Lisa Zahiya, owner of Studio Zahiya, has spent her life honing a passion for helping women. She has a diverse range, performing and teaching in several folkloric and contemporary forms, including hip-hop, bhangra, and raqs sharqi, or “belly dance” as it is more commonly known. “How people dance on the streets, that’s what inspires me,” she says.
Lisa is an accomplished dancer who teaches and performs with the poise and expertise of a true professional, inspiring students and audiences of all ages and backgrounds. To see her, one might not imagine that her earlier struggles formed the powerful dancer she is today.
Her motivation is “to make women of all ages and body types feel good about themselves.” She adds, “Dance did not do this for me.”
As a child, Lisa showed the talent to dance ballet and began studying in a professional conservatory. But as puberty began, teachers began culling dancers according to body type. Even though many girls, including Lisa, had the same skills and potential, they were dismissed because they did not look like ballet dancers.
“The ideal was to be as small as possible,” she recalls. This ideal became pressurized in the vacuum of the dance world, and it followed her through adolescence and into her early 20s.
On the dance team at the University of Maryland, she struggled to reconcile weight requirements with her self-esteem. It was at that point when she began investigating forms such as hip-hop. “I got into that culture and people were, like, “you’re perfect,” she recalls. This was the first time in her life she thought, “Maybe I don’t have to be thinner.” Instead, she could use her art as a form of body acceptance.
Hip-hop eventually led to belly dance, where a woman is honored for skill, no matter her age or body type. Belly dance, a traditional dance that is hundreds of years old, is steeped in rich traditions. The woman who honors these traditions is respected and that takes time. “It’s such an emotional dance form,” Lisa says. “As you get older, you have more to say.”
Lisa believes that dance heals and she takes this healing into the schools, teaching students at the college, high school, and elementary levels. She also works with people who might not otherwise have access to dance, such as women in correctional facilities and underprivileged children.
Many of the kids she works with in Deaverview, a public housing facility in Buncombe County, are from Micronesia. She had them write in dance journals after a performance. “They were so inspired,” Lisa says. “They felt so good about themselves. Many of the kids bring their native dance forms with them. I see that and I’m, like, ‘teach me!’ These children probably never have Americans ask them to teach them something from their own culture.”
Lisa also expresses concerns about American girls in high school She says that social dance is over sexualized and that young women are not taught how to dance in a way that allows them to simply feel good about themselves. As a resident artist at Asheville High School, Lisa offers students a healthy alternative so they can feel proud of their bodies.
Along with weekly studio classes, residencies, and social outreach, Lisa also produces events and dance retreats, and she regularly performs. This April 13-15 marks the second annual Asheville Belly Dance Festival, which she co-produces with Mahsati Janan, another accomplished raqs dancer. Last year, the festival was packed, pulling students from all over the Southeast. Lisa recently taught and performed at the Festival Shimmy in Frejus, France.
The life of an international belly dance star and teacher is busy and occasionally glamorous, but Lisa never forgets her roots or her mission to help people heal and build self-confidence. In Asheville, “Whoever you are, whatever you do, we are happy to celebrate it with you,” she says. “It’s really beautiful.”
For more information about Lisa, call or visit lisazahiya.com. An array of classes and workshops are ongoing at Lisa's studio, located at 90 1/2 North Lexington Avenue in Asheville.
Published 2.1.12 on http://www.thelaurelofasheville.com
By: Cynthia Lindeman