The Joy Of The Dance
By Sarajane Case
With a reputation for generating eating disorders and bad self esteem, dance is often the last thing we consider for ourselves when looking for empowerment. Maybe we dance in the shower, or around our room when we’re getting dressed in the morning. Perhaps we dance in the car when no one is looking and secretly fantasize of being those long, lean ballerina types that grace the stage with ease and draw eyes to their every move. Or perhaps we’ve never danced at all.
With all of our many interactions and reactions to the world of dance, its empowering capabilities are often overlooked. This strength derived from movement is something that Asheville dance studio owner Lisa Zahiya has been singing from the mountaintops for years.
Sitting across from Zahiya is something magical in itself. She holds her strength in her hips and not even the tiniest slouch can be found. Her grace rises up through her spine and finds itself in the gentle movement of her fingertips on her coffee cup. Her ease and confidence are enchanting, forcing you to evaluate your own inner workings. I wonder if people feel so drawn to me? Could I ever feel this at ease in my own skin? Zahiya’s response is, “Why not?”
With a history in classical dance and musical theater, Zahiya knows the inner workings of dance’s heavy hitters. In the ‘90s, however, she found her passion for belly dancing and never looked back. She made her way to Asheville seven years ago, opening Studio Zahiya and making waves in people’s lives through the power of dance.
“I don’t know if it was ever my intention to start a school, but, it just kind of built upon itself,” says Zahiya.
Our culture moves fast, but a large part of what Zahiya teaches is the importance of taking a moment just for yourself. “The thing that I’ve realized is that there are large transitions in people’s lives that I see happen. There are major, sort of body acceptance issues and things like that, but on a micro scale it’s about moving and feeling joyful. I’m constantly impressed with people who make time for themselves. It’s like, you have three kids and you’re a doctor, and you’re still finding an hour out of your day to come here.”
The main wall in Studio Zahiya is lined with both mirrors and windows. Zahiya says that the mirrors, for the most part, aren’t really about watching yourself. It’s not about analyzing your movements, but rather achieving the ability to do something you couldn’t do before. “I see a lot of women come to belly dancing during times of transition. I think it can be really healing for people,” she says. “It’s really empowering, on a basic level of just buying yourself something glittery and shaking around for an hour, that’s really something remarkable.”
On the subject of body image, she makes sure to explain that belly dancing isn’t intended to be a sexual expression. While it can certainly be used to seduce, the original bellydancing garb was far more modest.
“You certainly don’t have to wear a half top, but, there’s something special when people get to that point of comfort with themselves,” Zahiya explains. “For me, it’s amazing to see people coming in and not really talking to becoming more comfortable speaking and with their own bodies.”
Zahiya believes that the more you learn about your body, the more you become accepting of it. “At a certain point it becomes function over form. If I’m trying to move in a certain way it’s the ability to be able to do something. Not, oh, this is so big or so small. But the simple fact that you can do it.”
One of the most consistent themes in Zahiya’s approach to dance is that it should be fun. She keeps returning to the joy found in movement, and how healing that can be. When asked what makes her feel the most alive as a teacher, she answered, “I’m a pretty silly teacher. You may be an adult, but you can dance and jump around. Even at 70 you can dance and perform. There’s something about sharing that choice with people. Like, you have the choice of how you live your life.”
Another thing that Zahiya stresses is that belly dancing isn’t just for the young. “There’s not an age limit,” she says. “I’ve seen some really good professional dancers in their 60’s and you’re just like, ‘Wow!’”
Belly dancing and hip-hop classes at Studio Zahiya are even available for children. “There’s something great about seeing kids belly dance, they are really good at it. They can watch me once and do it. Also, I think that really allows people to see that it’s not hyper-sexualized. To me it’s really a joyful dance form.”
Zahiya limits the classes in her studio to folk-based dance forms. “Folk dance is like dance for the people. Classical dance forms are beautiful, just not what I do. Folk traditions are what happen on the street.”
With her open personality and focus on connecting her students with the joy of movement rather than strict form, Zahiya has found a way to make belly dance and other traditional styles more accessible.
“I think people connect with folk, it’s so neat to teach the history of these dance forms as well,” she says. “There are so many misconceptions behind them. There are certain aspects that are sexy, and that’s certainly empowering in itself, but, it’s mostly by women for women.”
While speaking on the greatest joy of teaching she talks about the moments where she’s looked around and been overwhelmed with the positivity in her career.
“It’s like the energy it can create,” she says. “I taught Bhangra at the Southeast Women’s Herbal Conference this year. It was like 300 women in a room dancing, and there’s so much energy in that. Also, from a performance standpoint when you can shift the mood in a room, to bring the joy and the party starts, I guess I just think it’s really healing for people to be happy, and to move.”
A theme in Zahiya’s work is the ability to show people that they can do more than they realize. “It’s in those moments when people say, ‘I can’t do what you do,’ and I can say, ‘Why not?’”
Are you interested in the Zahiya experience?
Group classes for Hip Hop, Belly dancing, and Bollywood are offered Monday, Tuesday, and Thursdays each week. Drop-in rates are $12 and class cards can be purchased for 4-16 classes with prices ranging from $40-$120. Private lessons are also available if you are looking for the VIP experience at $65/hour.
Sarajane Case is a freelance photographer and writer. She graduated from Gardner-Webb University with a degree in Photojournalism and went on to start Sarajane Case Photography, which specializes in women’s portraiture. She regularly blogs at sarajaneblog.com and the20somethings.com. In her free time she enjoys writing bad poetry and connecting with people over amazing coffee or a well-crafted cocktail.