What started off as a desire to get more exercise turned into an inspirational adventure of a lifetime! Learn how a passion for dance and a desire to help women love and accept their bodies became the company known as ShimmySista.
It started with just one Shimmy
My name is Iona. Several years ago I was invited to a belly dance class by a co-worker and like many plus size women, I’d bought into the stereotype of what a big girl should and shouldn’t do. “Big girls don’t belly dance,” I said, and waved her off. Thankfully, she insisted and that’s when the love affair began—the love affair with me. I experienced the transformative nature of the dance and because of it, I started accepting my body and appreciating all it could do. My confidence soared. Yes, belly dance did that.
In spite of all the love, I nearly quit several times. Why? Because I didn’t feel like I belonged. All the other ladies had cute gypsy tops, funky pants and jingly belts. Week after week, I stood in my “jamming in Jamaica” t-shirt and sweat pants— feeling unattractive, frumpy and excluded. I wanted what they had, and when someone suggested I "tie two hip scarves together." I was mortified.
A Plan in Motion
As we all know, if a woman doesn’t feel good about how she looks…she might not participate (who among us hasn't opted out of an event for that very reason?). The wheels were set in motion, and a year after my first recital (where I danced in fear of a wardrobe malfunction because of my makeshift “costume”), ShimmySista was born. I didn’t want another woman to discover the joy of belly dance and movement, and decide not to participate because she couldn’t find something to wear.
I went in search of manufacturers willing to make items in plus sizes, launched a website and started vending at belly dance events. I felt the love immediately. Online customers came from as far as Australia, Alaska and even the Caribbean and some made a visit to the ShimmySista booth an annual event. I’ve had women cry and hug me like a long lost friend, then thank me for considering their needs. The emails came pouring in from women who felt accepted for (in some cases) the very first time. Some say it doesn’t matter…that it’s a simple thing, you can wear whatever…who cares? Just put something on, for goodness sake! The fashion industry is built on people caring what they look like. Why should plus size women be any different? And, as this email from a customer shows, it does matter:
In 2008 you made a gift to a struggling newly single mom of a child with autism. I just wanted to say I truly appreciated that gift. Taking belly dancing classes helped give me the confidence to see myself as worthwhile instead of a castoff. I have since married an amazing man and after two years I can honestly say that without your help, I may not have had this happiness. Thank you a thousand times for helping me feel that a plus size woman could be active, attractive, and worth being around."
I still tear up every time I read it. So many of us know what it feels like to be excluded. Whenever I feel discouraged, I read that email and it reminds me why I started and why I keep going.
After a few years I set up a little boutique in my home to accommodate customers between shows but had to limit access due to safety concerns and unfriendly (nosy) neighbors.
In 2013 I launched a small collection under the ShimmySista label. It was well recieved and gave ShimmySista additional exposure. It's now 2015 and I'm set to open a location in Columbia, Maryland. It's a dream come true and a natural progression in the evolution of the brand. I don't know what's next but I know that with all the "shaming" going on, the timing is right. A woman shouldn't ever feel like she doesn't belong--especially when she's trying to be active. Having fashionable, comfortable clothing is just part of the story.