Birth Dance

Birth Dance

by Elisabeth Clark

The following is a true story, with only the name of the mother changed, to respect her privacy.

The call came at three a.m. Shaking the sleep from her eyes, Lorraine LaFata, a.k.a. “Lareina,” psychotherapist, MSW, LCSW, professional dancer, teacher and troupe member of The Goddess Dancing, groped for the telephone.

The short conversation alerted her, but the message was not unexpected. She felt around for her slippers as she made a call of her own.

“Hello, Anita-Christina? It’s time. Stephanie’s in labor.” Anita-Christina Calcaterra, second grade teacher, dance instructor, performer and fellow troupe member, responded in kind. It was time to load up the Goddess-mobile and hit the road.

The Goddess Dancing. L to R: Holly Drake, Lorraine Lafata, Lisa Bright Tiemann, Anita-Cristina Calcaterra. Not pictured: Jennifer Sears and Karen Uminski

Stephanie Abbot’s body was preparing to give birth to her fourth child. She wanted bellydancers there, specific ones she had met at a dance camp the previous summer in Maine. Stephanie, a mid-thirties, ordained Protestant minister of a parish in a neighboring state, had never taken bellydancing before, but immediately claimed it for her own. “I’ve been looking for this!” The fluid movements, the power of the hips, the womanly shakes and quivers, felt really right.

It still felt right to her months later, back in her parish, when she telephoned her two teachers with a question no one had ever asked them before: would they dance with her during her labor next February?

“We never gave it a moment’s hesitation.” Yes, they would.

Even though they had never done anything like this, “It isn’t as though we were not prepared.” The two women had begun some time back at a troupe rehearsal. Anita-Christina was feeling strong and muscular at the time; “people would lean on me.” Troupe members were dancing around, experimenting, and Lareina leaned. “I put my arms under her and she started undulating. We said, ‘Hey, it’s like being a midwife!’ We talked afterwards and began to work out a dance.”

Anita-Christina was already plugged into a midwife’s network, and had been doing research at the library. She discovered that Elizabeth Noble’s book which described the specific musculature used in delivery, “was what we do!” She had worked with lay midwife Sharon Brofy’s classes where “I could see a belly roll with a baby inside.” Lareina’s heart and body had still not recovered from a recent miscarriage and the dancing helped. The two women were also familiar with Morocco’s (Carolina Varga Dinicu) research on labor training in the Middle East and author/dancer Barbara Brandt’s work with childbirth educators. They had discussed this aspect many times. Birthing of the self, the soul, the child from the mother, had been a natural theme to explore.

They had also been teaching the origins of belly dance as a consistent part of their classes. “We emphasize the sacred sensual (our senses are sacred, the body is good, and our feelings of a sensual nature belong to us alone); creation and birth (besides being a centuries-old childbirth preparation, it is a metaphor for the creative process); and power and transformation (we feel bigger, stronger, different!).” They felt ready to expand their dance.

Since babies come when they please, the long ride in the big red van began in darkness. It ended four and a half hours later at the birthing center, about 9:30 on a sunny March morning, cold, but with the promise of Spring. The women walked in without fanfare, found a public bathroom by themselves, and changed into long skirts and crop-tops, their teaching clothes, knotted on some hip scarves, and swirled barefoot down the hall, looking for Stephanie’s room.

The birthing center was a pleasant one. Pretty, sun-filled bedrooms with four-poster beds, lamps and night tables lined the sides of a central area where a microwave, couches, and other amenities made waiting easier. Stephanie’s two preschool sons were quietly playing video games.

There was an air of excitement as they walked in. Stephanie was smiling and making hip circles while holding on to one of the walnut bedposts. “I’ve been trying to keep moving.” They were greeted warmly by the midwife, “who was pleased and very supportive,” along with Stephanie’s husband, Matthew, a friend and a nurse. Anita-Christina and Lareina helped Stephanie on with a skirt they had brought for her. They chatted about dance camp; Stephanie, still loving the dance, had been practicing ever since. Then, “we all began to move,” making hip circles, undulations, laughing and talking, “a tea party,” having no set agenda. “It was one thing to anticipate this, we had certainly talked about it, but no one was entirely sure what was going to happen.”

An amplified tape recorder was plugged in and tapes started to roll. “We were flying blind here and had to experiment,” but the women decided a steady flow of music with light percussion and an even beat, “like a heartbeat,” was best. “Too many drums didn’t help.” They used “Ritual Drumming,” by Layne Redmond, (“The bells and tambourine were good for shimmies.”), Gabriel Roth’s “Totem,” and “Bones” and Brian Eno’s ambient music, along with “some transcendental Middle-Eastern music,” like “Suleyman the Magnificent.”

The women “felt giddy, excited,” unfamiliar, but “we clearly had a place.” That place was, simply, to dance, not as performers or even as teachers, but as assistants to the laboring woman, giving her definite movements “to help with the pain,” because “it doesn’t take away the pain; it helps it to move.” They were there to help in any way that was appropriate. “Whatever she needs is what she needs.” So dance they did, all three of them. Pelvic rocks, circles, shimmies, undulations, hip thrusts, “kept the energy flowing.”

“Then, it shifted.” Stephanie’s body was preparing for the second stage of labor. She sustained a heavy contraction, her body vomited, cried out, and became focused on what it was doing. She told everyone she needed to concentrate. She also needed help with the pain’s intensity.

The nurse and midwife helped Stephanie into the bathtub where she sat on a stool while Matthew rubbed her back and ran warm water on it with a hand-held shower. “We dropped to the outer edge,” still dancing in soothing, undulating movements. Stephanie could see them from the bathtub, she told them later. “I was moving with you, inside.” The warm rush of water gave her some respite, but it slowed down the labor. The midwife suggested she get up and move “to get things going again.”

Stephanie, focused on her extreme discomfort, seemed to withdraw. She got out of the bathtub, walked back and forth uneasily, lay down and got up again, less certain, less centered than when the women had first walked in. Her body needed to get this thing going, get it out, get on with it and she seemed unclear as to what to do. She leaned on Matthew, who kept massaging her back. At one point, she crisply ordered him to take off his pants because his belt buckle was hurting her, “the only time in my life,” she said later, “that I demanded something directly.”

The two women were in constant motion, well aware that the focus was entirely on Stephanie. It was her show. “We were support.” She was now in deep labor, and at a stage where she was thinking about changing her mind: “I forgot how to do this, I don’t remember!” “You don’t have to remember,” the midwife reassured, “Your body remembers.”

Lareina suddenly “felt an uncontrollable urge to push.” She went into a deep undulation as Anita-Christina came up behind her, supporting her, “pushing her pelvis underneath mine. Without thinking about it,” the women began the Midwife dance. “It was now something else besides moving the energy around. It was miming birth.”

Stephanie was lying on her side “with a vacant look in her eyes. Then, she saw us.” She struggled up from the bed, making her way to the women and she began to undulate with them. Suddenly, “we began to shimmy.” Stephanie began to shimmy, too. At that moment, the baby crowned. “We could see the head!”

Stephanie went quickly back to the bed, where, calling for her family to come closer, she delivered her child. The midwife put Stephanie’s baby in her arms and helped with the placenta. Stephanie, her laboring done, welcomed baby Ian and called for the strawberries and champagne which were waiting in the next room. The room was filled with joyful intimacy.

It was also time to go. The women had been dancing for six hours after travelling for five. “We were exhausted.” They didn’t stay any longer; they had been part of a support team with a specific job to do and now it was done. “We weren’t ever the center of attention. We were, in a way, invisible. The process had a life of its own and we were there to just help it along.” It was clear that the performance was Stephanie’s.

Their experience, however, was pivotal. Anita-Christina and Lareina want to belong to a permanent support team and have begun by offering dance/exercise classes to pregnant women specifically for childbirth preparation. “Quicken” is a new addition to their overall dance package.

Would they change or add anything? “We wanted to make it sacred,” and this they would do with music. “We need women clapping, singing, drumming,” using even move vocal and percussion, “some screams and howls,” to create more of an environment with sound. “We want to create the lyric quality of an initiation, to honor this passage into another phase of life.”


Lorraine LaFata, MSW, LCSW, founding member of The Goddess Dancing, has been a feminist therapist for twenty years, specializing in women as survivors of violence, and has been dancing for seven years.

Anita-Christina Calcaterra, second grade teacher and founding member of The Goddess Dancing, inherited the dance from her mother.

Elizabeth Clark, creator of the painting “Dance of the Light,” and the original Habibi logo, has been writing (Habibi, North Shore Magazine, and Pleiades Magazine), painting, teaching and dancing this dance for longer than she can remember.

The Goddess Dancing is a group of women creating sacred dance, drawing movement style mainly from the Middle East and inspiration from Goddess archetypes and myths of many cultures.

Copyright © Habibi Publications 1992-2002, Shareen El Safy, Publisher.

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