Every dancer has a personal journey that has led her to this art form. Nailah has interviewed many dancers through the years and their stories are as individual as their dance styles. Some were introduced after having had experience with ballet, jazz or tap. Other dancers were intrigued by the mystique and curiosity turned into a profession. Ladies have taken lessons later in life and pursued dance as a hobby. Dance has been a form of recreation, exercise, creativity, therapy and fun.
Nailah, too, has a dance journey. It’s time that Nailah shares her story. Dance has always intrigued her as a source of personal expression. As a child, she loved to watch ballet performances on television, absorbed biographies of famous dancers like Anna Pavlova, and begged my parents for lessons. Money was tight and her dream ended up being just that. As a young adult, she explored various dance forms but found ballet too regimented, modern too abstract and ballroom dependent upon having a partner (her husband does not dance).
Over thirty years ago Nailah discovered the ancient art form of Middle Eastern (aka: belly) dance through adult education classes. Katina and Basha, noted local Cleveland cabaret dancers at the time, introduced her to the sinuous movements of this earthy dance, created by and for women. They were famous cabaret dancers in Cleveland, who had performed when there was a Greektown and when belly dance was all the rage in the 1970’s. Through their influence, she met other dancers at seminars and shows, absorbing new techniques. The first seminar that she attended featured the famous Armenian musician, Eddie “The Sheik” Kochak. It’s an event she never forgot. She still dances to his famous song, “Miserlou.”
Belly dance’s popularity had peaked in the 1970’s when the women’s movement had been in full swing. By the time Nailah signed up for lessons in the 1980’s, the art form was losing out to disco and the like. The dance community seemed to fade into oblivion and teachers were few. She kept up with the dance by viewing videotapes and dancing along with masters like Delilah out of Seattle. At the time, there were no designer costumes and professional ateliers. She, like so many women, had to design, sew and bead her own costumes. There were few performance venues. She was a closet dancer.
When the 21st century approached, the dance had been rediscovered and revitalized. Nailah found new teachers with mirrored studios and other women as passionate about the dance as herself. A dancer never stops learning. Though she had grown older, Middle Eastern dance does not discriminate. A woman of any age, toddler to senior citizen, is accepted into the sisterhood of the dance. It is ageless and timeless.
Nailah joined a dance troupe and performed regularly at a local Moroccan restaurant. Together and individually, they danced more for joy than for money. She learned about dank dressing rooms, costuming and makeup, teamwork, working with professional drummers and musicians, the importance of choreography and that the show must go on.
When 9-11 occurred, many in the dance community thought Middle Eastern dance, by virtue of its Arabic origin, was finished. Some dancers quit dancing in protest. Others lost performing jobs due to a bias against anything Arabic. The dance, though, has continued to thrive as it has for thousands of years.
Middle Eastern dance isn’t about a region of the world but about self-expression and the celebration of womanhood. It is a protest against the repression of women by the Taliban and Islamic extremists. The dance promotes freedom. In the Arabic world, women dance for women. A woman who dances in mixed company is still considered more of a harlot. Thankfully, in the United States women can dance and perform in public, even at family-friendly venues. Women have the freedom to dance and express ourselves.
In the summer of 2008, Nailah had the opportunity to travel to Egypt where she toured and attended the famous Ahlan Wa Sahlan dance festival in Giza in the shadow of the Pyramids. An annual event, it is an international gathering celebrating the ancient art of Middle Eastern dance. Belly dancers from around the world flock to Giza and Cairo to experience instruction by famous dancers, performances and the opportunity to perform, to shop and experience a sisterhood of kindred spirits. Every dancer should attend at least once in her lifetime. Nailah has fond memories of the festival and of Egypt. I studied with famous dancers like Dina and Randa Kamel and danced a solo for German and American tourists on a Nile River cruise ship. These were experiences like no other.
For the past fifteen or so years, Nailah has been able to share my knowledge and experience as a dance instructor at dance studios, fitness centers and adult education programs in the Cleveland area, including Cleveland State University. She has had many private students as well, including Christian ministers, Jewish Cantors, attorneys and doctors. She is a guest lecturer–instructor for community groups as well as women’s retreats and belly dance workshops. She taught at Lakeside through the Arts Program. She has been accepted as an instructor in the Special Studies department at The Chautauqua Institution in New York State for eight consecutive summer “Seasons.” She was also invited to lecture before the prestigious Dance Circle, the first non-ballet presenter and have performed private gigs on the grounds. She was even featured in an advertising campaign and interviewed on Jim Rosele’s famous WJTN radio show.
Occasionally, Nailah performs at family-friendly private parties, weddings and special events, even as an Arabian princess at children’s birthday parties. For the past couple of years, she has performed with the world music band UZIZI. Dancing to a live band at special events and private parties has been an honor and a privilege.
Though Nailah now primarily instructs private students, she writes about dance for several dance publications. As a multi-published author in her “real” life, she is writing a great deal about dance. Her current fiction project involves belly dance. Attending an occasional dance workshop keeps her relevant. She had the honor of attending the fabulous Bellydance Masters conference in Orlando, Florida in the summer of 2015. It afforded an opportunity to mingle with other intermediate dancers and study with amazing dance legends like Donna Meija and Karen Barbee. For Nailah, it was fun seeing the number of mature dancers like herself still dancing, looking fabulous and having fun.
Nailah was once chastised for teaching women how to seduce strange men. No, she only instructs a sensuous dance that women may show their husbands and significant others. The same person told her that she was too seductive and her class was too seductive. She laughed and than smiled. At her age that was quite a complement. She actually enjoys being labeled a seductress. Perhaps the dance will keep Nailah ageless and timeless. May it do the same for you.