By Lauren Linhard –    Photos by Kaitlyn Fitzgerald

“We can all speak to having issues with our bodies,” said 24-year-old Allison Brickell. “For me it’s about focusing on what my body can do instead of what it looks like.”

That list of “can dos” includes muscle isolations, body rolls, hip lifts, ribcage circles and a host of other moves that make up belly dancing, a passion that started for Brickell in high school.

DSC_0574An after-school club was her first exposure to this unique art form, a major change from her experience in colorguard where everything was regimented – so when you made a mistake, everyone knew it.

“I was super awkward throughout high school and definitely went through being super uncomfortable with my body,” Brickell said. “Belly dancing taught me it was ok to improvise and be who I am and do what makes me happy.”

In college, Brickell started her own belly dancing group, which is still in full force at Towson University, and then joined the Lazuli Dance Company based in Baltimore City, Maryland, after graduation. Her experience with this body-positive group of women continues to motivates her to fulfill her goal of becoming a professional dancer.

DSC_0463“I’ve had women ask about taking belly dance classes, but say they have to lose a few pounds first, or maybe they don’t have the body for it,” Brickell said. “Belly dancing is about doing something for you. Be kind to yourself and have fun.”

For 36-year-old Laura Armstrong, who spends her days playing in an orchestra and teaching clarinet, weekly practices give her the chance to let loose and get creative. Rather than hiding behind a music stand, she said belly dancing allows her to become part of the music.

“Dancing has made me more confident in everything,” Armstrong said. “Women are taught they have to look a certain way to do certain things, but that’s just a construct. There is more to every woman than what they look like.”

DSC_0504In fact, said dancer Emily Diehl, who has been belly dancing since she was 16, one of the origin stories of belly dancing is the celebration of femininity, being proud of and accepting all body types.

Diehl performed for the first time in high school, having asked her coach a few days before if she had to show her stomach during the performance. Though the answer was no, Diehl decided she didn’t care what people thought about her weight and wore the original costume.

“I’ve never felt more confident, being surrounded by so many accepting women,” Diehl said of the Lazuli ladies. “Once you put on a sequin bra and dance in front of people together, you can do anything.”

DSC_0462Vicki Devlin joined the group after Brickell, having also been a part of the belly dancing club at Towson. She’s been dancing for eight years and the number one lesson she’s learned during that time is to love yourself and your body.

“You always hear women say I can’t because I’m too skinny, I’m too old, I’m too fat, I’m too tall,” Devlin said. “Just stop it, because you can. You can.”