Category: Good (page 2 of 2)

A Parent/Teacher’s Guide to Dance Compeitions

So you think your kids can dance? Yes! Every child should be dancing. And there are so many options. This is just one of them…


Photo credit: Nexstar National Dance Competition


I worked (with quoted contributions from several friends) to create this quick guide for you. Actually, this is for myself if I decided to ever teach in a competition studio again, or if I have a child.



  • Classical Ballet Schools and Modern Dance Training and Apprenticeship Programs – routes to professional careers in concert dance (Cecchetti or Vaganova method with examinations, Graham, Horton, etc. and often attached to professional companies such as Joffrey, Bolshoi, American Ballet Theatre, Pittsburg Ballet Theatre, Alvin Ailey, or Dance Theatre of Harlem)
  • International Ballet Competition Circuit
  • International Ballroom/Salsa Competition Circuit
  • High schools for the performing arts
  • Gymnastics or Ice SkatingTraining – competitive and incorporating dance training
  • Recreational or Outreach/Community Dance Programs and Studios – often develops skills as collaborators, composition or social awareness, often less rigorous in nature or expectation for developing skills as professional dancers or college dance majors
  • Dance in schools (dance integration with other academic subjects, gaining choreographic skills, robust cognitive abilities and artistic voice)
  • Training in Folkloric or Rhythm Traditions – some of which offer their own competition circuits (Mexican, Afro-Caribbean, Arab/Bellydance, Khattak, Bollywood, Flamenco, Irish, African, Swing, Circus arts, Vogue, Step, Stomp, B-boyying and other urban dances)
  • Dance for fitness, health, spiritual or physical wellbeing (Liturgical or Praise dance, Zumba, Pilates, Yoga, Creative Movement, Sufi dancing, Dance Therapy)
  • Musical Theatre World – vocal lessons, acting classes, dance training, sometimes modeling, constant auditions for local and touring productions
  • Pageant World
  • Cheer/Pom/Dance Teams
  • Dancing socially and at home through free online instruction and games
  • Conventions/Competition Dance Circuit (well-rounded curriculum consisting of commercialized and often whitewashed versions of jazz, contemporary, tap, acro/contortion, ballet, hip-hop … often training that prepares them primarily for commercial dance careers)

“I wish I would have had such an opportunity as a child.  I love to dance, but I’m also competitive and loved to play sports.  [Dance competitions] are the perfect combination for a person such as myself.  Why can’t art be competitive?  Why does it just have to be art?  With a competition, a child is able to perform multiple times a year instead of just at the end of the year or a Christmastime for the Nutcracker.  In all honestly, I compare her experience in competitive dance to another child’s experience doing club travel soccer.  It’s pretty much the same thing (though as my daughter gets more into this, the hours and money will likely escalate considerably).”

“When my daughter started dance at the age of 3, I never had intentions of it getting “serious.”  I took dance as a child, and felt it was important for my children to do the same.  I didn’t necessarily plan on her starting to dance at age 3.  However, I felt dance class was a great way for our developmentally and physically delayed cancer survivor to get a little social interaction and physical therapy at the same time.  Never did I ever envision her getting into competitive dance.  I didn’t even realize this type of thing existed!! Comparably, my daughter is probably a late bloomer in the competition world.  She started the company this year, in third grade.  She’s competing in three dances – all group dances, no solos or duets.  I talked to a father today whose daughter had her first competitive solo at the age of 4 (?!!???)”

“My daughter has never competed.  She trains in advanced classes at a preprofessional ballet school where her director feels competition is not the best use of students time and it is not encouraged. When “Dance Moms” came on TV, she was attracted to the performances and begged to join a competition studio. I kept her from it for a couple of reasons, mainly cost, but also because I felt the training was too varied (multiple genres) when her main/only interest was ballet, and I really didn’t like the emphasis on tricks and overstretching that I was seeing.”

“Financially dance is affordable because we take advantage of our local recreation program. All of her teachers are college dance majors and work with local ballet company’s throughout the year. Cost for classes and costumes is very low compared to other studios. We just make sure we save what is needed so that every fall we can place her in classes. I believe dance in important for [my daughter] because it gets her moving during the winter months. It gives her at least 4 hours of good physical exercise a week rather than being pinned in the house. She also truly enjoys the stage and being the center of attention. She loves her teachers and the other girls that are in her classes. I believe is it also allows her to express herself through dance.”

“My girls aren’t in dance, but they do dance around the house. It’s the excitement, motivation, and thrill they enjoy. Wish I could do more. If I had the extra money to enroll them I definitely would. I know they would really enjoy and love to be in dance, it’s not cheap.”


If you decide competition is the right choice…



In a land where everyone is a winner…

“I truly think the way they “place” these children are ridiculous.  Let’s see if I get this right: The very best is an “Elite Top 1st.” Then the step down from that is a “Top First.” After that a “First.” Then downward to “Second” etc, etc, etc, I’m just wondering whatever happened to 1st, second, and third. Or Gold, silver, Bronze? I clearly get that they are trying to make these children sound like they are all “first place” winners but to me, there’s really only one first place.  The best routine.”
After the results, on the drive home or during the next class, take time to reflect on which dancers the judges chose as winners and why they might have made those choices. Try to talk through assumptions and feelings/evidence of injustice. Talk honestly about what techniques and tricks were applauded and which were awarded. Talk about what the criteria and scoring system would be if redesigned. Learn together the language of dance and talk about what you seen in synchronization, precision, formations, full expression, line, extension, transitions, tension and release, control and risk, uniqueness and trendiness, 2D versus 3D, use of weight, lift, traveling and command of the stage, dynamics, working in and out of the floor,…
Ask your child what routines he/she enjoyed and why. Would you have picked different winners than the judges picked? What did you notice? What surprised you? What did you see that was uncomfortable? Who was missing?
Talk about what one thing your child is most proud of during the competition weekend; celebrate that thing your child has articulated (rather than the trophy) with a milkshake or a social media post.



Dancers grow up in front of mirror, with their bodies constantly open to self and external critique. Sometimes this leads to confidence and comfortability through puberty and their development into young adulthood and sexuality, but sometimes it backfires into eating disorders, self-abuse, depression, or unsafe sexual encounters. Stay aware. Are “successful” dancers being defined and promoted as being of a certain body type, with plus-size dancers having lower expectations and placed in the back rows or not given solos? Are dancers encouraged to dance through injury? Are shaming or threats being used as teaching strategies? Do the teachers use derogatory language or biased/bigoted remarks? Are the dance floors or tricks unsafe for dancing bodies? Are dancers learning to embrace their growing breasts and hips: what to wear as proper undergarments?
Know when this is happening to growing dancers. Talk openly with all teachers, children, and other dance parents. Make sure that the tricks and styles they are learning will not be detrimental to them if they chose to pursue a professional career in concert dance. What competition style will they need to unlearn in college?
Also know that even great dance educators can be distracted by competition and start to look past dangerous bad habits your child may be developing, such as ankle pronation (or supination) and tibial torsion. Know ways to prevent common dance injuries.
normal-300x241 tibial-torsion
Competition dance teachers were often competition or commercial dancers themselves and do not have CPR /First Aid training, anatomy, dance history, pedagogy,… Encourage teachers to sign up for classes such as those offered by the National Dance Education Organization.



Many times, competition directors and dance teachers make fantastic decisions. Give them a shout out. Encourage them to keep raising the bar for their colleagues. Thank them discreetly and earnestly.

“This weekend, we attended our first competition.  My daughter was in three performances.  After this weekend, I feel complete and utter admiration for her teachers.  The love and support they have for their kids is amazing. “

“At times I wonder if my daughter [as a dancer of color] will encounter discrimination and how will she handle it. Thus far she has been treated fairly. She was Clara in the Nutcracker! I thought that was a courageous decision her teacher made. I’m not sure too many other dance studios would make that decision. That role gave her courage and confidence.”

“I am at a dance competition this weekend.  It is the third my child has done this year.  KAR is the name of it.  It is very very organized. And the locations have been very nice as well.  So the logistics and the producing of this particular competition I would give an A+. “

The dance competition circuit is a money machine.  Not even looking at the costs of costumes, classes, private lessons, doctors’ visits, recital tickets, dancewear and shoes, therabands and props, bun wraps and makeup, photo sessions, travel and hotels, lost time from work and school… the competition registration fees alone are incredible.
“Also, the amount of money that is required to register compared to the amount of prizes, whether it be cash or trophies is also a little absurd to me.  So … daughter’s production team (one dance) has 25 kids.  It cost each child $35-40 to register.  So roughly $800-$1000 to do the routine for the local competition.  They received Elite Top First and overall top production (the best that dance could get) and got $100 for the studio. (And one tall plastic trophy)  Not each, but $100 divided by 25 kids!  It’s nuts!”

Come to consensus with the other parents and teachers on how many competitions your child’s class will do: how many regional and how many national and how many routines. What is the worth you are looking for? What type of conventions/competitions do your prefer and why? Are there better ways to co-invest in dance education and training such as skipping one competition and using the funds to create a studio scholarship or to send the teachers to kinesiology class? Or to save up for a career-focused summer intensive?



The career. The sport. The discipline. The passion. The personal development. The college scholarship.

“My child is learning discipline, that she’s not always first or most important, team work, respect for her teachers, and love of her fellow dance team. The kids at her dance company are seriously all professional, polite, etc. I have not seen any airs about the dancers who are top notch dancers at her company. I know this is not the same at all studios. We got lucky.”

“[From a parent whose child is at a non-competitive studio] The cost of dance classes is still not cheap and I have struggled financially as a single parent. I have decided the struggle is worth it. To see the pleasure it brings her & the determination she has for dance is something I never had within me. To see your child know what she wants to do with her future I feel I have to support it. Many people wonder all their life what is their purpose and never find it. [My daughter] has known since she was 2 1/2 her passion and love for dance. We decided to audition for her 1st pre-professional summer intensive and she was accepted! I feel  as though she is about to take that next step up to “committing” to dance. I know I would like her to attend a performing arts high school and she wishes to attend Juilliard or Alvin Ailey after that so, saying that we are in for the long haul of whatever the dance world has for her or whatever she may have to give to the dance world!”

“My daughter aims for a professional ballet career and we feel summer programs are more important to be competitive.  She has thought the YAGP competition could be useful to earn scholarships but again, the costs of preparation, costumes, travel, and entry fees are prohibitive.”

“Times are changing [for dancers of color] and the struggle is real. I encourage her to go for what she wants if there is a will there is a way is my motto. That’s how she is getting to New York, by pure will!” 



Demand better of the teachers, costume designers, choreographers, and judges. Write letters. Organize and make a noise.

“I am so glad that [my daughter] randomly ended up at the studio where she is.  Her teachers are supportive and respectful of their age.  Although they do have costumes that show the midriff, they are relatively well covered meaning that the bottoms go up or over their belly buttons and the tops aren’t too skimpy.  The dance moves taught are age-appropriate with no gyration, butt shakes, pelvic thrusts, etc.  The music is usually either obscure or classic pop remixes and also age appropriate. Some of the other companies?  WOW.  Six year olds in skimpy bikinis shaking their butts at the audience.  One 12-14 number was so racy that my husband felt uncomfortable sitting and watching.  Some of the songs had to do with sex or sleeping with someone.  Were they songs that my kids hear on the radio?  Yes – Do they need to do a performance to said songs?  Oh HELL NO.  The unfortunate thing was that these were the dances that were winning.  Yes, the kids were talented, but why are they not penalized in points for inappropriateness?  Anyone could have showed up to these performances.  There was no fee and no one watching the door.  This was like free porn for pedophiles at times.”

If you see something, say something. If you see that your child is being asked to dress as a Native American, Aboriginal, Arab, Indian, African, Asian, Latino, Black “Urban/Hip-Hop” stereotype with little relation to the authentic dances or collaboration with said cultures, and your child is not of that race or cultural background, just say no. No to feather headdresses and afro wigs. Demand that all costumes, choreography, and classes be as authentic and diverse as possible.

This is where I give Dance Moms some credit for making a bit of progress:

African piece choreographed by Debbie Allen

Bollywood piece choreographed by Nakul

“But I will tell ya, I absolutely enjoy watching the dancers perform.  It brings joy to me and love to watch my daughter,  so I bite my tongue and pay the fees and continue on in my life.”
“I liked it because, well, because it was fun. It was working toward something – perfection maybe. There was always something to work on, get better at . . . I like that. Something to focus an energy on. We were working to achieve something and that feels good. It was fun to win, and crappy to lose, but there was a good emotional lesson there. It was team-playing with girls I really cared about. It was fun to dress up in costumes and get on that stage and work to do your best ever each time. It felt good to be passionate about something. Performing for cheering fans (even if they were only our moms ) felt good. Even being nervous before getting on that stage was a weird-good feeling. It was great fun being with my friends after the fact, just hanging out.”


If you notice that the students or teaching staff are homogenous, start to figure out solutions to increase diversity for the good of all of our children.
“This is an upper middle class “sport” – primarily white.  Primarily suburban.”

We should not be okay with this, and must work together to change it. How can we make our studios accessible and welcoming? What inclusion strategies we can implement for religious or cultural conservations, dancers with disabilities, dancers coming from different socio-economic backgrounds?

Yes, you can watch Dance Moms, So You Think You Can Dance, Bring It!, Dancing With the Stars, Hit the Floor, but you could also dive into Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive and the White House’s Celebration of African American Women & Dance. Supplement dance training with elements of strong dance education and appreciation efforts. Make sure they are getting the fundamental technique of transition and alignment. Talk about commercial dance (videos, television, cruise ships, amusement parks, hotel shows, Vegas, events, professional sports entertainment) but only in equal proportion to concert dance and musical theater opportunities. Attend VIBE or ADF or ciphers and concert dance performances. Talk about choreographers, designers, managers, researchers, composers, educators in dance, just as much as performers.
What about instead of trophies, the money collected by the organization went to a collective cause? What if the performance promoted social awareness or philanthropy? Are there ways to gain technical proficiency outside of competition?  Non-competitive ways to learn technique? Can we make a community-based performance be just as high stakes and motivating as a pricey competition?
Competition life can be great, full of drive and camaraderie. But there are simple ways to make it healthier, less financially wasteful, and more connected to the needs of our shared society. What do you think?




What We Can Do to Help Syria

I was in college during the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia. As a theatre major/dance minor at a liberal arts school who was admittedly immersed in herself, in Millikin-world,  in a strong education and new ways of thinking, I barely remember the news. Class assignments and rehearsals and flirting and friendships all took priority of my consciousness. The closest I got to thinking deeply about others and about being a global citizen was when I took Ethics with Dr. Money. I loved the class discussions about abortion, corporal punishment and more…  we did not, however, talk about wars and the U.S.’s indirect or direct contributions to  conflicts such as Iraq, nor our responsibility to help. No class or professor or classmate even mentioned Bosnia, Rwanda, Palestine, Northern Ireland, Sudan…; if they did, I wasn’t listening.

I have no defense. Being an artist (or a student, or both) is no excuse for being completely arts-absorbed, deaf to the world.

Decades later when I read “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power and traveled to Bosnia, and also Occupied Palestinian Territories, and Northern Ireland, I was devasted by how much was happening in the 1990s that I had been unaware of at the time. I didn’t even know when I was party to gentrification or privilege. I didn’t even see what was happening on the other side of the river in Saginaw, MI.

Well, now one big world crises is Syria. And it is serious. It is devasting. And I hope we as artists are listening.



Photo by Mohamed Radwan


According to the UN and Amnesty International

  • More than 50% of Syria’s population is currently displaced.
  • Around 250,000 people have been killed and 13.5 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria.
  • One-in-every-two of those crossing the Mediterranean this year – half a million people – were Syrians escaping the conflict in their country.
  • While waiting out the long resettlement application process, more than 4.5 million refugees from Syria are in just five countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.
  • Funding shortages mean that the most vulnerable Syrian refugees in Lebanon receive just US$0.70 cent a day for food assistance, well below the UN’s poverty line of US$1.90.
  • The United States has approved only around 2,500 Syrian refugees for resettlement here, mostly women and children whose fathers and older brothers are still in process and living abroad.
  • Shamefully, the high-income countries of Russia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain have offered zero resettlement places.

The U.S. could set a better example by welcoming more refugees and also strongarming the leaders of the high-income countries mentioned to do something.

We, as the artist community, might not be rich and may be (like me) unemployed or underemployed, but we are wealthy in potential contributions of another kind.


Photo by Mohamed Radwan

Photo by Mohamed Radwan


In Chicago, there are 25 refugee families; my friend and I found out during a holiday event for the cause. Their services are managed by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Syrian Community Network (a small, local nonprofit organization run by an amazing woman and her mother). You can read example stories of the families on their website. We asked what they needed: English tutoring, quarters for laundry, gift cards for groceries, and feeling welcome among their new neighbors, new homes.

After some further investigation, I found out the families live within walking distance of the small dance studio where I used to teach for nearly a decade and continue to sub. I love this school. They said yes right away to my proposal of hosting the Syrian refugees in the studio.

I have volunteered to offer a series of English language learning dance workshops (free of charge) in this space (also donated) where the children and their parents will mingle with other dance parents (mostly Jewish and Christian), as well as to collaborate on a community performance opportunity in June.


Photo by Mohamed Radwan

Photo by Mohamed Radwan

We started last week and it was amazing.

One of the students I supported in Egypt is now in Chicago getting his masters as a Fulbrighter; he is volunteering to help with translation and facilitation during the workshops.  Other guest teachers and facilitators have also signed on to volunteer.

We just need a little help.

Photo by Mohamed Radwan

Photo by Mohamed Radwan

One of my intentions is to make the experience as authentic as possible. I want the workshops and performance to be as close to what the paying students get. The Syrian refugees are real dancers and I want to treat them as such, Although we incorporate certain social-emotional skills and language goals for these particular students, we provide them disciplined dance classes in ballet and jazz, fused with the assets of their traditional Syrian dances and culture. Sweaters and jeans won’t do.

Plus, I cannot fathom the visual of all the other dance students in polished outfits while the “poor refugees” are on stage in t-shirts and socks.

What we need…

  • 10 sets of skirted leotards and tights for the younger girls (in process)
  • 5 sets of long-sleeve leotards, long ballet skirts, and dark tights for the older girls – size adult S, M
  • 15 sets of boys’ white or black t-shirts and black dance pants – child S, M, L
  • Girls’ and boys’ jazz and ballet shoes in a range of sizes
  • Girls’ and boys’ costumes (in matching sets of 3+) or a connection to a costume company who could donate matching costumes for the entire group
  • Monetary donations or gift cards for the volunteers and the families

Donations can be sent to my name at Performing Arts Limited, 2740 W. Touhy Ave., Chicago, IL 60645.

Photo by Mohamed Radwan

Photo by Mohamed Radwan

If you can, I ask you to also look for the refugee communities in your area and see what they need. Welcome them into your dance, music, theatre, and visual arts worlds. Look into the possibility of bringing ourselves as artists to refugee camps. At the very least, continue to open our ears to crises and to be a voice in the face of fear and Trumped policy.

Photo by Mohamed Radwan

Photo by Mohamed Radwan

One Way of Being the Change I Want to See in the World

My parents did everything they could to make it financially possible for me to dance growing up in an increasingly expensive sector. They made sacrifices and worked multiple jobs. I am an only child.

When I was 15, I had the opportunity to attend a summer training opportunity in the Edge studio in LA. I never knew how my parents financially made this happen for me, but it certainly changed my life, my sense of worth.  I got to go with my friend Candy and I stayed with her and her mom. [Side note: Once of my most vivid memories was Elizabeth Berkley aka Jessie Spano training for Showgirls  in one of our jazz classes wearing Calvin Klein undergarments as dancewear.] It was an early 90s, commercial, white, pop world at that time.

Beyond race, I grew up with a strong understanding that to dance was a privilege. If your family could afford private lessons and summer intensives, you were on the path to succeeding professionally. Like other performing art forms such as music, the game is rigged in America. The more you are willing to spend, the more you are given opportunities to develop your artistic voice and rigor of technical talent. This always seemed backwards to me. Why would a society only want to develop the artistic voices of the upper class, especially in dance?

Now it is 2016 and I am doing my small part to help support the next generation, to be the change I want to see in the world. I believe in us, that together we can create more equity of opportunity and access.

Three talented and under-resourced dancers have come into my life in different ways and encounters. They each need $3,000-6,000 to attend a summer dance program (even with scholarships). Advanced summer training is an increasingly crucial step in the field, much more than in my day, and is just within reach for these girls. This will be a turning point for them. We can’t sit back and watch socio-economics stop them now. Can the world pool resources together to make a difference for three girls at a pivotal time in their lives? Can we make three dreams come true?

Sure we can!

We each have three choices:  donating, sharing, or connecting us to potential funders.


Maurissa - Lily - Chloe


MAURISSA (Turning 15 on Feb 24) – Madison, WI. Admitted to Pennsylvania Ballet Summer IntensiveBallet Chicago Summer Intensive, and Oregon Ballet Theatre Summer Intensive and with this funding can decide which offer is the best fit for her artistically and financially. “My dream has always been to be a professional ballet dancer and to serve as a leader for kids in my community. Any donations I receive will go toward my room and board, flights, and tuition not covered by scholarships, and to purchase the pointe shoes I  need. I would be so thankful for any help!” 

LILY (Turning 13 on Feb 24) – Chicago, IL. Admitted to Alvin Ailey Dance – Junior Division Summer Intensive in NYC, a city she would be visiting for the first time in her life. “I started dance lessons at two years old. Since then I knew I wanted to be a professional dancer. Dance is what I breathe and eat. It is a way of being free to me. I have only been taught by one dance school, because of our financial situation we have not been able to afford any other dance lessons. I feel going to dance with Alvin Ailey will develop my professional career so I can one day dance with a professional dance company. Then maybe one day I can inspire and give back to someone like me.”

CHLOE (14, Born in Haiti) – Ontario, CA. Admitted to Dance Theatre of Harlem Summer Intensive as well as Princeton Ballet School and with this funding can decide which offer is the best fit for her artistically and financially.“I love dance, specifically ballet, because it takes an enormous amount of dedication. It’s something that you can never be perfect at, which always keeps you striving for more. My biggest challenge as a dancer is comparing myself to others and being realistic with what my body can do and achieving my personal best.” She is excited about the possibility of attending DTH because, “This summer intensive is any amazing opportunity to train with other dancers of color.”

There are shockingly few pre-professional opportunities for dancers of color and even fewer for dancers with financial difficulties. Single-parent and multi-child households, in particular, are asked to make heartbreaking sacrifices to keep their kids dancing and summer training is nearly impossible. They are selected but are rarely able to actually attend. We are going to change that this year!

Scholarships for summer intensives do not cover all tuition, travel, room and board for the 5-8 weeks, nor the necessary but expensive dancewear for growing girls. Here, we have identified three future dance leaders from around the country who have auditioned and been selected for specialized summer programs with scholarships. We are immensely proud of them and have pledged not to let them down.

These girls are going places and I am humbled to play this small part, but I can’t do this alone.

Click here:

We have a big goal but if all of America and beyond cannot successfully support the dreams of three girls, there is something seriously wrong in society.

The Reason We Don’t Need to Kill Black Men in America

“8 Cops, 1 Homeless Man, 46 Bullets”

Two Years Later, No Charges

These are two headlines about an incident in my hometown, Saginaw, Michigan. But we will get to that town later.

I have never seen a human being die in front of me. I have been around death and dying, have attended funerals for young and old, those we lost at the hands of rampant gun crime, car accidents, cancers and heart disease. I have been around extreme tensions and escalated violence. But I have never witnessed the death of someone.

When I read the last words of Eric Garner, I naturally held my breath as I imagined being there for the death of this man.

“Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today. […] I’m minding my business, officer, I’m minding my business. Please just leave me alone. I told you the last time, please just leave me alone. Please. Please don’t touch me. Do not touch me. [garbled} I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”

I had to read it again. One more time. No need for video or audio.

Mr. Garner died that day. And just by reading his words, I am crushed. I could not imagine being there to see him die and I could not fathom having my hands involved in the scuffle, like the police did that day. Would I have turned in my badge, sought therapy, cried for weeks, thrown up when I looked at myself in the mirror? A man died. Six children lost their loving father because I wasn’t able to talk to a man who had committed a small, non-violent crime and was frustrated by me, the police.



I do not believe in the death penalty, or even corporal punishment; and to some extent, self defense. If you told me that a mass murderer was 100% guilty, I would still question his/her death at the hands of the authorities. But even if you think the death penalty is a solid punishment, wouldn’t you say the crime would have to be big? The penalty would be death for someone who murdered and tortured, or stole millions, or was a dictator. It should never be that the penalty is death without trial for speaking your mind, selling individual cigarettes, delaying or resisting arrest, stealing snacks, or loitering in the streets.

Back to my hometown. My dad was one of a handful of white students in a 99% black high school in the late 1960s, early 1970s. As a boy living downtown in Saginaw, MI, he had often walked across the backyards to play with the neighbor boy who happened to be blind and named Stevie… who would later add Wonder. The school I attended decades later in the nearby suburbs, by contrast, was 100% white. There may have been one Asian student once, if I remember correctly. As a young student there was some bullying when a peer of mine started a rumor that my dad must be black because my hair was so curly. Years later, when my quarter-Mexican boyfriend came with me to prom, the first thing he said was, “Wow, I am the closest thing to a minority in here!” When I made the decision that I wanted to attend a second high school, an arts and sciences magnet school, my parents supported the decision; even though it meant leaving my morning school everyday around lunch and driving downtown. Saginaw, MI has a crime rate that tops many lists. I was fine. What’s more, I found the love of good friends because my parents had taught me to trust people.


It is why we don’t need to kill people who hint at being threatening, especially when unarmed.

Trust is risky, but it works well.

It is how I (at 5’1″ and 110 lbs) could disarm a tall, angry young Bengali man wielding a large kitchen knife, pursing his target down the street in 2002. Trust is what allowed for him to listen to me.

It is how I could walk into the heart of an anti-American protest at the US Embassy Cairo in 2012. Trust is what led one of those protesters to offer this American a cup of tea.

It is how I so wish more American police could operate now, based on trust.

Because #BlackLivesMatter.


Nharda – Commencement Speech 2014 for Millikin University


Millikin University – Decatur, IL – May 18, 2014

I have come 6,722 miles to be with you today. I did not really come to speak to you, or at you: my main purpose was to be here for this extended moment… you graduating from Millikin University, as I did fourteen years ago.

This time at a Millikin graduation, I have added this Masters hood I earned in the meantime and this microphone and 18 minutes speaking time.

As the first and only college graduate on either side of my family, you cannot imagine what this commencement speech is about to mean to me and probably to my parents and my husband sitting over there.

So, thank you. Merci. Shukran. [sign language for thank you] to…

-President White and Chris White

-Dean Laura Ledford

-Graduates and your families

-Staff at this Decatur Civic Center, including the sound board operator and those who will clean up when we file out of here.

-Faculty and Board of Trustees at Millikin University

-The university itself bcause Millikin taught me and changed me.

When I first arrived to Millikin in 1996, my style was exclusively “Goodwill.” No jeans or hoodies; because in high school I realized everyone wore jeans and hoodies everyday and I made a decision not to be everybody. I was stubborn. I wore scrubs and plaid a lot during my four years here. A smart girl who loved dance and international relations. No frills. Much Beck. When my parents, and best friends drove down from mid-Michigan and dropped me off at Millikin that Fall, we were all sad. I cried for a week and didn’t tell my mother. Later I realized she did the same.

Before I knew it, I was taking risks in critical thinking and choreography. With classes such as Ethics with Dr. Money, Spider Biology, and Modern Dance. Millikin was the perfect fit for me.

So yes, I came 6,722 miles to be with you today. Today is the most important word for me in that sentence. In Egyptian Arabic, the word for today is El Nharda. And Nharda is what I will give advice on today. Not going to cover your life or your grand future. Not even tomorrow. Nharda bas.

Are you ready?

First bit of advice…

  1. Sit up

During this ceremony, please sit up. And spread your wings.

2. Put some intention behind your Breathing.

[Lead audience in breathing exercise: 4 counts in, 4 counts hold, 4 counts out]

3. You will take a lot of pictures today. Photographers say they don’t take pictures, they make pictures. So when you are making pictures, remember that the light source comes from behind and you shine it on someone or something else. Also, hold your breath when you push the button to keep your camera still. So, the source comes from behind you… and you shine it on someone or something else [with gestures]. wink wink. I am not talking about life, just making pictures today, BUT the  source comes from behind and you shine it on someone or something else.

4. You are also going to be the subject of many many pictures today. Here is some advice from my friends in modeling. Put your chin one inch out and one inch down. Both a little proud, and a little bit humble. Proud and humble. Practice it with me.

Let’s practice it all. Sit up. Spread your wings. Put intention in your breathing. Remember the source comes from behind you and you shine it on someone or something else. You are both a little proud and a little humble.

5. Today, I’m going to ask you to see things from another’s perspective. Think about someone else here. Maybe your parents, or a professor, your bored little sister dragged here for your graduation ceremony, or your doting grandma. Or President White. I wonder how you are feeling today. See today from someone else’s perspective. Just sit with them. Hold their hand, lay your head on their shoulder. I think they will appreciate it.

6. Walk.

When I say walk, I mean walk! That is your only job today. It is the verb for this ceremony. Put your feet beneath you and stand up. Let’s practice that part. Ok, sit down. Today, you will walk! Listen and respond to the beat in your heart. You have options.

[walking option demonstration set to music: electro strut, laid back country stroll, confident We Are the Youth of the Nation power parade, know one knows the future wondering, or Egyptian Shaabi party]


Photo by Herald & Review

Let’s practice it all. Sit up. Spread your wings. Put intention in your breathing. Remember the source comes from behind you and you shine it on someone or something else. You are both a little proud and a little humble. Put your head on someone’s shoulder. And walk!

6. The next piece of advice for today is to hold your diploma like a passport, not a trophy on a shelf. The degree you will hold today will allow you new experiences and opportunities: apply to them all, even those that seem outside your field or how you label yourself. Let your degree be your passport into the world.

7. Feel your feelings fully then move on. Here’s a story. I was teaching dance to preschoolers in Chicago. Lots of pink ballerinas. One of those 3 year olds was bald and wonderful. She loved to wear black. She was witty and compassionate. She had brain cancer. She taught me many lessons. I am ever indebted. She died when she was four years old. One of the things she taught me was to feel all your feelings and then move one. We don’t have time to wallow. She felt every needle prick, fear, joy, nervousness, every emotion fully. Then she moved on. We are all scared, President White are you scared? We will feel many things. Feel them fully and then move on.

8. Network and meet new people today. When you network, look one level up and one level out. Meet professors, deans, anyone you would consider one level up. But also meet people one level out: maybe students in another department, from another country, maybe the staff of the Decatur Civic Center. Network one level up and one level out.

9. This next piece of advice comes from music. Are any of you graduates musicians, instrumentalists? Please stand up. You will probably know this one. With an instrument, when you are holing a note, there are no laserbeams. There has to be drive behind the phrase. No note should stay the same. Build or drop intensity and volume. Today will be a long, emotional day. Treat it like a long note; there are no laserbeams. There has to be drive behind the phrase. Build and drop intensity.

10. My last piece of advice for today is to be active in the world. Buy a newspaper, go for a walk off campus, visit a community center. Be active in the world, don’t just visit the world.

Remember this is advice for today, not for life. [wink]

[with gestures] Sit up. Spread your wings. Put intention in your breathing. Remember the source comes from behind you and you shine it on someone or something else. You are both a little proud and a little humble. Put your head on someone’s shoulder. And walk! Hold your diploma like a passport. Feel your feelings fully and then move on. Remember there are no laser beams. And be active in the world.

Thank you for this speech.


Photo by Herald & Review


Video to come soon.

Article: Millikin Commencement Speaker Steals the Show

A Special Request for a Special Mom

I am an only child. My parents never adopted. My mother lost both her parents and keeps her arms open for her brothers and sisters and their kids, but she never had another child after me. She gave birth to me in 1978 and I had a birth defect, severe Craniosynostis. I was a bit much to handle financially and emotionally. My mother tells the story of not knowing if I would be brain damaged, taking me to skull surgery at 6-days-old, and waiting for my hair to grow and reach my ears. She’s a good mom.


My parents are both top-notch folks. But it is nearly Mother’s Day and I have to give out some love to one very special lady. And I need your help.

I realized something last week that has taken nearly 35 years to realize: No one will ever have My Mom as a mother except for me. 

You may have a great mom. She might be there next to you. She might be oceans away. She might be loving you from above.

But today I am offering you a most unique opportunity: Being a child of my mother for the week. I wonder if we can get her hundreds of children this week, of all ages, nationalities and backgrounds!


Now if you are going to be my mother’s kid, even for a week, you should know a little about her.

  • She loves Nascar (Jr. in particular) and gardening in the backyard when she can feel her fingers (see below).
  • Her favorite color is green. She likes decorating the house for Christmas.
  • She is Lutheran but keeps faith private.
  • She used to be a bowler and go to heavy rock concerts in the 70s.


  • I consider her background somewhat hippie, making her own mini skirts and cavorting with soldier friends serving in Vietnam.
  • She has been battling breast cancer and heart issues since September. The neuropathy is bad right now, so her fingers are often numb and her feet hurt and swell, making it very difficult to walk.
  • She is having a double mastectomy one week from today.
  • She doesn’t like putting herself first or exercising, but she’s trying her best to turn that around.
  • She has never taken a sip of alcohol or smoked a single thing in her life.
  • She recently celebrated a 40th wedding anniversary with my dad.
  • She is shorter than me.
  • She is smart.
  • Her daily positive humor is something we should all aspire to.
  • She is hilarious.

Isn’t she awesome?

Now, if you want to be one of my mom’s kids for the week, please send her a Mother’s Day greeting in the comment section below.

But sorry… After Mother’s Day next week, she’s all mine again.

Love you, Mom!



Homeland, Argo, Zero: Scary Stuff

I’m back in the States for six and a half weeks. Visiting friends, helping my mom, spending time with my parents in my hometown childhood home. Also catching up on American culture. So I’ve started watching Homeland from the beginning. Great show. I’m on the 6th episode.

Someone please tell me there are Arab good guys on this show eventually.

In six hours of storyline, every single Arab character has been fearsome, brutish, or dirty, nasty, or sexist and sex hungry, materialistic. At least two men were portrayed as one-dimensional, with that dimension being evil. The characters I speak of (mostly men) are said to be Saudi princes and seedy entourage, Pakistani or Afghani criminals, and nondescript “terrorist” types. Flashes of bearded Arabs torturing White and Black American heroes.

Not all the bad guys on this show so far are Arab guys. Some are White ladies. Some are unknown. But not a single Arab is good, or even remotely redeemable. Odd.

I found this to be a trend with two high-profile 2012 films as well… Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. The year of scary, scary, angry Arabs and Persians. Threatening Muslims. And a majority of my friends and family rave about these movies. I agree Argo and Zero Dark Thirty are well-done in some respects, but I fear that they spread fear.

Here is an online exchange I caught amongst a good friends:

“Is this photo from Argo? I watched that Friday and I’m still stressed from all the hate.”

“This is prime 1980 Ben Affleck from Argo. Do you mean the hate in the movie? Pair Argo with Zero Dark Thirty and you gots yourself some anti-Americanism!”

“Yes the hate! The angry mob mentality kept me up half the night. My whole body hurt. It was so real and so uncomfortable.”

“My friend Shawn just spent some time in Cairo during the Bengazi stuff. Scary. She is a brave, brave gal.”

I had to step in and write, “Not too scary actually. There is goodness in the world, even when you don’t expect it.” Then I linked to my post from the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo to illustrate my point. Most Egyptians I have met are gracious; but even the angry Salafi anti-American protesters burning the U.S. flag were kind to me and open to healthy conversation.

Back to Homeland. One scene in particular made my ears perk up. It was a suspenseful scene when the questionable White hero is seen purchasing a prayer rug and performing Salah (the Muslim prayer) secretly in his garage. An eery, curious moment. Has he been turned by the terrorists’ torture? Has he become Muslim? Is he up to no good? The answers are unknown, but seeing him pray, it is oddly scary.

Even I, a person with many Arab and Muslim friends from the UK to the Netherlands to Egypt to Libya to the US, started questioning those friends. I am deeply embarrassed to admit this. But Homeland is effective.


After I snapped out of it, I realize how many Americans may develop fear from not only this prayer scene, but from the Muslim prayer itself. Some people may see a person kneeling on a rug, forehead down, mumbling a language they don’t understand, and experience some involuntary sense of threatening. This fear may be irrational and counter to their morals, but they feel it. Just like my moment of distrusting my friends for a moment. The subconscious soundtrack accompanying the scene being dark rather than beautiful.

I don’t know if you are Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox Christian, Orthodox Jewish, Reform Jewish, Sunni Muslim, Shi’a Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Agnostic/Non Religious like me, or none of these listed. But I kindly ask you to read the following* and see if you can find the beauty in it.

  1. Make sure your body and place of prayer are clean. Make the intention to perform your prayer. Standing toward Qibla [Makkah]
  2. Raise hands up close to head and say “Allahu Akbar” (God is Most Great / God is the Greatest). Standing with hands folded over chest (right over left), recite the first chapter of the Qur’an in Arabic. Then recite any other verses of the Qur’an that you would like.
  3. Raise hands saying “Allahu Akbar.” Bow, reciting three times, “Subhana rabbiyal adheem” (Glory be to my Lord Almighty). Rise to a stand while saying “Sam’i Allahu liman hamidah, Rabbana wa lakal hamd” (God hears those who call upon Him; Our Lord, praise be to You).
  4. Raise hands up, saying “Allahu Akbar.” Prostrate on the ground, reciting three times “Subhana Rabbiyal A’ala” (Oh Lord, glory be to you, The Most High).
  5. Rise to a sitting position, saying “Allahu Akbar.” [Jalsah (Sitting between two Sajdah)], reciting “Allah-hum Eghfirlee wa-lewaledaya (God forgive me, and my parents)
  6. ….
  7. This concludes one rak’a (cycle). Begin again from Step 2.
  8. After two rak’as, one remains sitting.
  9. Turn to the right and say “Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah” (Peace be upon you and God’s blessings).
  10. Turn to the left and repeat the greeting.



* The above prayer is a compilation of resources, friends, and my own knowledge. It is incomplete and lacking much detail, but meant to offer some general understanding.


-prayers take 3-10 min

1-Fajir prayer (morning) = 2 rak’a (Cycles)
2-Duher prayer (noon) = 4 rak’a (Cycles)
3-Asser prayer (after-noon) = 4 rak’a (Cycles)
4-maghrib prayer (sun-set) = 3 rak’a (Cycles)
5-Esha’a prayer (night) = 4 rak’a (Cycles)

Body cleaning before prayer and (Ablution):
1-Washing hands 3 times
2-Washing nostrils 3 times
3-Washing mouth 3 times
4-Washing face 3 times
5-Washing arms till the elbow 3 times
6-Wipe with the wet hand the head and the ears (by rubbing the index inside and the thumb behind the ear)
7-Washing Feet 3 times

Note: Allah is the Arabic word for God, which is the same God the three Abrahamic faiths believe in.


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