We received this postcard in the mail today and thought that I should keep it.
I want to put this with my other scraps of memories from my life to remember that, in 2020, when I was 41.75 years old, there was a pandemic with deep and expansive impact on individuals and societies. It hit during a year when Ramadan, Pesach, and Easter aligned. That year we had a 90-day extension on paying taxes, stopped being concerned about finding legal street parking, completed the U.S. Census, and worried about friends/families beyond local and international borders, while worrying that our entire industry (our life’s work) may be too fragile to withstand a new world order.
I want to remember that, in 2020, this nation had an administration that perpetuated this president’s extreme narcissism and need for credit. A man satiated only by applause and thanks wherever he can get them: campaign rallies, press conference speakers’ introductions, and Fox News. The point of this postcard was the information on the back, clearly written by CDC officials and not a word by him. I’ve seen propaganda before.
I want to remember not being able to remember the last time I washed my hair or wore a bra. These were days when we shared mighty close quarters with some other humans, but 6ft ridges and virtual valleys from other humans. There were days when my eyes and wrists were pained from extensive and obsessive screen time.
I want to remember this hope that the threat will pass and we will be together again soon. Soon, as in just another week or two of sheltering in place. Respecting a quarantine in the hopes of saved lives, medical advancement, and fundamental societal changes for the good.
I also want to remember honestly the dread that is currently sitting on my chest, forcing me to need to remind myself to breathe. This dread is sitting on my hope. And I’m watching my hope chest rise and fall.
I want to remember that March 24, 2020 is the eight-year anniversary of some local heroes and I shaving our heads for childhood cancer treatment and research. March 24, 2020 was also the day that Ahmed, whom I had the honor of knowing while we was a patient at 57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital of Egypt, passed way. May he rest in a loving peace. I want to remember him.
I want to remember that queasy feeling of an online image search for “hope chests” looking like a scroll of coffins. Just now snapping out of that one.
I want to remember the need to manufacture masks and the TV shows donating the masks they had stored for props. I want to remember the guilt of having a box of masks in my bathroom cabinet from awhile ago, and wearing one mask during a questioningly-essential neighborhood outing to buy ice cream. I want to remember this along with the memory of a friend making sure I had a mask to protect me in Tahrir Square, and me keeping that mask in my tangible memory box from Cairo including wedding cards and 2014 El Sisi propaganda.
My mother had a hope chest (wedding gift). In it, she saved several things including her wedding dress and veil, report cards, marriage certificate, family passports from our 1985 trip to Spain that we thought would be our only international trip, a couple important newspapers from the 1960s, and a flyer for a nuclear disarmament march that we found in my great grandmother’s scrapbook.
I remember Mom and I laughing brightly when we found that flyer. It was such an odd thing for my great grandmother to keep, based on her life story. But I am understanding it now. Hope chests can withstand something sitting on them for quite awhile — they are sturdy — but hold memories but need to be aired out on occasion. They hold memories of all different kinds in order to remind us to move hopeward. Or to sit in hope, on our couches.
End note: I feel my Mom like a parachute ever since she passed. And at this moment, I feel her lifting me away from the laptop and towards the shower. Self care, she urges.
I was not revolutionary in the way my Egyptian friends were revolutionary. I was not there when the tanks came towards the crowds, when snipers aimed at frontline artists, or when the camel-riding thugs swung machetes. But I was there in the Square, often during 2011-2014, as the world changed around us and planning was no longer possible.
These were years that my calendar was blank and I (a notoriously heavy planner) had to learn to be okay with that.
Quick anecdote: In September 2012, I stepped into my role of guest teacher at the Egyptian High Institute of Ballet, as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar. I came with a detailed curriculum and lesson plans for American jazz and modern dance. The administrators told me to prepare for a 30 minute performance in December, and I carefully thought through a plan to get the students ready for that show. Due to restrictions on me bringing in translators, conflicts in teaching styles, and general lack of focus, we were struggling to pull together even 5 minutes of shareable content, but we continued. I kept asking the administrators when in December the show would be, as I was planning to go back to the U.S. for Christmas and I also needed to know how many weeks of rehearsal we had remaining, in order to plan. No one could give me answer.
On December 10, I was told there would be no show. Instead, the Minister of Culture had ordered them to produce Pinocchio. I was told I had one week to prepare my students for a full one-hour, memorized evaluation that would be adjudicated by women I did not know and would have no communication with.
I looked around, and I was the only person in the entire school that was frustrated by these huge changes and the inability to plan forward thoughtfully. My Egyptian colleagues and students seemed to all be thriving in the uncertainty.
During preparation for the exam, I learned that I would not be able to speak or help my students at all during this evaluation that was now looming 7 days away. If a student failed the exam, they may be kicked out of the Institute; there was a lot of pressure inside the school while tensions mounted outside its walls.
Each day that week, I planned intensive practice sessions that made use of what the students already knew. My fellow teachers encouraged me to add additional morning sessions rather than trying to fit everything into the existing schedule. They had to remind me that the class schedule now had to fit our new goals. And in the end, the students did great on the exam.
By January, I was weaned off my dependencies on calendars.
Every morning for the next few years brought something unexpected.
You (the figurative you) called people up to see what they were up to. You decided to do something the day of that thing, then if that was canceled you just went to a different thing. You drove or walked around to see if the thing you saw online was really happening. You taught preschool ballet in the dark when the power went out. You gathered friends and colleagues to create dance programs for the Children’s Cancer Hospital. You documented.
You planned for the following weekend or maybe two-three weeks out. You might distribute a schedule for this month, but it was also clear to all stakeholders where changes would be posted or how updates would be communicated. You never used a single doodle; you just went with it if some people were available. If you heard truthful and impactful news, you shared it.
You held your ground but were flexible in your actions. Every day was a choose your own adventure, choose your own happiness. And you bent the rules maybe for the first time ever while you innovated need ways of working. You watched and alerted. You helped your neighbors. You made neighborhood blockades out of store shelves and organized impromptu community policing systems when needed.
If something needed to happen, you made it happen as immediately as possible. You put on a show where and when you could. You protected one another’s basic needs while making art (song, installation, pop up museum, street dances, murals) along the way. You created enough art that the world mostly remembers your revolution for its spirit rather than its sacrifice.
People sold popcorn and winter scarves in the Square. The McDonald’s stayed open.
You took each day at a time, or rather, each third of a day at a time. It’s similar to how you plan for Chicago weather. Ready for anything, even nothing, or nothing you’ve seen before. You learned to love that uncertainty and that presence. Living in the now, only this time you meant it.
During this Coronavirus and COVID-19 crisis, I’m reminding myself that it is springtime and that when I’m stuck in a day that’s grey and lonely… oh, sorry, I just finished months of rehearsal for a high school Erev Shira production of “Annie,” lyrics by Martin Chanin.
It is indeed springtime while the scenes around us are increasingly apocalyptic. For the Egyptians in my life, the scenes trigger memories of an Arab Spring revolution that brought death and division. For some Americans in my life, the scenes bring up times of riots or depression. For the religious folks in my life, they are seeing signs of prophecies or an urgent need for us to connect to God or God(s). For many others, the general feeling is simply one of ominousness.
At the same time, I remind myself that this all is actually driven by optimism, a belief that our actions will save lives. So there’s that.
Years from now, we will reflect back on the lessons we learned during this time. Perhaps those lessons will be about public health, resilience of sectors and economies, family and community relations, political innovation, social welfare programs, digital workspaces, the right to education, the role of the arts and in-person gatherings, or inter-generational and international empathies. Perhaps the shared experience will transform this brilliant, breaking world for the better.
I can easily stay and work from home for much of what I do for a temporary period of time. I just need to buy a board from the hardware store in order to teach tap dance on video.
With having no children, what is going to be more difficult is finding work/life balance and some joy in this quiet home. So I officially vow to make good use of this time. Here’s what I am promising myself every single day for the foreseeable future.
Check-in with at least one person I care about. This might be a relative, neighbor, coworker, student, associate or close friend. This might be via video, phone call, text, or visit with distance. Connection will be important for both them and me.
Go offline and get fresh air. This one is going to be difficult to reinforce, as I can easily get super comfortable and lack the motivation. But I publicly make the commitment to this daily, for self care. Getting outside also will encourage me to get dressed. But remember, you’re never fully dressed without a smile.
Learn or write something. Ideally something good that’s helpful to others. Because.
Play, like a kid. Dance, like I need. Clean, like I should. Repeat.
Drink and eat healthy. I need that reminder.
Make or conserve money. I am not sure I could bet my bottom dollar. I’m going to have to be smart, hard working, innovative and open during the next few weeks/months.
Ask important questions. Stay vigilant. Challenge myself. Don’t let folks get away with sh*t or shi*tty behaviors. Stay alert to developments. Distill the lessons.
What will you do every day? So far today, I have only done three on my list. Need to get going. I’m here if you want to check-in. See you when the sun comes out. Tomorrow.
As tensions between Iran and the U.S. build, I started thinking about dance in and between our two countries. I have never been to Iran, but I’ve been to Azerbaijan (which shares a southern border with Iran and a northern border with Russia). And dance was there, strong. I started doing some research and stumbled across a story that has blown my mind and inspired me to rethink how an American can function in the world in 2020 and this new decade.
In 1941, an eccentric 33-year-old American named Nilla Cram Cook started her role as a cultural attaché for the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. This was the year that FDR entered his third term and the U.S. entered WWII. Cook would hold the position in Tehran for the next six years while also serving as Director General of the Arts for Iran’s Ministry of Education. In 1949, she wrote an article for Middle East Journal (Vol. 3, No. 4) titled “The Theater and Ballet Arts of Iran” in which she stated,
“The Iranians are a people so talented in the arts and so uninhibited in self expression that there is every reason for the theater to be one of their greatest creations, no less splendid than their decorative arts. They are prodigiously rich in the life and imagination which form its background.”
Nilla Cram Cook
More on that in a bit.
Prior to her arrival in Iran, Cook had lived an unimaginable life. She had come from an arts family in Iowa; her father was in theater and was said to have launched Eugene O’Neil’s career. Nilla spoke many languages including Arabic, Farsi/Persian and Urdu. In December 1933, Time Magazine ran an article titled “Runaway disciple,” which told the story of Nilla being the first American to study closely under Gandhi in his model colony, and her midnight escape from the ashram when things got too intense. The article said she “converted to Hinduism under the name of Nilla Nagini and Devi, The Blue Serpent Lady.” The article also called her “plump and pleasing” and included this passage:
“Last week toothless little Saint Gandhi writhed in embarrassment at news from New Delhi. A brand new automobile, ordered on approval, had gone roaring down the road 70 m.p.h., hit a bump, overturned. Out rolled Serpent Goddess Nilla, bruised, battered, but bitterly determined to lead her own life. ‘I don’t care what others say,’ cried she. ‘My heart is leaping for thrills. I want speed. I want to fly. I want to attend orchestra dances.'”
Time Magazine, October 1933
Some call Cook strange, irrepressible, bold, unconventional, enthusiastic, brash and a maverick genius; the Des Moines Register described her as a “smart, mystical woman” and pointed out that “Gandhi baptized her in the Ganges River on her 22nd birthday” and then “the Indian government placed her in a padded cell in a hospital for mental patients in Calcutta before making arrangements to deport her.” At age 25, Cook started translating the Qur’an into English; that project took her a dozen years to complete. In that time, she also served as a combat journalist in Armenia. Later she converted to Islam.
She also disappeared a lot.
“On Jan. 31, 1982, The Des Moines Register briefly recapped her life and said: “Little else is known. … Are you out there somewhere, Nilla Cram Cook? Are you still alive?” She didn’t respond. On Oct. 13, 1982, The New York Times reported that Cook had died at a hospital in Austria, after a brief illness. Cook is buried next to her father near the Temple of Apollo in Greece.”
Now let’s go back to Nilla Cram Cook in Tehran in the 1940s, working for both the American and Iranian governments after spending a year in Afghanistan for cultural research. Writer S. N. Prandita says Cook “directed the foreign services of Radio Tehran and would broadcast her own translations of Persian, Arabic and Turkish poems.”
In addition, Cook dreamed of creating a ballet company that would highlight Persian legends, poetry, music, and dance. She founded what seems to be Iran’s first ballet company, then took them on an international tour of cultural diplomacy to Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Italy, Iraq, Lebanon, and Iranian Azerbaijan. Like a badass, the troupe also toured India (nodding to Cook’s past). She eventually left her positions with both governments and is now attributed to training and inspiring many Iranian dancers. Sandra Mackey describes her work as “remarkable cross-cultural experimentation and dazzling entrepreneurship.”
“But in trying to establish a dance company, Mrs. Cook ran into major obstacles, the principal one being the bias against dancing, especially by ‘good girls,’ for although there are no Qur’anic prohibitions on either dancing or music, there has been a long history of fatwas (religious opinions of senior clergy) and government decrees against both. Never before had a young girl from a good family danced in public. I was only dimly aware of the waves I was making, of the centuries of tradition and entrenched beliefs I was violating. For me, it was a simple matter: dancing filled me with joy. For Tehran society, however, it was scandalous. Good girls did not perform in public, baring their legs for all to see, putting themselves in the limelight.”
Just a few years prior, Iran was being dragged by its hair into the modern era by the shah.
“One of Reza Shah’s most revolutionary modernization efforts was to ban the veil in 1936. His order unleashed a firestorm of anger, resentment and resistance. I was barely four years old when the decree was issued, and I witnessed how brutally it was enforced. I clung to my mother’s hand as we stood riveted to the sidewalk, alarmed at the sight of a woman frantically running down the street, her chador billowing out behind her, a policeman in full chase. Quickly overtaking the woman, the officer grabbed the end of her black covering and yanked it off her head, leaving her with a look of stunned horror on her face.”
In this environment of contradiction, Cook took it upon herself to collaborate with a group of Iranian artists to do something unprecedented. Here are some of her strategies:
She recruited dancers (each with one Iranian parent and one foreign parent) from Mme. Cornelli, a Russian refugee who had ran the first and, at that time, the only ballet studio in Tehran, and then Cook enlisted chaperones, who were parents and academic tutors who “stood guard over the reputations of their daughters.”
As dancer Nesta Ramazani writes, “Our intrepid American director emphasized the purely artistic aspects of our performances, and liquid silver coated her tongue as she sought to persuade.”
Her mission was to “help restore Iranians’ sense of pride in their own culture. In establishing Iran’s first ballet company, she created a repertory that integrated Persian dance forms, poetry (Hafez, Sa’di, and Rumi), literary motifs, legends and music. Cook had tapped into the Persians’ pride in their ancient roots and unique cultural heritage.” She also designed the set in the shape of the Khaju Bridge, considered to be one of the finest examples of Persian architecture.
She accepted a request from the shah for a performance at the palace in honor of the American Ambassador George Allen. “She was counting on the royal stamp of approval to sanctify the endeavor as one that not only was respectable, but would advance the cause of nationalism and be a genuine source of pride for Iranians. Later, adding even greater prestige to the project, the twin sister of the shah, Princess Ashraf, became the company’s sponsor. “
A few months later, she arranged for a performance at the American embassy, where diplomats and their families rose for a standing ovation. There was a large U.S. military and cultural presence in Iran at the time because Allied forces were transporting equipment to the Soviet Union to fight the Nazis.
She welcomed both arts professionals and novices into the project. This included musicians, assistant director, singers and technicians who brought a recognized level of quality to the performances while also serving as a reciprocal training ground. As one critic wrote at the time, “The Persian Ballet, in its distinctive character, is a remarkable formation achieved by the melting together of historic, literary, and folkloric values on the one hand and a sound theatrical knowledge and genuine talent on the other...without losing its own Persian individuality and character. We … have much to learn from the Persian Ballet.”
She steered clear of the Western-Orientalist trends of the time, “of Hollywood-style dances that represented the Orient as a magical land filled with flimsily-clad slave girls. She wanted to make sure that we were not taken for ‘dancing girls,’ but seen for what we were—artists.”
When it came to arranging for public performances, following the private audiences at the palace and embassy, Cook scaffolded the company’s moves. They started with a two-week run at a local theater, then set out an a two month tour which she helped blossom into a six month international tour.
“It was whispered that she was a spy: What none of us knew was that Mrs. Cook was part of a grand design Franklin D. Roosevelt had dreamed up to help shape the postwar world. With the war over, Iran was to be an ‘experiment station’ for his policies, which aimed at stabilizing and developing underdeveloped areas. The idea was that the United States would pursue an ‘unselfish’ policy that would help Iran develop a pattern of self-government and free enterprise that would raise its standard of living and help it resist the machinations of Britain and Russia. What neither of us realized at the time was that in participating in this bold arts project, we were unwittingly being used as instruments of both U.S. and Iranian government policies.”
The troupe stayed active until 1953, the year that the CIA carried out a successful coup against Mohamed Mosadeq (the popular prime minister who demanded the nationalization of Iran’s oil resources, which were under the control of the British) and returned the shah to his throne. As Nilla Cram Cook disappeared once again, one of the troupe’s lead dancers, Haideh Ahmadzadeh, establish the Iranian National Ballet which flourished until the 1979 revolution and dance became illegal under Sharia law. The company is now Les Ballets Persans, based in Sweden. Iranian dance artists have been inspiring for centuries, and remain so. But through the story of Nilla Cram Cook, I can start to reimagine how an American artist can be of service to the world, on the brink of new war or not.
Please note the following are notes to myself, rather than advice for others. As a writer, I am reflecting back on ten lessons learned in the past ten years, and speaking to myself as the “you” in this case.
Early this decade, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer on both sides. She had a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. She walked miles for the Survivors Walks for a couple years. She also walked right out of her flip flops in the parking lot without realizing it, because the neuropathy was bad. People gave her many pink things. Then the cancer metastasized; she had tumors on her bones and brain, behind her eye and pressing on the area that controls memory. She forgot our names and then came back to us. One tumor broke her femur when she was standing at the ATM. She got back on her feet, over and over and over again. And then she got in the water; for most of her life she wasn’t a water person, but in her last weeks she defiantly rode on the front of that speedboat and laid back on that floaty. Hearty, healthy humor was one of her greatest gifts; she even had the chaplain who gave her last rites rolling in laughter.
Lesson: A loving passing is as important as a loving birth. Obituaries are difficult to proofread through your tears and the funeral home won’t help with that. Making sure her story is told is now your responsibility — as is Thanksgiving dinner and family mediations. Mom will keep you laughing. She’s now your parachute.
This was the decade of #MeToo. In 2012, I published a blog post telling my story of a sexual assault that I had survived but never reported. I wrote the post without ever telling my family about the incident. Five minutes after posting, my mother called. She opened with, “It happened to me too.” She sounded so disappointed that the world she faced as a girl hadn’t changed for her daughter.
Lesson: We, collectively, need to find sexual assault/harassment unacceptable and address rape culture in all its forms. Maybe the next generation will be free from this societal disease while also pushing past inaccurate and dangerous constructs of gender and sexuality. Love is love. Consent is consent.
During this decade, I had the beautiful honors of working closely with Syrian and Rohingyan refugees, children facing childhood cancers, residents of Section 8 housing, and community members of Flint, MI. One commonality among these incredible people is a desire for agency and de-victimization.
Lesson: Charity can only be a first action step, but must never become a mindset. Power sharing, power shifting, and friendship are often better gifts than a box of your old clothes. Recognize assets and gifts as equal to your own. Realize we all have an important role. Be open to help and advice, don’t just dole it. Outreach and giving back are centered on yourself; rather, try just being there and being yourself.
Halfway through this decade, we found a kitten near death under a parked car in Cairo. She was filthy, in shock, and barely breathing. We scraped her onto a piece of cardboard from an old pizza box. We didn’t want her to die in any pain, so we took her to a vet. Turns out Lamara was stronger than any of knew. Despite her Cerebellar Hypoplasia (a kitty condition similar to Parkinsons meets Cerebral Palsy), she lives, she thrives, she astounds. She climbed a full flight of stairs. She taught herself to drink water sitting up. She is unable to land on her feet, but dives head first off of furniture without fear. She plays up her condition to get what she wants. She officially owns much territory in the house. She is a great yoga partner and knows when it is time for shavasana. Folks can follow her on Instagram.
Lesson: After a lifetime of being a dog person, it could be a cat that could change your life. Like Lamara, demand comfort and joy. Live your life fully and lovingly. P.S. Love might require butt washing.
In this decade, I celebrated entering my 40s by going sky diving, getting my first eye exam and prescription glasses, committing to a Duolingo Plus subscription for Arabic, bonding closer with my family (now both in Michigan and Egypt), and finally succeeding in a New Year’s resolution (365 yoga sessions in 365 days).
Lesson: Dive belly first with your head and feet out of the way. Know that you might need a little push from behind. Love the free fall but you must then endure the nauseating parachuting, knots in your hair, and the hefty price of documentation. Your aging body and mind are wondrous. Keep a lens cleaner handy.
In this decade, I was supported by fellowships to travel to Qatar, Azerbaijan, Morocco, Kosovo, Belgium, Ireland, Northern Ireland, France, and Egypt. Crowdsourcing and opportunity got me to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Thailand, Kenya, Uganda, Israel, Palestine, Scotland, England, as well as the German Mission to the United Nations, Brigham Young University, New York University, SUNY Purchase, and University of Maryland. I was also sponsored to travel back to my alma mater Millikin University in Decatur, IL as the 2014 Commencement Speaker.
Lesson: See travel as necessary for global citizenship, rather than a luxury only for globetrotters. Share your stories with transparency, spread resources both vastly and directly, and get your ideas out there. It is actually helpful to others and inspires them to take action on their own great work. Keep your eyes and heart open, and invitations will find you. Allow yourself to be surprised and challenged. Absorb new concepts and learnings along the way. Be proactive in reciprocity.
From Tahrir Square and a 33-day artist occupation in Cairo to Trump-era dance demonstrations in Chicago, this is the decade I took action. Inspired by new friends on different continents, I couldn’t sit in my anger like I had during the Bush years. In 2017, Newcity Magazine gave me the Best of Chicago honor: Best Use of Dance as Political Protest. During a Black Lives Matter march, the cops pulled my friend and I (both white) aside and gave us the option of being arrested or not.
Lesson: Having a voice can be spoken, written, or embodied. Revolution requires you to be willing to go to the Square; all you need to bring is your artistry and charged cell phone. When the pizza delivery guy shows up, offer him a mask and treatment for the tear gas. If you can’t be present, get the word out through citizen journalism or petition, or provide comfort or distraction. Know what your post-protest actions will be. Express yourself and activate your citizenship but be aware of your capacity and safety are coming from a place of privilege. Know that the democracy in revolution can be safer than the security in autocracy.
This is the decade that I ran a national US State Department program in Egypt. Then I returned to Chicago and couldn’t find a good fit in a full-time job. I held up to six jobs at one time and decided not follow the path of becoming the executive director of a non-profit. I became a freelance writer, artist in residence, independent contractor and consultant. With this new direction, I both paid off my student loans and went on Obamacare.
Lesson: Surprise yourself professionally. Be gratefully open to people who believe in your potential, no matter how you perceive yourself. Professional development = lifelong learning. At the same time, acknowledge what you suck at and have no honest intention of improving. At the same time, lean into your strengths to pay your bills and get that debt weight off.
This was a decade of me waking up regularly to tragic news, shared by us all. This was a decade of friends and family “checking in safe” on social media. There were so many terrorist attacks, mass shootings, hate crimes, gun violence, state-sponsored violence and incidents of gross misconduct by police that we allowed this all to be normalized. We lost count. Most violence this decade passionately ideological in nature and motivated by political, economic or social intent to cause widespread fear. We lost so many people and we lost so much. But we now seem to be at a loss.
Lesson: Whether it is a case of us digging in our heels or us dragging on heels, we are moving backwards on building a peaceful world. In the next decade, we have no choice but to collaborate on every possible solution, on all levels, in all sectors, with all we have. I must do something.
This was a decade of discovering dance’s importance in certain moments in people’s lives.
Lesson: If dance is what you bring to world, bring it.
On September 6, 2019, Pointe magazine published a feature article about Stephanie Kurlow, who is an Australian teenager pursuing a professional ballet career. She happens to also wear a hijab, and claims she would be the first hijabi dancer in the professional ballet world.
My only surprise in Courtney Henry’s article was that it was written so recently. Because I have known of Ms. Kurlow for years, before clicking through to the article, I started with the comments on Pointe magazine’s Facebook post.
“Sorry, but for me this is a no.”
“Surely this oppressive head gear has no place in the arts!”
“If she auditions for the ABT, they’ll make her principal just to show how magnificently diverse ABT is. Kinda like the principal who was elevated due to skin color rather than skill.”
“Sure, why not? After the ‘gender-fluid ballerina’ the ballet world couldn’t possibly get more ridiculous anyway.”
The comments got worse, but I have decided to refuse to spread such vitriol. The language was disheartening, especially after the dance world came to such strong and swift defense of boys and men in ballet after the Good Morning America controversy. We thought the bullies were external, but the dance world may have to admit that the bullying is also coming from inside the house.
We say in the field that everyone should dance, and that should and does include those from religious communities and families. Brigham Young University (99% Mormon student body) has a stellar dance department that I was honored to visit last year, and Mormon/LDS dancers dominate in competitive ballroom dance. In addition, Christian praise dance is highly popular in the US and conservative dancewear for liturgical dancers is available in almost all costume catalogues without question.
Being not the only dancer from a religiously or culturally conservative community, nor the only hijabi ballerina, Ms. Kurlow should neither be considered an anomaly nor a token. Hijabi dancers rock our world in beautiful ways. My friend Amirah Sackett, stellar Chicago-based hip hop dance artist and educator who has performed internationally and in music videos, started the We’re Muslim, Don’t Panic dance project and often collaborates with other hijabi dancers. Here is Amirah out and about improvising in Europe last week.
In 2012-2015, I taught ballet, modern and jazz dance at five different venues in Cairo, Egypt. Most of the girls and ladies were unveiled at that time, but now some dance schools in Egypt and elsewhere also offer classes especially for hijabi girls and women. When the Muslim Brotherhood-led government tried to ban ballet in Egypt in 2012-2013, the Egyptian people rallied around their arts and culture, including dance, and I had the honor of joining them in those demonstrations. The following year,So You Think You Can Dance Arabiawas a popular show in the region and a contemporary dance group from Syria won Arab’s Got Talent.
Wearing a hijab is a personal and spiritual choice. In the dance world, Muslim dancers who are unveiled — such as Hala Shah, Khadija Anderson, along with countless Muslim men — have been expressing themselves through dance for centuries. Dance in Azerbaijan (a country that is statistically 100% Muslim and sits between Iran and Russia), has a long lineage of phenomenal ballet skill by unveiled and devout Muslim women and men, as I witnessed when I visited in 2013.
Dance in Islam may be split on the official decision of whether dance is forbidden/haram in contemporary society, but there is no denying dance’s role in Muslim cultures with and without the head coverings. According to a 2012 article by Omar Sacirbey in Religion News Service,
“Dance has long been integral to many Muslim societies, including the Filipino Muslim dances of Singkil and Pangalay; belly dancing in the Middle East; and the long dance parties that precede Muslim weddings in South Asia.”
Both observant and less observant Muslims have been dancing for exercise, expression, social and cultural activity, spiritual reasons, and public performance (some for co-ed audiences and some for gender-split audiences). In conservative Muslim culture, like conservative Jewish culture, men and women dance. But they mostly do so separately. In northwest Chicago, I teach at all-girls high school and help with their all-girls musicals. The audiences and crew are all female as well, and the women cover their hair with wigs rather than scarves. The women of the community are currently in rehearsals for their all-female production of Les Miserables.
As I read the comments on the Pointe magazine’s post, I felt more and more disappointed in the fact that this type of talk was in the dance world at all. They spoke as if there is no place for Muslims in dance. According to the Pew Research Center, there are approximately 3.45 million Muslims in the US; Muslims of all races and ethnicities are definitely in the dance world. If the responders on Pointe magazine’s post are dance educators, I can only hope they don’t treat their Muslim students and colleagues with such ignorance and judgement. For those colleagues in dance wanting to make positive changes to make their studios more welcoming, here are a few suggestions.
In your marketing and décor, include dancers of different gender expressions, abilities, race and ethnicities, nationalities, socio-economic backgrounds and religious expressions. Collaborate with mutual aid societies and community groups to let them know that your studio is a welcoming place. Also ask what you can do for them.
Offer sport hijabs as an option for class uniforms or studio dress code. You can get them for $10-35 several places online. Nike’s Pro Hijab is a bit more expensive and comes with a large swish.
Listen. Consult with community leaders and parents regarding dancewear and costuming. Consider options for costume modifications to integrate a hijab or wig, and to cover the knees, elbows, cleavage and midriff. Also, consider covering your own knees, elbows, cleavage and midriff in certain circumstances.
Take into account major Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Greek Orthodox, and other religious holidays when creating your studio calendar. If your recital, rehearsal, performance or competition lands on a holiday and you cannot make a change in order to accommodate, simply let your families know of the situation.
During Ramadan, hold rehearsals at night or acknowledge students who are fasting and may need to sit down. Do not offer them water.
Hire talented hijabi and unveiled Muslim women and men in your diverse faculty. Role models are important. Also, look for ways to work toward equity by promoting and paying artists.
Offer all-female and all-male classes and performance opportunities, while simultaneously making efforts to make dance a less gendered experience as well as a safe place for LGBTQ+ dancers, including Muslim LGBTQ+ dancers. It is possible for us to do both.
To all dancers coming to the arts from a place of faith, please keep dancing. We welcome you. We appreciate you. We will learn from you. We will follow your lead.
As Lara Spencer has been horrified to learn, if you come for our kids, we dancers snap back. A petition on Change.org, asking that the show produce a segment on the benefits of dance education, has been signed by nearly 35K as of today. Patricia Ward Kelly (Gene Kelly’s wife), Debbie Allen, Rosie O’Donnell, and stars from the ballet and Broadway worlds have posted personal calls to Spencer and/or their testimonies of growing up in a miseducated, unsupportive, and sometimes threatening environment as a dancer. As people continue to share, #ballet4boys and #mendancetoo have been two of the trending hashtags.
“More Ballet. Less Bullying.”
I am proud of our industry for garnering our energies. We are seizing this opportunity to have a national and international conversation on the critical importance of dance education and anti-bullying. I hope that we squeeze as much out of this opportunity as we possibly can for the benefit of the next generation of dance artists, audiences, and peers. We are holding media to account. We are speaking truth to power. We are doing whatever we can to hold the space for any dancer to come into the studio if they wish; more importantly, we are doing whatever we can so that when they go to their schools and neighborhoods, they can do so not only safely, but with a level of support and recognition for their contributions.
Spencer has apologized on Instagram with vague support of individual freedoms and using an image of a field of wild flowers. She was wrong and is starting to recognize the harm done, but her generic response came off as insincere and/or insufficient to most. Spencer received so much flack on her apology that she felt it best to disable comments. Think what you will about her post, an on-air apology would be much better.
That said, an on-air apology would just be a Bandaid approach to the situation. The issue is bigger than Spencer. What she might not fully understand is the depths of the toxicity that she and the producers/writers tapped into with that segment, her banter, and her condoning of the audience’s response. This transgression was egregious enough, and the opportunity big enough, that this moment has become a moment to re-educate the American masses. At least to try.
As the online petition author, my respected friend and peer Jeff Poulin, wrote,
“We do not simply call for an apology on behalf of Lara Spencer, Good Morning America, and ABC, but rather we wish to see a future segment focus be on the benefits of dance education on young people, especially men and boys.”
The folks at Good Morning America seem to be listening. On tomorrow’s show, Spencer will talk to Travis Wall and perhaps the professional dancers planning a flashmob dance class (dance demonstration) in front of the GMA building. Rumor is Spencer will even take a dance class on air. I truly hope she doesn’t take the typical “oh, this is so much more difficult than I thought” route. Virtuosic athleticism (physical capacities in strength, stamina, grace, speed, and flexibility) represent just a fraction of what dance offers a person. The art form instills complex patterning and pattern recognition, full comprehension of the subject matter explored in the choreography, strong recall and memory, kinetic empathy and presence, compositional intention, self-trust and personal agency, layered non-verbal communication for an attended audience, honest personal expression, grit, storytelling, discipline, capacity to work across cultures and languages… with decades of research into those outcomes and more.
In addition, I hope that the show doesn’t push the narrative that it’s only okay if men dance if they take their shirts off or maintain a certain level of machismo. Some dancers are Swayze and Baryshnikov. Some dancers are gay, bisexual, or queer. Some transgender, gender non-conforming, or gender fluid. Some dancers specialize feminine roles and explore the multiplicities of femininity in their movement. Some dance masculine roles and explore the multiplicities of masculinity in their movement. While some dance as a loved embodiment of a powerful or an elegant woman, others dance to embody a “man” who can both bound in the air and support his lady. For some dancers, they long for the day when dance education, particularly in ballet, loses its archaic gendered-ness altogether.
A colleague wrote a post that put it very well,
“This is also on the dance community. At the basic level, classes are not marketed as gender-inclusive. We close-in the definition of what a dancer looks like and who a dancer is. I strongly encourage you to use some of these incredible dancers and groups as the springboard to your re-education on dance: BalletBoyz, AXIS Dance Company, Michaela DePrince, Kidd Pivot, Roberto Bolle… countless more. Let’s all try a little bit more educated.”
Perhaps taking this opportunity for dance advocacy on a national platform will scratch at the surface of our harmful culture. I have lived years abroad in places such as Egypt, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the U.K.; in these countries, society doesn’t question boys and girls, men and women studying ballet or dancing ballet professionally. Actually, the problem lies in ballet’s popularity stemming from the form’s perpetuation of classism and ablism, hetero-normative insistence, cultural violence and racism, and past/present acts of colonization. In the countries where I have lived, the question was not can boys dance ballet, as much as it was Can large children dance ballet? Yes. Can children with disabilities dance ballet? Yes. Can children with black or brown skin dance ballet? Of course. Can conservative Muslim, Hindu, Jewish children dance ballet? Yes. Is ballet better or more important than tap, footworking, or flamenco? Absolutely not.
So no, we dance educators shouldn’t just drop this GMA thing. This is a moment to seize, a wave to ride, a bandwagon to jump on. I recently met with the Trump-appointed new chair of the National Endowment for the Arts; I’m thinking that agency, along with Americans for the Arts and the National Dance Education Organization, can play a role this week. While we shouldn’t counter bullying with bullying, or ignorance with ignorance, we definitely can work with media allies to create change within our industry as well as out in the greater public. Good thing there are so many of us. I’ll be tuning in tomorrow, and let’s see where we go from there.
As an alumnus of a US Department of State exchange program, I was eligible to apply to attend the State Department’s Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminars in Kansas City earlier this year on the theme of entrepreneurship. During that seminar week, there was a peer-vote pitch competition and although I had never participated before in something like that, I won! That motivated me to continue developing the idea I presented on a pilot project for and with migrant and refugee artists in Chicago.
Following that seminar week, I reached out to fellow alumni in order to collaborate on a proposal to the Alumni TIES small grant opportunity. We are grateful to have been awarded the full $10,000, but are well aware of the grant’s many restrictions. I and other project leads must volunteer our time and funds cannot support an organization.
The project, New Neighbor Arts Entrepreneurship (August 2019 to January 2020) is a pilot initiative designed to help new migrants and refugees integrate successfully into American society and find a place for themselves in their new neighborhoods through arts careers and entrepreneurism. This six-month pilot project is fully sponsored by the U.S. Department of State – Alumni TIES.
“I was so pleased to hear about the Dept of State -Alumni TIES pilot program utilizing the arts in Chicago to help new migrants and refugees find a place for themselves in their new neighborhoods.”
Mary Anne Carter, Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts
My fantastic project partner, Letitia Zwickert, is a U.S. Fulbright Specialist in Education 2017-2020 and U.S. Fulbright-Schuman Scholar 2016. My accountability partner, Peter Hoesing, is a Fulbright-Hays Program participant 2009-2010. The volunteer task force for the project is in development. Current members are Willyum LaBelja, Kim Carballo, Lizette Garza, Lisa Gonzales, Sami Ismat, Lauren Rose Milburn, Brian Shaw, Shayna Silverstein, Steph Vondell, Ryan Walters, and Nadia Zeeshan.
Article 27 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts.” Bryan Stevenson’s theorizes that positive social change has four elements: proximity to people and ideas, rewriting the narrative, hope, and discomfort/vulnerability. With those two concepts at its center, this project aims to empower new migrants to successfully integrate and establish a place for themselves in their new neighborhoods through artistic careers and entrepreneurship.
1. Create, test, and refine an accessible and effective introductory “Arts Careers & Entrepreneurship” course specifically designed for migrant/refugee artists in the United States, translated into at least two languages.
2. Empower six trainers from refugee/migrant communities as workshop facilitators in order to increase their social confidence in English, mobility throughout the city, knowledge of arts entrepreneurial concepts, and cross-cultural collaborative capacities.
3. Help 30-80 migrant/refugee artists grow their awareness and understanding of arts careers and entrepreneurial capacities.
4. Establish and strengthen relationships between arts organizations and migrant artists.
AGREEMENTS FOR TASK FORCE MEMBERS AND PARTNER ORGANIZATIONS: -I will bring my own joy and badassery. -I will read the project e-mails and will let project leads know if I don’t understand something or if something is unclear. -I will speak up if something is wrong, if something is off-track from our shared values and goals, or if I am experiencing something highly uncomfortable. -I believe a power shift needs to be achieved towards migrant/refugee artists having more power, agency, and resources. -Wherever possible, I will proactively protect against exploitation, re-traumatization, and re-victimization, especially in the context where someone else benefits. -Among several other agreements…
MOTIVATIONS FOR THE PROJECT, written from my perspective:
Today’s world is highly volatile, with the highest number of forcibly displaced persons in modern history. Refugees and other migrants whom are resettled in urban America — like other communities developing in self-determined insularity — lack opportunity for intergroup contact, as they are not often met by a healthy ecology of trust and reciprocal engagement in their new neighborhoods. The process of “being resettled” itself lacks opportunity for agency; refugee and asylum-seeking families have little to no choice in if they will have a certain legal status and where/when they will be resettled.
This distrust is intensified in the Midwest, where red and blue state policies and perspectives often collide, and thus these environments become either unwelcoming or overly patronizing as “charity” cases. Many refugees who have been resettled in Chicago have been placed in West Ridge, alongside Orthodox Jewish neighbors. As one of the few pockets in the city that voted for Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election, the West Ridge neighborhood has seen increased societal tensions. In 2016, 49% of the new refugees in Chicago came from the predominantly Muslim countries in the subsequent year’s travel ban. Gallup’s 2009 Religious Perceptions in America: With an In-Depth Analysis of U.S. Attitudes Toward Muslims and Islam report warned, “…more than 43% of Americans admit to feeling at least “a little” prejudice toward Muslims, 22% of Americans said they would not like to have a Muslim as a neighbor.” Improvement since then has been slow.
Several organizations are all doing great work in job readiness services for migrants/refugees but there has not been enough of a connection to the performing arts and new media. Resettlement and immigration case managers lack awareness of career opportunities in the local arts scene and artistic ventures, especially in the performing arts and new media. A majority of the existing arts entrepreneurship programs ignore or bypass the importance of the body in social integration. Rather than handcrafts, this program focuses on capacities in the performing arts and new media which contribute to peacebuilding by encouraging proximity and expression. In the performing arts and new media, individuals take up space, share physical and digital spaces in the neighborhood, and take the stage to be seen and applauded by their neighbors.
During a recent AlumniTIES, I learned some interesting statistics. Over 1 million individuals, including 565 heads of state around the world, have participated in international exchange programs supported by the US Department of State. Annually, the number of people participating in these inbound and outbound programs — all funded by American tax payers — averages 55,000.
These government-funded exchange programs are designed for different types of individuals at different points in their career trajectories. Here are some examples. Each have their own specific designs and processes. Not all are currently open, so check back often.
American Arts Incubator: This program uses new media and/or mural arts as a means for engaging youth, artists, and underserved community members in overseas communities in Asia.
American Film Showcase: This program brings award-winning American documentaries, feature films, and animated shorts to audiences around the world.
American Music Abroad: These musical ambassadors reach beyond concert halls to interact with other musicians and citizens around the globe.
Arts Envoy: The Arts Envoy Program shares the best of the US arts community with the world to foster cross-cultural understanding and collaboration and to demonstrate shared values and aspirations. Artists should approach the US embassies abroad to explore possibilities. The budgets and foci will differ by mission.
DanceMotion USA: DanceMotion USA sends American dance companies overseas to connect with audiences and communities through dance workshops, lecture demonstrations, public performances and other arts education activities. Artists are selected by DanceMotion USA.
Fulbright US Scholar: The Core Fulbright US Scholar Program sends approximately 800 American scholars and professionals per year to approximately 130 countries, where they lecture and/or conduct research in a wide variety of academic and professional fields. I previously wrote a post with advice for applying.
Fulbright Specialist Program: The Fulbright Specialist Program, a short-term complement to the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program, sends US faculty and professionals to serve as expert consultants on curriculum, faculty development, institutional planning and related subjects at overseas academic institutions for a period of 2 to 6 weeks.
Fulbright Teachers for Global Classrooms: The Fulbright Teachers for Global Classrooms Program (TGC) allows U.S. middle and high school teachers to participate in an online professional development course, two Washington, D.C.-based symposiums and a two-week professional development exchange.
Next Level: This unique arts-based exchange employs multi-disciplinary hip hop collaborations, and explores and addresses conflict resolution strategies by sending up to 20 American beat makers, DJs, B-Boys/B-Girls (or experts of other types of hip hop dance), or MCs in teams of 5 artists to lead four- to six-week exchange programs in various countries.
Sports Envoy Program: Sports Envoys are athletes and coaches who travel overseas to lead programs that were developed by U.S. embassies and consulates.
Venice Architectural Biennale and Venice Art Biennale: These programs ensure that the excellence, vitality, and diversity of American arts are effectively showcased abroad and provides an opportunity to engage foreign audiences to increase mutual understanding.
There are also programs for students, both graduates and undergraduates as well as high school students.
Fulbright US Student Program: The Fulbright US Student Program offers fellowships for U.S. graduating college seniors, graduate students, young professionals and artists to study, conduct research or be an English teaching assistant abroad for one academic year.
Fulbright-mtvU Fellowship: A component of the Fulbright US Student Program, the Fulbright-mtvU Fellowship is a special opportunity for up to four U.S. students to pursue projects around an aspect of international contemporary or popular music as a cultural force for expression. Preference is given to creative projects that are conveyed in a dynamic fashion and are accompanied by a feasible plan.
Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program: The Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program provides scholarships to U.S. undergraduates with financial need for study abroad, including students from diverse backgrounds and students going to non-traditional study abroad destinations.
Fulbright Travel-Only Grants: Grants for international travel are available to Germany, Hungary and Italy to supplement other fellowships that do not include travel costs or to supplement a student’s own funds for study/research.
For a full list of opportunities, I suggest clicking here. Apply. Apply. Apply.
While the programs themselves are transformative for travelers and communities alike, the benefits continue well past the passport stamps. As an alumnus of a US Exchanges program, I have free lifetime access to several extensive databases of journals, research papers, news and periodical articles, and popular magazines and newspapers like the Economist, New York Times, The New Yorker, and Wall Street Journal. This access also includes curated collections such as the Diversity Studies Collection with nearly 5 million articles on cultural differences, influences, and contributions; a Gender Studies Collection; and a Small Business Collection with more than 10 million articles providing tips and strategies for successful entrepreneurship. In addition, the alumni services we have include career support, seminars, networking, and small grant opportunities.
I acknowledge being uneasy about being involved with the US government after 2016. Honestly, I feel a level disdain for the Trump Administration, a disdain that is intensified by policies announced by Trump himself including “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” and reducing the U.S. Department of State educational and cultural exchange programs by 75% in 2019.
The good news is that 64 members of the US Congress participated in these programs; Congress held the Exchanges budget this year. Now the same fight at hand for 2020 with a proposed White House budget less than half of what we have now. It’s a good time to make our voices heard on the Hill.
For the past three years, I have provided annual collections of resources and opportunities for artists who consider themselves socially engaged or engaged with social practice. This year is no different. Below, I offer some updates to the 2018 list, still focusing in dance and inter-group or international experiences.
No matter your background, you may find this following list of interest. Note that it is a hearty but not comprehensive list; you are invited to add additional links and resources in the reply section below. I will offer resources in the following categories:
Graduate Degree, Professional and Certificate Programs
Fellowships, Jobs/Internships, Volunteer Opportunities and Residencies
Fellowships, Jobs/Internships, Apprenticeship and Volunteer Opportunities and Residencies
Exchange Programs: The State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs offers a number of fully-funded international programs. Many of these opportunities are posted with little notice so check regularly.
U.S. Fulbright Scholar Program (for artists, faculty, researchers or staff) Deadline is September 16, 2019 – This is the program I did. Let me know if you have questions or want my help reviewing your application!
U.S. Fulbright Student Program (for current masters and PhD students, recent grads, and young professionals in the arts and other fields) Deadline is October 9, 2019.
Design your own volunteer or apprenticeship opportunities at your local children’s hospital, veterans’ affairs group, refugee center, homeless shelter, juvenile detention facility, or public or private religious school (insular or divided communities).
Inclusive Practices for Managing Controversial Issues – Flinders University, Australia. Strategies and tips for using controversy constructively in the classroom and helping students find respectful and culturally inclusive ways of dealing with controversial issues.