelson women belly dancing.’
I tried to wriggle my tits. ‘Still haven’t got the hang of it.’
‘Some anthropologist should study it.’
‘The fat one’s brave.’
‘I don’t know where this is leading.’
‘Neither do I.‘
The tires hummed on the road. I entered a sort of void. I wondered whether those Arab women existed in a sort of void.
I fell asleep to the vibration of the car taking me home.