Renowned performer, instructor and choreographer of Oriental Dance, Layla Isis shares how U2 helped to cement her love of bellydancing, as well as a few tips for reconnecting to your feminine body and energy…
Drawing upon her background in theatre, a variety of movement forms, spiritual traditions and her passion for dance as a conduit to boundless creative and transcendent potential, Layla continually aims to help others discover the same the healthy, healing and harmonizing relationship with the feminine that she has through bellydance and conscious evolution. Discover yours at Layla’s Divine Feminine bellydancing class, held in our Soho pop-up on Wednesday, 1/23 at 7pm.
Your zodiac sign:
Virgo Sun, Virgo Moon, Capricorn Rising — a triple earth
Can you tell us your earliest memory of bellydancing?
Although it probably didn’t register as far as the style of dance, I think it was the bellydancer in U2”s “Mysterious Ways” video. When I was a tween, I wanted to be her and danced around in my room to that song all the time trying to emulate her.
When did you know that you wanted to make it your life’s focus?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know I was going to be a performer in life — I came to NYC straight out of high school and studied to be an actress, and also pursued music. But I struggled to make a living pursuing anything artistic until I found bellydance. Not only did it feel like such a completely natural way to express my creativity and personality — within a year or two of taking classes, my teacher started giving me gig opportunities. I realized if I worked hard enough I could have a performing career through bellydance, and I made it my full-time focus at the age of 23.
What did your introduction to bellydancing consist of? And how to you continue to train/maintain your body now?
When I was 19, bellydancing was suggested to me by a Jungian therapist as a way to heal and balance my second chakra. I looked up classes in NYC and found the legendary Serena Studios, and it was a life-changing revelation for me. Learning the form and movements, with its focus on isolating and undulating parts of the feminine body that I previously had little awareness of, I felt a connection to something ancient and universal within me that was vital and transformative. I began training there 2-3 times per week, performed in student shows and discovered this amazing community and lineage of masters from whom to learn.
Continually enrolling in intensive workshops and collaborative dance projects to nurture creative growth and development of skills will continue for the rest of my life as a dancer. As a full-time professional dancer it’s imperative to cross-train as well to protect your body from injury, and pilates has been the most helpful for me.
Your upcoming workshop links bellydancing with strengthening your chakras. Can you describe more how these movements achieve this?
Our second chakra, the sacral chakra, is symbolized by a circle in the lower abdomen, just below the navel. This is the location of a woman’s life-giving organs and the source of her creative power, and can also be where many of us hold a myriad of suppressed emotions including shame, anger, and wounding from past traumas that results in a disconnect to that part of the body. The energy becomes blocked from flowing freely and accessible to us. The majority of bellydance movement stems from this place in a woman’s body, and as well as in the heart chakra, where we feel love and compassion. By focusing on these parts of the feminine body including the hips, belly, and breasts through isolations and fluid circles and spirals, the areas loosen up physically and open up energetically. It has the potential to heal long-term disconnections in the body in a very natural way.
In this class, we will focus on the chest and belly, the 2nd and 4th chakras as the primary realm of the feminine with exercises that bring awareness to these areas, initiating a journey into becoming more fully present in our bodies and more connected to our feminine power.
Can you share any helpful tips/things to keep in mind for those just beginning to dance?
The most important thing to keep in mind as a beginner is to release any pressure or ambition to succeed at certain things. It should be a very relaxed and enjoyable process to find yourself, and discover your own inner landscape, rhythm and expression of the soul through dance.
Your favorite song to bellydance to:
There are so many! The Arabic classic “Layla” has always been a favorite and one that I will most often request to dance to with a live band. Yes, it’s also my name. (very popular name in the Middle East, and also my birth name)
“Love alone is eternal and unconquerable.”
If you’re unable to attend tomorrow’s event, Layla was kind enough to share with us a primer for learning how to bellydance from the comfort of your own studio or home.
Bellydance Practice Routine
First, set the space by putting on a favorite piece of music. A slow, rhythmic Middle Eastern instrumental piece is a great place to start. One of my favorite artists is Loreena McKennitt for creating a scared, ceremonial space.
Ground yourself to the floor with your feet hip-width apart, weight evenly balanced, soft knees and a neutral pelvis with the tailbone slightly dropped. Imagine your ribcage spreading and releasing to the sides of your chest. Your neck should be relaxed and elongated with your head slightly lifted and weightless while maintaining your connection to the ground beneath you. Take a few breaths here and notice where you feel any tension. Do whatever feels right to release any tension and return to your posture.
– Begin to roll the shoulders, alternating left and right and circling them forward, up, back, and down as your arms follow relaxed at your sides with palms facing in.
– Now, keeping your chest and ribcage nice and open, start by raising one arm out to the side as it continues the flow of movement initiated with the isolation of the shoulder roll. The arm follows the shoulder with the elbow, forearm and wrist softly bent at 45 degrees. As your shoulder circle begins its downward motion, flip the elbow and wrist and let it release down as you begin the same upward motion on the other arm.
– Imagine your arms expanding and releasing around a ball next to your torso, that they are moving softly, with controlled energy through a sea of honey. If you like, you can begin a gentle sway with this movement, transferring your weight from one foot to the other.
– This will help you to let go and feel more energized in your body. Stay focused on keeping your chest open and your neck relaxed while you do this — you will find a beautiful freedom and flow in this movement.
Chest Expansion/Contraction and Circle
– Connecting to the breath, and initiating the movement from your heart, inhale and arch the ribcage outwards, expanding the upper body as far as you can and creating an inverted C shape with your spine.
– Now exhale and, initiating again from the heart, slowly reverse the movement to contract the ribcage and abdomen, curving the spine into a C shape. Do this a few times.
– Keeping the lower body totally still, begin to isolate just the ribcage side to side, front and back and then into a fluid circle, connecting each point. Reverse the circle before moving on to the next step.
Hip Slides and Circle
– Check in to make sure your pelvis is in a neutral position. If you have a tendency to have a swayed lower back, think of engaging the lower abdomen muscles slightly and dropping the tailbone down to create more space at the base of your spine.
– Keeping your upper body lifted and your legs straight but soft, slide your hips out to one side and press your weight into them. Think of trying to touch the side wall with your hip as you shift your upper body in the opposite direction of the hips.
– Keeping your hips parallel to the wall in front of you. Repeat the movement to the opposite side. Repeat the hip slide back and forth until you feel you’ve reached the full range of motion available to you.
– Do a complete circle of the hips by starting with a hip slide to the right, rounding the pelvis to the front, while you engage your core and tilt your upper body back slightly. Next, round the pelvis into a hip slide on the left. Finally round the pelvis to the back, as your lean the upper body forward slightly. Picture 4 dots the pelvis should reach in one fluid motion — side, front, side, and back. Don’t cut the corners and remember to transfer your weight accordingly. Reverse the circle and repeat in the opposite direction.
Hip Lifts and Drops
– Start with your feet hip width apart and your feet flat to your floor. Connecting the hip to the knee, bend one knee and feel your hip drop down as the other hip responds and lifts slightly on the straight leg.
– Slowly begin to bend and straighten the knees and feel your hips naturally move up and down, initiated by the knees. Keeping your upper body still and strongly engaging the muscles in your legs, abdomen and butt will keep the hips moving in insolation from the rest of your body.
– Experiment by starting slow, then gradually bringing up the speed of your bending and straightening and then back to slow.
Bonus: Add Snake Arms to the hip movement.
Repeat these steps in any combination that feels right. Relax, let go, feel the flow of energy through your body as you come into yourself in this moment, inhabiting every inch of your physical form. Listen to what emerges, what emotions may be released and which part of your body feels more difficult to move, indicating a disconnect or blocked flow of energy. Through regular practice, we can restore and heal those disconnections and start feeling more alive, grounded and confident in our feminine bodies.
Lead image by Katrin Albert.