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One Dancer's Comeback

One Dancer's Comeback

(Reprint from Speech Today June 8,1998. Najia pictured at left.)

Belly Dancing is effective exercise for some patients.

She spins across the dance floor like one of the dervishes of myth, veils flying, spangled costume glittering. In performance, belly dancer Naja Samiya (also known as Najia) gracefully executes moves that would challenge the best-trained athlete: breathtaking back bends, sensuous undulations, exotic snake arms, and opposing hip and rib cage circles that work her upper and lower torso so independently it seems as if they are not joined at all.

Hard to believe that the Philadelphia area dancer once suffered a sports injury so severe that doctors recommended surgery to fuse her spine. She declined and spent several pain-filled years until she discovered belly dancing. "Once I started belly dancing," she says, "my back problems disappeared completely." She built a reputation as a dancer, choreographer and instructor until disaster struck. In the early 1990's, an automobile accident left her almost paralyzed.

"I had many doctors tell me I would never dance again," she recalls. "Sometimes, I couldn't even hold a coffee cup. I couldn't feed myself. I was in severe pain, walking around like Quasimodo." She relied on painkillers to get through the day, and despaired that her career as a dancer was through.

Yet today, Najia is back on stage in nightclubs and at festivals, and will travel to Turkey and Israel this summer to dance with the masters. She credits her comeback to a dance form that emphasizes perfect posture and balance, combining intensive, precise movements that manipulate but do not strain the muscles of the back, legs, torso and arms. Belly dancing, faddishly popular 20 years ago, has been newly unveiled as an effective exercise and restorative for some people with rehabilitative needs.

Najia's first belly dance lesson told her a lot about its palliative power. On her way to class, she was so racked with pain that she could only drive 15 minutes at a time. After one lesson, she drove all the way home, a 45-minute trip in which she experienced little discomfort. "I was amazed at how good it felt in my spine," she says. "It was like getting an internal massage." Now a dance teacher and choreographer, she hears similar stories from students who belly dance to overcome physical limitations caused by injury. One woman suffering from a slipped disc discontinued her use of painkillers shortly after she started belly dancing.

With dance, Najia says, people return to a more natural stance. Breathing improves, the body aligns, and muscle tone improves, adds to flexibility and range of motion. "The younger you are, the easier it is, because you're not locked up in the English-Dutch-Puritanical stance we have - shoulders forward, upper back hunched, moving the chest, abdomen and hips as one unit. People have a very hard time isolating those areas and loosening them up; also, women tend to breathe up in the throat because they want to look thin. "With practice, the dance changes all of that."

After her auto accident, Najia did not perform successfully for more than two years, but she continued to teach at a beginner level, and diligently incorporated belly dance moves into her therapy. "My intuition was telling me, 'This will make me better,'" she says, and both a neurologist and physical therapist gave the thumbs-up when she demonstrated what she was doing at home. Improvement was hard won, and some mornings the dancer had to stretch for nearly an hour simply to stand up straight. But in time she saw results, and eventually weaned herself from pain medications.

Najia supplemented physical therapy with shiatsu massage by practitioner Violet Hoffman of East Norristown, PA., an occupational therapist and former acute care specialist. The discipline blends noninvasive elements such as stretching and palming, and blends well with the dancer's gentle but progressive physical regimen. "Really, she got marvelous results," says Hoffman, who says the first time she saw the dancer, she clung to a banister in order to climb a flight of stairs.

Today, Najia is back at center stage. The only one complaining is her lawyer, who went bananas when a wrongful injury lawsuit went out the window (his client's extensive medical bills were covered).

"I could have been very rich if I didn't start dancing again," says Najia. "But I'm happy." She calls belly dancing "the best thing in the world for a lower back injury."

written by M.P.

Photo above is of Havertown belly dancer Najia performing at Casablanca restaurant in Warrington, PA.


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