Shake What Your Mama Gave You

Mar 1, 2020
Written by
Leah Stark
Photographed by

o dance is to be fully embodied, and to fully forget our bodies, somehow all at once. 

When I was fourteen years old, tight-roping across the drawbridge between young girlhood and young womanhood, my mother started belly dancing. She would return from errands with bags overflowing with hip scarves, beaded hair medallions, zils, and velvet bras dripping with coins.

Soon, she was dancing at Moroccan restaurants, all 5 feet and four inches of her body awakened and undulating with what I now understand to be sacred feminine, or “shakti” energy. Her wide hips and tummy folds moved precisely with the staccato beats of the tribal drums.

I was mesmerized by the women in her troupe. The youngest was my mom at a radiant 55 years old. The others had eyes like oracles, white hair falling to their elbows, bodies like mother earth, and the carefree energy of a little girl who hasn’t yet learned to pick apart her body. And most notably, all of them were smiling. They smiled knowingly, both proud and a little sly. ​This,​I thought, ​is what it means to be a woman.

I started dancing, too. In musical theater, I learned some jazz, some contemporary, but my truest expression only came out when I was home alone, for a while in front of my mirror and later, with my eyes closed, my feet stomping against hardwood, my whole body somehow moving all at once, my hands exploring the wide curve of my hips and the baby-soft skin of my arms. 

And I would go to that sacred place - that place where I was so in my body that I could feel every cell cooperating with every cell, and all at once I was somewhere else. The line between where my body ended and the earth began was at the worst blurry and at best, completely vanished. I might as well have been dancing on clouds.

Being out of my body in this way made every critical, negative, and straight-up cruel thought I’ve ever had about my physical “flaws” simply disappear. These thoughts would be replaced with a sense of empowerment at the inspired movements my body could make, seemingly out of nowhere. This part, of course, was a process, and easier when I was dancing with myself, alone in my room.

At 30, little has changed, but now, I can let the energy of dance overtake me even when there are other people present, and it’s no longer terrifying. I can’t be bothered as to whether there are a few extra pounds of bloat around my midsection. Sometimes, it makes me feel even more like a woman.

My recent dance inspirations have come unexpectedly into my life in forms that I would have scoffed at even five years ago and written off as “slutty” and “not very spiritual”. Twerking, lap-dances, shaking what my belly-dancin’ mama gave me, I feel more in my body and more transcended, more like a woman than ever.

I yearn to shout through a magical megaphone that all the women of the world can hear, “​it’s OK to express yourself!” “Take what society has shamed you for, and empower yourself with it!”​And that maybe if we would all just dance, eyes closed and feet stomping, we would learn to love what it means to be a woman.

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