Shannon Townsend is a bellydancer and bellydance instructor located in Minneapolis, MN. She runs the class Belly Theatricality on Fridays at Smiling Lune – located at 711 W. Lake St #417 in Minneapolis. All levels of dancers are welcome to attend. The school also hosts a regular Joy of Dance evening where the curious may visit the studio to see if dancing is for them.
How did you get involved with bellydance? How long have you been doing it?
My father in law is a member of the S.C.A. (a medieval re-enactment society, for those not educated in the organization), and he’d been trying to get me to attend a few belly dance classes in the past after spending a week at a huge event that had some workshops and classes. But I was pretty hung up on my weight, and never went due to poor self image. Silly as it seems now, I felt that I had no right trying, like if I showed up I’d be some kind of shunned idiot sitting int he corner because my butt was bigger than the mental image I had of what a belly dancer should be. At the time I thought that being over a size 12 meant I’d be kidding myself if I even tried. It seems silly now, but I had this visual in my head that dancers should look a certain way, and I didn’t fit that ideal in my own head. Then back in 2004 I went away to a girl’s retreat weekend with some buddies from the anime convention circuit, and one of them happened to be a belly dance student. We watched a DVD of a recent performance of hers, and I started asking questions. She explained that it’s really a form of dance meant to work with all body types, and that my hangups were pretty common, but completely unfounded. After several months of fretting over it, I made myself go to a Tunisian and Egyptian beginner level class. I was terrified and sat in my car in the parking lot for a half hour before forcing myself to go in. I was horrified, especially when I realized I was most definitely the heaviest girl in the class. But it was one of the best nights of my life…I never looked back. Years later I sit here and think to myself, ‘what the hell were you so afraid of, silly girl?’
What’s this about a new bellydance school? What style? What brought it about?
This is the fun part! Just over a year ago, I moved to Minneapolis with my husband, and through some mutual friends, I met Kalila Indivar, a local instructor and dancer. We hit it off and ended up partnering up. I spent about a year teaching at Lesley Inman’s studio, Bohemian Underground Workshop. But Lesley had to shut down late in 2011, and Kalila and I saw a rare opportunity that we just couldn’t pass up. It took a couple of months to get everything together, and a LOT of hard work, but we opened Smiling Lune Studio back in January. It’s been amazing. Hard, trying at times, but amazing. It’s nice to have our own space where we can create and work.
The school offers a unique array of classes, and while I know that sounds like an ad, it’s really not. I personally specialize in Theatrical Fusion belly dance, where the dancers put an emphasis on not only drilling and learning proper safe technique, but we touch on things like stage presence, eye contact, and emotive response, so it’s really a fun and well rounded class that offers things that most classes don’t cover. We also have classes like Belly Dance Boot Camp, Yoga, Contact Improv dancing, and more. We’re trying to keep it fresh and unique.
What do you find the most challenging part of the actual dancing? How does your body affect your dancing?
The beautiful part about belly dancing in general is that it really is an art form designed for all body types. I think that’s one of the reasons there has been this huge popularity boom in several styles over the last few years. But the dance form lends itself well to the female body, and really teaches women how to become more comfortable in the skin they’re in. It promotes fitness and wellness while embracing who you are! That and I’ll be honest…I love when one of my students posts on facebook that I thoroughly kicked their asses in class.
I think my biggest physical challenge is just the ‘fleshy bits’ getting in the way during my warm ups and what not. Certain yoga poses get on my nerves if I’m honest, but you just have to learn to adjust things safely and do your best. The advanced class that I attend on Tuesday nights really whips me into shape, and you have to continually work to grow and overcome things. You set goals. You try to meet them. And you celebrate your successes, and let your shortcomings drive you to bigger and better things.
But if anything, belly dance has helped me in a physical way more than you could possibly imagine. I’ve lost weight over the years, my back pain has gone away thanks to better posture, and my flexibility and overall health have improved quite a bit. I’ve had more comments in the last few years from people about how confident I look than ever before. Belly dance changed me, and it changed how I live my life. It’s therapeutic not only for the soul, but for the mind and body. It’s one of the reasons I love it so much!
Now, let’s talk adventures in costuming. Please share your latest adventure in bra hunting. What was the biggest challenge for you? What do you need in a bellydance-friendly bra that might be different from a sports bra? (Coins in awkward places, etc.)
Oooh god I could go on for HOURS about this. I hate to generalize it as a body type thing because let’s face it; I don’t know a single woman that doesn’t have issues shopping for clothes. I’m an avid fashionista in my spare time and my love of all things rockabilly and 50’s inspired clothing keeps me shopping pretty regularly, and I’ve learned to love my curves and work with them. I expect shopping for jeans to suck…I do not expect shopping for costuming to suck. But it does sometimes.
Bra hunting is the worst. I’m a 42DD, but when you buy costume bras for dance that you are going to alter in some way, you usually have to go up a cup size because you typically cover them in fabric. And when you do that, it actually binds down the cup size a bit and shrinks it. I almost always dance with two bras, one underneath for support and another with decorations. I learned this the hard way, because coins and beads and trim make a bra weigh a lot more than a supportive bra would (shocker I know hehe). So when I find a bra that fits and works well, I usually buy 2-3 at a time. What sucks about this is the price point; a good supportive bra for me at cheapest runs about $35 unless I catch a good clearance sale.
Sometimes I’ll wait for Torrid to re-vamp their bra line, which they do pretty frequently, and I’ll just buy out a few styles when they go on clearance online. But it’s made it hard to plan. And god help me if I have something break! I keep clear straps in my makeup gig case at all times…just in case.
It’s also worth mentioning that Belly Dance did change my body a bit. My booty lifted several inches, my midsection trimmed, and my legs became very muscular over the years, so things like that do effect what you buy. I’ve found myself gravitating to a lot of Geisha Moth clothing because her stuff is SO comfortable, and flattering on every body style.
Do you have any wardrobe malfunction stories you’d like to share?
Not many, actually. I’ve managed to keep things pretty well contained. I did have a show a few months ago where I forgot a costume bra, and just had to run with my normal one underneath this wrap top. I had to practically tape the girls in; I wear a lot of deep plunge style in my day to day and I seriously was freaking about popping out. Mercifully I was fine.
Is there anything else you would like the world to know about you?
Just these two things.
One, I encourage any woman to give belly dance a try. I know so many people that reach out to me about classes, and then let their nerves get the best of them, and they never come to that first class to try. They feel insecure, and frightened that they won’t belong. And I will tell you right now, with all my heart, do NOT let that fear get the best of you! Belly dance is a folkloric, celebratory dance at it’s heart, and even though there are many styles of it, we as dancers share a common thread of hope and unity. We are a sisterhood (and sometimes brotherhood!) of strong, powerful people. Don’t let fear get the best of you. Come to a class, and you’ll learn about a whole beautiful side of you that you probably didn’t know existed.
Two, I’m an avid believer in the fact that all women need to celebrate who they are, regardless of size. I think too much emphasis is placed on weight and size, when the emphasis SHOULD be on celebrating who you are as an individual. I’m not thin, but I love my body. I’m curvy and fabulous, and I wish that all women could look in the mirror and say “I’m fab. Totally utterly fab.” Weight is just a number. Size is just a number. It’s about you, how you carry yourself, and having the confidence to realize that you are a beautiful person inside and out. And once you realize that, no one will argue.