Dancer Voices

Practicing Islam and Having a Dance Career Aren't Incompatible

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?


Idris Ademola, Courtesy Shah

I became so overwhelmed that I quit dance for about a year. When I left it, I left myself. Even though I didn't have all the answers, my gut convinced me that dance is it for me. So I accepted that things could get messy and dove back in. Besides a clear rule of no nudity, my ideas on modesty became more responsive to the art, and less focused on one inch of extra fabric or the placement of my partner's hands. The clearer I became in my convictions, the more my family and friends accepted my decisions.

As a freelancer, I always research a company or choreographer before signing on to a production, and I occasionally pass on opportunities if I know a conflict will arise. I don't worry anymore about missing out because I know I can choreograph my own work.

Idris Ademola, Courtesy Shah

I often start my day silently reciting a few simple prayers: "Help me use my dance not just for my own happiness but for the benefit of others. Ease my doubts when I worry that the sacrifices and burdens of dance may outweigh the reward." But it's easy for that intention to blur amidst the hustle and bustle of the city, which is why one of the pillars of Islam is performing five daily prayers. Although I don't complete them in the traditional manner (which involves a pattern of standing and kneeling), I weave them in as I speed-walk through Central Park or sit on the subway, commuting from one job or rehearsal to the next.

Another pillar is fasting during the month of Ramadan. From sunrise to sunset, which can exceed 15 hours, I abstain from food and drink, including water. It's a time for reflection, charity and renewed gratitude for the basic necessities. But life doesn't stop just because it's Ramadan. I still have to go to work, class and rehearsal. I'll wake up around 3 am to guzzle water and eat a healthy meal that will help sustain me until sunset. If I'm in the middle of rehearsal when the sun falls, I'll take a few minutes to break my fast with a light snack and water.

Idris Ademola, Courtesy Shah

Sometimes non-fasting friends or my mom will be concerned about my health, but I assure them that if I ever feel ill I won't fast that day. I've also learned to listen to my body. There are days when I skip a two-hour class and opt for a nap. Other times, it's exhilarating to push through the last 30 minutes of my fast by going for a run.

I used to be filled with anxiety as Ramadan approached. But last year I had a breakthrough. I spent the month collaborating with writer/director Jesca Prudencio of Ping Chong + Company and fellow Muslim performer Natsumi Sophia Bellali to workshop Calling: a dance with faith. It's a biographical dance theater piece about Bellali's and my experiences being Muslim and dancers. Prudencio mined our personal stories, and we addressed our fears of being seen as "representatives" of Islam and all Muslim dancers.

Idris Ademola, Courtesy Shah

We confronted our peers' stereo­types—"Isn't dance against your religion?"—along with misconceptions we face from other Muslims—"Oh, so you're a belly dancer?" or "I didn't realize that dance can be more than a hobby." We danced until we passed out on the ground smiling. For the first time in my career, I was able to bring my love for dance and my faith into the same space.

Many mornings I take ballet class at New York City Center, a ritual as comforting as daily prayers. The person beside me doesn't know that I am Muslim, and I have no clue if they practice a specific faith. But it doesn't matter. In our multicolored socks and shoes we are a motley crew assembled for the same reason—to dance.

News
Photo by Gabriel Davalos, Courtesy Valdés

For decades the name Alicia Alonso has been virtually synonymous with Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the company she co-founded in Havana in 1948. Alonso died on October 17, just shy of what would have been her 99th birthday. In recent years, she had stepped back from day-to-day decision-making in the company. As if preparing for the future, in January, the company's leading ballerina, 42-year-old Viengsay Valdés, was named deputy director, a job that seems to encompass most of the responsibilities of a traditional director. Now, presumably, she will step into her new role as director of the company. Her debut as curator of the repertory comes in November, when the troupe will perform three mixed bills selected by her at the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso. The following has been translated from a conversation conducted in Spanish, Valdés' native tongue.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Left: Hurricane Harvey damage in Houston Ballet's Dance Lab; Courtesy Harlequin. Right: The Dance Lab pre-Harvey; Nic Lehoux, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
Sara Mearns in the gym. Photo by Kyle Froman.

New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns wasn't sure she was strong enough. A ballerina who has danced many demanding full-length and contemporary roles, she was about to push herself physically more than she thought was possible.

"I said, 'I can't. My body won't,' " she says. "He told me, 'Yes, it will.' "

She wasn't working with a ballet coach, but with personal trainer Joel Prouty, who was asking her to do squats with a heavier barbell than she'd ever used.

Keep reading... Show less
In Memoriam
Alicia Alonso with Igor Youskevitch. Sedge Leblang, Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives.

Her Dying Swan was as fragile as her Juliet was rebellious; her Odile, scheming, her Swanilda, insouciant. Her Belle was joyous, and her Carmen, both brooding and full-blooded. But there was one role in particular that prompted dance critic Arnold Haskell to ask, "How do you interpret Giselle when you are Giselle?"

At eight, Alicia Alonso took her first ballet class on a stage in her native Cuba, wearing street clothes. Fifteen years later, put in for an ailing Alicia Markova in a performance of Giselle with Ballet Theatre, she staked her claim to that title role.

Alonso received recognition throughout the world for her flawless technique and her ability to become one with the characters she danced, even after she became nearly blind. After a career in New York, she and her then husband Fernando Alonso established the Cuban National Ballet and the Cuban National Ballet School, both of which grew into major international dance powerhouses and beloved institutions in their home country. On October 17, the company announced that, after leading the company for a remarkable 71 years, Alonso died from cardiovascular disease at the age of 98.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox