Many Santa Feans know Zuleikha as the evocative dancer who presents an annual concert celebrating the poetry of the 13th century Persian Sunnin Muslim poet Rumi at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. Along with poet and translator Coleman Barks and musicians such as Glen Velez, Omar Faruk Tekbilek, Dawn Avery, Eugene Friesen, David Darling and Jai Uttal, Zuleikha brings Rumi’s poetry to life through her unique storytelling.
But behind the scenes, Zuleikha is a globe-trekking, multi-talented movement specialist who calls herself a “storydancer.” Through working with her own body, she has developed a movement vocabulary that is understood throughout the world.
“My own performance is a type of communication,” she explains. “It feels very exalting to me. I try to bring something about the human experience to others when I perform.”
The reason it’s rare to have the opportunity to watch Zuleikha in performance is that she’s so busy sharing her talents with people around the world. She is the founder and executive director of The Storydancer Project (TSP), a 17-year old international non-profit organization based in Santa Fe with a staff of four people. TSP’s mission is to inspire positive change in the face of adversity through transformative movement and self-care practices that restore vitality and cultivate joy.
In the U.S., Zuleikha shares her work with student dancers in a bachelor of fine arts program at Dominican University of California. “I show these dance students how I work with people who have never danced before,” she says. “It’s experiential work. They have to feel who they are through movement. Students in this program, who have been studying dance seriously for many years, have told me how they have forgotten that they used to dance by themselves in their living rooms just because they love to move.”
Zuleikha works closer to home with the New Mexico Navajo Nation. TSP programs there are the Rainbow Bridge Initiative, which includes multilingual story and exercise programs for toddlers and elementary school students, and Strengthening Hearts and Minds, a bilingual pilot project for Navajo mothers facing depression and other issues related to historical trauma.
TSP also partners with Esperanza Shelter in Santa Fe on domestic violence programs.
For the past 10 years, for several months every year, Zuleikha has been sharing movement techniques through classes and workshops in partnership with CanSupport and Hope Project Charitable Trust in Delhi, India. Zuleikha works with cancer patients and their families and many girls and women with a wide range of body issues.
“Some of these women live in communities with no running water and have to haul water on a daily basis,” Zuleikha explains. “I teach them things like simple shoulder exercises and how to breathe and relax muscles. I use nature and colors as imagery because they’re common denominators around the world.”
In recent years, Zuleikha has been training others to become movement teachers so her programs’ benefits can be even more widespread.
“Through the art of movement, I see people feel good and go through amazing transformations,” she adds.
For more information about Zuleikha and The Storydancer Project, visit storydancer.com