The Beauty of Illiteracy

**This is a repost from a blog I started while living in China**

I can read a decent amount of Chinese characters—belly dancing is not one of them. So, when I decided to get back on the yoga wagon at my local Chinese studio, I attempted to read and select a class from the schedule card written all in Chinese characters. I had free time during the noon class yesterday, and since it’s a yoga studio, I assumed that even though I couldn’t read what the class was, it would be some version of yoga with a new teacher. You know what they say about assuming things…
My 4-month absence earned me some “haven’t seen you in a while” greetings from the manager, and I went about getting a key to the locker room, a small towel to pat my forehead if I worked up too much of a sweat in the child’s pose, and a small class of chrysanthemum tea. I was feeling rather proud for motivating myself to go, even though the main reason I felt prompted to start again was because my card expires in March. Equipped with my baggy blue sweatpants, a sports bra, and brown tank top, I entered the room, which was blasting loud, fast-paced Indian music.

Not being able to read can lead to some pretty interesting places...

Maybe it was the several middle-aged Chinese women shaking their hips with colorful sashes with bangles hanging off of them, or the fact that their midriffs were showing that tipped me off, but I got the feeling this was not a yoga class. I rushed back to the manager and asked her if there was a yoga class scheduled at that time. She replied no, chuckling a little at my situation. “Dancing is fun too! Go on, try it!” I’ve walked into enough unexpected situations in China by this point that it took me about 15 seconds before I replied, “weishenme bu” (why not).I re-entered the room, ready for anything. Most of the women were already outfitted, practicing shaking their hips in front of the large mirrors. Since I’m normally the only foreigner in the class, the teachers generally go out of their way a little bit to make sure I am following the all the Chinese, and if everyone else is holding up their right leg, and I’m holding up my left hand, they politely bring my attention to it. Those close to me, know I have an uncanny knack for the worst poker-face possible. My face is a billboard. The teacher approached me after helping another woman suit up, and as I attempted to fumble with the scarf-like cloth, she gently took it from my hands and fitted me with 3 different ones around my waste. The teal, hot pink, and red gave my 10-year-old hand-me-downs some zest, and her final action was to raise my up tank-top, exposing my stomach. I don’t think she saw my eyes pop out, but there were mirrors everywhere.

Belly Dancing was one of many adventures in China

The instructor had a short, bob-like haircut with subtle red highlights. Her gold earrings accented her yellow low-cut top that revealed more cleavage than I’m used to seeing Chinese women expose and when she turned around, I could tell that she was wearing a bra that was like a halter top, so that it would not interfere with the even lower-cut back of the shirt. Her black pants hung low around her hips, and she had her own personalized scarfs with extra loud decorations. In a word, this woman was hot. She could make even the gayest man reconsider. I stood in the back, behind a somewhat plump woman in her 30’s to avoid seeing myself in the mirror and took a quick look around to see if the same slender girls that joined my yoga class were the same students in this one. A quick survey showed me that I was most likely the youngest and that many of the other women had already had children. My inhibitions were already starting to fly out the window, and I kept laughing to myself, shaking my head at the things I get into. She began to move, going to the front with a beckoning motion of the right hand, then crossing over to the left and began to undulate her stomach. I had no idea a woman’s body could do that! The other women followed, somewhat easily, so I guessed that they were regulars. That and the fact that I was the only one dressed for nap time (I later found out I had stumbled upon the advanced class). The same loud beat kept repeating, and an Indian woman sang Hindi as we all moved to the beat. After a few “one, two, three’s” I was starting to get the pattern of the dance, but for the life of me, could not get my stomach to move like hers. I’m an athletic girl. I bike everywhere, run, hike, “practice” yoga, but the connection this woman had with her body absolutely blew me away. All of a sudden I realized how disconnected I had been from my hips, my abdomen, my arms. I was moving muscles I didn’t even know I had as I was thrusting back in a reverse motion like the other women to make sure the charms jingled as we moved. Age didn’t matter. Race wasn’t a factor. The only requirement to enter that door was to be a woman. In 10 minutes this woman showed us the power of femininity, the beauty of allowing, of giving way to your body and letting it take you places you didn’t think you could go. She encouraged us to “pop” our hips, exaggerating our curves. All my initial judgment of myself and others disappeared as I moved out from behind the woman in front of me to watch my body in the mirror as well. I walked out of that class a convert. She showed us all how to reconnect with something so innate that we often forget about it. At the end of the class, I awkwardly tried to remove the scarves, and the instructor mysteriously appeared behind me and removed them. I asked her how long she had been dancing, but I wanted to ask her to teach me how to exude so much beauty and sensuality. Having taken off one layer of inhibition, I told her she was an amazing dancer and a “la mei” (spicy/hot woman). She laughed. I still don’t know how to say the characters for belly dancing, but I have scouted out all the characters that look like the noon time slot. When I go back on Saturday, I’m going to wear more color and let my curls loose!

Join the discussion 11 Comments

  • Currie Rose says:

    Awesome post, Jackie! My face is also a billboard… sometimes a blessing, other times, not so much. 😉 Sounds like that was a liberating experience. Do you still belly dance?

    • Jacqueline says:

      A liberating experience, indeed! I have belly danced since, but no, unfortunately I have not yet found an outlet for consistent belly dancing. Shouldn’t be too hard in SF though, right?

  • littlesundog says:

    Jackie, this was awesome to read while having morning coffee! You had me laughing hysterically, but the message was so apparent! I am often way too cautious about knowing all the facts. What a surprise and liberating experience letting go of expectation for the class. I commend you for going forth and allowing the experience… allowing your spirit to wander into something so beautiful and fun to boot!

    • Jacqueline says:

      Thanks! So glad that you enjoyed it. It was quite the experience. I also started doing something in China (that I lost track of) that was to document trying or learning something new everyday. I think I should bring it back!

      • Elle says:

        I agree! How awesome would it be to try something new out every day? Imagine how much we would experience if we did that?? I like this idea 🙂

        • Jacqueline says:

          🙂 I’ve been reincorporating it. Today’s new experience was an almond-milk latte. It might be my last, but I’m glad I tried!

          • Elle says:

            🙂 I’m lactose intolerant and my body can’t digest lactaid either so almond milk is my only option. You should try the vanilla flavored almond milk, it’s actually really delicious.

  • sheila7697 says:

    Good for you for so many reasons! You obviously have a great zest for living. You’ve prompted me to see if there are belly dancing classes in my community! Thanks! ~ Sheila

  • Rufina says:

    I love belly dancing. I’m so glad when I hear that other women try it with some trepidation, but end up loving it too!! Everything about it, the music, the color, the veils, the coins, the sensuality; it’s all so hypnotizing and fun! After I had been doing it for a while, my husband and I went to see the dance troupe “Belly Dance Superstars”, who do all kinds of different belly dance genres from different parts of the world…they were fantastic. You can check them out on YouTube. Good for you Jacqueline!!

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