Belly Dance Photography, Sexuality vs Sensuality

belly-dancer-leyla-najma-feather-headress-barebackThere’s a saying that states a picture is worth a thousand words. If so belly dance photography could fill volume upon volume. Every dance generation had their look that represented the mind frame and issues of their time. Photography can tell us so much about our history and show us how far we have come and how far we still have to go. Either way, women have always had the ability to cause a stir when it comes to posing for photos.
If you look at Mata Hari, she was a woman ahead of her time but she also paid the price for her eccentric and bold behavior. Are we still paying the same price even to this day? If Mata Hari knew her demise would she have continued life as usual? Would any of us today change how we present ourselves if we knew the cost down the line? These questions led me to look at our dance image in photography and how influenced we are by society standards and our own.

For what purpose do we photograph ourselves? Is it empowerment caught forever in a photo or is it a moment where we allow ourselves to be sensual women? An image can provoke many emotions within society. The big question is what responsibility do we have to society to represent an image that is acceptable and respectable. The belly dance costume throughout history has become a symbol portraying us as the seductress or temptress. Let’s look at Salome for example. The chance that she “belly danced” was slim because of the etiquette of her day and dancing like she is portrayed in movies would have ruined her chances for marriage. But history says she belly danced and requested to have John the Baptists head cut off. Belly dance through history became an accessory with
Salome when in fact her dance style would have been more acrobatic. My point is that many artists through out history have painted the famous scene of Salome dancing which ultimately made her a symbol of seduction. So a painting or photograph can be a powerful influence on the minds of society. This can also lead us to contradictions regarding our image. How can we have a respectable image when our legacy is already tainted?

Cleopatra embodies all the elements that most women thrive to achieve. Her name alone can cause the imagination to run wild. Is this not the same reaction we want people to have when they see our photographs? If you look at websites and magazines you will see a variety of photographs of various dancers in sensual poses. A dancer can convey many messages with her body positioning which can lead the viewer to think her message isn’t just sensual but sexual. So photographs are used to get a certain message across to as many viewers as possible. So what happens when our message is portrayed in a well thought out photograph and the end result is not sensual but sexual? Where does sensuality and sexuality cross? The definition of sensuality is; the capacity for enjoying the pleasures of the senses. The definition of sexuality is; the state of being sexual.
So what if the two were combined together than that would mean that we enjoy our sense of being sexual. Is this bad? Cleopatra was aware of her sexual influence and as a woman ruler she used this to her advantage. In our day and age don’t we do the same but in a different way?

Isadora Duncan wrote:

“Virtuous people are simply those who have not been tempted sufficiently, because they live in a vegetative state, or because their purposes are so concentrated in one direction they have not had the leisure to glance around them.”

Isadora Duncan was also ahead of her time because she had many relationships and was an unfortunate drunk in her later years. The one thing I noticed about Isadora Duncan is that her personal life never showed in her photos and she was a true artist to the end (tragic as it was). So in Isadora Duncan’s case, her message was never misunderstood just like with Cleopatra. The difference is one used her sexuality and the other used her sensuality. Either way the image of both women whether it is in paintings or photographs depict images that invoke women from all over the world to try and emulate them. So what this says to me is that we want a little bit of both when we create our photograph image.

Our individual images in photographs are a big part in selling our dance ability to the masses. How do we choose an instructional DVD if we are not familiar with the teacher? The front cover says so much about her ability as a dancer and teacher. So when I worked with my videographer for my first instructional DVD, we decided to use a photograph with me dancing with a color format that would appeal to the eye. The artistry behind creating any image is essential in having a photograph that impacts our target market. So in the end we are selling both our dancing and our image. Both have to appeal to the masses in order for us to be a success.

Joseph Jaworski states:

“We do not describe the world we see, but we see the world we describe.”

How far can any belly dancer push her image and make it acceptable not only for our community but for the outside world? If too much sexuality is shown in a photograph does it affect the way our community sees the dancer? The reason why I am asking is because there can be so much insinuated in a pose. A seductive look can imply something that never crossed the mind of the dancer.
Anyone can make a photograph mean and represent whatever they want it to.
So what a dancer says in a photograph is powerful and can affect many people.

A William Shakespeare quote says it well:

“There’s language in her eye, her cheek, her lip,
Nay, her foot speaks, her wanton spirit looks out
at every joint and motive of the body.”

Society can create a double standard for anything it wants. Is our image as dancers facing this double standard not only from society but from our own community? Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s the LP covers were very provocative especially in regards to the poses of many of the belly dancers. Some of the costumes had slits up the thigh showing only skin and see through skirts and there is even a dancer with no skirt on at all. We don’t dress this way today and costumes of today have a more designer look to them. It’s evident that our fashion sense has changed through out the years but how about our attitude toward provocative poses and skin? As women in a very unique and ancient dance form I feel it is important to show in photography how we have changed through out history. These photographs are “our” lineage and they show the world what and who we are. Perhaps because of issues with self image and the Playboy era we have wanted to say, “We are different”. We don’t have to take our clothes off in photographs to get across that we are sensual and sexual women. On the other hand I myself love photographs that show a part of a leg or shoulder and the back.

As Mae West once said:

“I speak two languages, Body and English.”

So perhaps without knowing it we have taken all of our trials and tribulations as women and found the perfect outlet to express our feelings and thoughts about the world around us. Dance expressed through the body demonstrates those wordless poems that can only be conveyed with emotional and passionate motion.
Photographs that capture these emotions through movement, poses and attitude, than become timeless and a way we make “our” mark on the world.

Agnes De Mille:

“To dance is to be out of yourself, larger, more beautiful, more powerful. This is power, it is glory on earth and it is yours for the taking.”

When I’m on stage I often feel naked because all of me is being expressed through my dance. So my image on stage is many things including the sensual and sexual. Today I have found peace with both therefore my photographs show the viewer the woman that I am and the dance that I represent. Photography shows how comfortable I am with myself. So do we critique photographs by how comfortable or uncomfortable we are with our own body image? It’s only natural to do so. In the end how we view photography says a lot about how we live our lives and feel about ourselves. There is no right or wrong way to view photography. And since your body is a representation of your life impression, photography is what you want it to be. One of my favorite quotes says it well:

Religion says: The body is a sin.
Science says: The body is a machine.
Advertising says: The body is a business.
The Body says: I am a fiesta.
Eduardo Galeano

The Importance Of Photography In Belly Dance

leyla-cleopatra-300What kinds of photographs draw you into a website or photo gallery?

As a website owner I have come to realize that change and updating are essential to good traffic. So photographs are a major investment for me because there are so many things I can do with them. But how many dancers understand this investment and address the issue of spending money on photographs as necessary? As a professional dancer it is so important to upgrade your portfolio with yearly photographs. Photographs are a review of the different stages in the career of a dancer.

With all the great photographers out there why wouldn’t dancers use photographs to show the dance world what they are up to? If a dancer or troupe is advertising a show or workshop and I can’t go, I usually look forward to photographs of the event. There is a statement that is made to each and every person looking at your website. Photographs bring this statement right into a dancer’s home. So this means it is so important to invest in a photographer for shows and events. As the years pass on you’ll have a wonderful archive of photographs and even videos of all your hard earned creative efforts.

Find a photographer that understands dance and can photograph motion or poses well. Also a photographer needs to be honest with you. If you choose a bad color for your costume or pose than he or she needs to tell you. There are certain colors that photograph better out in direct sunlight versus colors in a lighted room. There are certain times in a day that are better to be photographed in if you choose to shoot outdoors. Make sure you are aware of the right kind of make up for outdoors. The bottom line is a good photographer will talk with you before the photo shoot and help you decide what is best for you.

Let’s talk about themes. A few years ago my husband made a suggestion that I impersonate a famous person that I admire for my next photo shoot. Well of course you know who came to mind, Cleopatra. There’s a little bit of her in all of us. The photographs were done by a photography business called Ten/100. I had decided I wanted to be a modern day Cleopatra. The end result was timeless. I could have been from Ancient Egypt or a sexy vixen of today. Fortunately the photographer understood what I was trying to recreate and he also understood my personality. It is so important when you work with a photographer that you feel very comfortable with them.

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The Reality of Photo Shoots!

leyla-cleopatra-300The reality of photo shoots seems to be in the back of my mind this week. I was looking at old photographs and I realized that my sense of modeling has come a long way. And I mean from “nada” to where I am today, is like leaps and bounds! Most women will rely on the photographer to tell them everything and in the end they leave with little or no information. Understanding the necessity of photos in this business and marketing yourself is like another business. But in the end understanding lighting (indoor or outdoor) make up, body positioning is an art and one professional dancer’s must learn. It’s the life of an entertainer and whether we like it or not it’s apart of this business.

As I said, this topic is important to me because I have written about it before but I thought it would be a fun topic for this Wednesday’s chat. Besides it made me think of cool combos to use for in-front of the camera depending on indoor or outdoor shoots. So I am including “Photo Shoot Combos” with this weeks chat and I’m hoping everyone will have fun with them! Read more

Photo Shoot Weekend Divine

     belly dance photography             

 “The Dragon Fly Twirl, Click and Pose”

Not long ago  I went on a wonderful adventure with a group of gals. Well okay, there were three 16 year olds in the back seat talking a mile a minute on a volume that was stuck on “high.” It was the photo shoot weekend of a life time because unbeknownst to me, I was in the presence of a petite photographer prodigy.

Savanah (my daughter) and her friends Christina and photographer extraordinaire, Vivien along with Vivien’s Mom Michelle crammed into our jeep two weeks ago and we all headed up to Michelle’s family ranch in Stanley (Ojo de Cebolla) north of Moriarty, NM. Carlos, Michelle’s brother was at the ranch guiding us in and lending his assistance .It was amazing  to see such family support for Vivien and everyone helped out any way they could. I also thought it was wonderful that Michelle offered her family ranch as a photo shoot location and she was a delight to visit with.

I was dressed up in my gypsy outfit which included a corset, skirt and boots. The giggles were non stop in the jeep but once we arrived at the ranch, Vivien turned into a serious photographer and started telling me where she wanted me to stand, pose or move. The two of us worked together like we had worked with each other for years. The backdrop for this amazing photo shoot was old adobe walls, and believe it or not one of the first “bordellos” in New Mexico history! It felt a little spooky but some of the pics in that particular building really were not only hauntingly beautiful but timeless. All the buildings had personalities of their own and were on the family ranch within walking distance to each other. Vivien took black and white besides color photos and she had a timing that you just have to be born with to photograph dancers. She caught my veil as I twirled along with my skirt and in the background were old windows, doorways, wood floors and an eerie feeling of the old west. Plus there were lots of noises, bangs and stinky smells that reminded us that we were in the desert not to mention ghosts making themselves known. Our ghost radar was on “high” and there were a few times I almost felt like running out of the bordello house but I kept this a secret from the girls.

Photo shoots can be a lot of work but this particular photo shoot breezed by and by the time we were finished with the first location I was astonished we had been to various buildings for almost two hours. As we stepped into a wonderful old house that belonged to Michelle’s family I could feel the history of the family all around me. It’s was a warm feeling that touches your soul and makes you feel right at home. We previewed some of the photos and that is when my jaw literally fell open and I was like a kid in a candy store going, “I want that one and oh my God look at that one and no wait I think that one!”  In the almost two hours of working with Vivien, I probably had more photos to work with then at any given time with any other photographer. She blew me away because we had just begun our day and had more locations to go to. I was thinking to myself as we drove to Santa Fe, “Not only is this the photo shoot of a lifetime but I am one lucky dancer and model”.

The way Vivien worked was like an old pro and the best part of all was how easy she was to work with. She is an instinctive photographer which is a true find almost like a lost treasure because an instinctive photographer knows by intuition how the backdrop or lighting will work with the model. Some of the black and white photos were even more powerful then the color because Vivien knew to use the lighting to her advantage. Black and white photos also give off the “atmosphere” of a building while the color photos tend to show life and movement in present day. I loved the fact that I had two different versions to choose from besides the added surprise of Vivien giving me the options automatically. We didn’t talk about it; she just knew to take both versions. I wonder if Ansel Adams is somehow guiding her?!!

Photo shoots are a risky business because the outcome can hang in the balance of either fantastic photos or photos few and far between. For instance I went out to an old west town for a photo shoot a few years ago and I think there were 3 photos that I was able to use from the entire day. We spent a lot of our time walking the terrain and eventually working along a hillside or in town finding the right building but I found that I just didn’t feel insync with the photographer and it showed in just about every photo. Photographer and model relationships that work, are like finding pure gold and believe me when I say even the best of intentions don’t always work out. If a photo shoot flops, it can take the wind out of both photographer and model. I can remember one particular photo shoot where my group of students and I took a photographer out to lunch as a thank you and he ended up being grumpy with everyone. I think he knew the outcome of our photo shoot ahead of time because there wasn’t one photo I could use after the fact.

belly dance photography

The next location was a small town up the road from the ranch called Galisteo where a Catholic church resides in which Michelle’s parents Eva and (Deacon) Carlos Pacheco were married. The church still stands today and is a testament to the faithful maintaining its walls and history. As we were standing in the parking lot, I saw a dirt road almost directly across from the church that looked interesting. We ventured down the road and saw that it came to a bridge that looked like it had been around for many years. The bridge had the distinct feeling of going on forever and the opposite end gave off a magical feeling of entering into another time and place. Vivien and I looked at each other because we had the same thought at the exact same time. So we ventured on a short walk to the bridge and with Vivien’s first click of her camera she started the black and white photo shoot that was just enchanting. An old Chevy pick up truck made its way along  the bridge and with Vivien’s keen eye she knew it would add  ambiance to the back ground and design of the photos. She just has that intuition that a photographer is born with because you just can’t teach someone to follow their instincts especially with live on-site photo shoots. I twirled until I was dizzy and Vivien clicked away until she was satisfied she had achieved her shots.

Next we went to Santa Fe and had lunch at a cool restaurant called Cowgirls and enjoyed a surprise visit from Michelle’s Dad, Carlos Sr. who is full of New Mexico culture, history and philosophy. It was a wonderful afternoon and we were able to talk about many things including the success of the day’s adventures. Later after lunch we went to Michelle’s sister’s house; Diana’s house was not only beautiful but had a panoramic view of mountains and hills that definitely let you know you were in Santa Fe. Again the hospitality was wonderful and a reminder of how true native New Mexican’s live life.

After a relaxing break, Diana suggested a wonderful location for our late afternoon photo shoot. It was a trail that went along railroad tracks that was a hop, skip and a jump away from her house. With the cars it felt just like that as Michelle, Diana the girls and I all drove a short distance to the location and started our walk along the railroad tracks and into a magical sunset. It was I must admit my favorite location of the day because it was so unexpected and such a great idea. Diana was a great help and I loved her suggestions and ideas because in the end everyone made the photo shoots enjoyable and fun. It was truly a family affair and I feel so blessed to have experienced time with such a wonderful family!

Vivien was the consummate trooper and she started looking at the background and areas that would create a unique photo. She had me on top of  railroad ties or on the railroad tracks along a bridge. I was wearing my Bolero hat and with the sun setting, the images were just magnificent. New Mexico landscapes really add ambiance to any photo and no matter where you are there is always a mystery or magical feeling that is captured besides the unexpected lighting that cascades along the hills and valleys. The railroad tracks was an unexpected delight and a wonderful way to end an amazing day. All three photo shoot locations had something different to them and the best part of all was the petite prodigy that I had the pleasure and honor to work with. To date, Vivien is my favorite photographer of all time  and the photo shoot along with an amazing family’s generosity made it truly an experience of a life time!


Introducing Yourself to the World

Inroducing Yourself to the World - Leyla Najma's Belly Dance Blog

This past weekend was really a joy because I did a combination mother/daughter and professional photo shoot with photographer extraordinaire Michael L. Miller and his beautiful wife Tish. The best part was seeing my 16 year old daughter Savanah before the camera holding her own and seeing a glimpse of the woman she is to become. She is starting to leave her mark on the world and it became evident to me that she will be a force to be reckoned with.  Her foundation is strong so she is off to a good start. Our funny moment of the day was Savanah’s dog, Rocky who came with us to be photographed. She growled the whole time she was being positioned on a box used as a prop. It was hysterical to see her Doberman/red heeler personality come out, complaining about being photographed!

I on the other hand agreed to be apart of a project that Michael is doing called, “Women of a Certain Age” and actually did some of the photos partially nude. It was very liberating to just let go and not worry about what was showing or worry about what I needed to hide. Michael is inviting many women to come in to be photographed dressed or undressed (women’s choice) to be apart of this special project. So if any New Mexicans or those of you close by who wish to be apart of Michael’s project contact him at: [email protected]


Yesterday’s photo shoot got me interested in looking into what the typical belly dance photo was like especially in today’s market. So today as I surfed the internet looking at dancers photographs I realized that the belly dance image, the feminine archetype of this dance is not only recognizable by our costume but by the typical poses most dancers use. I have to say I saw many beautiful photographs but after awhile they all looked the same and they didn’t really tell me anything about the dancer outside of belly dance. I say this because we are not all belly dancers 24/7.

Okay, some of us might be in the belly dance mind zone most of the time but there are other things that we do that make us who we are. For instance I sent in an article to Chronicles Belly Dance Magazine for their next issue that has a few things in it about belly dance but it’s really about my studying with Native Americans, going on vision quests and talking about the teachings and symbology of the teepee. Chronicles accepted it partially I think because it was different from the normal articles I write but also because it shows other aspects to me that make me who I am other then just a belly dancer. I am indefinable because there is so much to my learning process that I haven’t discovered yet and because there are so many paths to travel that can lead to other interests. When I danced for Salima Ikram and Aidan Dodson here in New Mexico, two of the most distinguished Egyptologists in their field, the Egyptologist in me went bonkers. So obviously my alternate ego is……… guessed it an Egyptologist in the field looking for none other then Cleopatra’s tomb!

Since I am not an Egyptologist “yet” I have found that being a member of ARCE was a close second to being the real deal. So as you can see my love of Egypt isn’t just belly dance. But now I’m getting away from myself;  what I am trying to say is that your photographs say so much to the world about who you are and if there isn’t something that makes you a little different, well then your photos and website won’t be as distinguishable from everybody else’s. You have to let people know that you are vibrant women and that you encompass so much of life along with diverse interests that in some ways may parallel belly dance but can stand on their own too. So this means  your photos show the world they are looking at a woman who has a vast array of interests, desires and personalities.

I’ll give you some examples of some of the photo shoots I have done.


  1. I tapped into my Cleopatra fem fatale impersonation and found that we all have a little Cleopatra in us………I found mine!
  2. Body Painted and photographed in the sand dunes South of ABQ as Anaksunamun. It stands alone as one of my most favorite photo shoots because the day was just beautiful and I felt like a Goddess.
  3. Photographed with Timber Wolves Raven and Forest at the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary. The photographer was none other then Michael. It was the initiation of a lifetime. Working with animals is a joy besides stress beyond belief. I was exhausted but for all the right reasons!
  4. Photographed in the Badlands of NM with coral, amber and turquoise necklaces as focal point for Native American jewelry. The great part of this photo shoot was the necklaces were covering my breasts and nothing more. It was very liberating and to me more sensual then any costume bra or beaded top. I had on an elk belly dance skirt that a medicine woman made for me that has a piece of tiger eye in it and a prayer she sewed into the skirt. I feel her prayer every time I wear my skirt.
  5. Body painted as an Egyptian warrioress, ready for battle. I had hieroglyphs painted down my arms and legs. Egypt was alive and well in me that day! Plus I had a fake sword, but a sword none the less that kept getting me into trouble called too much imagination.
  6. My Feather Fantasy photo shoot was inspired by a handmade peacock costume and feather head dress. This was more of a belly dance theme but I had the costume and headdress made to my taste. I also did Greek poses with only my veil as a cover. Again this was very liberating with a twist of the turn of the century vogue look to the photos.
  7. I had a group photo shoot done with some of my students representing New Mexico in all her glory. This meant that everyone brought in the colors of the sunsets, landscape and diverse cultures of people living side by side. So we did a melting pot of feathers, corsets, gypsy skirts and painted faces. In the end Michael did a marvelous job of capturing all of us and our personalities.
  8. One of my all time favorite photo shoots was taken with my Clydesdale mare Molly in my Native American wedding dress. It was a time in my life when I was actually living in a gypsy wagon and teepee at the same time. In the same photo shoot I was photographed on Molly in my gypsy skirt. She died shortly afterwards so I am to this day grateful I did the photo shoot with her.
  9. One of my first photo shoots was with world renowned photographer Richard Byrd who photographed Presidents, diplomats, movie stars and major rock bands. I was photographed behind one of my face veils that I brought back from Maadi, a suburb of Cairo. The suppression I felt wearying the face veil can be seen in the photos.

So as you can see I am not just a belly dancer but a cowgirl, medicine woman, lover of wolves, gypsy, Egyptologist enthusiast, horse lover and woman advocate. I want you to see all of me in my photos so that when you take classes with me, you know a little bit about the woman standing before you. In the end we are all standing side by side living life if not together at least on video or in our photos.

Give people a little more then just a dance pose, give them a window into the woman that is in the photograph who is so much more and indefinable. In the end most people will remember the woman who told them a story instead of a woman that conceals her life in an average pose.