In the mid-1990s, in my twenties, I decided to begin a series of formal dance lessons that would help me connect more deeply with my Lebanese heritage. Raqs sharqi — bellydance — was not a difficult thing to find in Houston, and I easily found a school — Sirrom — where I could take lessons.
My mother seemed…skeptical. Perhaps because I’d dropped out of ballet and tap at the age of seven so I could start playing the piano? Perhaps because I had neither balance nor grace? Perhaps because the prevailing opinion was that I was probably afraid of my own shadow? “I don’t recommend it,” my mother said.
“I’m pretty sure this is something I want to do,” I said.
A couple of days later, she added, “You know, if you bellydance, you’ll actually make your stomach bigger from all that exercising of your abdominal muscles.”
That didn’t really track with me. “I’m doing it,” I said. “I’ve already found a school. The classes won’t be expensive, and I can do it around my teaching schedule.”
Mom wasn’t thrilled, but she got over it in time for my first recital, a performance which was…okay. Enthusiastic, though, definitely that. (I got better over time.)
One of my first bellydance teachers, or “dance mamas” as we often called them, was a woman named Debbie Scheel. In the dance community, she also went by Shakira Massood-Ali. Shakira was her dance name, Massood was her mother’s last name, and Ali was the name of Debbie’s own dance teacher. Debbie was Syrian and Lebanese and American, and she had the biggest personality I had ever encountered up to that point in my life. It’s a cliché to say a person is always smiling, but in her case, it was true. She was a veritable repository of good humor and a good sense of humor. She wasn’t afraid to crack herself up, and we all learned how to embrace being funny with her.
Debbie was one of the most brilliant choreographers I have ever known, and that’s saying something. She could nimbly execute even the most difficult combinations that my body, even after my eventual years of experience in the dance, would just stare at in wonder and despair. Debbie was also the first person I knew who really demonstrated body positivity before I even knew what the phrase meant. She made it clear that bellydance was empowering rather than objectifying. Debbie wasn’t the teacher who said to me: “When a woman can control her body, she can control her space, and when she can control her space, she can control her life.” But she damn well demonstrated it in real time better than almost anyone I knew. And she taught dozens, if not actual hundreds, of women the same.
In Debbie’s eyes, you did not have to be a super model to look glamorous in a bellydance costume. You didn’t have to be a Bellydance Superstar to be excellent in the dance. You did not have to be young and nubile and whatever else the dominant culture would have you believe is the right thing for a woman to be, to be worthy of notice. Every woman, every girl, every person of any age and size and ability was all of those wonderful things as far as she was concerned, or so she made us believe.
I have rarely seen anyone who displayed a more intense and genuine joy to be dancing. She cut an intimidating figure, and her elaborate costumes and up-to-eleven exuberance did nothing to tamp this down. Nor would we have wanted that. She was her own force of nature, and she taught us that we were good enough, we were beautiful, we were elegant and fun and smart and worth every minute of anyone’s attention. She instructed us not only in how to be really good dancers, but also that we were goddesses, each in our own amazing ways. Some of us even believed it sometimes, especially after a really vigorous performance.
I had trouble making it to class and performances consistently after my children were born. I remember ending my enrollment at the studio, tearfully, telling Debbie that I just couldn’t manage the time right then, between teaching full-time, caring for two babies, and writing a novel. She took my face in her hands and said, “Habibti, you can have it all. Just not all at the same time. We will always be here for you when you come back.” And she was.
I retired from bellydance (performance) over a decade ago, but I often miss the dance. I’m still close friends with some of the women I danced with the most, some of whom were my classmates and troupemates and some of whom were my own dance students. I’ve always meant to get back into it, even just doing it at home as part of my regular exercise routine.
But inertia is a bitch. It’s just been easy not to, especially during the pandemic. I know that I’ve never been physically healthier than when I was dancing regularly. My chiropractor and physical therapist reminds me frequently that quitting dance was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done for my body. He’s right, of course. I’ve always put it off, though, because of course I’ll get to it later, when I’m not so busy.
Last week, amidst all the other absolute craziness, Debbie suffered a massive heart attack and couldn’t recover from it. Her sudden death, a shock that quaked through the bellydance community, had all of us calling and texting each other the next morning, regardless of whatever classes or meetings or anything else we were supposed to be doing. We couldn’t believe it. How could this have happened? How was there not more time? We can’t even all get together for a funeral. Now what?
If there is anything I learned from Debbie, it’s that verve and enthusiasm and doing what’s right for you should be on every woman’s to-do list. Maybe that means I’m going to start dancing again after all. It definitely means that tonight I’m going to be editing one of my novels. I’m so grateful to her for teaching me to prioritize myself, even when I’ve failed to do so.
Tim O’Brien wrote, it’s easy to get sentimental about the dead. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to posture that Debbie was more or less than she was, to me or to anyone or all on her own. But somehow just knowing she’s not out there cracking jokes and ululating and intimidating — maybe (for the more timid) frightening — the hell out of every man in the room with her incredible presence makes the world a little less musical place.
If you’d like to see Debbie’s obituary, click here. You can watch the memorial video on the site and see a lot of wonderful pictures of her that will give you a taste of her vibrant spirit. Enjoy.