What I Learned About Envy From Belly-Dancing Class

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“There are many pretty or beautiful girls at Bellyqueen.” Photo: J.D.Dallet/Getty Images/arabianEye

This piece originally appeared in New York’s 50th anniversary issue, My New York – a special edition that attempts to capture the city’s voice through first-person stories, spoken and written, about how our disparate lives intertwine. Read them all here.

My experience of envy was the most banal type you can think of, among the most ridiculous and to me initially really confusing. I envied the youth and beauty of a young girl! This is not normal for me. I sometimes envy youth and beauty in a general way, but I don’t often compare myself to specific people, especially not to girls who at this point in my life are in a completely different category.

She was someone I met at a belly-dancing school delightfully called Bellyqueen, which is the kind of intensely multicultural place that is unique to New York City. Some students will plainly go pro, and some already are. Some are performance-addicted amateurs, some are, like me, more casual. Everybody who stays with it does so because they love it, because it is incredibly and deeply fun. I recently told a writer suffering from depression that she should try it, because if you have joy anywhere in you, belly dancing can wake it up. I meant that.

There are many pretty or beautiful girls at Bellyqueen, and most of them I just appreciate. This girl, as I say, was different. I am guessing she was about 20. She was Chinese, tallish, with shoulder-length very black hair and a slender, delicate frame. She did not appear to be an experienced dancer, but she was a natural dancer, radiant and lithe. She had some of the common markers of beauty, as least as I define it: glowing skin; full, finely shaped lips; a soft but sensually heavy jaw; deep-set, heavy-lidded eyes. But what made her irresistible to my gaze was something in the way she moved, a preening exuberance that was sometimes touchingly awkward, as if she were slightly dazed by her own loveliness. Everybody warms up in front of the mirror, but she posed and danced at herself as if she were the only person in the room.

At first, I didn’t even realize that what I felt toward this girl was envy. I just found her irritating. Conceited! An airhead! Mindlessly pleased with herself! Most of the time I didn’t even think words, I just felt that dismissive irritation. I think it took months for me to realize what I was actually feeling, and when I did, that of course made the experience even more irritating — and bewildering. Why, of all the pretty girls at Bellyqueen, of all the drop-dead beautiful girls of my acquaintance in New York, had my psyche chosen this girl to be envious of? Really, I knew that if I looked like she did, I’d dance at myself, too. I also knew that many people would consider her cute rather than actually beautiful. None of that mattered. My irritating envy was like a tiny glass splinter in my foot, the kind of splinter you can only feel when you step a certain way, and which you can’t see to remove.

Then I took a PURE class. PURE stands for Public Urban Ritual Experiment; it is a loose affiliation of artists who aim to promote “community, healing, and social change through dance and music,” a mission that sometimes takes the form of therapeutic workshops, which happen at Bellyqueen with some frequency. These classes (with titles like “Return to Love” or “Reimagining Beauty”) are not strictly belly dance; elements of other dance styles show up, and there is often a therapeutic element — journaling, expressing emotions in movement, revealing all manner of “issues” to a circle of reliably empathetic women. It’s corny, but it’s my kind of corny (yes, I want to “Return to Love”), and so, early on, I decided to try a class. I don’t remember what the class was called, or what it was about, because my memory of it is dominated by the weird fact that she (she needed therapy???) was there, exuding her usual degree of overjoyed self-delight. Most of the dancers there were older (by that I mean 35-plus), and as they introduced themselves to the empathetic circle, they revealed various angers, insecurities, pains, and fears related to self-esteem or “body image.” I thought: If this girl is going to complain about her body issues, my head is going to explode. But when her turn came around she simply and energetically declared, “I am Lu Lu! And I am here to learn about myself!” Inwardly face-palming, I thought, Of course. Of course you are. But I didn’t have time to dwell on it because the instructor was describing the exercises/choreography she had planned and then we were paired up to explore our issues together through dance. Guess who my partner was?

Our first exercise was for each to mirror the other in an improvisational dance. I had never looked Lu Lu directly in the face for any length of time before, and when I did my irritation … evaporated. This was partly because I was busy focusing on what we were doing together; it was also because it was impossible to feel irritated by what I suddenly realized was a quite guileless and tender face. Then came the second exercise, which required us to stand hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder, and put our arms around each other. Almost immediately on touching her I felt something that completely contradicted my idea that she was a shallow, narcissistic twit of whom I was senselessly envious.

To explain: I have an ability that I am guessing many people have, that is, the ability to sense another person through touch. This doesn’t happen every time I touch someone, but when it does, I pay attention. My physical sense of a person may not always be right, it could be shaped by fear or desire or something else. But experience has taught me to trust this tactile understanding, especially when it contradicts what I thought I knew or had assumed. What I felt through touching Lu Lu is hard to describe except that it was wonderful: gentle, truly sweet, somehow sparkling, like a soft landscape at dusk with the fireflies just out. Inner beauty: Yes, I think that is what it was. I don’t remember what we did in terms of movement, only that it felt a little like falling in love, not erotically but emotionally. And that when it was over I took her hand and said what I had probably always wanted to say (for I believe that people always desire to say what they most truly feel): “Lu Lu, you are so beautiful!” And she replied — of course! — “You are beautiful too, Mary!”

When I repeated this exchange to another dancer, she deadpanned: “Yeah. I can just see it.” By which I thought she meant I was making a big deal of nothing or maybe that I’d taken PURE’s message a little too much to heart. Maybe. But if nothing else, I realized what I had actually been envious of: the girl’s undamaged inner beauty, which I believe was the most real thing about her, even if she was perhaps also vain or even shallow. I didn’t become friends with Lu Lu after that or even have a conversation beyond friendly greetings. A 40-year age difference is pretty significant, and I don’t know what we would’ve talked about. But I never felt any irritation with her again, or even real envy. I felt warmth. I still do.

Mary Gaitskill: What I Learned About Envy From Belly Dancing