Why I Gave Up Stardom at Cirque de Soleil to Pursue Classical Tajik Dance
Two years ago, I was touring the world as a principal dancer in Cirque du Soleil's production of Dralion. But after 1500 shows on a five-continent and 170-city tour, I left the commercial entertainment world to reconnect with the art form I'm most passionate about: Central Asian dance.
I have dedicated the last 18 years of my life to dance styles from the Central Asian Silk Road region. My fascination started when I was 13 and fell in love with the miniature paintings of Central Asian dancers and the Arabic calligraphic script I saw in museums. My mother, who is a classical Indian dancer, also danced in a Persian dance company. These influences prompted me to seek out the music, culture, dance and people of Central Asia.
People ask me, "What does that look like? It's kind of like Bellydance, right? " or "Yeah, I think I've seen that style before, isn't it kind of like Indian dance?" Central Asian dance is highly diverse and each regional style is evocative of its environment, acting as a living link to the land. Most people are surprised to learn that Tajikistan has a classical dance form called Shashmakom that is technically rigorous, and like ballet, was patronized in the royal courts of the Emirs and has been around for over a thousand years. Or Uyghur dance, for example, is highly rhythmic, with nuanced shoulder isolations, swift spins, complex footwork, knee spins, drops to the floor, backbends and fluid yet intricate hand gestures with specific finger placements. A lifetime of study in the style is not enough to learn all there is to know.
Months after leaving Cirque, I moved to Tajikistan. I had planned to stay for one month but ended up staying for a whole year and dancing as the first Westerner in Lola, the state-funded Tajik National Ensemble. The other dancers were confused, cautious and curious about me. In the beginning, I felt like a complete outsider. I was new to their culture, food and environment, and could not speak the language. My daily routine after a full day of rehearsals was to also take a private class to better understand the nuances of the different styles and to push myself technically. The other dancers observed my dedication, and over time I earned their trust and respect. By the end of the year, I learned how to speak street Tajik from vendors at the vegetable markets and made close friends with my fellow dancers.
Our company was commissioned to perform new works for state holidays on live television in large stadiums or at the opera house when the President was in attendance. We performed for heads of state and for private galas. Sometimes I had issues getting into high security buildings because of my American passport, so our director had to start carrying a certified paper clearing me for entrance. We toured within the country on poorly-maintained roads via a bus provided by the state. There were rarely enough seats for all of us, and often the men would stand for long parts of the journey so the women could sit. When people got tired we would smash four or five people to a seat depending on the length of the journey, which was sometimes up to 12 hours. Once, we travelled to the Pamir Mountains to perform a televised concert, and were taken on a state helicopter with no seats, just a shell and one long bench on either side.
During rehearsal one day, a local journalist noticed me and, thinking I was Tajik, invited me to participate in a televised dance competition which brought together dancers from every region of the country. I made it through all four rounds of cuts and amazingly, I won. I was given the title of Malika, Queen of Tajik dance, despite being an outsider to the region. I was stopped several times on the street by strangers—the produce guy at my local grocery store said he was excited to see me dance so beautifully in a style from his culture, and hoped that if a foreigner placed so much value on their art forms that local Tajiks would learn to appreciate these forms more themselves.
This year, I was selected by Forecast, an international mentorship platform, to have my work produced in Berlin under the mentorship of Richard Siegal. The piece uses ethno-contemporary Central Asian dance and music in collaboration with a 3D mapping artist and Paradise Sorouri, Afghanistan's first female rapper, to express the concepts of migration, otherness and gender inequality. The choreography pulls from my experiences living a single foreign woman dancing in the Tajik State Ensemble in Dushanbe.
Showing choreography at a major venue in New York City is a goal and milestone for many dance artists. Yet when such an opportunity comes their way, choreographers frequently find themselves scrambling for time and technical resources to give their work that professional shine. What they end up performing may not have the polish they intended. "Far too often artists are arriving at their presenting house and the piece isn't ready," says Adrienne Willis, the executive and artistic director of Lumberyard Contemporary Performing Arts, an organization that helps dance artists develop new work.
Back when Lumberyard was known as the American Dance Institute and operated out of a strip mall in Rockville, Maryland, it pioneered its Incubator program to whip new pieces into shape, kind of like the "out-of-town" tryout model for theater. Several of the artists it supported ultimately brought their shows to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, one of New York City's most prestigious venues, which quickly recognized the positive influence of the Incubator on performances.
Since Thanksgiving is finally here, it's officially time to talk Nutcracker. With countless productions taking place between now and Christmas (and even some through the new year), we've been keeping tabs on Instagram to check in on rehearsals. Whether you're obsessed with all things Sugar Plum Fairy or the snow scene is more your speed, we've got your first look at the holiday classic.
We have a feeling even the Boston Ballet dancing bear couldn't keep up with second soloist Lawrence Rines' tricks in Russian.
For the past 3 years, choreographer Stephen Petronio has been reviving groundbreaking works of postmodern dance through his BLOODLINES project. This season, although his company will be performing a work by Merce Cunningham, his own choreography moves in a more luxurious direction. We stepped into the studio with Petronio and his dancers where they were busy creating a new work, Hardness 10, named for the categorization of diamonds.
'Tis the season to have some fun in the kitchen. If you want to get more creative than simply baking another pumpkin pie, try these Nutcracker-themed treats—created by and for dancers. These recipes from former Boston Ballet and Joffrey Ballet dancers were first published in Dance Magazine's December 1990 issue. Today, they're still guaranteed to turn any holiday party or dressing room into a true Land of the Sweets.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
Everyone knows that training is the cornerstone of a successful career in dance. But as a dance educator, I also take comfort in the fact that high-quality dance training helps shape students into genuinely good people (in addition to creating future artists, which is a wonderful goal in itself.) These are the lessons dance teaches that help make students into better humans:
Improvement Takes Commitment Over Time
In my tap courses at Cal State University, sometimes students are shocked when they can't learn something quickly. In today's world, we're used to getting fast results. You need an answer—Google it. You need to talk to someone—text them. The cooking channel wants your dinner to be easy, the physical trainer wants your workout to be five minutes, Rosetta Stone can have you speaking Mandarin in an hour.
It's no secret that affording college is a challenge for many students. And for dancers, there are added complications, like the relative lack of merit scholarships that take artistic talent into consideration and the improbability of a stable salary to pay off loans post-graduation. But no matter your budget, a smart approach to the application process can help you focus less on money and more on your training.
According to Drexel University performing arts department head Miriam Giguere, figuring out the kind of financial assistance a school offers is just as important as navigating what kind of dance program you want. Here's how to incorporate finances into your decision-making process:
When dancers get injured, they often think they should eat less. The thought process goes something like, Since I'm not able to move as much as I usually do, I'm not burning enough calories to justify the portions I'm used to.
But the truth is, scaling back your meals could actually be detrimental to your healing process.
With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.
Lots of college groups do stepping—a form of body percussion based on slapping, tapping and stomping—but Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company to do it. They are currently at New York City's New Victory Theater, presenting The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, a show based on the painting series by Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence about The Great Migration of the 1900s, when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South and traveled by train to the North for a better life. The Great Migration transformed the demographics of the country, and Jacob Lawrence's paintings became famous for their bold color and evocative power.