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Hot Desk Extract: Leila Lois

Read Monday, 1 Aug 2022

As part of the Wheeler Centre’s Hot Desk Fellowship programme, Leila Lois explored the life work of Leyla Bedirkhan (1903–1983), a Kurdish princess who danced for Ballet Russes.


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Leila created a series of poems based on archival evidence about Leyla and imagination/resonances from her own life. Leyla pushed the boundaries of audiences and was featured in many newspapers, but still maintained a beautiful mysteriousness about herself and her ‘dances and dreams of the East’.



At La Scala (in Milan) on 23 January 1932, Leyla danced the role of Belkis in Ottorino Respighi’s ballet “Belkis, Regina di Saba” (Belkis, Queen of Sheba), a world premiere with the choreography of Leonide Massine.


She has a magnetism that draws you in–

into her delicate ten thousand pound arms.

You’ve seen nothing of the dying swan, or Giselle’s port de bras

until you’ve seen Leyla, rising from a bath.


Once, in my dorm at university, he said:

you have a force field around you,

and I imagined a gold halo

around my head, as he tried to kiss me.

It’s not that I didn’t want to;

it’s just that, sometimes,

desire feels so proximate to dread.



And when he left, I think I took a bath,

so I could soak in my dreams; the orchestra swell and chime,

sitars, glockenspiel, and tambourine,

the crushed velvet curtains draped like poured wine

over the Sheban queen, on a ruby studded divan

of green malachite, her gardens hanging with steam.


Leila Lois. Photo: Ash Koek



Dîlan (Danse Kurde), a Kurdish word meaning ‘dance’, from the stem of the word ‘dîl’, meaning heart, was part of Leyla’s repertoire for her entire dancing career.


My heart was in the dance before

my body was–Dîl, meaning: heart.

As a girl I had a heart-shaped face.

I have a heart tattooed on my left side,

an outline your fingers trace.

Sometimes you fill my body with love

like a glasshouse fills with dawn light,

& my arms are vines,

reaching for the sun’s embrace.



There were many flowers

(Blackout poem, words taken from The New York Times article, March 4 1931)


Leila               princess of Kurdistan                           her


belong to the Orient



gentle breeding                        are                  valuable




“Rythme Rituel”

the jingling of wrist and ankle bells.

the dancer’s             freedom

there were many flowers.


Leila Lois. Photo: Ash Koek


Princess Dancer Reflects

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,

Searching my reaches for what she really is.

~ from Mirror, by Sylvia Plath


‘She has a far-away gaze’, they say.

At times I am strange even

to myself– so disparate,

my arms, are two smoke tributaries,

curling out from the source.


I picture scattering my ashes

as a coming together,

as rivers course

into the Marmara sea,

flooding the horizon.

For all my years, I have danced

over continents

like a gypsy bracken, latticed with memory and missing.


Nostalgia is a grandfather clock

ticking over losses, swinging the pendulum

of guilt and survival

against a wooden ribcage;

a heavy toll.


The piano creaks, dampers breathing,

thump-thump goes my heart,

each note drenched in abandon as

across the ballroom,

past the gilded mirrors,

in satin shoes,

I dart.




For Leyla’s dog, after Sylvia Plath’s ‘You’.



most excitable when the doorbell rings,

mon petit chou, mon coeur—

pocket pasha, little liege—

The joy pours out of me like a mountain spring.

You, tangle around my ankles as I dance,

giggling into the evening,

bubbling with life like gooseberry wine,

cackling and rolling over the silk carpet,

your black tongue unraveling like licorice.

You wiggle under the bedcovers with the setting sun,

with me in those dark unpartnered hours

where there are no lights nor orchestra,

you, more precious to me

than anything, than anyone.



Photograph of Leyla taken in the 1930s. Image credit: Madame D’Ora.

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