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Biography as Told by Najia, Written by Gia Lombardo

When did you start teaching bellydance?

I started teaching bellydance in 1992. My first teacher encouraged me to teach classes, but I didnít feel ready to teach a group. Despite my nerves, I always felt a strong calling to convey and teach the movement of bellydance, and so I started to give private lessons. I found that bellydance was a very healing experience for the women I taught. One of my students was healing from rape and found bellydance to be very empowering. She started to feel good about her body and safe and feminine for the first time since the traumatic experience. Dance draws a lot from people who need to heal, especially those struggling with feeling okay about being feminine in a society that sexualizes feminine beauty. Dance helps us to appreciate and have respect for the divine female element that nature created.

After discovering how I could help others through dance, I felt a calling to help people feel good. I had always been precise and detail oriented (as seen in my lifelike drawings) and had the ability to imitate, could break things down, had patience, and possessed an instinctual maternal nature. I had all the qualities of a good teacher and the passionate drive to teach.

I have always also freely taught my students about the food and culture of the east, making appetizers in my home studio and giving students a chance to experience decorative ideas & inspiration. I teach women how to use their bodies in the most feminine, graceful way. I bring out their inner beauty and show them how to adorn themselves. Students get involved by starting to decorate, sew costumes, wear exotic makeup, and bring a new culture into their own lives and spaces. Being able to inspire creativity is rewarding on a deeper level for me. I often invite students to my home studio for a Video Night. We watch performances form our students parties and shows that I produce with visiting Master teachers. We have these Vegan Potlucks and I show them how to be Vegetarian, healthy, strong and most important of all kindness to the animals. We have a lot of fun. It's a great chance for all the students from all the various locations to meet and know each other. Sometimes other teachers bring their students over too. I love to encourage community.

What was your childhood like? How were you introduced to bellydance?

I was raised by my parents in Pennsylvania, studying classical western dance since the age of four. I had walking difficulties at an early age, and dance instruction was a recommendation from my doctor to help straighten out my feet. I attended various dance classes on a regular basis, starting with ballet but quickly delving into many forms of dance. I loved dance, but always sought out something deeper, wanting to feel an emotional connection with the movements I was teaching my body. Early on, I saw glimpses of bellydance clips in movies and on television. Inspired by the beautiful colors and exotic fabrics, I constructed a striped genie tent in my back yard composed of old sheets and from vintage clothing and scarves found in the attic I formed a makeshift bellydance costume. Laying in the tent, surrounded by colorful scarves and two cat friends I dreamed of the future and places far away.

Although though you canít tell by my fiery dance style, I was always a painfully shy artist type and intellectual book worm. Dance and drawing were my only means of expression. When I was about six years old my childhood friend, Mary Pat, had the idea to decorate her basement with curtains and hold a show for all the neighbors just like in the "Little Rascal's television shows we used to watch. She was not shy one bit and organized everything and was in charge of ticket sales and PR. Even in my early childhood, I took on the creative roles of stage design, costuming, and choreography. Mary Pat and I staged a show of ballet, tap, can-can, and genie dancing to the delight of all their neighbors.We had these shows every few months. Decades later we were re-united at a party just on the same week I had appeared belly dancing on the cover of a magazine. I thought she would be shocked to see her super shy friend choose performing for a career. Her response was "I always thought you would be a bellydancer. You were always dressing like one."

Have you always been interested in different cultures?

My interest in different cultures was peaked when I was young, especially with the curiosity I gained for my Armenian neighbors who owned a Middle Eastern nightclub. I loved visiting their house filled with oriental carpets and lanterns, smelling of spices. The Armenian couple met as teenagers and they were an example of a true love story, having reunited upon immigrating to America. Their relationship was still going strong in their 90s. I thought of how I would meet my true love and live in my exotic dream house, just like them. I started to realize early on that I wanted to follow my dreams and live by my own code and standards, believing that whatís inside rang true and needed to be expressed.

I was influenced by the beauty of Middle Eastern culture, the exoticness that was a drastic contrast from mainstream America. Growing up I never understood why people wanted sameness. I loved diversity and sought out deeper meaning from a very young age. Another influential neighbor growing up was my friend Mildred who was in her 80's, I would love to visit her and she would tell me about her exotic life and friends showing me letters, and pictures from the Orient. She gave me my love of antiques and travel. Photo of Najia shopping for tabla drums in Cairo's musical quarter Mohammed Ali Street. This quarter is the home of bellydancers, wedding bands and musical instruments.

When did you start learning the art of bellydance? Who are your most influential teachers?

A second run-in with the bellydance culture came for me around the age of 11, when my mother took my to a bellydance class at a local night school. I was too young to enroll, but the teacher was kind and patient, allowing me to attend a couple of classes. I learned dance moves that I was able to incorporate into all of the forms of dance I was practicing. I also had a Lebanese friend and Persian student who taught my some bellydance moves until I was able to find classes as an adult. It wasn't as popular as it is now. Classes were hard to come by. My first truly inspiring teacher was Aszmara. For years I made the grueling commute to New York to take workshops, classes and private lessons with her and other amazing teachers such as Jehan Kamal, Elena Lentini, Yousry Shariff, Shamira, and the legendary Serena Wilson. I also studied videos especially Delilah, Suhalia Salimpour and Sahra Saeeda and Angelika Nemeth and Dina of Cairo.

I was already spoiled with quality teachers and hunger for more meant I had to get on plane to study with these beautiful dancers in person. Eventually I expanded my studies with yearly trips to the Middle East, spending two to three months of the year studying and researching dance in the field. Many of the dancers I studied with, I ended up bringing into the Philadelphia and Wilmington areas so that the local community would have a chance to benefit up close as I have. Producing shows and workshops is a real labor of love and an act of insanity at the same time but it does have it's rewards. I love having Sahra here every year, Jehan is so creative. She inspired my Candle dance show. I was lucky to travel and research dance with them in Egypt and have become close friends. Elena and Angelika I want to have back. They truly moved me. Delilah brought her whole Caravan tour here including musicians. Imagine what it is like to study a video over and over and then finally get to study in person. Wow if that isn't enough years later they are staying in your home. The real blessing is that when I was injured in a car accident and the doctors told name I would never dance again and would be paralyzed if I didn't have surgery, I spent a lot of time in bed watching these videos. I would imagine myself dancing in a classroom with them. Its amazing what the power of visualization can do. It seems I inadvertently visualized them literally out of the TV into my living room.

What about bellydance impassioned you?

I have always pursued bellydance with a fiery passion, addicted to the way it makes me feel and connects with my emotions on an ultimate level. I searched for a dance that would make me feel a deeper connection, and nothing before bellydance had gone deep enough. Bellydance comes from another place, and the lifestyle and music of the Middle East is intriguing. This music moves me like nothing else but there is a deeper source that attracts. Students and dancers who connect and embody the spirit inside themselves see that the dance has a definite internal factor. Dance is still approached very externally, especially western dance, but something about the feeling in bellydance causes an internal click that allows access from another realm. Bellydance makes a bridge with its movements between heaven and the earth, a feeling that is so grounded yet spiritual that many suspect the patterns are linked to sacred geometry. For me bellydance feels like a spiritual bridge. It is mystery. It is magic. Sometimes when I dance, when things are really flowing, I experience existing in two separate realms simultaneously. The particular style of dance I perform works with high and low centers of gravity. The shifting between these centers combined with the the contrast of etheric and grounded movements characteristic to Middle Eastern dance only adds to the sensation of transitioning between heaven and the earth. My greatest aspirations as a performer and teacher are to enable people to feel this freedom and empower women to feel good about themselves.."

What is your professional artist background?

I graduated with a bachelor of fine arts, majoring in illustration and minoring in photography. I was ambitious and ready to follow my dreams, moving to New York City toward the end of my Junior year. I commuted to college in Philadelphia for over a year to finish my degree while living and working in New York. I was offered a job to be a studio manager for a very talented fashion photographer, Robert Cohen in Manhattan's prestigious Fifth Avenue loft . I freelanced for his wife as an assistant stylist. Bob also loved my cooking and hired me to cater all his photo shoots and referred me to all his friends. Making my way in NYC was so hard but I knew that having the opportunity to work for this talented couple was an invaluable experience. I learned so much about the photography business. I also worked in film,television and fashion shows. One of my first styling jobs was with the great jazz musician Branford Marsalis. My last styling job was a seven year contract with Blaine Trump, Donald Trumpís sister in law. My stylist talents with fashion shows were featured in W Magazine and Womenís Wear Daily as the editors wrote articles about my innovative styling and ability to tap into the consciousness of emerging trends. When I moved back to Pennsylvania I also worked as an illustrator, mostly story boards for clients such as Warner Brothers, Coca Cola, The Olympic Games, and ESPN. I am also a portrait artist on a personal level. My specialty is capturing exact likenesses in outer as well as inner soul, bringing life to my drawings.

Why did you choose to leave your career as a professional artist and pursue bellydance?

I made the decision to leave my career as an artist for several years to devote life to being a, dance teacher, choreographer, and performer. Juggling my newfound passions and career choices was difficult, and my health was suffering from lack of sleep. What people don't realize is that art is deadline oriented and you don't sleep till the job is finished. I sometimes worked 40 hours or more straight without sleep especially when working in television or drawing storyboards. And bellydance requires so much, constant learning, lesson plans, creating and rehearsing choreographies, performing, teaching classes, mothering students, managing a dance company, endless nights on the computer, sewing costumes, producing shows and workshops, research and travel. Well the work never ends. I feel like I am caught up in that famous children's story about the girl who put on the red shoes and couldn't stop dancing. One thing I do truly miss about being a visual artist is that when the project was over you could rest.

My career in art was fun and exciting but not fulfilling. I chose dance because of the impact it had on the women I taught, women who connect with the bellydance and truly blossom with newfound confidence. Becoming a bellydance teacher and performer wasnít as lucrative as pursing a career in advertising, but it has always been more satisfying for me to empower other women. Fostering womenís creativity and watching them becoming comfortable, accepting themselves, loving and getting in touch with their bodies is infinitely more important than selling a product or clothing line using my design skills. I do really miss drawing though and hope to be able to balance both careers again.

"Dance helps us to appreciate and have respect for the divine female element that nature created.Ē


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Najia (Na-jee-yah)


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