Let me start with a confession: Growing up, I was the type of dancer who believed that there was only one kind of real dance: Ballet! Everything else was for the unchosen ones; other dances were fabricated by humans for the large masses who were not selected by Terpsichore. Dance was human. Ballet was divine.
Fast forward 30 years. I'm the artistic director of Tulsa Ballet, and I now understand that ballet was just a step in the evolution of dance, a journey that started with the Homo sapiens and has taken us to Broadway and hip hop. Now, at age 57, I appreciate ballet but love contemporary dance. But my passion? It resides in Broadway!
Cirio in Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet
When I was born, the delivery doctor exclaimed to my parents, "You have a dancer on your hands!" I had been a footling breech baby and entertained myself by jumping in utero, until I jumped so hard that I broke my mom's water and was delivered as a C-section. Cut to present day: I wake up each morning, head to the building where I've worked for almost 16 years, strap on my pointe shoes and dance almost seven hours a day as a professional. Yes, every day I choose to dance, but in some ways, it is as if dance actually chose me.
Hala Shah in a workshop performance of Calling: a dance with faith. Photo by Idris Ademola, Courtesy Shah.
Growing up, I never saw a problem with my dancing and neither did my Muslim-Egyptian dad or my non-Muslim, American mom. They raised me to understand that the core principles of Islam, of any religion, are meant to help us be better people. When I married my Pakistani husband, who comes from a more conservative approach to Islam, I suddenly encountered perceptions of dance that made me question everything: Is it okay to expose a lot of skin? Is it wrong to dance with other men? Is dance inherently sexual? What guidelines come from our holy book, the Quran, and what are cultural views that have become entwined in Islam?
It was one of the most exciting times of my career. I was in the midst of creating the last installment of my trilogy on identity—ink—which would be my company's Kennedy Center debut, and just booked my first Broadway musical, Once On This Island. ink would premiere on December 2, and OOTI would open on December 3.
Personally, I was going through a bit of mourning. I had just turned 37 and was really doubting my abilities as a dancer. The work wasn't getting easier, and I felt like I would have to make a decision soon about whether to retire.
It was a lot to navigate—the highs of success, and the lows of inevitable change. Little did I know, nothing would compare to the life-threatening health issues I was about to battle in the midst of it all.