‘We’re all sisters here’: Southern ladies learn to loosen up through ancient art of belly dancing
by Brett Buckner
Special to The Star
Jan 25, 2014 | 1777 views |  0 comments | 32 32 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Illustration by AnnaMaria Jacob/The Anniston Star
Illustration by AnnaMaria Jacob/The Anniston Star
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Brenda Callahan stood in a dance studio at the Jacksonville Community Center with only her worried thoughts to fill the empty space.

It had all been a waste, she thought — the time, the effort, the hopeful expectations. No one would show up, she was certain.

She was disappointed, a little embarrassed and “more than a little worried,” recalled Callahan. “I just didn’t want to fail because somehow I knew this is what I was meant to do.”

Then, one by one, women began filing into the room. Some of the faces were familiar — friends the 61-year-old had made over the years. Others were total strangers who arrived out of simple curiosity and word of mouth. By the time class started, 35 women stood ready to learn the ancient art of belly dancing.

“And it just took off from there,” said Callahan. “It was a remarkable thing.”

That was seven years ago and her Middle Eastern Folk Dance class is still going strong. But for all the shimmies, shakes and fluid grace of movement, what most defines the class is the fellowship and friendship between the students, whose skill levels are as wide-ranging as their ages.

“We are all sisters here,” Callahan said. “There are no barriers; nothing separates us — rich or poor, educated or not — we’re all in this together. We’re learning from each other and helping each other out.”

Callahan’s belly-dancing class has been a sanctuary for ladies from all stations of life. There have been cancer survivors and retirees dancing right alongside majorettes and cheerleaders. But for every student sharing the same floor — from novice to advanced — the most difficult challenge is learning to let go and trust in the rhythm of the music.

“It’s not that difficult to learn,” Callahan said. “The hardest part is changing the mindset. As Southern women, we’re taught not to wiggle or jiggle. Now I’m there telling them to let it all loose, to let it all hang out. That’s a hard thing for some women to do.”

‘For women, by women’

The origin of belly dancing is murky at best, but it is believed to have first been practiced in the Middle East, where it’s known as Oriental dance, Egyptian dance, Arabic dance and Middle Eastern dance. Egypt is considered its modern home, where it serves as both a folk and social dance.

“Belly dancing is the last vestige of goddess worship in the Middle East and is in danger of becoming extinct,” explains Lucy Pappas, an ethnomusicology student at UCLA who is studying belly dancing. “Belly dancing began as a ritual for childbirth preparation in the ancient Middle East.

“Before Islam and Christianity, when the Mother Goddess was worshiped, sex and childbearing were sacred. During this time, many societies were matriarchal and belly dancing was performed for women, by women.”

That same camaraderie exists within Callahan’s class, where one student in particular relies heavily on the helping hands and guiding voices of her fellow dancers.

Becky Kunkel is legally blind, suffering from the genetic disease retinitis pigmentosa, better known as RP. People with RP experience a gradual decline in their vision as their photoreceptor cells (rods and cones) die. Kunkel, 52, began to lose her sight when she was very young. She is the fifth generation in her family to have RP. Her daughter is the sixth.

“If you can imagine looking through a straw and then squinting at a pixelated TV with that — that’s pretty much how I see,” she says. “If you call that seeing.”

But don’t feel too sorry for Kunkel. RP has done little to slow her down. In 2002, she completed her master’s degree with a 3.7 GPA in arts and liberal studies, and is now an adjunct English professor at Gadsden State University. She throws pottery and has even offered to serve as designated driver when her friends go out for a night on the town — though none have taken her up on the offer.

“I’m always going to try new things,” said Kunkel, who lives in Saks. “Just because I’m blind doesn’t mean I’ve stopped living. I don’t believe that anyone should ever stop dreaming, stop hoping or stop believing in themselves.”

Moving to change

It was a philosophy born by watching her grandfather’s steady decline from the same disease. During the last years of his life, her grandfather sat in a rocking chair and stared out into a world he could no longer see, rubbing the armrests with his fingers.

“And after 12 years of rubbing that same spot, he’d totally erased the paint on the paneling,” Kunkel says. “That’s all he did all day long — day in and day out — was sit in that rocker. I didn’t want my legacy to be a spot on a wall that no one will ever see.”

The latest proof of Kunkel mantra came to fruition back in October. She and her husband were walking through the various booths at the annual Oxfordfest when Kunkel heard the distinct metallic jingle of the coin sashes traditionally worn by belly dancers. She was lead over to the booth where she was reacquainted with her old friend Brenda Callahan.

Kunkel had long admired the art of belly dancing, mainly because of the music.

“It’s such an expression of femininity and grace,” she says. “It’s the beauty of motion and, for me at least, the sounds in that motion that gives belly dancing that beautiful flow — and as you can imagine, it takes a lot of effort to be graceful as a blind person.”

When Kunkel discovered her old friend was teaching a belly dancing class, it caught her interest. But it was Callahan’s promise that sealed the deal.

“I told her,” Callahan says, “that if I couldn’t teach her the three basic moves in that first day that I’d give her a complete refund. I admit that I was a little nervous at first, but I knew that we could do it.”

Callahan is no stranger to adversity and knows the strength that belly dancing can provide to both body and spirit.

In 1971, doctors found a cyst growing on Callahan’s spine, which resulted in the first of numerous surgeries. At her doctor’s insistence, she stopped virtually all strenuous activity and exercise, and as a result, she lay in bed, gaining upward of 250 pounds. Her doctor suggested she take up belly dancing, “as a joke,” Callahan said, which is known to be great exercise, burning 300 calories or more per hour. The movements are also good for strengthening back and abdominal muscles, as well as reducing stress.

Callahan didn’t take it as a joke. She started belly dancing in 1981 at the community center in Lenlock, eventually moving from student to teacher. A second back surgery in 1993 followed by her final surgery in 1995 finally removed the cyst. But it would be another 10 years before Callahan walked into the Jacksonville Community Center with her plan.

“They looked at me like I was crazy,” she said. “But I just knew this was meant to be.”

For those who participate in the class, Callahan’s efforts have not been in vain — she’s helped create a unique setting where women of all ages and physical ability can just let go.

“It’s fun to be a part of a group of women who are still alive and looking for a way to express themselves,” Kunkel said. “It’s all about the beauty and spirit that comes through them while belly dancing.”

Middle Eastern Folk Dance with Brenda Callahan takes place on Sundays at 2 p.m. at the Jacksonville Community Center. The cost is $8 per class. For more information, call 256-435-8115.

Contact Brett Buckner at brettbuckner@ymail.com.
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