Emily Ferron is graphic designer and writer motivated by snacks, jokes, and other peoples' imaginations. When she's not at her day job, she is seeking out collaborative, creative...
Lisa Zahiya in front of a mural at Studio Zahiya, 90 ½ North Lexington Ave, Asheville. Both photos by Heather Hambor, courtesy of Studio Zahiya.
Studio Zahiya is on the second floor level of my favorite street in downtown Asheville. Learning to bellydance has been on my bucket list for a long time. Taking a dance class was on my to-do list every week for a year. So why did it take me so long to finally attend?
They say if you don’t make time, you’ll make an excuse, and I made plenty. Here are just a few:
If you have similar body, style, or skill set hang-ups (or even if you don't), read on. I’ll tell you why these common worries are non-issues. First, let’s go over exactly what to expect once you decide to show up for class.
When you open the Lexington Avenue door and go up the stairs, there’s a chalkboard to your right with ever-changing affirmations. The back wall of the stair landing has a painted mural of an badass bellydancer. Once up the stairs, the studio itself is a long, narrow room with a wall of mirrors, exposed brick, and 100+ year-old hardwood floors. The tall windows mean a lot of natural light and an occasional distraction from sidewalk riff-raff. With a closet brimming with colorful costumes and performance flyers on the walls, it’s unmistakably a dance studio – but with a few simple tweaks it could be easily be a loft apartment or a coffee shop.
Before class, students mill around in front of the mirrors or chat on a bench. While men are certainly allowed in class (and there was one gentleman in attendance on our first day), this is pretty much all about the ladies. The group is predominantly women in their 20s, though there are plenty of outliers both younger and older. Different body types, skill, and experience levels are well represented.
While the exact content of each class changes from week to week, the format generally stays the same. After a quick warm up, we move into drills, then new techniques, followed by a few repetitions of a choreographed sequence, ending with informal stretching. Jokes, Q&A's, and educational quips are peppered throughout.
I did take ballet as a very tiny kid, but not enough to remember much beyond peeing my leotard at the barre and an early 90s Minnie Mouse costume. The only other item on my dance resume is doing Paula Abdul’s Get Up and Dance! VHS in middle school. So the first class? It was hard. Not necessarily fitness-wise; it struck me as pretty mellow from a cardiovascular standpoint. But the lower and upper body isolations quickly started to feel comparable to sit ups or push ups.
To my surprise, I found my first attempt at bellydance extremely taxing mentally. I was trying to will life into body parts that were dead to me, and control them in a range of motion hitherto unexplored. In doing so, I felt new parts of my brain light up. Leaving my first couple of classes, I didn’t feel like much of a dancer, but I definitely felt smarter. So despite looking like a drunk Muppet trying to do snake arms, I left class feeling good.
Spoiler alert: the dance bug bit me. Ever since my first class last June, I’ve been hitting class up every week. Why? Through a combination of accessible instruction and repetition, I am seeing improvement, and it’s damn satisfying.
#WardrobeGoals (Lisa Zahiya)
Most of the beginner classes are taught by studio owner and namesake Lisa Zahiya, Asheville’s resident booty shaker. She teaches class in a light-hearted way that nervous beginners can appreciate, while still providing the thorough explanations and demonstrations necessary if you want a more serious practice. The rudimentary isolations are simple to learn, but mastery takes discipline.
Something I found most helpful is the clarity of the semantics. Ever been to a yoga class and thought, “Savasana? Oh - you mean laying down?” You won’t have that experience in this class. These moves have evolved from folk dance, not a structured heritage in the performing arts. That means teachers can use whichever terms they find most descriptive and clear. My favorite? “Sweater arms,” undulations, and of course, the quintessential shimmy.
Musically, you’ll dance to everything from traditional-sounding tabla tracks, to Arabic-infused Shaggy remixes. Learning to find the beat in this unfamiliar style of music was one of the biggest difficulties for me, but now I have favorite songs to hear in class. My ears and hips even pick up bellydance music outside the studio – I may or may not have given in to shoulder shimmying at Chai Pani.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t share my feelings about the clothing: it’s awesome. The outfits at practice are way more expressive and casual than the two-piece formal costumes you would see at a performance. Personally, I go the subdued route, usually yoga pants and a tank top. You don’t need to show your belly or wear a hip scarf. But if either of those sartorial choices appeal to you, then go wild! Lisa and the other instructors always look fierce as hell, and the other dancers at the studio fill in a whole range of styles. Tights with lace insets? Belly chains? Animal print? Cage bras? Genie pants? Hippie skirts? Coin belts? I love a good pair of Lululemons as much as the next basic white girl, but lately I find myself wondering: where can I get a spangled crop top?
Now that I’ve shot down every one of the excuses that I made to myself, I hope that it helps you resolve some of your own barriers. Many of us came to Asheville looking to try something new. (Exhibit A: the tourism bureau’s new tagline: “Discovery, inside and out.”) For those of us living here, taking classes at Studio Zahiya is a uniquely Asheville opportunity you won’t find anywhere else. Visit studiozahiya.com to see the class schedule, which features bellydance, hip-hop, Bollywood, and more.