Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Brielle Paul
Let Your Light Shine

Featuring… Tahya
By Brielle Paul Lehigh University Class of  2020

April 24, 2017
Tahya would probably describe herself as an artist who loves the music and dance of ancient Middle Eastern culture. Anyone who really knows her, however, will say that she is simply a bright and shining light in this world.

It’s a quiet Monday afternoon for Tahya in her office at Zoellner Arts Center. Her desk is engulfed in paperwork and her computer has her email inbox open along with countless other files. She doesn’t seem to mind, however, as no else is in the office at the moment, which makes for a peaceful environment that can 0therwise be chaotic at times. She sits comfortably at her desk and takes a brief moment to admire all of the sunlight that is pouring into her office.

Born and raised in suburban Union County, New Jersey, she led a very sheltered life.  She was raised in a Catholic household and attended parochial school through 9th grade; however, in 10th grade she transferred to a regional high school because her small town didn’t have its own high school. “In the regional school system other young people on my street went to a different high school then I went to, and my brothers and sisters went to a different high school then me,” she said. “Within one block, the teens went to three different high schools. So I tell you this as I feel the regional school system  contributed to my feeling a great lack of community growing up.”

By the time Tahya began studying at a two year college, where she went on to get an associates degree in Business Law, she was trying to figure out what she wanted to do beyond school. Things changed, however, when Tahya, who wasn’t quite 20 yet, listened to Middle Eastern music for the first time. She described the experience as something that “swept me away on a magic carpet ride.” Her curiosity about this kind of music drove her desire to learn more. Despite the fact that her town only provided ballet lessons and her body wasn’t built to a ballerina’s physique, she still loved to dance. 

“When I heard the music, I went in pursuit of the movement and I found out it was something that was deeply steeped in women’s culture, dating back thousands of years,” she said. “So, it sparked my curiosity and interest in ancient civilizations and provided me a very deep well of information into which I dove wholeheartedly and have been exploring ever since.”

Tahya was both excited and inspired to participate in these exotic movement classes because they celebrated women and their sensuality and femininity. These were things that were suppressed in her childhood, so she found that she was eager to explore this other side of herself along with other women.

Tahya calls this style of movement, Danse Orientale, which she describes as an umbrella over a variety of dances and drumming traditions from Middle Eastern cultures.

After searching for an instructor who could teach a vocabulary of movement to match what she felt stirred within upon hearing the music, Tahya finally found an instructor who suited her. She said it felt like “all the riches of the Orient were sparkling before me when I found this teacher.”  Tahya studied intently with her for a year before her instructor told her, “You’re done studying with me, and I have some people who are interested in beginning to learn the dance and I want you to teach them.”  So Tahya found herself teaching students for the first time, although she still felt as though had so much more to learn. In fact, she said she was “absolutely” nervous to teach.“But I took really good notes when I studied with her,” she said. “So I just followed her lead. What she taught in the beginning, I taught in the beginning. What she taught in the second class, I taught in the second class.”

Emily Nadberazny, who has been taking Tahya’s dance classes for the past 13 years since she was 16, says she has always felt inspired by Tahya’s confidence and positivity. “My first impression of Tahya was that she was very personable and made me feel comfortable,” Nadberazny said. “She is very patient and has a way of breaking down certain moves that even people with no rhythm can understand. She makes you feel empowered and makes you feel confident in your own skin. She not only knows how to do the dance correctly but also knows the history behind it which also helps the student understand how the dance should be presented.”  Nadberazny says that Tahya has influenced her in many ways, both as a dancer and individual.  “Dancing with her for many years, one of the main things that makes her so hypnotizing to watch is she has such great stage presence,” Nadberazny said. “Before I took her class I had experience in other forms of dance but always lacked that confidence. She inspires me to be confident in my dance as well as outside of the my dance. She's always very positive and upbeat and you can't help but let it rub off on you.”

Looking back on her life as a young adult, Tahya says that she didn’t necessarily have a career goal in mind, it just ended up being “a completely organic process.”  “It has been an evolutionary journey, that just keeps unfolding, like a lotus flower,” she said. “It just keeps opening wider and wider and wider. It’s also like putting a stone in the water, and the waves ripple out...that’s what happened to me. I always loved to dance, and yet from an early age I thought wanted to be ‘grow up’ to become a backup singer...that was one of my original goal, because I sang. I sang quite a bit. I played guitar and sang when I was young. But, I wasn’t encouraged to do that. I was encouraged to follow my math aptitude, and I did that for a while in college, but it was just far too dry for me.”

Tahya says her parents were very strict, and she was unable to feed her hunger for music and instead was only allowed to take college preparatory courses. Much to her dismay, her parents did allow her younger sisters to study music.“My parents were very concerned...they had this image that someone who goes into the industry would end up a disaster,” she said. “What changed their minds, that my younger sisters got to [study music] and I didn’t? I don’t know. It made me feel a little jealous and sad. However, in that regard, I have to just trust that that’s not what was meant to be for me. To this day, I would still love to be able to sight-read and sing, which I suppose I could still learn, but when that didn’t happen for me, this other thing happened….and now I don’t care anymore! When I discovered the dance, I dove in wholeheartedly and I haven’t looked back. It’s been an incredible journey!”

Although she was encouraged by her parents to capitalize on her strengths in math, Tahya says they eventually came around to understanding her artistic passions after seeing her perform at a music festival.  Well, at first, they thought it was silly,” she said. “But, mother being a seamstress, when she actually saw me perform in a concert, she turned the corner and got excited about making costumes for me. Then, after dancing for 10 years, I moved to Pennsylvania, and Musikfest was just starting up. I got to perform (there). My parents were very proud to see me dance at the festival not to mention there was a good size crowd who came out to see the show.”

Tahya eventually landed her job at Lehigh’s Zoellner Arts Center, due in part to her longtime association with Deborah Sacarakis, the Artistic Director of Zoellner Arts Center. Sacarakis knew Tahya as an artist, and invited her to perform as part of the Cultural Arts Series, one of Lehigh’s student affairs programs. This series would later be moved to Zoellner, and renamed the Guest Artist Series. After her performance at Lehigh as part of the Cultural Arts Series, Tahya and Sacarakis developed a friendship over the next 20 years.  As Tahya’s  marriage began to disintegrate, Sacarakis would frequently check in on her during her rebuilding period. Tahya told her that she was going to start up a virtual office executive business,  so she could work at home and make money that way.

“Teaching dance is not the most lucrative career, so I was looking for ways to supplement my dance teaching,” she said. “Around that time, Deborah said that there was an opening at Zoellner. ‘Maybe you want to apply,’ Sacarakis said. I was swimming in a pool with 80 candidates.  Fortunately, I got the job here. I do think thanks to my skills coupled with it being helpful to be associated with someone in the organization. Come to think of it I’d bet nine times out of 10, they’ll tell you: It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”

For someone who had been working from home for over 20 years, it was not an easy transition for Tahya.  This was a big adjustment.  “The good news is, I have this beautiful office!,” Tahya said. “You know, lots of sunlight, so that’s a positive aspect. And, Deborah is exceedingly well-skilled at her assessment of performing artists. So, it’s a privilege, at the end of the day, to see some of these artists in concert and see her efforts come into fruition.”  Tahya says that her favorite part about working at Zoellner is going to see the performances by the guest artists Sacarakis brings in every season. By the same token, she notes that it is challenging to keep up with all the changes that happen during planning and artist recruitment. “Some artists will have to back out because they get a movie contract, or Broadway gig, and as much as they want to honor coming to do the performance here, something that’s a steady gig as opposed to a one-time know...even if they have a series of engagements, it’s still in their best interest,” Tahya said. “So then that shifts everything, and we have to start all over again and find somebody else for that day.”

Sabrina Morawej, one of Tahya’s work study students at Lehigh, says that working with her has been “fulfilling.” “When I first met Tahya, I did not expect her to be white,” Morawej said. “When I was emailing her, I thought the name Tahya was an African American name, maybe Arabic, so when I met her I was just a little shocked! Her office was decorated with Middle Eastern trinkets, and so I was like, ‘Ohh, she's a hippie’, but it was not at all a pejorative opinion. I think she's awesome.”

Tahya, who also occasionally produces her own music, has shared some of her work with Morawej, who says that she is appreciative of the fact that Tahya is so open about her passions. “She sent me a really good song she and a friend produced with a really hot beat called ‘Say Something’,” Morawej said. “I like that she shares her art with me, I mean, not to make it all about me, but it is flattering when people want to share what they're proud of with you. She is super open and has given me great personal advice on how to handle my relationships to vitamins great for women's health. She's a wise and empowered woman.”

While Tahya is certainly content with the way her life has unfolded over the years as an artist, she has plans for what she wants out of life in the future. She hopes to educate others on the history of the Systrum, an ancient Egyptian hand-held percussion instrument, which she feels has empowered women for centuries.

“I think, as you can see, things have been happening for me in an evolutionary fashion and in a very organic way,” Tahya said. “Learning to play the style of hand-drum I play, which also has a history deeply steeped in women’s traditions dating back thousands of years, attracts women who are really interested in playing but find it is challenging starting with how to hold it properly and then learning the basic strokes and rhythm patterns. The Systrum, however, requires just a little flick of the wrist. It’s a tool of empowerment, for women to play percussion, that’s also connected to history dating back thousands of years. I see myself making presentations about that history. I am holding the vision that that is what my future looks like.”

As for her where and when she decided on the exotic name Tahya, she said she got to a point where her Christian birth name wasn’t fitting the person she was evolving into. One day, after performing at a the Grand Opening Ceremonies inaugurating the pedestrian mall on Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado, she asked an oud player for suggestions for a stage name. The very first name he suggested to her was Tahya, which means greetings or welcome. “I thought that it was perfect, because I wanted to welcome people to the magic carpet ride!,” Tahya said. When my marriage disintegrated, and my life moved forward in yet another evolutionary step, I was like ‘that’s it, I’m all Tahya, all the time...that’s it!”

After the career she’s had thus far, I asked if she could go back in time and tell her teenage-self anything, what would it be?  Tahya would tell her younger self to be happy in life and with herself. “Don’t worry, be happy,” she said with a laugh. “You’re gonna be just fine. Trust the process.” After a moment of reflection, she added, “ yourself! Love yourself, love your body. I was taught to be ashamed of my body.  Absolutely, that would be a very big thing I would tell my teenage-self.”  Tahya credited going to parochial school for her self consciousness as a teenager, because she was taught that everything about her body was a temptation toward sin.

“This is why it was so huge for me to be turned on to this dance that was a celebration of femininity and sensuality, because that was big news to me,” she said. “Just imagine...Catholic school...nuns…Oy!  I would tell my teenage-self to be grateful for the body you’ve been given for this lifetime’s journey, it’s the temple of your spirit...and let your light shine!”

Let your light shine!

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