Creative Types is a new editorial series produced by Smiley Pete Publishing in partnership with Creative Lexington, a local initiative that connects the public with Lexington’s arts community through professionally produced “snapshot bio” videos that highlight local artists and other creative types.
(This article was published through the SouthSider Magazine in Lexington, Ky. Find their other amazing articles here! )
At age 27, Safiya Nawaar was a wife, a mother of two, and had a successful career managing a horse farm in Ocala, Florida. She wasn’t looking for a new line of work, especially when her mother-in-law invited her to a Middle Eastern dance class at the local adult education center. But from her first experience with this traditional type of dance, she was hooked – by the music, the movement, and the connection to other cultures and to herself. She hasn’t stopped dancing since.
What began as a passion for Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) dance evolved into Nawaar’s profession as a performer, choreographer, teacher and business owner. When her husband, who works in the horse industry, took a job in Kentucky, Nawaar saw an opportunity to focus her energy entirely on dance, with a particular interest in bringing her passion for MENA dance to her new community.
“I loved the music from these countries,” said Nawaar, who opened Arabesque World Dance in Lexington in 2013. “That’s what brought out all the emotions in my dance.”
Part of her work, she admits, is dispelling the idea that her type of dance, often referred to as belly dancing, is erotic.
“Originally, this dance style was in the household – it was a family thing, and everyone would get together and dance because dancing makes you feel good,” she said. “It’s often not what people expect. It’s beautiful and calming and there’s so much technique and control to it. People sometimes get the wrong idea until they see it.”
Nawaar is quick to explain that through centuries and across societies, dance has been used for celebration, in mourning, and as an antidote to the mundane. She credits the uplifting feeling that comes from moving your body and becoming one with the music. “It’s very cathartic,” she said. “It’s like having therapy.”
At Arabesque, which is located on Chair Street off South Broadway, students of all ages and backgrounds use dance to escape from the demands of daily life. Seeing her students leave the studio happier than when they arrived is one of the best parts of teaching for Nawaar, in part because she knows firsthand the empowerment and self-affirmation that can come through MENA dance.
“When I started doing belly dancing, I built up this inner steel frame, this confidence, this self awareness that I don’t remember having before,” she said. “When I’m belly dancing I have this control over everything that’s going on with me. I think a lot of people walk around in their lives and their body is just like a little car, and they’re just driving this little car around but they don’t take care of it. They’re really not in tune with themselves. With this style of dance, if you do it enough and regularly, you really get in tune yourself.”
And anyone, she says, can participate.
“One great thing about belly dancing or MENA dance is that it doesn’t matter what age you are, it doesn’t matter what your body type is – none of that matters. People can come to me who have never danced before in their life, and we work through it. All the movements are really natural. Anyone’s body can do it.”
Nawaar now leverages the empowering capacity of dance to help support survivors of domestic violence. Motivated by the experience of a family member, Nawaar annually participates in Shimmy Mob, an international event where belly dancers perform the same choreography on the same day to raise awareness and funds for shelters and victims of abuse. Each year she hosts performances and fundraisers to benefit The Nest Center for Women, Children, and Families in Lexington.
“I feel that everybody has a right to live in peace. Everyone has a right to be happy and healthy. And what a great idea to take belly dancing – which empowers me and makes me feel good about myself, makes me feel strong – and mix it with saying ‘No, it’s not OK to stay with an abusive partner, and yes, there is somewhere out there that can help you.’ To put those two things together was wonderful for me.”
Nawaar also performs at community gatherings and private events like birthdays and weddings (“It’s not a party until the belly dancer is there.”). On such occasions, Nawaar’s dance is improvisational and often accompanied by live music.
“The music is very earthy and a lot of times they’re using an oud or a violin. And to me that type of music really pulls at your emotions. It’s very internalized – how does this make me feel? How does it make me move?”
Belly dancing, like many cultural imports, has become Americanized since it first became popular in nightclubs in the 1960s and ‘70s. When dancers began to offer classes in the states, a distinctive American style emerged. These days, Nawaar says, the internet allows instantaneous and continuous global exchange among the diverse community of MENA dancers, with movements and styles intermixing among dancers the world over.
Nawaar, meanwhile, describes herself as “old school,” and maintains a clear intention to honor the history and lineage of the dance she practices.
“I want to do this dance and show respect to the countries it came from. I want to show these people and these other countries that I love their dance style, I love their people, I respect it, and I’m going to do the best that I can to represent it even as an American girl,” she said.
For Nawaar, Lexington provides the best of all worlds – a place where she can raise a family, run a successful business as an artist, engage her community with a rich cultural history, and also stay connected to her roots.
“I’m actually a country girl at heart. I was a little kid who would catch wild snakes and frogs and play with them, go fishing, play in the mud, climb trees.
“I still climb trees,” she added. “I belly dance and I like to climb trees.” ss