Feminist, librarian, book lover, belly dancer.
By Susan Senator
I was born a girly-girl, but my mom didn’t know it. She was and is a true feminist. She went to library school and worked when I was a kid in the 1960s and ’70s, back when the other moms were bringing in home-baked goods on their kids’ birthdays or running the local Brownie troop. Some of them looked down on Mom and whispered, because once in a while she’d be late picking me up and it was because she worked. Mom didn’t care. She wanted to work, and because she did, I wanted to work when I grew up. She wasn’t a playing sort of mom; she left me to the dolls and dress-up on my own. But she was always recommending books for me to read. She was all about the life of the mind: quality over mediocrity, reading over watching TV.
I think Mom was always torn between supporting what I wanted and being afraid of where that would lead. If she encouraged my dress-up games, would I become a shallow woman concerned only with clothes and make-up? She ended up treating all my fantasy play with a worried half-smile. Whenever I paraded around in her old nightgowns, with sweaters buttoned around my head to imitate long hair, she’d smile but clearly did not connect with it.
Mom signed me up for modern dance lessons because she loved it. But it was too butch for me, with the cut-off black leggings and bare feet—especially when I noticed the girls in pink in the ballet class before mine. I pleaded with her to let me take ballet instead. I don’t know why she had steered me away from it; maybe she knew I wouldn’t fit in. And I didn’t. My tights were the wrong color. My curly brown hair didn’t twist perfectly into a shiny bun. I wasn’t skinny and even at 11, I was not flat-chested. I only lasted about a year in ballet. Then I left dance behind me, feeling like there was no place for me there.
But in my 40s I felt like I needed something new, something that was not related to my professional life. My taste in music was changing, but more than that, I wanted an escape from my hectic family life and career as a writer and speaker. I happened to catch a video performance of Shakira, the Colombian singer, and her wildly successful single “Hips Don’t Lie.” This was not my kind of music, but I was enthralled. There was Shakira, adorned in sparkles while veils billowed around her, her body curving into shapes so quickly I could not catch it all. She was belly dancing—something I’d never seen other than in old James Bond movies.
Something inside of me broke wide open and I realized that I wanted to dance like that, too. I wanted the ruffly gauzy skirts. I wanted to inhabit the music: powerful yet languid, sweet and heavy as caramel, light as birdsong. I wanted to move like that—soft and yet utterly controlled, at the same time. But right away the voice in my head said, “No. At your age? Go to a gym, do yoga, get a dog, walk with friends. Do Zumba. Or modern dance…”
But the girly-girl in me rose up like Cinderella’s fairy godmother and retorted, “Do what you really want to do.”
I signed up for a local adult-education belly dance class, and everything clicked immediately in a way I’d never experienced. I was completely at home in that class—because it didn’t matter if you started at 43 or 16, if you were fleshy or skinny. Belly dance was about being exactly who you were while figuring out how to move in ways few people could. It was—unbeknownst to most people—as disciplined and difficult a dance as ballet but without the rigidity of mind and body.
During a holiday visit home, I told Mom about belly dance. As always, my choices baffled her, but she was happy to see me so happy. She was especially pleased about how I was teaching belly dance to anyone who would try it. I had a “Baby Bellies” class in an afterschool program, which was basically six-year-olds running around with my veils, but we did manage to put on recitals for their ecstatic parents. I also gave a workshop at our local senior center. Mom would smile when she heard about my classes and was clearly proud of my teaching. And so one day I took a risk and offered to teach a group of her friends. I thought she’d refuse politely (“Oh, no, that’s not for them, heh heh”), but to my delight she took me up on it.
Her friends all stood before me, in their 70s and 80s, each in a different colored outfit from my extensive collection. They giggled at the strange moves, the emphasis on isolating body parts like the chest. The obvious celebration of women’s bodies as they really are was new, embarrassing, but also joyful to them. And Mom was my best student! At 80, because of her Pilates and her modern dance training, her body understood what to do. At the end of class, her face was shiny with sweat and pride.
Then came the day last summer when I timidly asked her if she’d like more dance lessons, just the two of us, and she said “yes!” right away. I guided her through hip drops and snake arms and began to get a sense of what she could and could not do, due to knee and leg troubles. We would set up a space in the kitchen of her summer house and dance, her eyes trained on my moves and my face. I had a trembly cautious feeling of joy: she liked it! I didn’t want it to stop.
Neither did Mom, it turned out. Now we do semi-regular Zoom dancing. A half-hour of class and a half-hour of chatting. I asked her how she feels when she belly dances: “Don’t edit yourself, Mom, just tell me,” I said, and we laughed because we both know how cerebral she is. But I realized how hard I was gripping the phone, hungering for a good answer. She said, “Lots of different feelings—I wish my legs didn’t hurt, I wish I were younger. I love the music. But what I love best is being with you, watching your sweet face.”
For Chanukah I knew immediately what I would get for her: a belly dance costume. I bought her balloonish harem pants with a bold peacock pattern, and a tank top embossed with sequins reading “Bellydancer.” I chose it to make her laugh, of course, but also with that tremulous little-girl hope that she’d actually love her costume and want to wear it. She called me when the packages arrived and said, “This is what you get your 81-year-old mother for Chanukah?”
But the very next time we danced, she was wearing the whole thing. This wiry, smiling woman with those deep-set black eyes that see everything. Basically, playing dress up with me. But so much more. This was my mother. And now, my favorite dance partner.
Susan Senator C’84 G’85 is an educator, journalist, and author living in Boston.