Playfulness and Imperfection (or, Why I’ve Returned to Belly Dancing)

I recently had a conversation with one of my clients that has really lingered with me.

This client is a woman who moves well and is invested in improving her health, but who has trouble actually enjoying movement.

Maybe you can relate. Maybe you’re one of the many, many people in today’s world who don’t like exercising and working out; maybe you think of it as a hard, uncomfortable (or, worse, even painful), inconvenient obligation that takes up time that you would rather spend doing just about anything else.

After one of our sessions, this client looked at me and said, surprise in her eyes, “Hey, that was fun! I feel really good!”

My reply? “Sometimes, it’s really helpful to remember that what adults often call ‘working out’ is what kids call ‘playing.’ This whole process? Let it be fun.”

55783705The magical thing about this reframing of “working out” into “playing” is the effect it has had on her sessions: even as the intensity of what I plan for her increases, she smiles her way through and tackles each part of her programming with playful willingness.

But What about Competitive Athletes? Does This Approach Apply to Them, Too?


I have personally experienced the importance of incorporating playfulness into my training.

And, yes… for me, most of my sessions are training. I follow planned programming with heavy weights. I am never without a major performance-related goal, whether it be a challenging certification or an upcoming competition, and this major performance-related goal is then coupled with several additional goals for weights I’d like to get to with individual lifts and movement patterns that I would like to learn and/or improve upon.

music-startup-academy-keynote-presentation-customers-before-code-9-638It doesn’t always feel playful.

It’s not always fun.

I don’t always want to do it.

I’m human, and sometimes I struggle with motivation.

Don’t get me wrong: I do it anyway. It’s like that Stephen Covey quotation: “You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, nonapologetically—to say ‘no’ to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside.”

And the “yes” of how important my goals are to me gets me to the barbell, kettlebells, pull-up bar, and floor to work the plan and tackle the day’s challenges.

But I realized, thanks to the insight I got from the conversation that I had with my client, that I haven’t been making much room in my life for movement that is simply for the pure, unadulterated joy of it, movement that wasn’t goal driven.

It was time to take my own advice.

So What Did I Do? 

Image source:
Image source:

I said “yes” to my friend Michelle’s invitation to join her at the belly dancing class she had been attending at Moody Street Circus (find them on Facebook here) with the incomparable Melinda Heywood Pavlata.

Now, almost ten years ago I went to a weekly belly dance class with a few of my best friends from college, so it wasn’t a completely new experience for me… but my mind and body have changed a lot in the last ten years, there have been many things that I have forgotten, and even back then it was just something that I did for the fun of it. It’s never been something I particularly excelled in.

Over the last two months or so, I’ve been going to the beginner class at Moody Street Circus whenever I can, and I cannot say enough about how wonderfully healing and delightfully playful it’s been to go in and shimmy, to celebrate movement in a way that has such a different feel from my athletic training.

I must say that this process is made possible by Melinda’s skill and the welcoming atmosphere that she creates. All body types and skill levels are welcome, and she introduces new movements and progressions in a way that makes them accessible.

She gives us room and time to explore the dance and to feel a connection to the rhythms of the music and the ways our bodies can respond to them.

And there are a couple of things I’ve learned.

One is that powerlifting and belly dancing have a few things in common.

Oh, don’t get me wrong: there are some significant and obvious differences between a heavy back squat and a sultry shift of the hips.


However, both encourage a profound degree of connection to my body. I’ve actually started to wonder to what degree my previous experience with belly dancing has made me more coachable as a strength athlete. I have no doubt that the practice that I put into the various belly dance isolation movements equipped me to correct aspects of my set-up for lifts without causing other parts of my body to shift into undesirable positions. I learned, thanks to belly dancing, what it means to be truly present in my body, to experience the ways the different parts of the body are simultaneously unique and connected.

I’ve also learned how important it is for me to have space in my life for radical acceptance of my own imperfection. I am by no means the most graceful person in the class, and I get easily confused when it comes to choreography.

And that’s okay.

It’s an important life skill to be able to just have fun. To let go of any degree of taking oneself too seriously and just move. To laugh and wiggle and enjoy the movement, to enjoy the feel of my feet against the floor and the freedom of letting go.

It’s so easy to forget, when one’s training is so focused on technique and outcomes, how vital and healthy it is to make room for unreserved, celebratory time to simply occupy one’s body with pleasure, with no end in mind.

I’m also remembering–and this is important–the first profound lesson I ever received from attending belly dancing classes, all those years ago when I was in college.

This picture of me from ten years ago makes me unbelievably sad... and also so grateful for all the growth that I've experienced since!
This picture of me from ten years ago makes me unbelievably sad because I remember how much I was struggling at the time… but also so grateful for all the growth that I’ve experienced since!

At the time, I was tightly in the grips of depression, drugs, and disordered eating. I barely ate, and I hated my life, myself, and my body. I believed on some deep level that the more conventionally attractive I was, the more worthy of love I was. I accepted the dominant paradigm about what was attractive in regards to body size without much question, and assumed that it was important for me to adhere to it the best I could.

But then, I attended my first belly dancing class. Our teacher was delightfully, beautifully fat. When she shimmied, her whole body reflected joy in the way she moved.

I became hypnotized by her belly.

I fell in love with the sway of her arms, with the way a pump of her hips and a shift of her center of gravity seemed to move the world.

Yeah, okay, I’ll admit that I developed a crush on her. But it wasn’t really about that. It was about how her unapologetic joy in her body wordlessly challenged every assumption I had ever had about what a healthy, happy body looks like.

These wordless challenges began to haunt me. They stayed with me long after class ended. I began to ask questions about the nature of beauty, about the nature of health… for others, and also for myself.

Something inside of me shifted, and I began radically challenging my assumptions about what I wanted for my own body and what I did/did not find attractive about the bodies of others.

Ultimately, that first class was the very beginning of my journey towards self acceptance and body positivity.

It wasn’t a magical switch that, once flipped, made it easy to love my body and speak out publicly about acceptance of body diversity and HAES ideas. But the seeds were planted, and for that I am truly grateful.

So What’s the Main Point? 

There are a few main things that I really want to emphasize here.

One is that there is no point at which it stops being important to have time in your life for playful movement. Whether you’re someone who’s been sedentary for years or an elite-level athlete, find a way to move that is pure, unabashed joy and that has no connection to end outcomes. Just be in your body joyfully.

You’ll know you’ve found a good approach to this for you when it involves lots of smiling and laughing.

The other is that I want you all to know that my body-positive approach to life, movement, and nutrition didn’t arise out of the ether, beautifully flourishing without effort. I have learned and healed my way from pain to strength, with the help of others and the willingness—the desperation—to discover a healthy way to relate to my body. If you are struggling to learn how to discover how to love your body, take heart: it isn’t always easy, and it doesn’t happen overnight, but it CAN happen. I’m living proof.


4 thoughts on “Playfulness and Imperfection (or, Why I’ve Returned to Belly Dancing)

  1. Larry McSpadden says:

    As Wilhelm commented in the I Ching, “Joy in movement induces following.” Words that can change and heal our world and our selves. Thanks!!


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