Personal Stories of America at Work
Making a Career as a Belly Dancer
Belly and Pole Dancer Aruna Makes A Career In Fitness Pay Off
From scoliosis patient to fitness fanatic
I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia and my given name was Karen Andes. From a young age, I felt I was being groomed for a life as someone’s “lovely country club wife.” That didn’t happen—thankfully! As a young kid, I was very active. When I was eight, I led a pack of girls on bicycles around the neighborhood wearing our mothers’ high-heeled shoes. You could say those were my earliest sessions as a fitness instructor.
When I was twelve, I was diagnosed with scoliosis. I was told I’d be in a body cast for a year and be bedridden. Or, the doctor said, I could exercise more than other people to combat the disease. Given that I was a kid who ran around and played all the time, the choice was simple. When the doctor first diagnosed me, I had a 40-degree curve in my spine. By the time I had my X-rays re-done at twenty-nine, I had only a 15-degree curve. That was significant. Changing my relationship to gravity and committing to a life of fitness has really been the driving force behind healing my pain.
Playing your body like an orchestra
I started body building in my twenties. I participated in competitions and realized what a stupid thing that was to do. It’s a wonderful experience if you train intelligently and see it as more of a meditation than being all about how you look. But when you’re competing, you’re judged on how you look.
I was working at a Fortune 500 company as a fitness consultant and one day, I looked around at the boardrooms filled with men and realized that my workouts were masculine, too. I started belly dancing to purify myself from the Type-A personality that I thought I needed to have to survive in that environment. It was the most antithetical thing to bodybuilding that I could think of.
From a physical perspective, isolating your chest in belly dancing is like playing your body like an orchestra. It adds to body awareness. The circular motions are beautiful, sensual, and soothing. Dance can be a sanctuary; I see it in every person who comes to one of my classes. Wearing something different or using veils adds a touch of, “Oh yeah, this is fun.” It allows all of us to become the person we’d like to be, who we aspire to be in our dreams. You don’t even have to dance well.
I added pole dancing to my repertoire about five years ago because I have this natural inclination towards hanging off things. But like belly dancing, pole dancing has a lot of stigma around it. When I perform on the pole, I’m into the humor. For me, it’s not the sex appeal; it has to be funny and has to be entertaining.
Working with Cher
Fitness can be a rewarding career in many ways. A lot of us are barely scraping by financially, but that’s changing. There are people who have made it big and some of them don’t deserve it (not naming names!). I have sacrificed financially at times to follow my passions. I’ve written five fitness books and created numerous workout videos and DVDs; I’ve co-owned a dance studio and belly dance clothing boutique. They didn’t all make me a lot of money—at least not at first. One dinky little video I made was being sold through a small workout company. Amazingly, Cher bought it—yes, THE Cher! She was searching around for a trainer, and she liked the tape and the workout. One day, I got a message from Cher’s people. They hired me to be her personal trainer for a video she was making called “Cher’s Body Confidence.”
The idea was to get her in shape for the video. When I first started working with her, she looked like she was in shape, but she was actually fatigued. She either didn’t do anything or she overdid it. I lived at her house three days of the week for a few months; it was amazing. One of her closets was bigger than the studio apartment I lived in! She had a closet for all her wigs, and another just for leather. She’s very smart, drop-dead funny, and a deeply caring person. It was a privilege and an honor to work with her. We got along really well, although sometimes when I was training her, she’d say to me, “Oh, f— you!” because I was working her so hard.
What I value more than anything now is my quality of life. How much do I really need? I look at money now as a reflection of how many lives can I touch. You could call me the “queen of fun.” I do not want to surrender my youth, but I don’t want to be stupid with my body either. I want to take care of myself. I want to stay young. I’m an experiment in agelessness. To me, everything comes down to being well, being happy, and expressing yourself— whatever form that takes.
Several years ago, I found myself at a point in life where I was ready to embrace the present moment and not be hung up on my old stories about who I was. I never really liked my given name, Karen; I always felt that it was closed. And, as a belly dancer, it didn’t really fit— “And now … here’s Karen from the suburbs.” I don’t think so! So a spiritual community I was connected to meditated on my essence to come up with my new name. I had to write an essay and send photographs, and my name came in an envelope. I thought, “What if they name me something like Papaya? I’m not taking it!” So that’s how I got the name Aruna; it means radiance.
I love that I get to play with people on an intimate level and support them coming out of themselves in some way. That is truly the biggest payoff for me of doing this kind of work. I’m proud of my sense of humor, my spirit, and my books. I’m also proud that I get to enroll people in these sometimes goofy, sometimes sexy, sometimes who-knows-what-you-call-it fun events. And I think I’m most proud of the smile factor. Yeah, I can give kick-butt workouts and help people get strong, but that’s the secondary thing. It’s doing it with a smile.
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The Working Chronicles
The Working Chronicles captures an intimate look at work in 21st century America through candid interviews with people from all walks of life and all corners of the country.
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