originally published May 19, 2012 in fuse: a tribal and tribal fusion belly dance magazine
Michelle Sorensen a.k.a. Miss Chellie, arrives to our interview driving a car with a license plate that reads “BLYDNCR.” To the Salt Lake City, Utah, belly dance community, she is a rising star who is synonymous with undulations, killer choreography, amazing costumes, and a sweet personality. The winner of Fusion Fest in Boise, Idaho, in 2011, Michelle maintains a humble attitude about her success. The mother of an adorable little girl with another on the way, she is also a wonderful role model for belly dancing mamas. Michelle, tall and statuesque, has an undeniably cute 8-month bulge. She has danced throughout her pregnancy, taking the dance back to its most essential roots. This is my insightful and honest conversation with Michelle.
Britta: So Michelle, how did you start belly dancing?
Michelle: I didn’t know belly dance even existed in Salt Lake City, because of the predominant culture here. One summer, in 2006, my husband and I were walking around Liberty Park back when they used to hold the big festival that Yasamina [Roque] put on. We sat down to watch and I was so intrigued. I just kept thinking, I want to do this. I fell in love with it. We watched for several hours. I signed up for classes that day. I started out with Yasamina and Kismet and then I did some ATS with Kashmir.
B: How has belly dance affected your life?
M: I can’t live my life without it. I tried for a year when I was pregnant with my first and it ate my soul to not do it. I thought, well, I have a kid now and belly dancers don’t have kids. I stopped dancing at about 3 months into my pregnancy because I was sick and then I kind of fell away from it, but 3 months after I gave birth, I just got that itch. I asked a few people who the “it” teacher was and they told me about Trisha McBride. So, I contacted her and started taking Trisha’s Tribal Fusion classes and fell in love with the Tribal Fusion style. Then I was invited to become a part of the performing troupe Lunar Collective. There were five of us in the beginning and then it came down to three of us: myself, Trisha, and Kelly Brown. That turned into something quite special for us because our symbol was that of the triple goddess. But over time, things changed. We all developed in different ways and eventually I just felt like it was time to go out on my own.
B: Salt Lake City has one of the highest concentrations of belly dancers in the country, but the dominant culture is patriarchal. Do you think belly dance comes as a response to that because it’s an expression of female power?
M: It could be. It’s definitely powerful for women and does everything that’s beautiful and empowering about being a woman for women. When I found it I thought, I don’t need to find another religion I just need to belly dance!
B: Why did you stop dancing during your first pregnancy?
M: I thought, people don’t want to see my stretch marks. We live in world where so much emphasis is put on looking great all the time. It really took the birthing experience for me to realize it’s about giving life to life. I don’t think I ever appreciated my body for what it was until I was giving birth. I was not ashamed of my stretch marks after that. It didn’t bother me to show people what my body had been through because motherhood is beautiful. I’ve had other dancers tell me, they were worried about dancing again because of what pregnancy had done to their bodies. That’s a social stigma. Our bodies change. Too often people want to be sexually appealing when they dance, and that is a part of it for sure, but it took having a child for me to realize the deeper aspects of belly dance are not really about that at all. It’s not about pleasing others’ eyes. It’s about what I’m doing for myself as a woman.
B: And you’ve danced throughout your whole pregnancy with this baby?
M: I wanted to show other women they can continue to dance when they’re pregnant because a lot of women think they can’t. The feedback I’ve received has been amazing. People have told me that it’s inspiring to see a woman exuding confidence while pregnant and I’m glad I can remind people of that.
B: How do you juggle motherhood and marriage with dance?
M: I think you need to have time to yourself to be a good mother because your relationship with your children cannot be healthy if you are just living every moment for them. You need to live your life for yourself and show them what a dream looks like. I don’t think it’s healthy for your children to become your only hobby. I think it’s good for them to see you can be independent and still take care of them. I don’t want my daughters growing up thinking that they have to give up what they love to be a mom. If it came down to an hour of dance, once a week, or an extra hour with my child, I would choose dance because it makes me happier and more receptive, so the time I spend with my daughter is more complete. Nothing’s missing. My husband is very supportive. If I don’t get my fix for the week, he knows I’m not going to be a fun person to be around, so he makes sure I have quiet time to myself every week to either choreograph or sew or just dance around the living room. It’s so nice to have a spouse who understands the desire to get to know myself better through creation.
B: I overheard you say once that you had a spinal problem when you were a child and that belly dance helped you correct it?
M: I discovered I had mild scoliosis when I was in junior high and the doctor suggested back braces, and I was like, no way! When you’re in junior high, you don’t want to go around in a back brace at school so every one can make fun of you. There was some talk about putting rods in my back to correct it later. When I started doing yoga in high school, I realized I could fix it with muscle strength in my torso. With belly dance and the inner core muscles being worked I realized my body fixed the scoliosis by pulling my spine straight. My muscles were making up for the S-curve in my spine because of belly dance.
B: Do you think belly dance could be used as a therapeutic tool? Like yoga?
M: I totally believe that. Another thing I’ve had to deal with since puberty is endometriosis and I’ve had terrible ovarian cysts. The pain I experienced lessened when I started belly dancing. I wonder sometimes if it’s from the massage it gives your internal organs when you’re doing belly rolls and tucks. Seeing how it’s based around the navel, I’m sure it’s beneficial for your feminine organs. That’s kind of how it started in the first place. I have this book called Grandmother’s Secrets and it’s all about womanhood, initiation, and birth. I really believe the dance is meant as a healing tool above everything else that’s cool about it.
B: Switching gears, what was it like to win first place at Fusion Fest?
M: I was three months pregnant at the time, but my husband pushed me to go because he knew I wanted to. I met a lot of really amazing people and I got great advice. I wasn’t expecting to win because there was so much beauty in everyone’s performances. I was a little shocked when I won. My favorite part about the competition was the feedback about what I could do better.
B: Tell us a bit about your costuming.
M: When I started dancing I didn’t really know how to sew, so I was purchasing costumes and it started getting really expensive. When I was dancing ATS, buying a coin bra cost a lot. I thought, I can make that. So I bought a sewing machine and I started experimenting. Creating costumes is so fulfilling to me because you get to shape that part and the character behind a choreography. I love imagining all the limitless possibilities for costumes. I lay awake at night thinking of all the things I can make. Personality comes out just as much through the costuming as it does through the dance. I sell costumes as well, and a lot of jewelry and headdresses. I’ve been using a lot of fur and feathers. I have an Etsy shop. (http://www.etsy.com/shop/TreasuryOfTrinkets) I make these little pendants with a capsule that has parchment inside and on the parchment, I write out things that are important to people. The very first one I made for myself [has] the quote “Without dance I cannot feel my soul, hear my heart, or see my dreams,” by Nahara. Every time I dance, I wear that to remind me that it’s not about being better than anyone else, it’s not about competing or the shows or the drama that sometimes comes with the community. It’s about my soul.
B: So, what’s next for you?
M: I plan on going through Rachel Brice’s 8 Elements. I applied for the summer scholarship and I want to attend the October intensive. [Note: She has since been accepted into 8 Elements.] I also plan on eventually starting my own school of dance. I want to go big or go home. No more sitting on the fence for me. I really want people to feel what I feel, and if I can do that by opening a school and inviting those spirits who long for that meditation, and it can improve their lives, I’m ready to offer it to the world.
Visit Michelle’s Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Michelle-Sorensen-Belly-Dancer/156145271134801