After Nargis Dhirani models a section of the choreography for her class Booty Freedom she turns to us and smiles. As in: ‘Look what I can do with my body! And you can, too!’
Booty Freedom is full of joy, curiosity, and sometimes silliness. Dhirani calls a writhing, ground-humping move “the sexy gopher.” She refers to our collective genitals, which we often grab suggestively as per her choreo, as our “honeypot.” Having a body is a strange thing, her teaching says, so let’s have a sense of humor about it.
But watching Dhirani, 30, dance when she is performing rather than teaching is a different experience. Dhirani’s dance inspiration is Parris Goebel—“The first person who made me feel like it’s okay to dance with my body”—and when I watch Goebel’s videos I see the similarities. Both women move with force. When Dhirani dances, she dominates. She locks eyes with her own reflection in the mirror and you feel it: all that she’s had to overcome, how hard she’s worked to be who she is.
To watch her dance is to understand ferocity.
Booty Freedom is a volunteer-run, free or by-donation class taught every week at Karma Teachers Yoga Studio. The choreo is Dhirani’s own creation: a mix of dancehall, trap, and free-form movement. Each week, the class is packed.
Dhirani, simply put, is really cool. She’s got lots of tattoos and wears bright, textured fabric for clothes—neon mesh and inky black fringe. She’s got cute bangs and a sweet smile. She walks the line that women are often expected to walk, between sweet and sexy. An example: Her answer to the question, “What’s your favorite body part?” is, “I like the color of my nipples.”
Maybe Dhirani can walk this line, because she’s uninterested in the line. She’s not trying to be sweet or sexy, she’s just being herself.
Dhirani was born in Dubai to a Tanzanian father and a Filipino mother. When she was ten years old she and her mother moved to Richmond, Canada, just outside of Vancouver. She remembers the thrill of Canadian freedom, allowing her to explore girlhood and sexuality in a way she couldn’t before: “I’d go rollerblading in really tiny, Kylie Minogue inspired yellow hot-shorts and watch hot guys play basketball. I couldn’t do that in Dubai.”
In 2013 Nargis discovered Karma Teachers, then only a single room in a very old building in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
The Downtown Eastside is a neighborhood showcasing Canada’s socio-economic divides, the locus of the country’s most progressive drug policy, Indigenous rights movements, and sex worker activism. It’s a place of vibrant, vital community for its inhabitants. And Karma Teachers fits right in.
After her teacher training there, Dhirani taught yoga nonstop. Then in 2016 she dislocated her shoulder. Luckily, she says, “I happened to go to a really good walk-in clinic.”
Before, when she’d gone to clinics she’d explain to the doctors that this kept happening—dislocations, daily pain—and they’d say, “‘Well if you look at her BMI, she’s way too overweight. She’s putting too much stress on her joints or she probably has diabetes.’”
When Dhirani tells me this, she adds: “All my life I had male doctors.”
But this time, she had a female doctor. And at 27 years old, Dhirani learned she has a rare condition called Ehlers Danlos syndrome, a disease that weakens connective tissue. It’s incurable. Sometimes, to keep her arm “glued” into her shoulder, Dhirani gets sugar, or prolotherapy shots, injected into her joints.
To know this about her, and then to watch how she dances, is incredible.
It was after her diagnosis that Dhirani—depressed and looking for joy—really got into dance.
Dhirani had gone to many dance classes and felt discouraged, not just because "it’s a big deal for a big girl to be able to move”—but also because the teachers didn’t create a welcoming atmosphere.
“I was thinking, ‘What do I hate about going to dance classes, [and] why do I still go? I go for the discipline and growth and expression. But I hate that I feel invisible.’ So, I wanted to do the opposite of that.”
In August 2016, she started Booty Freedom, at Karma Teachers, with some friends. She’d listen to the song she wanted to dance to all week at her office job and practice in her dining room at night, pushing back the table. And in class, people loved it.
It’s hard to pin down what makes Booty Freedom so special, but an obvious starting place is the opening and closing ritual.
The class begins with everyone seated in a circle. We go around and say what brought us there that day. This part is the testament to all the healing that Booty Freedom can do. People say things like, “I’m here because I had a really hard week and I need to move.” Or men who say they want to get in touch with their feminine energy. Or, simply: “I love this class. It makes me feel so good.”
At the end of the class, we circle up again. This time we go around and answer a question—usually ‘When do you feel the most sexy?’ These answers vary, too. Like: “I feel the most sexy when I’m asserting my boundaries.” Or: “I feel the most sexy when I’m fucking my boyfriend.” The energy in the room is euphoric by now and everyone is high on what movement can accomplish: liberation.
People also tell Dhirani what her class means to them, privately.
Dhirani reads me a message from an anonymous student. The student is a survivor of sexual assault, writing: “I felt afraid and disconnected from my body, my power, my confidence. Then my friend suggested Booty Freedom. From the first night, I was overjoyed by the class. I felt safe. I felt welcome. I felt like I had my own space to reconnect with my own saucy, powerful femininity. I felt empowered by sexuality for the first time in a long time. I don’t know if I can express the level of relief and joy I finally felt.”
When Dhirani finishes, she has tears in her eyes, relieved. “What I’m trying to communicate is really coming through.”
Booty Freedom is free or by donation every Wednesday night at 8pm at Karma Teachers. Find more info and reserve your spot at KarmaTeachers.org.