Book review: Grandmother’s Secrets: The Ancient Rituals and Healing Power of Belly Dancing

by Brittany Capozzi (BellaBianca)

Grandmother's Secrets: The Ancient Rituals and Healing Power of Belly Dancing, Rosina-Fawzia B. Al-Rawi, Interlink Publishing, 1999

In her memoir Grandmother’s Secrets: The Ancient Rituals and Healing Power of Belly Dancing, writer and belly dancer Rosina-Fawzia Al-Rawi  illustrates how her grandmother’s gems of wisdom are more than enough to understand how belly dance weaves into a young woman’s evolving life. Though Al-Rawi touches upon the origins of belly dance, as well as belly dance technique, what is most captivating is each vignette in the beginning of her story that describes her first few mental exercises. These exercises, passed down to her by her grandmother, help Al-Rawi use her senses in preparation for the physical craft.  

Drawing helps the author understand the first and most challenging lesson of belly dance: concentration. With a piece of chalk in between her thumb and index finger, Al-Rawi is instructed to draw a dot, putting all energy into the creation of this “simple sign”. According to her grandmother, this dot represents “the beginning and end, the navel of the world”.  In creating this sign, Al-Rawi soon discovers that simple is not necessarily easy. As she continues drawing it, however, she notices that her hand naturally gravitates more and more toward this task. Her thoughts and time around her disappear, almost like a meditation practice.

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This dot on a blackboard manifests into a new form when Al-Rawi moves her pelvis from side to side, only to return to the middle, where each movement of belly dance begins and ends. This parallels the dot in the Arabic alphabet, which, according to her grandmother, precedes the letters themselves and continues to the end. The dot is the root of existence. This is where belly dance meets the belly dancer, the art meets the creator. A secret not many may know.

Another secret Al-Rawi learns is to face fear by playing with her senses. For instance, she learns to see with her feet, a form of synesthesia, or linking one sense with another. With eyes closed, she uses her feet and fingers to navigate during the day. This diminishes her fear of walking at night and heightens intuition, something essential for a belly dancer.

Al-Rawi’s fear of falling down the stairs is remedied by playing with the sense of touch in a different way; with eyes open, the soles of the feet feel the texture of each stair and become sensitive and trustworthy of surroundings. The toes tell the rest of the body when to take a step up or down. All areas, from the toes to the heels, control movement and enable one to keep the upper body and head high. Keeping one’s head held high also allows the neck to relax rather than tighten, something linked to not only fear, but also to low self-esteem. As the head stays up, confidence and balance also stays up. This reminds a dancer not to give her power away when performing.

Al-Rawi explains that even though our feet help us to remain rooted and stable, our balance is actually maintained through our ears, so when one does fall, the ear protects the person. This is the first sense that enters the body, days after conception, and more often than not the last sense to leave the body. One exercise Al-Rawi suggests is listening to two sounds in nature and once the two sounds can be separated, add a third layer to train the ear on what is being heard. This challenges awareness, concentration, and being present. Al-Rawi also suggests visiting with a friend in a room with the lights out. Through talking and hearing, one can get reacquainted with the other. To take sight away and leave only sound, the body will straighten up to hear better, whereas with sight, no physical impulse is typically present. Because of this, Al-Rawi believes sight to be a comfort sense.

Bringing Grandmother’s Secrets into our dance practice will not only strengthen our dance muscles, but will also strengthen our brain muscles. In working with different senses in creative ways, the brain becomes rewired. For instance, one can move beyond drawing a dot like Al-Rawi and place a thumb and index finger together to imagine a dot being created. Pressing fingers together helps energy flow throughout the brain. When using synesthesia, such as seeing through our feet, we allow room for new spatial intelligence, new networking patterns in the brain. Lastly, listening in new ways develops keen awareness. Overall, we challenge being more conscious. Here, the dot precedes the warm-ups and continues after the dance ends.

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Brittany (BellaBianca) weaves the art of belly dance onto her yoga mat. She teaches Yin and Vinyasa Yoga on the South Shore of Massachusetts. For more information, follow her on Facebook under BellaB Yoga and Dance.