East Texas Women Find Belly Dancing Empowering, Liberating
By KELLY GOOCH Staff Writer
Once the music starts, Edith Fudge and other East Texas belly dancers extend their arms gracefully before bringing them back to their sides.
They do this several times, adding hip shakes in between. But suddenly the music picks up, and they are traveling to a faster beat as they twirl, lean down to the floor, and move veil scarves from one side to another. It's all part of a new bell routine they learned Wednesday evening, which they can now practice and perform in public.
The belly dancers hail from different parts of the region, including Lindale, Whitehouse and Jacksonville, but it is their love for the activity that unites them. Most of the women, who are in their 50s, 60s or 70s, are part of Sisters of the Dance, a group out of Tyler Junior College.
One woman, Cindy Washington, is part of Sisters of the Dance in Van, and Ms. Fudge is an independent belly dancer.
Ms. Fudge, 53, was with a group called Dance Your Dreams for 10 years and had to go to work a couple years ago at the Trinity Mother Frances-Jacksonville Health and Fitness Center. However, she said things got hectic trying to go to work and classes, so she broke away from Dance Your Dreams and went independent so she could do her own shows.
She does parties, festivals, anniversaries and other venues but didn't start performing in nursing homes until last year. She said she did about eight nursing homes last year, and this year, she plans to hopefully add more.
"I decided awhile back that I would like to start doing some nursing homes because some elderly people were coming into the fitness center who have family or friends in nursing homes, and some of the nursing homes that weren't funded as well as others were having a hard time getting people to come in and entertain people," Ms. Fudge said.
"I just started calling and started booking as often as time would allow me to do. The first couple ones I did on my own because it didn't dawn on me to try to get other dancers or that they would want to travel that far to do it with me."
But she eventually reached out to her friends with Sisters of the Dance to let them know if they wanted to dance with her they could. Ms. Fudge tries to put together at least one show a month. She typically picks a weekend that she can do it and then invites other dancers to join her if they can. Each show, which lasts about 30 minutes to an hour, might also include soloists.
They dance with a variety of props, including staffs, swords, sticks and wings. Some dancers can also make their own costumes.
"So far I've been really lucky, and we put on a pretty good show actually. ... Some of these ladies do a staff routine that's amazing," Ms. Fudge said.
Although it's fun and a good show, it's also a lot of hard work, she said, and group performances are particularly difficult because of the practice time involved.
Ms. Washington, 52, said no matter what group they belong to or participate in, they can all come together to practice and perform.
At the nursing homes, "they'll get up and dance with you if they're able to get up and move with you. You see a light in their eyes, a smile on their face that you didn't see when you first walked in," she said.
Residents also say things like, "I used to dance," and forget that they're in a nursing home, she said.
Sheila Preddy, 73, agreed, saying, "It makes you feel good to see the people's faces and see them light up. They clap and they hoot and holler with us."
Ms. Fudge said there's also no pressure because it's not a big deal if they mess up.
"They don't care. ... They're glad we're there, and we enjoy doing (the performances)," she said.
"One lady said 'I don't think I can get up (and dance),' and I told her to roll her hands, move her shoulders back, and she danced with us in a wheelchair."
When asked why belly dancing, all of the women answered with a resounding "Why not?"
"It's a lot of fun, and let's face it: I'm in my 50s. How many 50 year olds do you know who get to play dress up?" Ms. Washington said.
Ms. Fudge said many East Texans have misconceptions about belly dancing or think it's risque. However, she said the perception is not even close to reality for her and other women who dance with her.
"The type of belly dancing we do -- it's entertainment. It's not sleazy in the least," she said, adding that the art can also be used for storytelling.
Some of the women only have been belly dancing for a short time while others have done it about 14 or 15 years.
And although they get nervous for performances, the women said with encouragement from their friends, even if they mess up, they don't feel bad.
"For me, being a wife, mom in corporate America, you forget. You get into a rut and a routine of doing your daily chores, caring for the children, running back and forth. You kind of forget about who you are," Ms. Washington said. "Belly dancing helped me remember who I was before the children, the corporate world...It made me remember that I was just me. For me to dance, it's a freeing thing. ...I forget everything ...You can laugh at yourself and you have support. There's constant support of the sisters with you."
Other women echoed Ms. Washington, saying the activity "makes you feel pretty (and) like a child again."
For Gloria Burns, 55, the experience is also empowering.
"It's very sensual. It's very feminine. And I don't play that role, so when I dance that comes out, so that's really nice," she said.
Ms. Preddy said she believes it's also a good fitness activity, and it has a creative component because they are making up dances.
"We're just going to keep doing it as long as the Lord's given us legs to stand on and do it," Ms. Fudge said.
Cindy Washington, Mary Jane Stone, Edith Fudge and Teresa Jeter rehearse their belly dancing routine. (Staff Photo By Herb Nygren Jr.)