Loom Gracefully: or, Taking Up Space for Tall Broads

by Jennifer Pelland (Zia)

Zia performing in Abraxas Theater's Paradox. Photography by Ravenwolfe Photography.(An aside before I begin this essay -- while I'm writing this specifically for tall dancers, I want to emphasize that I believe that all non-body-typical dancers should find a teacher or workshop instructor with their body type at some point early in their dance studies. There is someone out there who can prove to you that you can be an awesome dancer even though you're too short/too tall/too old/too round/too flat/too stiff/too [fill in the blank].)

My first belly dance lessons took place in the early 90s in the basement of the now-closed Arsenic and Old Lace in Cambridge. Every time I tried to raise my arms over my head, I'd scrape my knuckles on the ceiling beams. That was the first time I felt like I was taking up too much space in my dance. Between that and my subsequent teacher demanding that we wear nothing but body stockings to class (I was a size 16 at the time and the teacher was a pencil), it didn't take long for me to quit.

Fast-forward fifteen years, when I decided I was ready to try again. I signed up for lessons with The Goddess Dancing, where all the teachers were decidedly on the short side. "You have such lovely long arms," they'd say. "I wish mine were that long."

When I looked in the mirror, I didn't see "lovely." I saw "awkward." Whenever I tried to copy what they were doing, all I saw was a gawky, angular nightmare. It didn't help that from my back-row vantage point*, I seemed to be looming over all the other students like that giant, spindly alien at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. On top of that, I needed to uncomfortably shorten my stride when doing traveling moves to keep in sync with all the other students. I felt like a mincing chicken.

(*Side note for teachers: please don't try to get your tall students to stand in the front row. If they volunteer to, that's great. If they're hanging at the back, realize that they've spent their entire lives being told not to block people, so they'll feel unbearably rude and uncomfortably exposed if forced to the front.)

I heard the same admiration of my arms from my next teacher, the average-height Phoenix Avathar, although I felt less gawky in her class, which was a step in the right direction. Tribal belly dance's devotion to very deliberate, strong arms seemed to suit me better. I still needed to shorten my strides to match everyone else's, but in ITS, which is generally a non-traveling dance, that wasn't as uncomfortable.

And then Phoenix hosted an Aepril Schaile workshop in her studio, and the tumblers fell into place.

Aepril Schaile was just what I needed at that point in my dance education - someone with a body like mine, six-foot wingspan and all, who knew how to work with it rather than against it. I walked away from that workshop a changed dancer. From then on, when I performed, I would make sure that they could see these arms of mine from space!

Phoenix introduced me to the local belly dance scene, and whenever I went to a show where Aepril performed, I made sure to pay attention. I also discovered Sara Ford and Juliana, two other tall local dancers, and took mental notes on how they moved as well. The main thing these women had in common was that they owned their space. Their posture was impeccable, and they projected every inch of their height to the audience with pride. Even when they danced in troupes, they didn't try to minimize their arms to make them look more like everyone else's - they spread them wide, they lifted them high.

As I started internalizing these lessons, I figured out another important piece of the tall dancer puzzle - when you have a lot of space to cover, it's usually best to take your time with it. I love watching quick, energetic dancing, but it's difficult to make it work on a tall body. Larger objects take more time and energy to move through space than small ones do. And when you're dancing in a restaurant or in some other venue with a small stage, it can be flat-out impossible for a tall dancer to do the same sort of energetic work as a small dancer. Where a small dancer can take multiple whirling steps, the tall dancer has maybe one or two steps before she's standing on an audience member's foot, or whacking someone in the face with her veil or cane. So when tall dancers go for speed, they tend to do so in more contained fashion. The energy moves more vertically than horizontally.

But slow work...oh, now there's where these arms really come in handy. Remember how I said it takes more time and energy to move a large object through space than a small one? The flip side is that it's easier to be slow and gooey when you have a lot of length to work with. I can milk an arm move or a weight shift like nobody's business. Give me a sword, and I can keep you enthralled just by carving it through space. And when I take that slow, lovely arm work, and maybe some juicy undulations, and layer them on top of a choo-choo shimmy, I put the entire front row in my shadow. It's my "loom gracefully" moment, and it's damned dramatic.

So tall dancers with shorter teachers, find someone to workshop with who looks like you so you can finally have someone to emulate. If your regular teacher is one of those energetic short dancers and you can't keep up with her, you should absolutely keep trying, but don't take it as a personal failure if you don't succeed. If your teacher has you dancing in pairs or groups, take a moment to quietly ask her to group you with at least one of the other taller students in class so you don't feel like you're looming awkwardly, which can be a confidence-killer. And if anyone tries to tell you to take up less space, find a new teacher. You can't be graceful if you can't be yourself.

Zia is a 5'11" Boston-area dancer. She's currently developing her "Loom Gracefully" idea into a workshop. Please email her if you're interested, or visit her web site. You can also follow her, her dance partner Kezmaya, and their troupe on their Facebook page.