The Expectant Dancer
Becoming pregnant was a surprise. I had entertained fantasies of being pregnant and raising a child, but these thoughts were merely vague dreams, fed partly by society’s subtle messages of ideal motherhood, and more overt expectations of familial duty and responsibility. Adding to this were my own physiological and psychological instincts to contribute to a future generation of the human species. When the actual knowledge that I was indeed pregnant took hold of me, I was in a daze, and could hardly envision life as a parent and a dancer at the same time. I experienced this dilemma almost immediately as I prepared to leave the country to teach dance at a large studio in Berlin, Germany.
It was during the fourth month of my pregnancy when I left California to teach at the Cifuentes’ School of Oriental Dance, and everyone at home thought I must be crazy. It was a plan that had been formulated and organized many months before I became pregnant, and I was determined to follow through on my commitment. I realized that it would be a lot of work for me to spend a month in Berlin teaching almost every day during a chilly late spring. But, I was confident and never felt that my decision to accept this job opportunity had been a mistake.
While teaching in Germany, I made many discoveries about dance movement. In my pregnant state, I was even more acutely aware of my body, particularly my pelvis. It was as if all the movements in my dance vocabulary took on new definitions. This sense of discovery was augmented by those classes I taught for beginning students; not only was I breaking movements down for them, I felt that I was also capturing nuances that I had never experienced during the fourteen years that I have been exploring this dance form.
A New View of Dance
After my return from Germany, although I found it more difficult to dance full-out, I still spent time exploring the feeling of dancing while pregnant. I derived the most enjoyment doing basic movements. I would do undulations and hip circles for extended periods, playing with slight variations in the quality of the movement, feeling the changes of the motion and the internal sensations as I would shift weight or alter intensity or tempo. I began to develop a greater sense of awareness of how the muscles involved in these movements would contract and release and how, in combination, muscles, ligaments and the skeleton would work together to form movement through time and space. I began to feel that even when stationary, the bones and muscles would work in a constant dynamic of movement, toning and adjusting the posture. Sometimes I felt that even thinking of a movement would give me the same feeling as actually doing it.
Although I have studied many other types of dance, for me, Oriental dance is unique in that it keys one’s focus on the most subtle movements of the torso. As dancers, we train our focus on the very area of our bodies that gives rise to life. Many people believe that in an earlier epoch the dance had a role in childbirth preparation and the labor process. I don’t have concrete evidence that confirms this, but many dancers who have gone through childbirth have told me that the undulations of pelvis and abdomen that they use in dance played a part during the pushing phase of labor. I have also had Middle Eastern clients who hire me for weddings, request that I dance with the bride and allow her to touch my belly. When I have asked people to explain this ritual to me, they give the ambiguous response, “It helps teach the bride how to move for her new role as wife and mother.”
During the second and third trimesters of pregnancy, I started to dance less. I still taught some private classes, but I found that my dance exploration was more satisfying as a solo activity, focused inward. I did my last public performance when I was almost six months pregnant. It was for a party at an Arabic nightclub. I admit to feeling a bit awkward and self conscious during my show, and felt some relief when I realized that the majority of the audience was celebrating a baptism; there were babies and children everywhere! Somehow my round belly seemed more apropos in this kind of setting. The most memorable thing about this performance was when I turned around and Moussa, the bass player said with a big grin: “You are beautiful! “ I was so touched by this because I knew he was responding to something deeper than the superficial dance aspect of my performance. I looked from him to the rest of the musicians who were also smiling in support and encouragement. To add to this family style intimacy was the presence of Amina and Susu, a mother daughter team, there to provide percussion for the group.
The Role of a Pregnant Woman
As pregnancy progressed, and my body changed form, I noticed that people treated me differently, more warmly. When I was in public, people would smile at me, initiate conversation, offer to help me and sometimes inquire about the nature of my pregnancy. Among women, especially, there seems to be an almost “cult-like” ritual of mother-bonding. Typically they would ask me: “When are you due? Have you thought of names? Do you know the sex? Is this your first?” Often they would provide the inevitable comments, such as, “You are carrying low; it must be a girl.” There is a strange comfort in this purely ritual exchange of information: as I entered the realm of motherhood, I often felt like an initiate into a sacred world of feminine identity that extends far back in time.
The image of a pregnant woman is a strong archetype that evokes certain responses in almost any modern culture. There is a sense of unspoken approval and respect. It is as if the pregnant woman is fulfilling a special function in society: the creation of progeny, assuring the continued existence of our species. I sometimes wonder why there isn’t even more honor and ritual associated with this singular event in a contemporary woman’s life. When one looks at the important role fertility rituals played in ancient cultures, it appears that we, in the context of modern life, are abnormally distanced from the natural working of our bodies and the deepest emotions formed by our psychological experience.
Because of the ever present images of feminine “thinness is goodness,” I think it is difficult for women to easily accept their changing form during the months of pregnancy. It can be especially difficult for dancers to readily embrace the disappearance of slender waistlines into large, rounded bellies, bursting forward with heavy ripeness as the ninth month approaches. Lynette, a dancer from Oakland, California, expressed her discomfort over these changes and the temporary loss of her dancer’s body. However, when I look at photos of Lynette dancing while pregnant, I see her as a beautiful image of Mother, carrying within her all the potential to create and nurture life.
Finding A Balance
Depending on the extent of her involvement in dance, as a hobby or profession, the expectant dancer may be concerned about losing ground that she has gained through years of training and practice. She may also worry about a loss of dance-generated income both during and after her pregnancy. I can honestly say that as a professional dancer I feel uncomfortable not knowing when and how I will resume my dance career. I don’t know what kind of impact raising a child will have on my activities in the dance sector and in my medical career.
It has been helpful for me to share my feelings with other dancers who have had children of their own, especially when their pregnancies are fresh in memory. Lynette, who gave birth to her son, Michael, in July 1994, told me she experienced similar feelings during her pregnancy. Now, she is back in the full swing of dance, performing at nightclubs and parties and running her successful dance studio. She admits that there have been changes in how she manages her schedule and her approach to taking on new projects. She chooses her dance activities with consideration towards her family and with a sense of what she can accomplish realistically, along with the responsibilities of being a parent and working as a home care nurse. She says she has become picky about how she allocates her dance related time and energy.
Yasmeena, of Salt Lake City, Utah, expresses pure enthusiasm when recounting her dance experiences while pregnant. During her pregnancy she continued with all of her pre-pregnant dance commitments, including teaching classes and rehearsing and performing with her dance company, Kismet. During this time, she and her husband, Jason, who also teaches and performs with Kismet, managed to organize their annual dance festival and sponsor workshops featuring out-of-town instructors. Yasmeena, who taught dance classes through her ninth month of pregnancy, reflects that even when she felt too fatigued to teach class, she would experience a profound metamorphosis while teaching. She feels that her pregnancy enhanced her teaching, allowing her to give and receive more from her students. For her, it was a creative time that helped her develop a new appreciation for life and humanity.
Yasmeena says that the positive changes that have occurred in her life since the delivery of her daughter, Arrianna, a year ago, are a result of a change in her role as a woman and a dancer. She has sharpened her focus on goals for her career in the dance arts and is in the process of actualizing these goals through hard work and the love of her profession. “Arrianna is fully a part of what we do,” Yasmeena exclaims. “She accompanies us to classes, rehearsals and gigs. She loves the music and she loves to be involved when we do a performance.”
One of the most difficult things about being pregnant is not knowing when and how labor will start. In spite of preparing for this by attending Lamaze classes and reading books on the subject of childbirth, the elements of the unknown became unsettling and at times frustrating as my due date approached. There is no way to predict exactly what the childbirth event will be for each individual.
Finally, when my “water broke” and the contractions started fairly strongly at five minutes apart, I said, “This is it! Lets go!” My mood was anxious and excited. I realized that I was commencing the next phase of the most important transition of my life. My sixteen-hour labor was uncomplicated for both my daughter and myself. Along with countless other women, I can say that the pain of labor has an endless quality that is quietly forgotten after the event.
I was relieved and happy when it came time to push. Initially, it was more difficult than I expected to determine the most effective way of pushing, but with the expert guidance of my nurse, I was able to isolate which muscles to contract and release. My family was with me through the entire process, offering me encouragement and support. I felt like an athlete being cheered on by my team. Indeed, the cycles of pushing began to take on an athletic quality as my baby descended further down the birth canal. At one point, between active pushing, I started doing belly rolls. The nurse stared at me wide-eyed as with each roll, the baby’s head became more visible. She said to me, “Now this I have never seen before.”
Towards the end, I closed my eyes and devoted my entire being to the act of delivering my child into the world. The sensation of her leaving my body was blinding and beautiful, like nothing I have ever experienced. The nurse immediately placed her on my chest. It was strange holding so close to me the life that I had developed and nurtured in my womb during those nine months. I looked at her, not fully believing her presence and yet felt myself totally absorbed by it. It was the beginning of the unique partnership of mother and child. I felt reborn.
Alexa Louise Prus, born: Sunday, August 27, 1995. Weight: 7 pounds,11 ounces. Length: 20½ inches.
Jawahare has been a professional Middle Eastern dancer since 1980, and currently teaches in the San Francisco Bay area. She has also studied ballet, modern, jazz, Afro-Haitian and folkdance. She has a BA in French, a California teaching credential, and is working as a registered respiratory therapist and trainer at an acute care emergency hospital. firstname.lastname@example.org