Since arriving on the west coast in July, I have been eager to discover the local communities. I made an attempt to connect with a yoga community by going to the Grassfoots Yoga Festival in the suburbs of Vancouver, and it was not my scene at all. Where do I belong? I wondered. Who are my people and how will I find them?
My seeking took me to the Bellyfit Summit, a weekend of dance, yoga, movement, women’s empowerment, health and body image here in Victoria at the end of September. These are some of my favourite things!
Bellyfit is a holistic health system that combines elements of bellydance, yoga and fitness. This summit is the peak of Bellyfit, founder Alice Bracegirdle told me during a conversation a few weeks before the event. It’s a growing community, with over 400 trained Bellyfit instructors worldwide. Bracegirdle started to develop the system in 2007, then started training instructors, who go on to pay a monthly fee to teach Bellyfit and use the brand.
It goes without saying that many of the women attending the summit were Bellyfit instructors. They came from across Canada, and there were a number from the US and even as far away as Europe. It should also go without saying that the women at the summit were undoubtedly the most beautiful and vibrant women you could see in a single space. The Victoria Conference Centre was filled to the brim with healthy, glowing women who emanated power and strength. As a system of empowerment through movement and self-love, by all appearances, Bellyfit works.
Bracegirdle herself models what Bellyfit aims to instill in women. She is a dynamic and confident powerhouse, with a contagious smile and sincere interest in everyone she talks to. At the summit, she tirelessly taught a bunch of classes, buzzed around between sessions checking in on things and hosted the Saturday night gala show.
She assembled a group of strong, competent, driven and creative women for two days of workshops and classes. The guest speakers and instructors included body image activist Taryn Brumfitt, who had traveled all the way from Australia, yoga revolutionary Jill Miller, bellydance and yoga sensation Hemalayaa, and the irreverent and charismatic Misty Tripoli, alongside locals such as yoga instructor Tracey Noseworthy and community builder Carolyne Taylor. Bracegirdle brought together the people who inspired her business and teaching, her mentors, and in doing so made it possible for the whole Bellyfit community to access their knowledge.
Acknowledging Context and History
It’s interesting to situate these kinds of events in the context they take place in. The summit happened in the spacious and bright Victoria Conference Centre, in the city’s tourist district and adjacent to the historic Empress Hotel. The lobby of the conference centre is illuminated by natural light and adorned with plants and totem poles, the sacred sculptures carved from trees by the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest. Despite these reminders of the locale, this was one of the few public events in Victoria that I’ve attended where there was no acknowledgement of territories, in which the host pays respect to the indigenous stewardship of the land where the event is taking place and acknowledges the history of colonialism here. The acknowledgement isn’t a mandatory thing around here, but I notice when it doesn’t happen.
Anyway, at the base of the totem poles was a small but bustling marketplace (which we had to walk through to get to the sessions) full of eco-friendly, solopreneur-type businesses. Many were related to workshop presenters and topics, with their products available alongside malas, jewelry and samples of organic popsicles. As usual when I’m at these events, I found grumbling under my breath, blah blah blah consumerism blah blah capitalism… ooooh lip gloss (and I did actually end up buying gorgeous organic non-toxic lip gloss, along with Wild Woman cards, coconut deodorant and beef jerky; I also got a massage).
Overall, the setting worked for the event. Vivacious, fit, energetic women shuffled excitedly between conference rooms. Workshops were full and upbeat dance music drifted from classrooms. I had signed up for sessions with Jill Miller, two Wild Woman divination workshops, a Groove class with Misty Tripoli, Taryn Brumfit’s lecture and a bunch of other things, and I enjoyed all of them thoroughly.
Feminism vs. the Feminine
I was particularly interested in Bracegirdle’s session, “From Feminist to Feminine,” in which she presented her critique of feminism, and called out for a return to feminine qualities and stop trying to play at the men’s game. While passionate and thought-out, Bracegirdle’s references included a list of men who’ve published self-help or pop psychology books. She could have also benefited from reading Carol Lee Flinders, who looks at the failings of the gender wars and puts forth ideas for restoring balance for everyone in her book Rebalancing the World.
In an earlier interview, Bracegirdle and I had an interesting conversation about feminism, in anticipation of her lecture at the summit. She rejected the term and wasn’t convinced that the feminist movement had done much to benefit women in society. I agree that feminism has its shortcomings, but what it does offer is an analysis of power structures that keep women oppressed, while ideas of the feminine often are essentialist and individualist.
I identify as a feminist, and I honour the women before me who have fought for greater rights and freedoms, and I believe the world needs feminism. While I acknowledge that feminism is far from perfect, I think it’s a force working towards justice for women. Even though there is still a strong power imbalance, I see what feminism has accomplished: the vote for women, better wages, more opportunities. Feminism has contributed to the discourse around body image that Bellyfit presenters like Taryn Brumfit and Tera Warner spoke to in their keynotes. Feminism enabled somebody like Bracegirdle, an entrepreneur, business woman and public figure, to do what she does.
To the Summit and Beyond
I came out of the weekend feeling refreshed and connected. I’m not sure if I found my people, but I encountered many wonderful, interesting people. Maybe I just need to be a lone wolf for a while, as I explore and figure out where I fit on this wild and beautiful island.
The only other experience to which I can compare the Bellyfit Summit is Daughters of the Earth, a weekend-long celebration of the feminine in the woods of western Massachusetts that I attended a few years ago. I learned how to massage my womb, danced around a fire late into the night, examined my relationship to money and peed in a solar powered toilet. The Bellyfit Summit had a similar entrepreneurial, goddessy, hug-the-earth kind of vibe – only we were connecting with our wild women in the sanitary confines of a conference centre and we had access to real bathrooms.
Alice Bracegirdle knows how to throw a party, and she’s generous and grounded enough to include everyone she comes into contact with. The world is a better place with an event like the Bellyfit Summit. The women involved with the movement are forces to be reckoned with, and if Bellyfit was powered with a little feminist fire and a collective, political orientation that looked beyond the benefits of individual and personal health, who knows what could happen.
Photos by Shari Nakagawa of Sushi Rice Studios.