There'vebeen stranger combinations than basketball and bellydance, says Helen Patrice.

     "They" will onlylet me write this if I change the names. And times,dates, and all distinguishing characteristics. Otherwise, "they" will come around and I'llbe wearing a concrete hip scarf.

I am a belly dance teacher in the eastern suburbsof Melbourne.  One night, one of my students broughther son with her.  Not a big deal, because occasionallymy ladies can't find a babysitter and will bring a childalong.  This son was 25.

I don't often get men in my classes.  An elderlyChinese man once, who said it was for his wife but cameto the class himself.  A husband or two who wantto see if I am running a white slave trade. At one neighbourhoodhouse, we share the house with a Toy Library. For the first week of every term, the mothers bringthe toys.  They must go home and report: "Hey,did you know there's belly dancing in the crècheroom at the neighbourhood house?"  For thenext four weeks, the dads bring the toys, and have agood look at us.  After that, when they've discoveredwe aren't wiggling in the equivalent of our underwear,the mums start bringing the toys again

I insist that all men in my classes work, not justlook.  Strangely enough, the husbands worried aboutwife kidnapping don't come back and, after one class,the Chinese man said he didn't think it was for him.

Chloe's son, Travis, said that he coached a localbasketball team, and that he was having trouble. They were all young men with a bad attitude.  Theythought they knew everything, could do anything, andthat their girlfriends were there for their gratification.

"Can you show me something I might not be ableto do?" Travis asked.  He preened.  "Iam pretty fit."

I layered a full body undulation on top of a shimmy. Travis blinked.

"Can ya do that again?  I missed the finepoints."

Shimmy, undulation, followed by a rib cage circle.Travis swallowed.  "When can you come teachmy boys?"

We arranged a time, a place, and fees.

Thursday, 6.30pm saw me fronting the basketball stadiumin Waverley Valley (names changed to protect the macho). I had my boom box, my CDs, a bag of veils, and a hipscarf.  I was ready for anything.  So I thought.

I am used to teaching in scout halls and back roomsof neighbourhood houses.  The stadium was huge. Travis greeted me and introduced me to the boys. They were all aged between 18 and 23. They were allbetween 6'3" and 6'10".  I am 5'2". Helen, welcome to the land of the giants.

I gathered them into a loose circle with me as theapex.  They eyed me in my leotard as they stoodaround in basketball gear.

"Aren't you kinda short?" asked Billy.

"Aren't you kinda round?"  Neil chimedin.

They all had fists on hips, with a "you can'tteach us anything" vibe.  This was going tobe a challenge.

Travis took them through the warm up he'd devisedfor them, and then I took them through mine.  Icould see they weren't impressed.  I think I heard"tame" and "poofy".  It wastempting to take them straight into something complicated,but I realised I didn't have to act like a jock. I started them on shimmies.

They were wearing baggy basketball shorts.  Asit turned out, when they confessed later, most weren'twearing underpants.  The satin of the shorts outlinesthings.  I was much shorter than any of them. My eyes were level with their waists.  A shimmyinvolves wobbling the knees back and forth in a small,rapid way that makes the lower body shake.  I gotquite an eyeful once they all got going.

"Oh Lord," I thought.  "Only anothersix weeks of this."

Then we tried hip circles.  A man's pelvis istilted forward more than a woman's.  Most men exaggeratethat tilt.  'Advertising,' a Pilates teacher oncesuggested.  Picture if you will a group of youngmen sliding their pelvises around in a circle whilstwearing slidey, silky basketball shorts.  I wonderedif I was teaching them belly dance, or readying themfor careers as strippers.

They didn't seem to care.  They circled theirpelvises at each other.  For the next six weeks,it didn't matter how much I emphasised technique, modestyor subtlety.  Each week, they'd grind their hipsaround at each other and me.

"Yeah, baby!"

"Check this out."


Travis stood on the sidelines, shaking his head. This was supposed to be giving his boys a better attitude? He decided to join in, just to discourage the more raucousguys from trotting out their worst dirty jokes. Oh, puh-lease!  I've had three years of teachingbelly dance to women.  There's not a dirty jokeI haven't heard.

The boys applauded Travis as he attempted a figureeight with the rest of them.

"Hey Coach, get into it!"

Followed by barking noises.  My ladies had neverdone that.  They'd detailed the effects of bellydance on their sex lives, and asked me to help themget pregnant, but not actually barked in class. Well, I'm always up for new experiences.

At the end of the first class, I thought we'd do someveil work.  All my veils, at 2.5 metres, were tooshort for their arms.  We made do, but I jokinglysuggested they'd have to buy their own veils for nextweek.

The boys flipped the veils around their heads, whippedeach other with them, and trailed the veils over theircrotches.  I made a mental note to wash all myveils.

It was the end of the first lesson and I was limp. I felt like I'd been trapped in a room with 12 jaguars. We did a cool down stretch and then came the usual request.

"Can we see you dance?"

"Yeah, just to make sure you can do it."

Sigh.  I don't normally dance for an all-malecrowd.  But each of my classes wants to see meput it all together.  After all, they were learningpiecemeal.  Shimmies, circles, figure eights, hiplifts.  How do you put all that into a dance?

"And we don't want any of that belly dance musiccrap," said Billy.

I fossicked in my CD folder and gave them a bellydance to Pink's "Get This Party Started". Sort of a belly dance/bollywood funk fusion.  There'sa first time for everything.

They were quiet afterwards, muttering to each other,obviously discussing the merits of seven weeks withme.  It didn't look good.  Travis' eyes weredarting between me and his team.

Neil turned and squinted at me.  "Whereexactly would we get these veil things?"

My mouth dropped open.  "Oh...er...at Spotlight. About three metres of chiffon should see you right."

"Chiffon, huh?"

Next week, they all had veils.

"My mum hemmed mine," Billy said, wavinga bright red veil.  It matched his basketball shorts.

"Me too."

"Me too."

"I did mine myself."  They all turnedto look at Warn.  He shrugged.  "I didTextiles in high school."

These big, strong, tall men were standing around comparingthe sewing efforts of their mothers.  I calledthe class to order and we got to work on some hip drops.

"Just picture yourself squashing a giant tomatointo the ground with one side of your bum.  No,Billy, you're not sitting on the tomato with your wholebackside..... Neil, stop kicking Billy's backside.....Warn,put down the veil, we'll do that later."

These were grown-ups?

For seven weeks, I taught them belly dance. They reported going home and demonstrating for theirmothers and girlfriends.  They got ticked off whentheir mothers could do rib cage circles and they couldn't. They learned to hip lift without looking like sex workers. They did snake arms that didn't make them look feminine,but didn't make them look like gorillas either. They even learned a short choreography. 

In the final week, I took my life into my own handsand gave them a lesson with sticks.  Sticks areused in folkloric belly dance.  I handed out piecesof thin dowling to my boys.  Instant sword fighting,hitting, and tripping.  For men who could handlea basketball like it was stuck to their fingers, theyall launched their sticks around the stadium with monotonousregularity.  Not one could twirl their stick formore than a few seconds without some mishap.  Itwas a hard-hat area.  I wanted to go home whereit would be safe, and phone in my instructions.

The seventh lesson drew to a close.  They cheeredand gave me a present. They'd shopped for it themselves. All of them trooped into a sexuality boutique and boughtme a t-shirt.  It was tight and black and had 'You'veBeen A Bad Boy.  Go To My Room' printed on it inluminous white.  They were thrilled with theirchoice.  I couldn't actually think of a place Icould wear this, but I thanked them profusely.

Then they crowded around me.  Surely they didn'twant another dance.

Neil handed me a basketball.

"Okay, let's see you shoot a basket."

They started chanting.  "Helen, Helen, Helen! Oi, oi, oi!"

The basketball hoop was a long way up there. It took me 17 shots before I got the ball through thehoop.  The boys carried me around the stadium,cheering.  They were pleased I'd done it, and pleasedthey were better than me at something.

I went home with a lot of fun memories of my timewith them, and settled back into my normal teachingroutine, Term Two coming to a close.

Four weeks later, I got a call from Travis.

"The boys want you back.  And I want youto come back.  Their coordination's improved heaps."

Thus, for the next year, I had a semi-permanent teachingjob with my troupe of boys.  They learned veil,sticks, and walking shimmies.  Their girlfriendsreported their men had better attitudes. And they wonmost of their games.

In Fourth Term, I found five of their mothers in myother classes.

"Anyone who can teach my son to undulate musthave something going for them."

At the end of the year, Waverley Valley Under 25s hosteda dinner on my behalf.  The boys performed a dance. They borrowed my coin belts.  It was a proud moment. And funny.  Warn's mother tried to tuck money intohis hip scarf.

The good thing about being a belly dance teacher isthat I have as much fun as my students.  You can'task much more of a job.

moreonline articles available

or pick up this month's copy of
NOVA Magazine