Patti Harsch
Story by Stan Thompson From the Morro Bay Sun Bulletin

 

Patti Harsch, 68, can’t help but smile as she recalls a pivotal moment half her lifetime ago. She was raising a family in Morro Bay when she saw a newspaper ad about belly dance classes. “Sounded naughty,” she recalls, “so I signed up. My husband almost had a heart attack. My kids told me not to tell anyone what I was doing.” Unfazed, Harsch immediately “fell head over heels in love with the whole thing” of mid-Eastern dance, music and costume. “I didn’t miss a class from the first day on,” she says, and never looked back.

Today, Harsch not only teaches classes of the ancient art form, but also directs Troupe Benat Serat, a group of her more polished performance dancers. Sitting in the living room of her Morro Bay home, as usual stitching yet another string of beads to costume gear, Harsch fairly beams while discussing her passion for mid-East dance.

“It’s a whole body exercise,” she explains. “So freeing. Not like ballet or tap. Hands circle, hips circle, the rib cage circles. Hypnotizing. Relaxing to women. A natural thing for them to do. I’ve watched women — so rigid, so out of touch with their body — blossom and grow right in front of me. They aren’t the same person. It’s so much pleasure to see them open up, give back to themselves. They’re usually so busy with kids and a job they don’t have time to express themselves, and look pretty while doing it. Fantastic experience.”

Moving many times while growing up, Harsch adapted well in and out of schools. “I’m a people person,” she says. “Never met a stranger.” She savored making doll clothes from sewing scraps, and dressing her younger sister, a precursor to making dance costumes today.

High school theatrics unlocked her showbiz bent. She recalls a variety show “where I did an Al Jolson impersonation in black face,” she says. The experience proved an awakening . “It made me feel the music,” she explains. “Made me want to make everyone watching feel
it, too. Like now, when I dance, I feel like I’m giving little pieces of me to people so they can also experience it.”

After graduating, Harsch weighed several scholarship opportunities, but Cupid intervened during a blind date with Herb, a shipyard worker. Their meeting evolved into a 50-year marriage, three children and four grandchildren. When the moved to Morro Bay some 45 years ago, Herb latched onto a career with PG&E. The Central Coast
community suits Harsch fine. “They’d have to pry me out of here with a pickax,” she says.

Not long Harsch began belly dance lessons, her teacher decided to move on and handed Harsch the reins. She took to it like a fish to water. “It’s been a calling,” Harsch says. “I’m so blessed doing something I love to do.”

Complete with beads, bangles and wiggles, Harsch began popping in at birthday parties. “I started a Belly-gram service,” she explains. “A lady said she had nothing to give her husband for his birthday, and asked if I’d dance for him, at a car dealership. He told me later is was better than getting a new tie.”

Harsch was soon dancing at celebration parties nearly every day of the week, at places ranging from stockyards to restaurants. “Any place you can think of,” she says, “I’ve belly danced there.” At a school district meeting, the room was tiny and the cake was huge. When Harsch twirled, her veils caught on the cake “and showered frosting and crumbs everywhere and on everybody,” she says. “When I think back to those belly-gram times, I laugh my brains out they were so funny.”

Ten years ago, after crashing parties for seven years, Harsch folded her belly-gram sideline. “Got too scary,” she says. “The whole complexion of the world seems to have changed. I didn’t feel safe doing it anymore,” even when her husband waited nearby, ready to pop in if Harsch wasn’t out in 20 minutes.

Her scariest time didn’t happen while dancing, but came after a routine visit to her doctor. “I’d had my classes and troupe for 25 years when I went in for pap smear,” Harsch recalls. “The doctor said, ‘I have bad news for you. Cervical cancer.’ Scared the heck out of me. That was Tuesday. Surgery on Thursday. Five days later I was home. In six weeks I was back in costume dancing and drumming with my girls. I’d decided it was going to be all right.”

The troupe costumes incorporate a basic universal design that’s enhanced with accessories customized by each dancer, using everything from a glittering array of jewel-like pieces, to veils of exotic colors and textures. Harsch has a hand in most of the intricate bead work.

“There’s no age limit to mid-East dancing,” Harsch says. “At least, I hope not.” Any woman, any age, she adds, “You can belly dance and feel good about your body, seeing it serve you. A powerful dance.”

Watch Harsch’s Troupe Benat Serat perform the first and third Sundays of each month at the Embarcadero.

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