Finding My Legs

Finding My Legs

An Oriental Dancer’s Adventures in Academics

by Marie “Maleeha” Wilkes

Is it strange that I compare myself to a mermaid? Twenty years ago here in Southern California, I dwelled with fellow belly dancers in a realm, not unlike an underwater kingdom that is hidden from the casual eye. In a sea of nightclubs, I undulated from job to job and made a healthy living at my craft. I enjoyed possessing the glamorous image of a mythological creature. I never thought about the dry land of academics, or the world of dance. I was too busy to even consciously consider the environment that I swam in so happily. So, what would cause a mermaid to leave the security of Neptune’s realm and hoist herself completely legless onto the shores of academic dance? In the myth of the mermaid, only two desires will coax this creature onto dry land; her love for a mortal, and her passion for dance. Although both reasons played a part in this mermaid’s development, this paper will focus on my passion for dance, not unlike your own, that led me on a quest for more knowledge.


The Midwest, at first glance, appears to be an artistically landlocked area, especially to the eyes of dancers on either coast. So it is ironic that Iowa became my home in 1982, and the place in which I decided to flourish. Being accustomed to California’s easy access to all things Near Eastern dance related (clubs, classes, costumes), it was a sense of desperation that led me to the halls of the Dance Department at the University of Iowa. I innocently went to register for a dance class, not knowing that ten years later I would possess a B.A. and a M.F.A. in Dance. My experiences during my time in academics have forever changed my view of myself as a dancer (artist), my community (that of Near Eastern dance and the broader dance world) and the definition of my art. These definitions of “who I am” and “what I do” were gained with difficulty as I tried to find the unity between the two worlds that I tried to inhabit.

Both the Near Eastern dance arena and the realm of classic dance in academics had a lot, seemingly, to say about my decision to straddle both worlds. Most of the negative comments I received lacked information and were based on stereotypes that each side had firmly in place in order to keep the other rigidly defined. Here are some select quotes from both “sides”:

From classic dance:

“You know, I could do what you do if I wanted to.” (From a “degreed” modern dancer watching me rehearse a Near East dance.)

“You are too old. You will never make it.” (A University dance professor, during my first semester in her class.)

“No solo should EVER be over six minutes long. One dancer could never hold the audience’s attention THAT long.” (A modern dance professor on hearing that I was working on a ten-minute solo.)

From these comments we can see beliefs commonly held by the West about dance. First, that ethnic dance (particularly belly dance)lacks technique of any marked degree of difficulty.. Second, that age is a detriment, rather than an asset, to the development of a dance artist. And last, that the West has superior sensibilities regarding the artistic use of Time, Space and Energy, the basic elements of dance. I’m sure you, as Near Eastern dance artists, perceive the fallibility of these notions.

From Near Eastern dance:

“You know, your degree won’t mean anything… “This doesn’t make you an artist…”

“Gee, it must be nice not to have a REAL job… “(This was said to me while I was carrying a full graduate course load, a half time assistantship, a part-time job, and dancing on the circuit!)

These comments reveal many preconceived notions about the worth of dance in academics: that a degree cannot further a Near Eastern dancer’s skill or career; that art and academics are diametrically opposed; and that a dance degree doesn’t have any real work or commitment involved. Can we deny that these are commonly held beliefs in our dance community? How valid are these comments?

In order to explore this theme, we must know what an academic degree is, and what it is not. A college degree is a course of systematic study in a chosen subject constructed to broaden horizons at the undergraduate level and to narrowly specialize at the graduate level. A Bachelor of Arts in Dance may include classes in Technique, Choreography, Theory, Anatomy, Kinesiology, History and various Electives in Dance, as well as the General Education classes required by differing institutions. These degrees are built to give students of dance a broad overview of the world of dance and to allow them to find out what suits their individual talents. A Graduate Degree in Dance becomes very specific in its focus. Various areas in which an individual can attain a Master’s level are: Choreography, Education, Ethnology, History, Performance and Therapy. The course requirements for each of these various degrees are necessarily different in subject matter and skill requirements. In academics it is understood that a Master’s degree in Dance is not an open-ended license to excel in all areas of dance. When assessing a person’s skill, it is important to know which specific field of expertise the individual’s degree is in.

My degree is a Master of Fine Arts in Dance, with an emphasis in Dance Composition. I had to qualify and be accepted both artistically and academically to enter into the Masters Program at the University of Iowa. It is a terminal degree; I cannot become a Doctor of Fine Arts. To receive my degree in Composition, I was required to take four semesters of Choreography class. AIso, I needed to complete an Independent Choreography project for credit each semester. These modern works were then adjudicated and produced with all technical elements (lights, set, costume) in a University concert that was open to the public and charged admission. The department also made it clear that although they did not feel qualified to judge my technical or choreographic ability as an ethnic dance artist, I needed to continue studies in my own field of endeavor. These dances, both folklore and Oriental, were placed along side the other works at twice-yearly concerts.

I also had to produce, as my final project, a concert length modern dance at least twenty minutes in length in which there would be a five-minute solo and a group piece. Alongside my modern dance, I choreographed a group folkloric dance, “Nubia,” in order to show how I applied compositional craft to ethnic dance. To showcase the technical agility needed for the performance of Near Eastern solo I performed “Rohe,” an Oriental dance by Ibrahim Farrah. This dance was compared to the female solo in “Swan Lake” by Alicia Brown, Chair of the Dance Department, for the demands the dance made in agility, stamina and expressive range. My emphasis in dance vocabulary has been in modern dance and Near Eastern dance. My academic and professional resumé reflects the hours that I have spent in studio with the best teachers of Oriental, folkloric and modern dance. I received both academic credit and some financial support to study with Ibrahim Farrah twice yearly at his week long Teacher’s Choreographic Seminars. I also received financial support to take class with Mahmoud Reda in Egypt. The professional accomplishments of both artists made study with them academically approved as mentors for my artistic development. I am grateful to both. Mr. Farrah, specifically, spent many hours with me in class and on the phone helping me reach my personal and academic artistic goals.

Although I have many hours of studio technique, I would not try to pass myself off as an expert in ballet. I have also spent many hours researching and viewing dance to write papers for various final class projects, but my degree lacks the training in field research that a dance ethnologist receives as a part of an Ethnology degree. I would not portray myself as anything other than mildly qualified as a dance researcher or writer. Nor am I qualified as a Dance Therapist. My training, as stated, is Dance Composition.

Now that I have defined what I am and am not, in an academic sense, it is important to discuss how I arrived at this point. It would be lovely to say that I emerged fully formed with the ease of Venus from the ocean of Near East dance. It is far more accurate to tell you that I rolled onto the shores of academic dance with the aplomb of a beached whale. Finding my legs was, at times, a soul scorching experience, but one that I would do again. It is ironic that in my wish to retain my mermaid’s tail and be excepted among the “legged” dancers, I ended up many times in the process feeling more like a duck-billed platypus. A funny looking creature, half swimmer, half land crawler, it has at least survived and is recognized as an evolutionary link.

Dance is part creative spirit and part craft. Academics cannot make anyone an artist, but it can develop craft and in the process give tools for the expression that lies within. I saw over ten years many brilliantly talented dancers fail the rigor of the academic system simply from a lack of perseverance. I also observed individuals, not as overtly talented, go through the system and blossom because they possessed a strong inner vision coupled with discipline and a thick skin. Academic is not for the faint of heart (art?).

In their Statement of Purpose, the University of Iowa Dance Department states that it is “committed to thorough preparation.” Their goal is to prepare students to be self-motivated working artists. Their ability to reach this goal is astounding. In a recent self-study, the University of Iowa Dance Department found that a full 85% of its graduates found work in dance or dance related fields. The curriculum is key to this ration of success. In my own pursuit of knowledge, each part of the curriculum made a direct impact on my development as a Near Eastern dancer and my increasing confidence that through academics on could establish a career with legs.

The most basic requirement for anyone in the Dance Program was daily class attendance in either ballet or modern dance. Many of us did both, and also mixed in classes in tap, jazz or improvisation. When you are confronted with yourself daily in class with the mirror, the rhythm of the accompaniment, the teacher’s relentless eye and your own fluctuating mood and physical capabilities, you begin a journey of self-knowledge. It can be as simple as the natural strengths and limitations of your own mortal structure, or as living in yourself and the movement phrase in the present moment. I found out how I am unique, and where I need to protect my individual physical weaknesses. I learned to learn more quickly. I discovered what type of teacher I learn best from, and how to still learn from those who didn’t resonate with my philosophies of movement. I even learned where I need to stand in class to facilitate learning.

I also learned to live with the narrower definition of what a dancer’s body should look like, without letting it get a hold of my own philosophy, which is more aligned with all of Eastern dance. Because of its athleticism, Western dance requires a youthful, slender body. Eastern dance puts a premium on expression. Western dance is now reaping what it sowed. There are many fine technicians, but few charismatic performers gracing the stage anymore. Could this be seen as a reason for the decline in the popularity of dance? Audiences are no longer having their souls fed. We, too, in Eastern dance are seeing declining audiences. Are we allowing ourselves to believe that we can have refined expression without physical discipline and control? Fitness does not mean young or anorexic. A mature body can be both fit and expressive. It is interesting to see that Twyla Tharp and Mikhail Barysnikov are still in demand in their fifties. I know for a fact that both dancers take class daily. Dancers say; “I’m going to take class.” This is an active statement; to take. I learned to actively take the class, to break it apart in bites that I could manage and devour it whole. As long as a dancer can afford, both in the sense of time and money, class should be daily taken. If you live in a place like New York City, there are many fine private studios and professional dancers who teach. Daily class is easy to find. Many of us live in communities that make dependence on the University the only recourse. If we want to truly call ourselves dancers, we must dance (move) daily.

My first class in Anatomy literally peeled the skin off my students. I could suddenly see what was happening under the surface that caused movement to happen or to be hampered. The change in what I was able to begin to do with my students was miraculous to me. They felt the difference. They became more successful at learning. More people started coming to my classes. Kinesiology was taught by a professor in the Dance Department for dance majors. This class was difficult for me because of my lack of grounding in mathematics. My final paper was on how the muscles and bones of the body are used sequentially to produce a full torso undulation. Other students in class broke down a pirouette, or other classic dance movement. I was allowed to gain knowledge on how to analyze the movements familiar to me. My teaching again improved, and I saw results in the level in which I was able to bring students. In class, we also studied nutrition and injury prevention. These things can be learned about from books, or experience. For me, learning in an academic setting gave me the knowledge before I needed it (i.e. after an injury), and I was able to pass it along to my students.

Classes that presented varying aesthetics and philosophy behind the art of dance opened my sights to the whole world of dance. I had been so involved with my little pond that I had neglected to see myself as a part of a greater universe of dance. Dance History, two semesters of class, studied the original purposes of dance within a culture and followed its development through the ages. I was shown dance as a reflection of what is current in the philosophy of a people. I was introduced to the philosophies of individuals (dance masters and performers) whose innovations changed dance history in Europe and America. As a result, I began to appreciate those in our realm who have detailed in printed word our own history. Dance research is still a young science. We need more researchers to catalogue what makes us unique in the world of dance. Every student of ballet knows the name Pavlova. Do we have the same surety that our lineage of artists is known by our students? Every modern dancer knows the “begets and begets” of modern dance. Can we sort out our movement styles and the “who was influenced by who” in our own craft? With this type of knowledge comes pride, ownership and a sense of protecting what has been established by those that have gone before. Dance is passed on from one individual to the next, from teacher to student. We must understand where we have come from to be able to guide where we want to go collectively.

The process of imparting the creative knowledge of dance from one individual to another is as mystical, in some respects, as Adam receiving the breath of Life from God. In the university system, pedagogy endeavors to de-mystify the process. There is always “luck” involved when a talented teacher and a gifted student come together for their mutual artistic fulfillment, but more than that, there is a definite matter of craft. Dance, like a language, needs to be taught in a specified form for maximum success. Developing a pedagogy, a system, for taking a student from beginner to seasoned professional is a science. At the university, I took part in classes oriented to the teaching of ballet and the teaching of modern dance. It is interesting to note that modern dance struggles with the same difficulty that we have; the lack of a common language of dance vocabulary. Both Oriental and modern dance have borrowed terminology from ballet. More important, though, than what we call a particular step, is the concept underlying the movement. Movement concepts in dance cover subjects as broad as fall and recovery, dynamics, use of weight, and use of breath. There are principles that support the performance of our vocabulary of movement (i.e. vibrations, locks, undulations). These need to be understood by the teacher and then imparted to the student. Understanding the interconnectedness of types of movements helps students become independent in the learning process. Being able to study how other dance forms produce dancers encouraged me to begin to develop my own philosophy of teaching and artist development.

Composition class and subsequent Independent Projects in Choreography allowed me the “luxury” of increased control of my artistic product. I was exposed to many different styles and philosophies of choreography. Elements of composition were broken down and presented as assignments for my exploration. It was in composition class that I learned about the value of community input. I learned not to fear criticism, but to accept it and use it in the development of my creative product. I also learned the importance of following my own inner voice above all. I appreciated with new knowledge the difference in compositional aesthetics, the difference between East and West. (The West always explodes at the climactic moment with leaps and runs. Eastern dance stands its ground at the intense musical moments and implodes.) I was able to work with highly trained dancers (like a sixteen-year-old with a Jaguar!) and got valuable lessons in communication, disciplined work habits, patience and playfulness in process. I had beautiful studios to work in without an hourly rental fee. It was a luxury of time and resources that we don’t have in the professional dance world. I worked with various departments as a performer and choreographer. Theatre productions, Opera, Film and Music Departments and the Center for New Music all provided interesting projects that involved collaborative work with their artists. No work setting is intimidating to me anymore. I have confidence to bring my abilities to any interesting project.

Working for ten years with other working professionals changed my view of dance. I see Oriental dance as a small part of a greater whole that we need to acknowledge in order to have a meaningful exchange. The dance world will go on with or without us. It is up to our community to bridge the gap and take our rightful place with other serious dance disciplines. First we must treat ourselves seriously, as professionals, and make sure that we represent ourselves honestly. Resumés, reviews, and press releases have a standardized form in the greater dance world. There is no room for self-aggrandizement in print in the greater world of dance. No one artist can do everything. We need to rely on each other’s varying strengths to strengthen our dance community as a whole. Mermaids, the clubs were just a small sea, and now that sea is polluted and drying up. We must take on legs and take to solid ground of the classic arenas of dance if we are to survive. This necessitates our blending into the greater world of dance without losing those elements that make us unique. What shall we take with us?

Ballet and modern dance have explored the intellectual side of dance for the last three decades. I believe they need the soul of ethnic dance to reach the audience again. Oriental dance, in the honesty of its sensuality and emotion could be used to awaken the spirits in the very athletic bodies being trained for performance. Its treatment of theme, gesturally, can bring new ideas to choreographers. Our technique could spawn further exploration of how the body can move. Our acceptance of the dignity and beauty of the human body in all its individual shapes and life stages could bring a breath of healthy air to dance forms whose misshapen views of beauty are notorious.

I have no doubt that dance will survive. Our dance, the oldest dance, will survive. How long we stay in our current quagmire depends on us. Academic involvement has been my solution. I think it is a viable option for others in Near Eastern dance.

Maleeha has both a B.A. and M.F.A. in Dance from the University of Iowa. She began her career in Southern California and has been teaching and performing since 1979, and continues to choreograph, teach and perform. She is founder and director of Kahraman Near East Dance Ensemble, Inc. She has produced over ten Near East Dance Concerts in the last fifteen years, and has received awards and grants from the University of Iowa Dance Department, the Iowa Arts Council, and the Iowa Humanities Board.

This paper was presented at the first International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance, 1997, at Orange Coast College, Costa Mesa, California.

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