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Empowered through dance

A mother finds that teaching belly dancing classes allows her to harness the power of her own womanhood and impart it to others as well.
Thursday, January 1, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:47 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

She lets 2-year-old daughter Isadora roam the house without wearing a diaper because that’s what Isadora likes to do.

She studied women’s studies at the University of Manchester in England.

She had a “While You Were Out” party when 8-year-old daughter Madelynn was out of town, redecorating her bedroom with a seafoam green color scheme and painting white fluffy clouds on the ceiling.

She takes Isadora and Madelynn to pirate costume parties and other social events, but she reserves a night off for going out with her girlfriends.

She encourages celebrating womanhood and likes dressing up and wearing pretty jewelry not for a man, but for her.

She jokes about some day marrying a man who lives next door, because she is so independent and needs her sacred space.

Kandi Grossman loves being a woman and feels empowered when she belly dances.

When Grossman was 18, she attended an all-girls party on Rosemary Lane and saw her first belly dance performance. “After I saw that, I knew it was what I wanted to do with my life,” she says.

Grossman, now 27, is the one doing the belly dancing on East Campus, where she teaches lessons out of her home studio. She has been teaching for about four years; she started out by renting a dance studio every week with a couple of friends. Grossman discovered that the classes would be more beneficial for the students if they were held in the intimate comfort of her house. Thus, Moon Belly Dance Studio was born.

Grossman’s 1920s bungalow-style house on William Street has a wide front room with 10-foot ceilings; it is spacious enough for six or seven students to dance freely. Various-sized mirrors line each of the four walls. Fading sunlight filters in through the gauze-covered windows. A shiny gong hangs next to one of the front windows.

On the north wall, a long built-in shelf extends across the entire wall and houses hand drums, a student guitar, a tambourine, two dim lamps, a pair of flamenco shoes and a vase of long-stemmed red roses, which Grossman bought for herself.

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Christi Nies, Brandyn Patel, Grossman and Frankie Medack practice a dance they will perform at D’Agostinos, while Nichelle Lawrence plays the drums and Medack’s daughter, Ember, wanders around.

She stands in front of five women who make up her Beginning I class. She teaches two levels of classes, beginning and choreography, on Wednesday evenings. She is barefoot, wearing black pants, a black sash tied around her waist, a red shirt and a red silk flower in her hair. The five students are also barefoot, some wearing skirts and sashes, some wearing their shirts pulled up to reveal their bellies.

She demonstrates some introductory floor work moves and gracefully, almost magically, sinks onto her knees and glides across the hardwood floor.

Some floor work pieces can be sexually suggestive, she explains, as she shows them a figure-eight movement with her pelvis while lying on her side, propped on her elbow.

“This is something you don’t do at Earth Day,” Grossman says to her students.

Belly dance was traditionally performed in the Middle East among groups of women as a form of expression. The pro-woman emphasis remained evident when it emerged in Western culture.

The art form was never intended to titillate a man, although it has mysteriously developed that reputation.

When a woman dances with and for other women, Grossman says, she reaches a new level of self-confidence and is able to express her own female sensuality without male definitions. A woman doesn’t need a skinny supermodel body to belly dance, but she needs to feel comfortable expressing her own sensuality with her own body.

“Any body is beautiful when it belly dances,” Grossman says.

Grossman is an adjunct sociology professor at Columbia College, teaching “Power, Status and Class” and “Women in History.” Her upper-level class focuses on racial, gender and environmental inequalities. She also writes grants for the nonprofit We Always Swing Jazz Series and volunteers at KOPN 89.5.

Frankie Medack, one of Grossman’s advanced dance students, says Grossman is willing to learn fresh ideas and concepts and teaches these concepts to her students.

“She’s so powerful and passionate about what she does,” Medack says. “She believes in herself, which radiates to her students because it allows them to believe in themselves. Her confidence rubs off on you.”

Grossman lets down her hair, kneeling on the floor in front of her Beginning I class. After doing neck rolls and stretches, she demonstrates some dramatic neck movements and simultaneous arm movements as a mass of dark curly hair swings around her head. Members of the class mimic her flowing movements while she explains their meditative qualities.

“This is excellent for stress relief,” she says.

After the class is done practicing floor work, she introduces a key component to the art of belly dance — zills, which are finger cymbals held with the thumb and middle finger. She straps them onto both of her hands and plays them as she creates her own musical rhythms to dance to. She passes her pair of zills and a few hand drums around, allowing everyone the chance to experiment with their own creative rhythms.

“It was an easy night tonight,” Grossman says as her students finish playing the zills and drums.

“Yeah, tell that to my thighs,” one of her students retorts.

As her students filter out the door, Grossman is left with half an hour before her choreography class arrives.

“Madelynn, did you do your homework?” she asks.

“I’ll do it during the second class,” Madelynn says. She hasn’t completed her contractions worksheet yet.

Grossman pokes at a bowl of leftover pasta while Madelynn plays one of the drums left out from the early class.

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Grossman’s students use zills while Nichelle Lawrence drums to set the rhythm of the dance that is being practiced.

“This is part of you taking responsibility for yourself,” she tells her daughter, speaking to her firmly, but treating her like an adult.

The advanced students show up, and Madelynn begs to sit in the studio during the class. She watched a movie in the living room during the beginning class.

The choreography class is less structured than the other classes. Grossman says that the beginning classes are devoted to basic technique, while her choreography class, which includes women she has taught for more than a year, meshes different dance styles.

“It’s a fusion of multicultural techniques of belly dancing — Spanish-gypsy, flamenco, samba,” she says. “I get bored with Middle Eastern techniques, so I’ve taken it and put a modern American twist on it. I call it the Kandi Dance.”

The women do an abdominal strengthening exercise, lying on their backs with extended straight legs elevated inches above the floor, while Madelynn lies in the corner, doing her own version of the exercise. Her legs keep dropping to the ground.

“These are easy, too easy,” Madelynn says, even though she is out of breath. She still hasn’t done her homework.

The choreography class develops its own routines and performs the first Sunday of each month at D’Agostinos Italian restaurant. These students started out knowing nothing about belly dance, but under Grossman’s direction have completed Beginning I and II and Advanced I and II. They know many advanced moves and can play zills in unison according to rhythm charts Grossman created.

“As a teacher, it is empowering to watch them during a performance,” Grossman says. “My students can, if they choose to, use this as a tool to empower their own lives.”

Live musicians accompany the choreographed performance. All of the musicians except guitarist Walt Goodman are women. They make up their own soft lyrics to sing to the rhythm: “When there is a woman, there is magic.”

Grossman says belly dancing is symbolic of childbirth. The basic stance resembles the childbirth position: knees bent, pelvis tucked, shoulders back, and chest out.

“The pelvis is the source of life,” Grossman says.

Belly dance originated in the Middle East, gradually transforming and borrowing dance styles from Lebanon, Turkey, Tunisia, India and Egypt, among others. One of its early speculated purposes was to encourage a woman in labor with childbirth; the women would separate from the men and belly dance around the soon-to-be mother.

Grossman has performed some feminine-themed belly dances for groups of women. In one of her choreographed dances, she simulated the childbirth process. She also created a belly dance routine that represents the phases of womanhood, including menstruation, childbirth and menopause.

Grossman said she is empowered by being a mother. She is a single mother, and she was raised by a single mother, who was also raised by a single mother. She has two daughters, and there are many strong female figures in Grossman’s life. She said she hadn’t thought much about womanhood before becoming a mother.

“After Madelynn was born and I felt the power of birth, I realized that many women went through this,” she says. “My empowerment expanded and grew beyond my control.”

She cherishes motherhood. She says she journeyed on a negative path before her unexpected pregnancy at age 18. Her pregnancy with Madelynn turned her life around; she finished high school, got a degree from Columbia College, moved to Manchester and received a master’s degree in women’s studies.

“It was the best thing that ever could have happened to me,” Grossman says about her first pregnancy. “That’s why she’s so special to me — she saved my life. She’s my little blessing. It was as if she said ‘I’m here to teach you all of these things.’ ”

She took little Madelynn with her to study in the women’s studies department at the University of Manchester. Her dissertation tries to analytically answer the research question: Can I belly dance feminism? Grossman examines issues surrounding belly dance, such as social stigma and sexuality. She says, “Celebrating love and striving for spiritual development are some of the basic underlying motivations in my belly dancing.”

Grossman says she is going to keep dancing. She’s going to keep celebrating womanhood. She’s going to keep teaching women that their bodies are beautiful, regardless of unrealistic societal standards. She’s going to keep supporting the arts in Columbia. She’s going to keep being a devoted mother to her daughters.

“I hope I’m a good role model for my kids,” Grossman says. “I just hope that I can pass on lessons to my children about being strong, independent, passionate, body- and earth-loving women.” .


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