The unmistakable scent of patchouli oil surrounds Dahna Rohanna as she enters the room. Perfect posture caps off a sculpted physique, while soulful dark eyes and luminous deep-brown hair announce to the world that this is a woman completely in tune with her body, as well as her surroundings.
"Most people ask if I’m a dancer," remarks the belly-dance and yoga instructor of Syria and Italian descent.
As the story goes, when Dahna’s paternal grandfather, Rohanna Shaheen, emigrated to South Philly from Syria in the early 1900s, he provided immigration officers with his first name. From that point forward, the Shaheen family was known by the surname Rohanna, which in Arabic means "soul of Hanna."
Rohanna Shaheen lived with his wife Sadie at 10th and Federal streets. He worked for Campbell’s Soup and also owned a pool hall in South Philly.
After her husband died at a young age, leaving her to support seven children, Sadie took a job as a seamstress with the Philadelphia Opera Company. It wasn’t until her granddaughter performed as a guest dancer with the Pennsylvania Ballet decades later that Sadie set foot inside the Academy of Music, where her opera costumes had been showcased, notes Rohanna.
The dancer’s Italian mother, Rose Turco, grew up near Ninth and Snyder. Dahna and her brother George were born and raised at Eighth and Snyder. After graduating from South Philadelphia High, Rohanna studied fine arts at the University of the Arts on a full scholarship. In time, she also earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Antioch University.
One night, while doing her homework, Rohanna glanced over at the television and saw an Oriental rug commercial featuring a belly dancer. Knowing she could perform better than the girl who, after all, was being paid to hawk carpets, the college student decided to give professional belly dancing a whirl.
From about the time she could walk, Rohanna could dance.
Growing up in South Philly, Rohanna and her female relatives would dance in their living rooms to the beat of Arabic music.
When she was ready to dance professionally, she asked an older friend who was a seamstress to make her first belly-dance costume, which was the color of cantaloupe. "It was so beautiful," Rohanna says.
Today, the dancer makes her own costumes using materials such as silk, satin, glass beads and copper coins she buys in Manhattan.
Several years back, one shopping spree yielded 1,000 Turkish coins. "I had a jeweler in Philadelphia drill holes in every one of those copper coins," she says.
Luckily for Rohanna, the seamstress who designed her first costume also happened to be a friend of the Tayoun family, who owned the now-defunct Middle East restaurant. Family legend has it that former City Councilman Jim Tayoun came over on the same boat from Lebanon, the country that neighbors Syria, as Rohanna’s grandmother Sadie.
One night, Rohanna’s friend brought her to the restaurant to see if the Tayouns might be in need of a belly dancer. Tayoun reportedly took one look at the raving beauty with the waist-length hair and told her she was hired.
Although the belly dancer spent just six months performing at the local restaurant, she says whenever she sees the Tayouns to this day, they tell her she was the best dancer they ever had.
Rohanna admits a distaste for performing in nightclub settings. It seems the men who frequent those establishments don’t appreciate the art of belly dance. "They’re like, ‘Ah, look at the bumping and grinding,’" Rohanna says.
What they don’t know is that belly dancing originates from "Baladi," an art form dating back thousands of years.
In Arabic, Baladi means "folk or village dance," explains Rohanna.
Baladi originated in the harems of the Middle East, where men and women lived apart. Women would perform Baladi for each other as a means of entertainment. "Really, it’s like a tribal dance," Rohanna notes.
But Baladi also served another function.
It was a distraction during childbirth. A Baladi dancer would perform around a woman in labor to take her mind off the pain. "The movements mimic the seduction and contractions of childbirth — the rising and falling of the belly," explains Rohanna.
Ironically, the belly itself plays only a small role, since the dance involves the entire body — even the eyes. A lack of regimented steps or postures allows each dancer to develop her own style, Rohanna says.
The dancer believes the art speaks of feminism. "Belly dancing is a celebration of the female persona. It expresses every aspect of what a true woman is. It is the allure of seduction," she says.
The dance didn’t find its way to America until 1893, when a Syrian woman, Fahreda Mahzar, known as "Little Egypt," shocked and titillated Victorian America by performing a belly dance during the Chicago World’s Fair. In time, Americans would come to call Baladi belly dancing, says Rohanna.
The dancer’s career took her to such exotic locales as Trinidad and other Caribbean islands. In college, she and a friend took a two-week vacation to London. One night, while they were dining at the world-famous Persian restaurant Omar Khayyam, the owner approached Rohanna and asked if she danced. That led to a two-month stint at the establishment. Rohanna recalls gyrating for sheiks and Middle Eastern kings who frequented Omar Khayyam, while her friend was asked to stay on as hostess. The coeds made so much money, they decided not to return to the States, says Rohanna.
Instead, they spent the next 14 months traveling throughout Europe, Western Asia and the Middle East. In Afghanistan, a family hired Rohanna to dance at a family gathering, after which they bestowed expensive jewelry and clothes upon her. In Beirut, she opened for the late world-famous belly dancer Nadia Jamal.
Today, Rohanna teaches belly dance and yoga twice a week at the Hawthorne Cultural Center, 12th and Carpenter streets. She also teaches at the Ridley Park Y and a private studio.
Rohanna has another talent based on ancient disciplines, as well. She has been practicing yoga since she was 18. After diligently studying yoga from a book, she received her instructor certification in California. Rohanna describes her approach to yoga as very disciplined, and adds that the practice is very misunderstood.
"Yoga has nothing to do with religion, but there is a spirituality to it," she affirms.
Rohanna now lives in Southwest Philly on the 7300 block of Lindbergh Boulevard with her four children. She also teaches environmental education and colonial history at Historic Bartram’s Garden.
In November, the multitalented instructor will offer a course on Middle Eastern cuisine out of her home. Students will pay one price and she will supply the food. "We’re going to cook it, eat it and, if they’re lucky, they might get to dance," she says with a laugh.