To put it simply the transformation into my dance persona was a long, complicated journey of perilous paths, sharp curves and shadowy images of haunted forests closing in on me. Well…maybe I am exaggerating a little but for the most part I found it easier to cowboy and deal with a stampeding herd of Mexican steers than to figure out my sole purpose and place in belly dance.
My first performance was in Presidio, Texas and back then I was known as Rainbow. It is my medicine name given to me by a Medicine Man named, Thunder Bow, when I was 18. It worked well until I was called Rambo for the first time. Accents can make a huge difference on how a word or in my case, a name is pronounced. My friends would laugh and call me Mrs. Rambo!
I did my first featured show, at my close friend’s Jim and Rose’s Café in 1993. Rose decided upon showcasing an Oriental fare with intoxicating smells of humus, kabobs of chicken and beef, falafel, rice and pita bread. The grand finale was an amazing baklava, Rose prepared herself. It was a Middle Eastern feast fit for a King or should I say Queen. It was a big deal back in those days, so much so that I was on the front page of the Presidio newspaper. It wasn’t my best performance, especially since I danced into a pole in the middle of the restaurant but it was my first taste of celebrity. The spark of my dance persona came alive and for the first time she reveled in the applause of smiling faces and approving nods.
When I traveled into Ojinaga, Mexico from Presidio on day trips, everybody knew me as, the belly dancer and people would dance for me on the streets. Specific moments in our lives like these, are precious not only because they spill over with self accepting delight but because they help to create views of ourselves that we wouldn’t have otherwise. I gave joy to people I didn’t even know, and it was the first time I saw that my passion for belly dance, made a difference in peoples lives.
Opposite reactions find their place within any creative endeavor so I had to deal with frowns galore coming out of nowhere placing themselves squarely on my first ex’s forehead. In some ways having this kind of effect is like being a Goddess but the mortal part of us usually ends up dealing with the havoc and heartache of disapproving words and arguments. I walked away more times then I care to remember because the desire to dance was stronger and more intense then convincing someone that I was still me, only better, more passionate and creative. Many women say that the constant companion in their lives is their dance but I can’t really say this. What was constant was the fact that I was continually growing up and redefining myself, as I danced along my journey.
“I am not an accumulation of what happens because of human nature, I am an accumulation of my life’s lessons thus learning what I want to become.”
Following my instincts didn’t always allow for a GPS that got me to my destination the fastest, shortest and best way possible. I can attest to getting stuck in places that felt like, the last place on earth anyone would want to be stuck in. Emotions can make a place feel like a cozy and safe haven or a foreign and desolate abode that crumbles along side with our hopes and dreams.
Three major relationships sailed away making my inland journeys feel more like I was walking in the Sahara desert with little or no hope of finding sustenance. Sometimes mirages can become as real as the human touch, it just depends on how much we believe in the illusions. Relationships can be a casualty of creative bliss not because they are separate from the design but because they don’t fit the completed canvas. As each relationship went its way, I realized that the dancer in me molded my emotional attachment to each person into my self affecting performances. Thankfully, my memories of these attachments faded away along with the naïve perceptions of what relationships were suppose to be. I dance knowing the truth of my path because I know the price I’ve paid for my dance career.
This is where I feel the true Leyla Najma emerged, more subtle and determined yet for some reason more complicated and defiant then ever. In some ways, I never became comfortable with this part of myself because of the fear of the solipsism mind set that perforated my surroundings in my late teens to early 20’s. I knew that life was about what’s not always seen but blindly felt, the next adventure broadcasting itself on the side streets of everyday life or the experience yet to be revealed, refusing any hints of its significance.
Performing wasn’t always easy and to be honest, it wasn’t at one time, my favorite part of belly dance. I love choreography and I can spend days immersed in movement, music and zig zagging various combinations around until it feels right and then taking them apart and putting them back together, in different configurations. I always felt that with each song I dance to, it would be a shame to dance it, one way and one way only. To do justice to music, I feel we should perform multiple versions of a choreographed piece. Once I learned spontaneous choreography, I started to love performing more. This was another transformation…from a cookie cutter dancer into a singular artist that molded and danced her inspired invention.
Attitudes and an interpersonal perspective can weave quite the tangled web and for the last 7 years of my dance career there seems to be a tangled knot of epic proportions. I didn’t own a pair of rose colored glasses but that didn’t stop me in my early years from seeing only the surface attractions of belly dance. Behind every carnival are prevailing conditions that don’t match up to the fun house, rides and cotton candy that greets the eyes of every man, woman and child. Bells and whistles along with exotic and intoxicating smells do their part in captivating participant’s way before they begin to see what the entertainment is all about.
Sometimes the theatrical dance plays I produced, felt no less then a Carny show because as many veterans of this dance know, entertainers can bring in the appropriated drama. I love my cowboy hats including my bolero hat but I had no idea that being “in charge” meant wearing many different sized hats. Some looked disheveled or ridiculous on me and others just looked like I got them from the dollar store. I felt that at any time, I could go out before a group of strangers, like the old Bally talkers (Carny lingo for outside talker) and do a pitch, drawing them into the theaters doors.
Slowly and surprisingly, something interesting happened, without me even noticing. While I was in the middle of being whatever I was required for a specific day…I would wear each and every hat without batting an eyelash. Only months later, when I looked back to see the finished product from an untainted viewpoint, did I see that I had entered a new phase in my journey and education in belly dance. My endeavors paid off in more ways then I ever expected because I felt I had finally transformed completely into the fantastical performer, my youth envisioned. It felt sudden but slow in coming, obviously the oxymoron dilemma, and yet I can’t place the exact moment when the metamorphosis completed itself. The important thing is, now every hat I wear is comfortable and very…me.
It’s pretty evident that transforming isn’t a one time deal. It happens over and over again. Sometimes change happens because of natures prerogative and others…it’s the closing of one door and the opening of another.
Not all the transformations were by choice or a walk in the park. Some of them felt like I was being pushed through the birthing canal, with all the lurid memories in tacked. I’ve come to the conclusion that as long as we live life, continuously learning, the journey itself becomes part of our transformation, one step at a time.
“The journey between what you once were and who you are now becoming is where the dance of life really takes place.” Barbara Deangelis
The dancer that I have become isn’t a more colorful version of me; sometimes she is the shadowing of my completed canvas. Subsequently, at this point in my life, Leyla Najma is the painted stroke of my imagination, and on the days I am not her…I relish in the idea that at any point, whim or fancy that I can bring her out with a splash of color or an obscure line drawn, slightly concealed. Maybe we are the true transformers of our time making dance come alive one small or big step at a time…each dancer becoming the metamorphosis of her desires, constantly striving for her bliss.
The most important lesson I’ve learned from this dance form is…the stroke of our paintbrushes are as vast and varied as the melting pot of cultures blended together, transforming an ancient art form into a shared canvas of unlimited possibilities.
“Some painters transform the sun into a yellow spot, others transform a yellow spot into the sun.” Pablo Picasso