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She’s the dancing queen

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Taj, a Baldwin High School graduate who is coy about her age, has performed everywhere from Nassau County libraries to five-star hotels in the Middle East, for presidents, kings and sheiks, she said. According to master teachers worldwide, Taj is considered one of the best belly dancers in the world.

It all started when she took her first belly dancing class at Mrs. Derkins School of Dance in northern Baldwin. Although she was immediately taken with the dance, she said she kept her new interest a secret from all of her friends because she didn’t want to be teased. Nevertheless, Taj said, she practiced endlessly at home. “When it was my time to do chores, I would be doing spins around the house,” she said.

But it wasn’t until she started taking classes in Manhattan that Taj realized she might have a future in belly dancing, she said. She noticed other students watching her even more than they watched the teachers. "I kept thinking, maybe I have something here," she recalled.

During a performance in Germany one night, she was taken aside by an Egyptian master teacher. It was 2 a.m. when the teacher sat down with Taj and her boyfriend at the time, and, as she remembers it, told them, “There are dancers and there are stars, and Layla is a star.”

The Egyptian took Taj under his wing, teaching her and putting her through a rigorous training program. She recalled that a lot of the other dancers’ movements looked mechanical, while she incorporated her own style and improvisation to make her dancing look and feel natural.

According to Taj, the Egyptian style of dancing is the most difficult of all the styles, requiring a mastery of difficult movements while matching the rhythm of an orchestra. "We are the ones at the top of the list," Taj said of Egyptian-style dancers. "It's very high-class. Egyptian dancers don't get on the floor and roll around. We believe that dancers should be up on their feet."

Many Americans, she said, don't understand the true meaning of belly dancing, and often objectify the women, as they do strippers. But she said she takes her highly sensual form of dance very seriously, she said, as do most of the people she performs for in Europe and the Middle East. "I am a dance artist," said Taj. "And the stigma attached to belly dance in America is just ignorant."

Because she comes from a family of entertainers — her father is a musician and her mother is an actress — Taj said she is committed to giving a five-star performance for her audience every time she does a show. Rarely nervous during her performances, even when dancing in front of royalty, she said the key to putting on a good show is knowing her routine well. "For me, the key to success is being prepared and relaxed," she said. "When I'm prepared, I'm calm; both go together. But I always remember that I'm serving the public."

Though Taj has traveled the globe as a performer, she said her heart still belongs to the place she grew up. "I have some really good memories," she said of her years on Long Island. When she is not performing, she spends time in her native Long Beach, walking her dog on the boardwalk sometimes three or four times a week. “I love the air,” she said. “It's really important for your all-around health. I just go down there and breathe. There's nothing like being with your own kind, and my favorite places are Egypt and Long Island."

Comments about this story? MRusso@liherald.com or (516) 569-4000 ext. 283.