Weighing In On My Belly Dance Image

Weighing In: My Belly Dance Image - Leyla Najma's Belly Dance BlogWeighing In On My Belly Dance Image

Today I was looking in the mirror and looking back at me was a disgruntled me. I was looking at my image and what I didn’t like. All I saw was what I wanted to change. This is contradictory to what I tell my students. I usually tell them to look in the mirror and see what they like about themselves. But I have to admit today I just didn’t feel like doing it. I wondered about this and decided to take a good look at why I was feeling dissatisfied with myself and how this feeling fleeting as it may be can make a dancer sing the blues, in my case off key.

Through out my dance career people have commented on my weight. Why is it that people think it’s ok to make a comment about someone else’s weight? Our society has become obsessed with weight and in our field of entertainment we are suppose to uphold a certain standard. I remember dancing at a beautiful restaurant in Dallas and was told by a regular costumer that I needed to lose 5 more pounds and than I would be perfect. I stood there shocked and all I could do was nod my head and walk away. She told me this in front of other customers and I remember feeling embarrassed and vowed to lose 10 pounds! I know she had my best interest at heart but all I heard was “You need to lose weight”. So my self image crumbled a little bit that night and what I didn’t realize was that those words would stay with me for so long. Read more

Belly Dance And The Feminine Image

belly dancer leyla najma peacock featherHistory shows us through paintings that the veil came to symbolize the untouchable and tantalizing appeal of women in the Middle East. To show just a little part of the body was alluring enough to cause men to pine for women’s affection. If we look at 19th Century paintings of various scenes of women dancing, the look of the belly dancer is quite refined. The distinctive folds in the belt or the accessories from the ankle all the way to the headpiece tell the individual story of each dancer. This is how dancers from the past to the present set themselves apart from their contemporaries.

I can remember seeing “Cleopatra” starring Elizabeth Taylor for the first time and thinking how beautiful the costumes were and how much fun they would be to dance in. “Samson and Delilah” with Hedy Lamarr is my all time favorite biblical movie and her costumes inspire me even to this day. Claudette Colberts costume in the 1934 “Cleopatra” looks like a costume of today. Hollywood had very unusual ideas about what the women from the Middle East wore. But if we look back through time the belly dance costume really hasn’t changed all that much. This really surprised me because as I was doing my research it became apparent to me that when you have a good design it’s hard to improve on it.

Recently I danced with a wonderful group of performers who were Asian dancers. Their costumes were amazing and I have to admit that I felt a little out of place in my cabaret costume. Their movements were very subtle and their gestures very soft and poetic. Which made me wonder what kind of poetry would belly dancing be? When it was time for me to perform I realized that our music really says a lot about our image. My costume was like magic because it made me feel free enough to dance and tell our story within my movements and gestures. In some ways I felt an obligation to relate to the audience that what I do as a dancer and performer is serious and respected.

But I have to question why I even felt the need to defend my costume and dance form. The dancers with their movements almost seemed to speak to me teasingly asking me why I wasn’t covered more. Maybe I was just hearing my own voice questioning this. After I finished my dance the response I received overwhelmed me. It became apparent to me that because of the difference of my costume and dance the audience was able to appreciate the culture that I represented. Costuming really does make the difference for people. It’s almost as if the audience can see the story within our movements all the while watching our costumes accenting each word danced through our bodies.

Years ago when I was in Cairo I was able to see Zuhair Zaki dance live and as I look back I realize how lucky I was to have seen such a legend perform. Zuhair Zaki is the total sum of what the belly dance image is for me. Every movement told a story and helped me “hear” the music. I was taught a very good lesson that night because I saw what a masterful dancer can do with music. I also saw Zuhair Zaki become the essence of belly dance as she performed. It wouldn’t have mattered what she wore or where she was. The spirit of the dance was in her and you could see it and feel it. These are those spiritual moments that change you forever!

A few weeks later I saw Dina perform and was totally surprised at the sexual innuendos that emanated from her dance. The image of belly dance changed that night for me because I had assumed that provocative gestures were not allowed. Actually let me take it a step further, I didn’t think it was necessary. But somehow Dina made it work for her and as I watched her performance I saw that she did a wonderful job. Her sexuality never got in the way of her performance. It enhanced her movements and I understood at that moment that Dina chose to dance free of any inhibitions or restraints her world put on her.

As a modern woman I often wonder how close my image is to women back hundreds of years. Our evolution as women has never been more evident than in the belly dance world. If we look at the dance of the seven veils the removal of the veils represent seven earthly illusions that fall away with each veil. In order for us to become the total feminine archetype in myth these veils must fall from us so we can transcend into the Goddess. As with all myths I wondered what these seven veils of illusion were because I had a suspicion that we may still be portrayed within this myth today. It became apparent to me that each illusion had an opposite side to it. So here’s my version of the seven illusions.

1. The Virgin-Temptress

Many dancers have both abilities to enchant their audiences by offering the untouchable innocence of movement combined with eye contact that teases with a fleeting look.

2. Intrigue-deception

The ability to captivate our audience is a major part of our story telling but with all stories we must tell the audience that what intrigues them is only an illusion. This in itself can be perceived as a deception because we work so hard on the illusion that at moments it may become real.

3. Mother-Sex Goddess

Both of these describe the dilemma all women come across through out their careers. While we dance as women who understand what it means to carry and give life we are also expected to be proficient in the art of love. The illusion for most people is that we can be both but they want the two separate.

4. Wise woman-Childlike Innocence

The knowledge a dancer puts in her performing sets her apart from the average dancer. Knowledge is power and our movements speak volumes in regards to our history. The illusion here is that while we dance with experience our audiences to a certain degree want a virtuous dancer that will give them an unsullied look at our dance.

5. Wife-Mistress

In our dance we are compelled to perform from places of the heart. At least some of our music has this impassioned theme in certain songs. As women we feel the need to complete ourselves which is why we search for our mate. The mistress on the other hand is compelled to search outside of this completion which in itself is the wife’s mirror opposite. We distance ourselves from the mistress personification yet in the eyes of our admirers the hope is that they get a glimpse of her.

6. Muse-transmutation

Poetry and music speak of the dancer that takes her audience to places of sublime heights. As dancers we are the muses of our times. At the same time we experience the audience that doesn’t understand our dance and they try to alter it to fit their perception of the world. We than become a misunderstood version of our own poetry.

7. Diva-modest maid

A dancers self confidence has to come across to the audience or they will be sorely disappointed. Many fans expect a confident woman during and after shows. Yet I have found that dancers can almost believe too much in their personas that they create. We can get caught up in this illusion just as much as anybody. The catch here is to know when to turn your dance persona on and off.

As belly dancers we inspire so much in people and our allure isn’t just the pretty costume, it is what we signify as women.

My question is do we understand what it is that we represent for so many? I have worked with a few women who were disassociated from their body image. They had no clue how beautiful they were because they bought into mixed messages from the media and cultural attitudes. How comfortable are we in the position of the archetype for today’s women? If we can’t get past the door of self appreciation, than I don’t see us in the forefront of today’s feminine society. Let us not forget how immeasurable we are as women. Our dance helps us create our own personal myth in which we than can escape into our own feminine image.

I have often wondered that after creating our feminine image, do we than transform gradually into her? Isn’t this really what belly dance does? We heal and than become the women we are intended to be. This is how I believe the essence of belly dance lives and thrives through each generation of women. If we can understand our own image than we can be living examples of what belly dance is and the veils of illusion than become nothing more than invisible restraints that disappear through our own transformation. In this sense we than are reborn into women, who are comfortable in their own body, mind and spirit. And there is no better way to express our dance than by embracing who we are and dancing with veils of our choice.

Women, Powerful and Measured

women powerful and measured

Women, powerful and measured had come to the forefront of my mind  because yesterday I was reading about a woman who took a good look in the mirror and realized every thought she had regarding every other woman was really based on her own demise. What became apparent was that there is a slow change or an unforeseen dilemma that creeps up on everybody without warning. She blamed other women who were thin, sexy and vivacious for being phony and shallow. She saw her jealous, exorcisty face staring back her and she realized that her “self pitty pit” just got bigger.

I’m not saying I feel all these things that she stated but I did realize one thing, and that is that through out the years I felt an obligation to be a wonderwoman to my family and business. I had to get my hands wet and really dig in and be apart of the planning and strategy of not only the dance business but my daughters life, outside family obligations, cooking, cleaning and the list goes on. I was so much apart of everything that I was spread thin and I didn’t enjoy life, not like I used to.

We all do this to some extent and then we slowly fall apart and wonder why the world has changed so drastically around us when it really is us who has changed. The mirror just like the video camera doesn’t hold back any punches and the reality of what we turn into stares at us no matter what mirror we look into. There is no running from the truth and when any one of us walks into the grocery store or the mall it’s obvious by the way we walk, hold our head up or down where our state of mind is at. Beauty doesn’t stop just because we don’t feel beautiful. Beauty isn’t just a state of mind but a reminder of our self value to the world. We put our own price on what we think we are worth and if we don’t keep up with our own priorities then we lower our worth. It’s human to do this but does it make any sense?

women powerful and measured

I decided to look at myself in a new way this year. I’m not going to look at my weight, wrinkles, grey hairs, or any part of me that bugs me. Add to this I’m turning over a new leaf called “preferred seeing” and with my new eyesight I have chosen to see everything in life with a non judgmental view. I won’t zero in on the things that I wish I didn’t do or should have done. My slate is clean because I chose to clean it. Karma didn’t clean it for me or fate; my free will cleaned it. I found this was a lot easier because I didn’t need to wallow in what I had already experienced plus I realized that I couldn’t enjoy the present with reminders of the past.

So far I have found that my cruise ship is steady because I found that I can handle the waves of the unknown easier being lighter. I found that if I couldn’t face the skeletons in my closet why the hell would I want to teach them to dance? It made no sense to apologize for the past and with the lighter way of life I found that new experiences were coming aboard filling up the space my past memories took up.

As women we tend to take down our entire gender with us especially if we don’t feel valuable. Beautiful women can’t be beautiful for beauties sake and shapely women can’t be in shape for health sake. The ugly in all of us can come out at any given time. But what I noticed is that having a lighter view of the world makes me love being around all those beautiful and vivacious women because they are connected to me as I am to them. I can see that we live in a world that may not always be fair to us and that we have a measuring scale put upon us at birth. But with my “preferred seeing” I can see our legacy from all the powerful women through out time; Cleopatra, Hatshepsut, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Maria Theresa of Austria, Empress Theodora, Isabella I of Castile, Elizabeth I of England, Catherine II of Russia,Queen Victoria and the list goes on.

All the women named above not only made history but they did it their way. Maybe I have spread myself too thin in past years but the way that I figure it as a woman the possibilities are endless to what I can achieve. I just have to remember to relax and take a day off doing what I love to do so that I can achieve all the things I want to but with the right kind of energy and forethought. Sometimes it’s in the not doing of life that we do our best work because a moment, hour or day being just ourselves helps us remember why we are who we are. The best gift we can give to ourselves is peace of mind. A gift that is not measured, critiqued or judged is priceless. It’s truly understanding our place within our family because for most of us we represent and wear our homes with every move and traveling step along with our smiles when we perform on stage.

In the world today we have to make our place just like the most powerful women in history. It’s not always in the fame of life that we are our finest. It’s in the smallest of gestures and thoughtful ways in which we treat each other that count the most. In the end the greatest gift of all is to just be a woman in the company of women. It’s really about being in the moment for joy, bliss and laughter’s sake. You have to find these elements within yourself first before you can enjoy them with other women. So take the time to get to know yourself again or anything else you may find. The journey in life isn’t always about what’s new but what we fail to see.

To add to this blog are photographer extraordinaire Vivien’s amazing photos! Vivien is the one photographer that has made me feel beautiful not just being a woman but being 48 and holding my own! Last photo was from my Sis on Mother’s Day!

Women and the Cultural Reality of Belly Dance

The Cultural Reality of Belly Dance_

Our history as women depending on where we live is intrinsically and culturally different yet we experience the same political and social problems that plague us all just in different ways. I think women in our particular dance form have the tendency to overlook the reality of various cultures   diluting the truth of what dance is literally like in some Middle Eastern countries. The need to embody an alternate image sometimes imbeds itself into the forefront of the esthetically deprived imagination or one that prefers fantasy over reality.

When I lived in Egypt it was the first time in my life that I felt like a minority because of my gender and faith. It was an eye opener especially when I found myself getting into trouble unintentionally.  For instance, I was at a Government building, standing in the wrong line (didn’t know it) to buy stamps and mail letters off to my family. I unfortunately paid a price for standing in the men’s line. I heard a lot of talking behind me but I was so busy writing the letters that I didn’t pay any attention. When it was my turn to walk up to the man behind an open window, he flat out wouldn’t sell me stamps and he made it clear that he wanted me out of the line. I looked behind me and then to my right and saw the women’s line but by the time I had reached his window I was hot, tired and I had been in line for over an hour. I started to talk loudly and ended up grabbing the guy’s shirt pulling him towards me making my point clear he was going to sell me some stamps. Two women came up to me and pulled me out of the line and to the front of the women’s line to the right. Everyone was shouting at me as I walked away and I of course being a hot headed American woman yelled back. Everyone wanted me gone which I didn’t blame them. The government worker for the women’s line was obviously a woman who gave me my stamps in a hurried manner and the women who helped me out all pushed me away telling me to run. I saw soldiers coming towards the front of the men’s line and knew I was being told to go for my own good. As I turned a corner, I looked back and the men talking to the soldiers were pointing in my direction so I started to walk faster and grabbed a cab.  This little scene happened because of a segregated mind set that ultimately could have cost me because I didn’t pay attention. In moments like that you can’t say this is wrong because what is wrong for one person is different for another.

Even with Egypt being a cosmopolitan city I found that protocols were very important to know and respect. Though I found that I should have just left the line and bought stamps another day, I also realized that as a woman I felt that my right to go where I wanted was definitely limited and I didn’t like it.  I don’t necessarily dance that experience or share it much because in the reality of my dance image, it doesn’t fit. Living in Egypt and dancing Egyptian Cabaret have to have something in common or my image will be inconsequential to what I really do represent. That experience isn’t part of the magic that I feel when I dance but in many ways it is an integral part of my identity as a woman. That day was a definite example of two cultures clashing as well as two genders opposing each other.

I think with problems within certain countries, specifically those that influence our dance, we have to understand that we derive not only their history but cultural values and expectations. It didn’t occur to anyone on that particular day when I was in the wrong line that anything was wrong with their system. It became an issue because of my cultural upbringing. People are cultivated within their environment and that plays a huge role into their mind set and habitual way of living. So what I am saying here is that we have to look at the reality of what we represent besides our preferred view of what we portray.

It seems here at home I tend to occasionally defend my dance form from a depraved mind set that doesn’t allow for much explaining. So while I was in Egypt I had to allow for social restraints on my gender based on a religious and patriarchal society and here I tend to defend my gender from social prejudice based on a combined misunderstanding of morals and facts.

An experience in the last restaurant I danced at led me to believe that even though we live in a world full of diverse cultures it seems that most people stay boxed in their own safety nets of what the norm is. For example I was performing for a huge party, one that was full of drunks who talked and laughed so loud other patrons complained. One of the gals got up from the groups table and said she could dance just like me and started to do a strip dance in front of everyone. They of course all started to laugh and I stopped dancing immediately standing in the background until she was finished. She then said in a booming voice, “See there’s not much difference between belly dancing and stripping.” I looked at the restaurant owner and he at me and at that very moment we both decided that my show was over. How could I come back and dance for a table of people that decided what the facts were regarding what I did. I realized educating drunks at that moment was going to be a waste of time. The dance was a joke to them and sometimes even when people think they are civilized they can come across as uncouth and not even know it.

So it occurred to me that we have to understand the psychology of people no matter where we live. It broadens our horizons and makes us view the world in a more academic way so that we understand and become more tolerate of cultural differences. We are the envoys that connect cultures and people together. So even though we all have a fantasy or a need to create a dance image she needs to be a representation that is up with the times concerning the country she represents. The original root form of this dance is world wide so dance with a flying carpet mentality that allows for you to travel or read up on current events. If we all keep up then we all become stronger emissaries in a dance form that inspires and in some ways educates people all over the world. Just remember as women in this dance form we carry the torch for women who either live their lives with outside constraints or live their lives with idealized falsehoods of their own feminine image. Either way, we have to understand enough about the world we live in to be symbols for women in relation to the feminine image that lives with no constraints and embodies the matriarchal strength of generations.

The Ancient Greek aphorism, “Know thyself” can be a warning to pay no attention to the opinion of the multitudes but for me as a dancer I would have to say, knowing myself means understanding the times I live in. A torch that is passed by informed dancers ensures a future generation that accepts the responsibility of their past history all the while knowing their part is to keep their history up to date and alive with a tolerant mind.

 

Women of Moonlight

belly-dancer-leyla-najma-students-1

The relationship between mother and daughter has a strong impact on the psyche of women, for it is through this natural bondage that the essence of femininity is passed from the previous to the new generation. The Song of Eve

Belly dance in itself is a symbol of femininity that empowers the essence of the female gender. The attraction to belly dance is an obvious result of many women wanting to embody their own versions of the feminine image. It’s not so much the costume as it is the dance itself that entices women into her labyrinth with the impassioned need to be skilled in her arts. I suppose the two together are a fatal attraction that lures women in with no exit available.

Walking into a women’s world that is created by the intoxicating smells of perfume and henna, visual arrays of color and fabric and the sounds of enchanting drums and finger cymbals binds the enchanted spell to each dancer. I think when Salome danced thus seducing Herod she brought the allure of the feminine image to the forefront of how society really thinks about dance and seduction. We tempt, we seduce therefore we are mysterious creatures that become an allegory for the sensual and sexual self.

The hardest part for a mother and wife is to walk onto a stage and become a seductress which belly dance in many ways encompasses. The feminine image is many things to many people and the way that people view the myth defines what our feminine image is to them. We bring multiple definitions to life by the subtle, dynamic and brief moments on stage. Our audience seems to add their meaning to our dance before we ever get onto the stage because in our society women have become the icon for myths and fantasies that really have nothing to do with us.

The very fact that we are associated with the moon in relation to the feminine aspect of her affect on people tells me that our dance is the embodiment of the sacred and ancient symbol of the priestess. Each and every time we dance we are celebrating our lineage to various societies’ thoughts, ideals, customs and traditions through out history.

Our specific dance style allows for changes to occur just as it nurtures and allows for different styles to emerge and grow into their own dynamics. Belly dance and the moon have in common the unique aspect of their individual personages which physically affect the masses in a way only the feminine can.  As I was looking at the  eight phases of the moon: New moon, waxing crescent, first quarter, waxing gibbous, full moon, waning gibbous, last quarter, waning crescent, and then back to new moon; I realized that our dance movements can be connect to each phase.

 

  1. New Moon-The Mishmash of Sharp and Soft Hips
  2. Waxing Crescent- Hips that make a Statement/Come Hither Soft Hips
  3. First Quarter-Layering w/Sharp and Soft Hips that Speak Volumes
  4. Waxing Gibbous- Soft Continual and Unending
  5. Full Moon-Opposition Rt and Lft Moves w/Layering called the Mirror Effect
  6. Waning Gibbous-Level Changes from Sultry to Playful
  7. Last Quarter-Traveling Steps with Style
  8. Waning Crescent-Full Body Layering with Accenting Passion/Body Angles and Turns

It has become apparent to me that our dance and the moon have more in common then I once thought. The symbol for the Goddess is the moon whose phases reflect the stages within a woman’s life. We are connected to the moons waxing and waning by our menstrual cycles. This is why I believe the moon is the symbol of the feminine because she can affect tides upon the earth and a woman’s time of the month with equal power and indifference. She is our time clock to our internal desires as women and we judge life not just according to age alone but to the changes within our bodies that we cannot deny. Puberty, adulthood, marriage, motherhood, menopause are really guided by the seasons and those seasons are guided by the moon.

If we look at the phases of ourselves as dancers, we can see this connection in the experience of learning that evolves just like the moon. Our phases are not so different from the moon especially if we look at the enthusiastic beginner that grows into the apprenticed beginner-intermediate. The intermediate dancer turns into the beginner performer and choreographer. The professional emerges through trial and error spreading her wings of individuality. The individual professional then becomes the choreographer and creative director. The creative choreographer and director goes back to the simplicity of the beginner dancer’s enthusiasm to regain her untainted view of her own dance. And finally as professionals we look to the simplest movement that gives us the greatest joy because finally our emotions have the intensity of a seasoned dancer but with a twist of our own interpretation of life mixed in.

I am a woman of moonlight because I recognize that the moon emulates the strengths of my feminine self. The cycles of the moon have been important not only to me but to women through out history because of her vigilance and ceaselessly timed phases that keep us connected to her. As the moon gracefully goes in and out of her phases; as women of moonlight we try to emulate her from various stages, venues or from one dressing room to the next.

Belly dance is a spiritual and physical calling to women from all over the world to remember not only how life evolves but how each of us respond to the cycles of our own immortality. Only with understanding how the moon affects each of us as women can we understand how connected to her we are and how much of her is in our dance.

Hymn to Diana

Queen and Huntress, chaste and fair,
Now the sun is laid to sleep,
Seated in they silver chair
State in wonted manner keep:
Hesperus entreats they light,
Goddess excellently bright.
Earth, let not they envious shade
Dare itself to interpose;
Selene’s shining orb was made
Heaven to clear when day did close:
Blessus then with wished sight
Goddess excellently bright.

Lay thy bow of pearl apart,
And they crystal-shining quiver;
Give unto the flying hart
Space to breathe, how short soever:
Thou that mak’st a day of night,
Goddess excellentely bright.
~~ From Classic Mythology by:
Charles Mills Gayley circa 1893 ~~