For Yvette Cowles, belly dancing has boosted her self-image, given her a new career and even seen her through three bouts of cancer. With a one-woman show about her experiences coming to Newcastle next month, KAREN WILSON speaks to the 48-year-old about her extraordinary life
WHEN Yvette Cowles was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996, it was belly dancing that helped her through.
She was 32, single and working in a high-pressure job as non-fiction marketing director for Harper Collins in London while fitting in belly dancing in the little spare time she had. “I enjoyed working with interesting authors but it was very pressurised with lots of deadlines,” she says. “You can only cope with that for so long.”
So when Yvette was diagnosed with stage one cancer in her left breast and underwent a lumpectomy and radiotherapy, she decided to follow her heart, ditch the day job and become a belly dance teacher full time.
She’s now a soloist with Johara Dance Company, trains other dance teachers, lectures around the country on belly dance and has done many workshops in Newcastle, as well as creating Dance Yourself Happy Classes that combine dance and Laughter Yoga.
“I love the music and the costuming,” she says. “My mother was a seamstress and it’s like rummaging around in your mum’s dressing-up box. You have permission to dress up and wear the most blingy outfits imaginable. It’s also the camaraderie and support from other women in the belly dancing community”
Yvette believes it’s the inclusive nature of belly dance that makes it so appealing. “I’ve taught teenagers and women in their 80s of all shapes and sizes,” she adds.
“Women might come to class and they’re feeling bad about themselves – they might’ve had a baby and feel out of shape, they haven’t done exercise for years, or they’ve had an illness.
“You just see them blossom – this transformation from lacking in confidence to suddenly wearing these exotic clothes and really enjoying themselves. I’ve never found anything else quite like it.”
Yvette says belly dance has many health and fitness benefits too. “Physically it’s very good for increasing mobility, suppleness and flexibility,” she says. “A lot of women going through the menopause find it useful as you can get a lot of stiffness in your joints. It can shift your mood, release endorphins and make you feel happy. We also focus a lot of breathing so it’s very good for relaxation.”
Yvette first got into belly dancing aged 22 when she spent a year teaching English in France as part of her degree. Many of her students from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria would invite her to their homes for music and dancing. “It’s very much a social activity among North African families,” says Yvette, who also does yoga, Pilates and Bollywood dance. “It really appealed to me. It was something women did together, it was fun and very supportive and they accepted me straight away.”
It’s this acceptance and camaraderie that has helped Yvette live with cancer, which returned in 2006. “I knew there was a 25-40% chance of the cancer returning but when I reached the 10-year mark I was signed off and it felt like a milestone,” she says. “However, within months I was having a mastectomy.”
Yvette had found a lesion on her nipple, which was misdiagnosed as a fungal infection. A mammogram showed nothing either. “I just felt something was wrong,” she remembers. “I asked for further tests but because they were so relaxed about it I just went along on my own for the results, which was really a bad mistake. I had a very aggressive stage 4 cancer. I remember being so shocked about the thought of having a mastectomy and chemotherapy that I nearly passed out and had to lie down on a trolley.”
With support from her belly dancing friends and mum Doreen, who’d had breast cancer four years before her daughter, Yvette started to regain her confidence.
“The tumour had grown so quickly I needed to wait a year before considering reconstruction,” she says. “I did find it difficult to start with as belly dance is so focused on the female form.
“I remember going to a dance festival and seeing someone selling really beautiful costumes. I couldn’t bear to be around them because I couldn’t wear them any more.”
Being involved in a touring show was her salvation. “It was a real goal for me to get through the chemo and get myself fit again,” she says. “It was great to have a focus other than these endless hospital appointments.
“I was initially worried about people seeing my scars and my prosthetics dropping out, but actually it was fine. Everybody was anxious as the costume changes were so quick. I was getting undressed and nobody batted an eyelid. It really helped me conquer my fear.”
Her friends, family and dancing also helped Yvette through a break-up with her French boyfriend shortly after her second bout of cancer. He didn’t speak any English but had moved to the UK to be with Yvette and worked as a lorry driver.