When I applied for the Villella Fellowship in 2015, I had no idea how much an impact it would make on my life or dance career.
I am a classically trained ballet dancer, and although ballet was my first love, it has always felt unrequited.
My work ethic, drive for perfection, translatable technique and discipline are all due to ballet.
However, these qualities came at a cost. I have always, as almost every young woman has, struggled with body image.
I am by no means the Balanchine body type, tall and waif-like. At 5 feet 3 inches tall, my long straight lines were always too curvy.
As a girl in Western society and a ballet dancer, I accepted that I would never love my body.
Yet, as a young woman, I grew to tolerate it. At my ballet school at home, parents would ask me to talk to their young daughters about body image — but what did I know?
I hated my stomach, my thighs and my arms, anything that had an ounce of fat.
I decided to help them accept their bodies, because you cannot change it, you can only change your attitude about it.
I never claimed to know the way to full-heartedly accept the body I have, until now.
I encourage all women to take a bellydancing class.
The day I got home from my last sophomore exam, I went straight to my first bellydance class under the teaching of the beautiful and talented Sahina Sadai.
When I got there, I timidly stretched in the corner as the other women all greeted each other with hugs and changed for class.
In Middle Eastern dancing, you dance with your midriff exposed in order to show all the undulations and isolations of all of your muscles.
When it was time to dance I stepped in front of the mirror with my stomach exposed. I was horrified to have to see my embarrassing stomach.
But just then, we began to dance. The other 10 women in class were all shapes and sizes — and they were all amazing dancers.
About 10 minutes into class, I began watching myself in the mirror and actually wished I had more to undulate and shake.
For the first time in my whole life, I wished I were curvier. It was a strange and new feeling for me, as someone who has spent her life criticizing her body in front of a dance studio mirror; I was now content, even happy, with what I had to work with.
After that first class, I fully immersed myself in bellydance culture.
I took three classes a week, researched traditional dances and costuming, read history, made costumes and attended performances.
Bellydance culture is much like a time capsule that has preserved the body image from pre-flapper era.
In the 1920s in America, the Vintage Oriental style of Bellydance was born.
All ethnic groups were migrating into cities and coming together to show their style of dancing and music.
Bellydancers from all over the Middle East showed off their style and learned new ones to create a melting pot of styles.
This was happening at the same time that the flapper woman, who was very thin, with no curves, was becoming the American ideal.
Bellydancing culture did not strive for the boy-like change in the womanly form.
Instead, it kept celebrating and embracing the natural, womanly figure, curves and all.
Even being trained in ballet, Latin ballroom, salsa, modern, hip hop and Balinese dance on my mini-term in Bali, learning bellydance was not easy.
I had to learn all new rhythms, time signatures, use of instruments, props and new dance vocabulary.
The moves, although natural, require intense amounts of muscle strength, isolation and articulation that I did not yet have.
Finally, after listening to the rhythms in my car everywhere I drove, taking classes and workshops and rehearsing in all my free time, I began to gain the muscle control to perform in front of a live audience!
My first show was a wondrous experience.
After a daylong dance intensive with a guest teacher, I stepped on stage in a homemade jeweled turquoise and gold top, and showed off the amazing things I could do in a body I appreciated, for the first time, with all its glorious curves.
I posted a picture on social media that included stomach rolls — three rolls that I was incredibly proud of because they demonstrated, in one still frame, my perfect undulation.
As a lifelong dancer, what more could I ask for; I am finally living with a positive body image.