Dancing with Swords

The metaphor of my life is dancing with swords. That’s the harrowing act I am performing everyday, the attempt to dodge gracefully and balance sharp sabres on my head, hold them tightly as tools (not weapons) in my hands, slash the air without harming anything or myself, and bend over backwards gracefully, then stretch and shimmy and roll my hips and belly without shame, manipulate my muscles like a snake, lift myself up and tilt with the blades as if I am one with the swords  themselves, and never once drop one or slice myself.  This image so perfectly describes the emotional ups and downs I go through to conquer the dark side of  my bi-polar disorder and border line personality disorder, that I used it to illustrate the Tarot card Seven of Swords.  The dancer takes the place of the thief, and instead of stealing the swords, she is adding them to her dance routine, taking on as many risks as possible to prove she can not only handle as many of the sharpest blades as possible all at once, but even more than the average man can handle in a battle.  She is not only challenging herself, she is also dancing above and beyond her own challenge.  She is stylish, not dressed practical, and semi-nude, totally tempting fate, her loose hair could easily get tangled, and her performance may all be a trick to fool her audience.  Or her act may be the real thing.  Those swords may be very sharp, she could be in real danger, and she could really kill herself in her attempt to show off how brave she is.  No matter what, she is breaking free of the ordinary, taking things one step further than things need to go, and her over-the-top performance could mean she is about to show you she truly is a great and powerful beauty, or she’s about to prove she is so out of balance she will need immediate medical attention at the end of her dance!

Ever since I saw a belly dancer at the Wisconsin State Fair dance the Raqs al Saïf (where the dancer balances a sabre on her head) when I was a little girl, I have wanted to dance with a sword. I have role played the part of a swordswoman as much as I could as a girl and adult, learned a little bit of this and that from friends who practice the art of sword fighting, but never felt completely at ease as I am whenever I’ve danced with a nice antique Scimitar. Do I own a sabre or scimitar? No. But I lust after them.

As a girl, I used to make pretend sabres out of willow branches that made a wonderful “whoosh” sound as I spun around and around. Occasionally I would whip my own flesh, but I didn’t care because in my mind I was dancing like a goddess. I couldn’t keep up with the boys who were stronger than me and who didn’t always allow me to play their Ninja games. My family was poor, I couldn’t afford to go to dance lessons (plus belly dancing wasn’t taught in the places I grew up in) so I had to make do with what I could learn from books, movies, and fantasy.  As I got older, I grew fatter and became less active, soon losing hope of ever achieving the dream of becoming the dancer I dreamed of becoming.  Who wants to see a FAT belly dancer anyway?  Well, quite a few people, actually…

I remember the first time I saw a large woman expertly juggle orbs of fire while balancing a sabre on her belly, in fact she used the rolls of her belly to move the sabre upward, then with a flick of her hip tip the blade upward and catch it with her head, all while tossing those orbs of fire! I stood there, awestruck, swaying to the beat of the drums and the trill of the flutes and horns of Egyptian folk music at a SCA gathering late one August night. I did not notice her until her performance began. Once the fires were lit and the light gleamed off the blade of the sabre, I was mesmerized. I would have never guessed she would transform into something so amazing. In her belly dance, gypsy regalia she looked authentic enough, but at a festival where everyone was dressed to the nines in historic replica garb — each of us attempting to out-do the other — she didn’t stick out. Yet at night, under a full moon, spinning orbs of fire, testing out that sword, accompanied by that music, those drummers, moving her belly and arms with such dexterity, she seemed supernatural. The heat of the flames and sweat from the summer night radiated from her body like the breath from an oven. Not even standing too close to her, I wondered how often she accidentally burnt and bruised herself during her training and practice. I examined her plump arms and ample breast, neck, thighs, and belly for evidence, but as I did so, I began to realize her body was not too unlike my own.

She had the tell-tale signs of weight gains and losses, stretch marks and even surgical scars, the folds of skin a woman cannot hide no matter how many layers of clothing she drapes over herself. But here was this woman, her flesh proudly on display, shining with glitter and sweat, bronze from the sun and the light of the fire she juggled, and she was the most beautiful woman in the world. Sweat beads on her forehead and cheeks glowed like fire opals. She reeked of hibiscus perfume and heliotrope, firewood and citronella wax. The many coins, bells, white metal, nickel, and tin jingles clanged in time with the drums. Her eyes amber black, lips a single line stained in deepest plum, her nose pierced with a crystal stud, and her entire body was a moving smile. She knew how to draw a crowd. I don’t remember how long her dance lasted, but it seemed to take forever, and as I watched her, I longed to be like her so bad, it hurt.

I remember the first time I attempted to dance with a sword. I hadn’t yet mastered any belly dance steps and, like the rest of the women in my SCA group, we all wanted to fly before we could grow wings. First of all, we didn’t have any swords to work with. We had to make do with a few crudely carved out of foam and taped up with duct tape. They were too light. But my imagination insisted I get on with it. Like a fledgling model at her first day in charm school poorly balancing a book on her head, I kept trying to get that stupid foam sword to stay on the top of my head. Ridiculous.

A roommate of a friend of mine took pity and allowed me to practice with a wooden broadsword he used for Tai Chi practice. Even though it was made out of wood, he soon thought it was a bad idea when he realized that it was giving me a slight thinning pattern at the top of my hair. Oh, well!

Poise and grace can’t be learned from a few lessons here and there from well-meaning friends or from books, but from experience, plus a very good teacher really helps, of course. The belly dance teachers I’ve known have not all been experts themselves but great enthusiasts like myself. We’re these pack of wild women taking the dance into a whole new form of expression that goes beyond achieving grace and beauty, American Tribal Style Belly Dance is a truly American form of no-holds-barred inter-cultural oriental improvisational dance that allows dancers to create their own costumes and music, fusing together ancient and modern, folkloric and fantasy-inspired dances and personas. The sword dance now has moved into a performance art that can seem like a choreographed battle between dancers, beautiful and deadly, serene in its portrayal of sensual brutality.

The dancers in my small city dance for the local women’s crisis center. They practice American Tribal Style Belly Dance as a healing way for women to empower them selves. Belly dance can be a symbolic way to get in touch with the body after experiencing sexual assault. Being a rape survivor myself, I have long dealt with low body esteem, often feeling very sexually inadequate, afraid to date men, jealous of other women who are loved by men, hateful towards myself for having been violated, and even suicidal because I cannot change the past. With belly dance I have to face my body, learn to move and appreciate my belly in ways I didn’t even before the rape, and rediscover what being a truly beautiful and powerful woman is. Dancing with swords is akin to dancing with all the things that hurt me and not letting them hurt me anymore. I can emerge from my personal problems unscathed and live to tell the tale.

I can save myself and be my own hero.

This brings me to my goal for this next year. I want to finally stop putting off my dream of dancing and make it a reality. This last year I finally achieved balancing my blood sugar and gaining better control of my diabetes. I have started to lose weight and have kept to a healthier diet. I have also been making progress with balancing and regulating my moods with Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and increasing the time I spend meditating (I will write more on the type/school of meditation I practice at a later time).  What better way now to treat myself than to get myself moving into yet another grand direction and belly dance my way to becoming the strong and powerful sword dancer I’ve always wanted to be?

No more dreaming. It is goal time.

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