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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Belly Dancer Breast Cancer

by Diana DeMille/Anamcara & Friends


When a woman faces breast cancer the possibility of disfigurement or death is frightening. Presumably any belly dancers and Middle Eastern dancers feel their breasts are the focus of their dancing and would decide their performance days are over. This presumption is not only incorrect, the opposite is true.

Women with breast cancer are turning to belly dancing to regain their sense of femininity and femaleness, to rediscover an inner spirituality, to bond with compassionate women, and as a form of exercise to release stress and tone up their chemo-inflated bodies.

I look back to the incubus, the seed of 1997 and am amazed to see the steps leading to writing this article for you. That was the year I had my second mastectomy, acquired my first computer, created a website ("Dancing Tree Frog"), and uploaded two cancer surveys - one of which was the "Belly Dancer Breast Cancer Survey". The women who responded asked if there was a list group for belly dancers with breast cancer. There was not. So I created a list group. The women in "DancerCancer" are extraordinary, compassionate, helpful belly dancers ranging from 29 to 57 years of age.

Let the women speak for themselves....

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision, Glendale, California.





Shouva Writes, "Finding DancerCancer by accident has been an answer to prayer for me. I feel I am not alone. There are other dancers who have gone through what I am now experiencing. They can provide answers to questions that no one else can. They can give me the moral support to keep on dancing and feeling good about myself despite losing a breast and choosing not to have immediate reconstruction." Despite being in chemo, Shouva has made time to perform with her troupe at three different venues.

Doing Renaissance Gypsy style, she found it easy to alter her costume to hide the fact of a missing breast. She took a tank top found at the Salvation Army, split it up the front to get her still stiff arm into it, and wore it under her dance bra with her prosthesis inside.

During one performance, it slipped loose and ended up near her collar bone. No problem. She just turned her back to the audience, put the prosthesis back in place, and danced her next number. "The show must go on!"




Lisa was diagnosed at age 30. She had not heard of breast cancer survivors doing belly dancing. "I have to say that I am so pleased that this list group exists - I had been feeling like my issues were so different from anyone else who belly dances. I had breast cancer two years ago at age 30. Fortunately I caught it early but still had a mastectomy with reconstruction and chemotherapy. I partially attribute my continued great health to dancing. I had reconstruction, a tram flap, that utilized one of my stomach muscles as well as my lower abdomen fat to rebuild my breast."

The tram flap reconstruction left a huge scar on her stomach, but Lisa put silicon gel strips over the scar as it healed which the plastic surgeon gave to her. Her scar healed very well and flat, but Lisa hated the dark color the scar and had it covered with a tattoo of a beautiful flowering vine she designed.

Lisa says, "I have found that the dancing has really helped me with my body image changes in addition to helping me express myself through movement. It's important that I keep the flexibility in my arm and the dancing helps. When I started dancing about one and a half years ago I could barely do sit-ups. Now I can keep up with my instructor and have noticed that I am stronger than some of the others in my class!" Lisa says the costumes are fun and help her feel pretty. "Plus I've learned about other cultures and I love the music. Dancing has been a wonderful healing for me and has helped me with my outlook on life and on myself."




Before surgery Amethyst felt that her only redeemable feature was her bust line. She worried that she would be less likely to turn on her fiancé because to her, her chest was everything. She resumed her dancing right away because it was the only time she felt pretty. It didn't matter that she wasn't doing the moves right due to the pain.

A week after surgery Amethyst was alone in the house and dancing. The kids were gone and her fiancé was at work. None of them were expected back for a couple of hours so she dressed in her best costume and went into the studio to practice. She stopped dancing after half an hour, and heard quiet applause. When Amethyst turned around she saw her fiancé sitting on the steps in the shadows. "I asked him how long he had been there and he said about three songs ago. Boy, was I embarrassed! Then he said the sweetest thing, 'God, you're beautiful!' Who would have thought those three little words could have stopped time? But they did!"

Amethyst did not have chemo. Eight months later she had to have surgery again. When she came home from the hospital the first thing her fiancé said was, "So, you going to dance for me tomorrow?" She married him a year later. "Belly dancing means more to me now than it ever did before."




Cyl wrote, "My sense of femininity had a double blow ten years ago when I had a hysterectomy and a total mastectomy of my left breast. The hysterectomy led to a routine mammogram (my first) which showed the questionable mass. The mass was cancer. During early treatment I felt like a zombie. Getting through chemo was my goal. I tried to dance, but felt like a fraud. I kind of kept with it, but not with the same zest as before cancer, and when I danced I no longer tried to be or feel sensual.

"Maybe this is where my interest in ethnic/folk style dancing and costuming really took hold. Things greatly improved when I had my reconstructive surgery. I got back into dancing full force after that. Because of my age (53) and my weight, I still prefer the ethnic style of costuming and dance. I like the magic of the dance - how it makes me feel creative, beautiful, sensual, alive . . . and its exercise value. I lost 0% range of motion after my surgery. I enjoy the comradity of other dancers. In most cases dancing brings you a special bond with other dancers whether or not they've had cancer. The dance expresses your joy, gratefulness, and celebration that you are alive! I am a different person now - hopefully, a better person."




Janice writes that cancer has done all it can to eliminate the feminine in her. "My breast is scarred, my hair is gone, my body weak and tired, my libido shot, my eyebrows and eyelashes a memory." Janice wrote on the survey, "I had the second dose of chemo last week and did well. Your survey has inspired me to get out my practice tapes again for movement and flexibility. I walk, but dance has always put me so solidly in this body of mine. My hair is gone, my breast is misshapen, but when I look in the mirror I see a woman who is strong, brave, healthy, growing wiser. Know that I am not a breast, I am not hair, I am not a scar - I am ME."

Janice said recently, "Belly dance reclaims that woman in me - veils and scarves become my hair, draped fabric and fringe don't care what's underneath. I can move as fast or as slow as my stamina allows - the music is very tolerant of interpretation. Make-up gives me a sexy, exotic look and as I move to the sounds, my female spirit slips back into my skin - sways, shimmies, floats its way back, reminding me that I am a wonderful wild woman - no matter what cancer tried to tell me."




Rain assured me that femininity is far more than breasts. "You will discover new sensual parts of you most women ignore - the hips, the abdomen, the thighs, back, neck, shoulders, the arms, your hands, your eyes, and your smile. Femininity is internal. For me, losing my hair, my breasts, and my husband struck hard at my sense of femininity. So I worked at becoming a sensuous woman.

"I listen. I learn. I belly dance. I make love, and I love deeply now.

"Belly dancing provides the restoration of femininity, is great exercise, fosters a feeling of accomplishment, and reveals a woman's innate beauty and strength.

"Thank you for the wonderful idea of expressing my experience with cancer in my dance."



Being Bald

Rain, Janice, and Shouva have us laughing when they let down their hair (so to speak) and tell us their escapades about being bald. Shouva is 48 years old and has belly danced for five years, despite having surgery on both her knees. She wears braces. She had a modified radical of her right breast.

Shouva wrote, "Yikes, it finally hit. Hair loss on the head. I performed at the Long Beach Renaissance Faire. Arriving home I filled pots with warm water and washed my head out on my balcony. I did not want the amount of hair that was going to come out to clog my shower drain. I leaned over and let the hair fall into the planter below. When a neighbor walked by, I beat a hasty retreat inside."

Three weeks later Diana met Shouva at the Santa Barbara Renaissance Faire. She was completely bald - and beautiful. Large liquid eyes, warm smile, and filled with laughter. I was honored to be asked by Shouva and her Tribe Roman Morga to join them in painting henna on her bald head. For more insight and laughter, be certain to read Shouva's Belly Dancing Stories on Diana's web site.



Beautiful & Sensual

When Amethyst told us she was invited to give a talk at her gym, Shouva wrote, "Good for you to give that talk. It is expecially important to be able to show to others how you have not only survived, but that you also have gone on to learn an art form that is so feminine and sensual. I hope you will convey in your speech how belly dancing has given you a new sense of increased femininity since your breast cancer. I also am so happy to have the support and friendship of so many wonderful women through my belly dancing. There is also the element of self-expression through the dance as well as the spirituality, both of which are helping me through everything I am going through. In belly dance, for all women, not just cancer survivors, everyone is beautiful. It is the only dance form I know where a 300-pound woman can be as beautiful and sensual as a 125-pound woman.

"At the Long Beach Faire, one of the three dancers in the competition dance was Trish. She is heavy set and is one of the sweetest, kindest, most loving women you could ever meet. She is the one that did Reiki on me and then I had an appetite. Trish came on with so much personality she grabbed the audience. Her face was shining. She flirted with her smile and eyes. She joked about her hips through her movements and expressions, and showed how they could really move! The audience loved her! They whooped and hollered! She was the winner of the competition, hands down. So, let them know that everyone is beautiful as a belly dancer - big or small, young or old, with two breasts or only one or none at all."



Forever Healing

Rain wrote that she was driving down the expressway and found herself reciting out loud the adjectives that came to mind when she recalled her mastectomy: "Amputated, cut off, dismembered, distanced, cold, stark, and shocking. And then I thought of the way I have tended to become after the horrors of the chemo and the ensuing divorce faded away. I feel as if I've isolated myself, cut myself off from closeness, distanced myself emotionally. And then I remembered this group. Hard as it is for me to make the time to respond to the e-mails and send notes of encouragement, I find it all part of my forever healing. Thank you ALL . . . for teaching me. Love always."



In Conclusion

Diana is grateful to the "circumstances" that led to being a part of our DancerCancer list group. She has received far more than she has given.

Yes, we are wild wonderful women! We express and release our emotions about breast cancer through dance. You are welcome to join us!



Related Articles

Here are other resources on the web which may be of interest:

  • Belly Dancer Breast Cancer Survey. Diana DeMille's online survey that led to formation of the DancerCancer list group. Visit the site to provide your own input and view the summarized responses so far.
  • DancerCancer. A conversation group for belly dancers to discuss breast cancer. It's the online meeting place for the women quoted in this article. Join it if you'd like to participate in the dialogues.
  • Healing Through Oriental Dance: Part 1, Physical Healing. How dance can help your body recover from a variety of problems.





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