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Welcome, Dance Students
by Layla Katrina

Hi, welcome to Belly dance 101, I am your teacher, Layla Katrina. Let me introduce myself.

First and foremost, I am an individual who thrives on expressing myself through art, which in this case is “Belly Dance”. I am an expressionist.

I am not particularly interested in presenting to you a duplication of an authentic cultural dance as it was done by so and so in such and such a time and place and in such and such type of costume. (There are many dancers and scholars who do that kind of thing very well, and I hope to be able to guide you to them, if you are interested.)

I work best at dancing improvisation and knowing the music. I would rather feel my way through the music than count it. I have, over the years, however, had to train myself to think in a linear form, to learn technique, how to count musical rhythms, and to value technique. It is crucial.

But it is vastly easier to learn technique than it is to learn to feel.

If you don’t feel the music and the dance, and don’t have a love for it that is a connection in your heart and your soul, you will have a much harder time learning this love than learning technique. But don’t let me scare you away; you must give yourself a chance! You came here for a reason. Is that not right?

If you love music and are driven by a burning desire to express yourself in this enchanting dance/art form, you have come to the right place. Welcome!

Here is more about your teacher:
I am a white girl brought up in the South Eastern United States, with no Middle Eastern or Arabic blood of which I am aware. I say this only because in the course of my pursuit of dance and music from cultures other than my own, I have found that it can be an issue.

One of the questions I am often asked is: How did I come by the name of Layla (an Arabic as well as Persian name)? By the way, Layla means “a night”(singular), or “of the night”. Of course, it is a stage name. I don’t like to have to admit that, but I usually do. Unless I just smile and keep dancing, as if I don’t speak English!

It is very important, when studying or performing the art of another culture, that you do not come across with as an arrogant know it all when in fact you may know very little. Unfortunately, people from the U.S.A. and other western countries can appear to be arrogant and ignorant when it comes to the rest of the world. But, I would like to think, without intention to be. So claim what you know and admit what you don’t know, and be honest about it!

I first saw belly dance...
in 1985, in New York City, in a little nightclub called Fazil’s. I was in a graduate illustration program as an art student. We art students were required to go watch a certain belly dancer perform, and later she modeled for our class. Our assignment was to illustrate her story. Well, having grown up in South Carolina and in Tennessee, I had no idea what a belly dancer was. I had just a vague memory of a friend once suggesting I take a class and my mental picture of an overweight woman in a tacky costume with too much stomach hanging out. I laughed off the notion.

When I thought about going to see a belly dancer in a New York City club, I pictured a frightening place crawling with dangerous men waiting to pick up vulnerable young women.

I went to Fazil’s with three guys from my class, and I was dressed in an oversized flannel shirt with blue jeans and hiking boots. I needed protection, you understand!

Well, I was enchanted with Fazil’s, and within minutes of entering, I wished that I had been dressed in some little black spaghetti strap dress with high-heeled sandals and a rhinestone necklace. This is my memory of how the attractive, dark skinned women of all ages looked. They got up and danced to the live music of the band, which included a most charming white haired, Turkish accordion player who soon won my heart. The women danced in groups or individually, not in couples, and not with men. Where I come from, no one ever gets up to dance unless she is with a member of the opposite sex! I was astounded, and wanted to get up and dance, too. But, my goodness, how I was dressed!

Fasil’s was a little family-owned club, up a narrow flight of stairs. It had lighted candles on all the tables, a stage for the band, and a polished wood dance floor in front of the stage. There were mirrors along the walls, which reflected the flickering lights of the candles everywhere. The whole atmosphere was romantic, intimate, and lovely. The music was beautiful, and haunting, such as I had never heard before. The men were well mannered and dressed, mostly with family, and obviously not threatening. The dancer we had come to see was putting up drawings art students had done of her in the entrance hall when we arrived. I had no idea then that the woman putting up the pictures was she. She just seemed to be a friendly, average woman who had the look of a school teacher.

It took a long time before the dancer performed. We waited and waited, ordering the least we could get away with on our college student budgets. We had sketch books with us, and I spent much time drawing all the people, wishing that I were dancing, and falling in love with everything about the place. Finally the announcement came, the introduction of Badia, our dancer.

The dance floor cleared, the lights brightened over it, and an exhilarating and unforgettable entrance song flowed from the musicians as she spun into the space, swirling sheer pink veils while wearing layers and layers of sheer chiffon skirts in pinks, reds, and whites. I was transfixed.

It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life! I knew then and there that that was what I was meant to do. I had no idea of how exactly, but I knew I would.

Badia is dancing on the right, Dunya is sitting with her face showing between the two standing dancers, Adnan Sarhan the Sufi Master is drumming. Kay is on the far left, and I do not remember the other girls in the pic.

I had been somewhat of a wondering, pot smoking hippie chick prior to this, with a B.F.A. (Bachelor of Fine Arts) in commercial art. I wanted to be a fine artist but my father thought I should do something that had, at least, a hair of a chance to make a living, and he didn’t think painting was going to do it. I had gotten by with grades of “B”and even a few “A”s in school, but my heart had never been there. I’d have done, oh, so much better, if my heart had been in my studies. I’d probably be some big wig corporate art director somewhere right now! Who knows?

Well my heart was here at Fazil’s in the dance for sure, and I had never been that certain about anything in my life before. It’s funny how the whole universe can shift in a minute’s time…Even though it all appears the same, everything has changed. The manifestations of those changes sometimes take awhile to show on the outside, but eventually they do. I never did earn my Master of Illustration Degree. I struggled through the rest of that year, and I went to every dance class I could afford that Badia taught, as well as those of her teacher, and tried to use it all as a thesis project for my illustration degree by drawing the classes and everyone in them.

I did a lot of drawings with bold dancing fluid lines and not much structure. I wanted to dance off of the pages, and I did; I’d draw and then I’d dance, and then I’d dance and draw.

I had lost interest in the Master’s Degree program at the School of Visual Arts.

This brings me to explain the nature of the dance classes I was attending. They were not the usual beginner Belly Dance (or any kind of dance) where everything is explained, 1-2-3, and specific steps are taught and the students spit them back out, 1-2-3. Badia was a Sufi. She had once been trained in ballet, but had studied Sufism with Sufi Master Adnan Sarhan for over 10 years when I met her. Sufis teach, but not in the usual way. I realized that the minute I entered her class. I was entranced, and couldn’t stay way. At the same time, it was something I had never experienced before, and I was afraid.

More articles by Layla Katrina coming soon!

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