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Laurel Victoria Gray

The Dancing Diplomat

Laurel Victoria Gray, a Traveler on the Silk Road

By Anne Apynys, Ph.D.

Not all people who live through historic changes have an awareness of the significance of these changes. Laurel Victoria Gray has not only lived through pivotal political, social, and cultural change but she has lived them in ways few people personally experience. Laurel grew up in a local culture she ultimately disclaimed, has criticized her own country which she loves, examined numerous foreign cultures her own country little understood, and explored and grew to love the country her own nation had once most feared. Laurel has spent her life working to help these cultures understand each other. And she has done so using an ancient and beautiful art form: dance.

Laurel Victoria Gray, “Dancer of Shamakha,” Maryland, 2000. The costume is a replica of a 19th century watercolor. Photo: John McCarthy

When Laurel dances, the audience watches in rapt attention. Their eyes follow her form, enchanted by every motion: the delicate tilt of her head, the passionate look in her eyes, the exquisite undulations of her hands and arms, the graceful flow of her lovely costumes, and the power and precision of her spins. An audience intuitively knows that they see movements that interpret and transport emotions and energy from ancient times to the present. Laurel takes these dance movements seriously, yet performs them with an inner joy and radiance that the audience comprehends completely.

Terpsichore tugged at Laurel at an early age as her interest in music and dance began to emerge. At age six she began formal ballet and tap lessons in her hometown of Spokane, Washington, and carried on with ballet lessons and international folk dance through high school. The eternal student of artistic endeavors, she has never stopped taking dance lessons. Laurel would also come to discover her love of the theatre, becoming active in the Thespian Society and performing in the high school plays and in local theaters.

Laurel’s family had an important influence. As the youngest of five, her brother older by twenty-five years, Laurel benefited from her parents financial and community security. Her parents provided for and encouraged her in all of her musical interests. Her mother did public relations for several charitable organizations and had many contacts with the local media, and as a result Laurel had experience with newspapers, radio, and television from childhood on. In addition, her mother was a member of Toastmistress and taught Laurel the art of public speaking. Laurel gave her first public speech at age eight. Laurel’s father was a good-natured, admired businessman in Spokane noted for his honesty and strong sense of justice. The son of an immigrant from Sundsvaal, Sweden, he gave Laurel advice that she values to this day. “He told me that you can’t demand respect—you gain respect by being respectable. He also encouraged me to continue challenging myself and to surround myself with excellence. ‘You can only improve by being around people who are as good or better than you are.’”

Laurel’s interests expanded to include other arts. At age eight she began taking violin lessons. In high school she joined the orchestra and became Concert Mistress–which gave her an opportunity to occasionally conduct the orchestra itself. She also became a member of the Spokane Junior Symphony and the All-City choir and continued to play violin while a student at Occidental College as a member of their orchestra. “This musical training has been indispensable in my work as a performer and choreographer,” Laurel recognized, “and made it possible for me to understand and interpret the music of many cultures.”

At age eleven, her mother helped organize the Brigham Young University Education week in which professors from BYU came to Spokane for adult continuing education classes at their church. This gave Laurel the opportunity to sit in on a class on archaeology–an interest she continued to learn about and to use in her future research. She also enrolled in a class on oil painting and shortly thereafter painted a picture that could only have come from her imagination since it had no resemblance to anything in her hometown. Foreshadowing her future, all in shades of green, this imaginary city included buildings that looked remarkably like mosques, minarets, and medrasahs. Years later after returning from a trip to Central Asia, Laurel looked at the picture again and realized the similarities between the buildings in the painting and the architecture in Samarkand. She also noted the predominance of green–Islam’s holy color. “When I look at that picture I realize I was a weird kid. I used to write ‘Ulan Bator, Outer Mongolia’ as my return address on letters to friends. I was on a different path at a young age–and probably have been so for a long time. But I have found that if children are encouraged, they often know from a very young age what they want to be and where they want to go and what they want to do. It’s the role of teachers and parents and other adults to encourage them and teach them the skills so they can navigate this life course set out for them.”

Laurel also discovered an interest in, and a talent for, learning foreign languages. At age thirteen she began studying two languages that remained significant to her for the rest of her life: Arabic and Russian. As a member of the American Field Service, which dealt with exchange students, she met a Jordanian and a Turkish student. Her interest in Middle Eastern cultures stimulated, she began taking private lessons in Arabic from the Jordanian student and began to look for Turkish and other forms of Middle Eastern music.

Laurel began to read about Islam after she took the language lessons in Arabic. She soon noticed a number of similarities between the teachings of Mormonism, the religion of her family, and Islam: tithing in Mormonism, paying alms in Islam; Mormons fast on a regular basis, Muslims fast during Ramadan; Mormons want to have important ceremonies performed at a spiritual site in a temple, Muslims make a pilgrimage to Mecca; both emphasize family and education, both encourage abstention from alcohol and tobacco, both follow the teachings of their prophet, and both, in the past and present, practice polygamy–including Laurel’s great-grandfather. These similarities have had an interesting and paradoxical effect on Laurel’s spiritual beliefs.

At age sixteen Laurel faced a spiritual challenge. As a result she quit her position as Junior Sunday School choir director and left the Mormon Church. From that time forward Laurel has been on a spiritual quest. Open-minded and insatiably curious, she has studied many forms of religion and spirituality. As her friend and dancer Artemis states, “Laurel has a keen spiritual sense in everything she does…to the benefit of the dance world.” Laurel has investigated and experienced many forms of ritual spiritual dance for her own personal benefit and as material for her creative work as a choreographer.

Laurel Victoria Gray in Bukharan costume in front of the Mukhimi Theater, Tashkent, 1993.

Laurel also studied Russian in high school. She eventually became fluent in Russian and this, in turn, led her into some remarkable situations as she found herself smack in the middle of Cold War politics and policies. At a time when the United States was determined to stop what it feared was the spread of communism by escalating its involvement in Viet Nam, Laurel decided she wanted to learn more about the Soviet Union. She did not accept at face value the anti-Soviet distortions promoted by the national politics of the U.S. She knew from her Russian classes, and her own research, that the Soviet Union was not one, huge entity with a single national identity. Instead, it consisted of numerous, different republics each with it’s own culture. She questioned, on a human level, how different “they” were from “us.” Laurel’s mother held conservative political beliefs and belonged to the John Birch Society. A politically active woman, especially for her generation, she hated communists and made Laurel very aware of Russian and the Soviet Union by telling Laurel horror stories about the Siberian salt mines. This only increased Laurel’s curiosity and she made the first of her many trips to the Soviet Union while a teenager. Her Russian language study group went on a month-long tour throughout the Soviet Union. During this trip Laurel saw first-hand the ethnic diversity of the different republics. When she returned, the local newspaper printed a story about Laurel’s trip. In the article Laurel said she had enjoyed her trip and liked the people. She no longer feared the symbols of the hammer and the sickle as weapons but realized they represented the workers and peasants and their tools and pride in their work. As a result her mother received several phone calls from her conservative friends asking if her daughter was a communist. Although Laurel enjoyed her trip immensely, she knew that the Soviet Union had serious flaws as a governmental system—which she discovered personally on following visits. However, she also strongly believed that Americans should not fear the peoples of the Soviet Union and that they had cultures worth exploring and promoting.

Laurel attended Occidental College in Los Angeles, California. In pursuit of another interest, she graduated with a degree in history. Her classes included studying the history of numerous other countries as well as the United States. In addition she learned the critical craft of historical methodology. The virtues of research, as described by Barzun and Graff, include historical accuracy, love of order, logic, honesty in research, self-awareness of one’s own biases, and the imagination to do the “acrobatics of the mind around his [or her] abstract problem.”1 Embracing these virtues, Laurel learned her way around the temple of the historian: the library. If one does not how to use all that a library has to offer, one cannot truly call herself a researcher. The library is a type of brain for a researcher—a central place that interconnects and communicates with other tools for research such as archives, museums, and other libraries. As a student of history Laurel learned the work and value of verifying her research and “undoing the knots in facts.”2 Historians know that one source is never enough to make definitive conclusions; one must cross-reference and verify their sources. This is why historians consider the World Wide Web a double-edged sword: though a useful tool it cannot ever be considered a primary source or the final word on historical topics. All this prepared her not only for graduate school and additional education in history but also for historical research in her chosen field of dance.

While at Occidental Laurel studied modern dance and also took Arabic dance through their Experimental College. She studied linguistics with Dr. Elizabeth Barber, an archaeologist, linguist, and world authority on ancient textiles who became a role model, mentor, and personal friend of Laurel’s.3 Dr. Barber founded and directed the Occidental College Folk Dance Ensemble and Laurel became one of the first members. The ensemble performed dances from Scotland, Germany, Austria, Greece, Russia, and the Balkans. While encouraging Laurel’s interest in history and various cultures, Dr. Barber impressed Laurel by her ability to disseminate complex information in an accessible manner and in her ability to navigate around and succeed in a male-dominated field. Dr. Barber not only taught while wearing ethnic-type clothing to class and but also maintained her dance activities. Laurel decided she wanted to take her own love and knowledge of history outside of academia and instead focus on history via art, dance, and performance. After Laurel graduated, Dr. Barber invited her back to speak at a colloquium on women’s history.

Laurel attended graduate school in Waterloo, Ontario. While there, following the example of Dr. Barber, she founded a Russian folk dance troupe. She continued to study Arabic and international folk dance as well. Laurel graduated with a master’s degree in Russian history and greatly improved Russian language skills.

After finishing at Waterloo, Laurel moved to Seattle, Washington. She was accepted in the PhD program in history at the University of Washington. One of her fields of specialization was Medieval Islam that inspired her to offer some of her graduate papers to dance publications. The first important magazine to print her articles was Arabesque, for which she wrote numerous pieces. Laurel had chosen “Zubaidah,” an Arabic word referring to her pale complexion, as her dance name when she began performing Middle Eastern dance. But as she published more articles under her legal name she made the decision to drop her dance name because “I don’t look remotely Arabic.” From that point on she has professionally published, danced, taught, and traveled under her legal name, Laurel Victoria Gray.

She also dove into Seattle’s dance community joining the Russian Community Center’s Balalaika Orchestra and Folk Dance ensemble. She attended international folk dance events. She took ballet from Ivan Novikoff—an old Russian ballet master who had personally seen both Isadora Duncan and Vaslav Njinsky perform—as well as studying Modern Dance with Bill Evans.

Continuing her education in Middle Eastern dance and music, Laurel took numerous Arabic dance workshops including those with Ahmed Janjour, Aisha Ali, Jamila Salimpour, and Morocco. She also joined the Middle Eastern dance troupe Jalaal. While in Jalaal, Betty Bigelow (“Inzar”), a sister dancer, encouraged Laurel’s interests in choreography and costuming. Later on Laurel and Betty founded the dance troupe Shahrazad. As time progressed they developed a huge repertoire of dances: half were ethnic dances and half were California Tribal and cabaret style. Not all the dancers felt comfortable with this mixture of styles and the two of them ultimately decided to split the troupe and the dances. Remaining friends, Laurel named her troupe Binat Shahrazad, which means “daughters of Shahrazad.

While in Seattle, Laurel met two dancers who became influential friends. Michele Boucreé met Laurel when she auditioned for and eventually joined Shahrazad. With her ethnically mixed background (African-American mother, Egyptian father, childhood in Cairo and Coney Island) and her talent (as a child Michele studied with Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey) she and Laurel learned from and taught each other. Having lived in different countries among different cultures, which cultivated her interests in Egyptian and North African dance, Michele inspired and influenced Laurel’s conscience regarding authenticity and respect for other cultures in her choreographies. “Michele had a good eye for choreography. When she complimented me that meant a lot. When she criticized me that was also meaningful.” (Editor’s note: Michele Boucreé succumbed to leukemia on November 11, 1998, and is greatly missed by the dance community.)

Michele also introduced Laurel to Alan Lomax and his principles of choreometrics. In Lomax’s theory different dance movements correlate to different attributes of a society and it’s social and cultural evolution. For example, a hunting society will have back-and-forth movements like throwing a spear. An agricultural society will have up-and-down movements analogous to planting seeds. Cultures with a strong central government and sophisticated water system, like ancient Persia and Central Asia, will have spiral movements. Laurel used Lomax’s theory to assist in her research and in creating her dances.

Laurel also met Delilah. Because they have a different approach to dance they complement each other well and became good friends. “We really got to know one another when we did an avant garde collaborative theater project together called ‘Phases of the Moon; Faces of the Mother.’” Four women each danced as a moon goddess. Delilah, six months pregnant, danced as Isis. Laurel chose Aphrodite. Nearly an hour long with original music by Steven Flynn, it was a powerful, visionary departure from typical Middle-Eastern dance. “I know a lot of dancers relate to Laurel as a specialist in Uzbek and Persian dance but she is actually very, very diverse.”

1979 was a pivotal year. Her varied interests drew her down a path that led to a momentous meeting for Laurel. She took a class in Russian translation at the university. “We heard there was a group coming from Uzbekistan. Of course everyone in the class wanted to talk to native speakers.” Several students volunteered to help with out with the Uzbeks. They went to a meeting at the Mayor’s house and discovered that Seattle was a sister-city of Tashkent–the first of the American-Soviet sister-city relationships. Laurel volunteered to escort the Uzbeks around. “I drove to the motel where the Uzbeks were staying to pick them up and take them to a meeting. There was a young woman standing in this little garden area behind the hotel. This was the first Uzbek person I had really met and it was Kizlarkhon Dustmuhamedova. And if that wasn’t kismet I don’t know what was! Neither of us had any idea of what was to come.”

The group performed that night. “Laurel came up to me and said she loved the Uzbek dance and that she wanted to know more about our culture and our dances,” Kizlarkhon recalls. Kizlarkhon gave Laurel a postcard with her picture and name on it. “Kizlarkhon was quite a star in Uzbekistan.” Laurel kept that postcard. In 1982, Roseanne Royer, the Mayor’s wife who headed the Seattle-Tashkent Sister-City Committee, had a meeting about whom to include in the delegation from Uzbekistan. She asked for suggestions. Laurel pulled out the postcard and said, “This woman!”

Laurel found out years later that her action had caused quite a furor in Uzbekistan. Still in the midst of Cold-War tensions, the Uzbek secret service wanted to know how Laurel had known Kizlarkhon by name? What, exactly, was going on? Kizlarkhon did return but was accompanied by a special agent throughout the visit. When Kizlarkhon taught a class the agent sat in the next room. “His excuse was that women perform better when men are around.” Laurel knew perfectly well that she had taken a risk when she waved that postcard, “Those were the days of the ‘Evil Empire’ and even to have private conversations with Soviet citizens caused all kinds of difficulties. But I knew that this was culture and that was one thing the government allowed. So I kept pushing. Culture is often the crowbar that opens the door. It helps dispel the stereotypes because you sit there and watch a performance and see people from another culture pouring out their hearts. You get a sense of their soul and it makes you see them as human beings with the same kinds of joys and yearnings and sorrows as any human being and all of a sudden they’re not the enemy anymore.” Kizlarkhon agrees. “Art always unites people–their hearts and nations around the world. This is how I met Laurel. We met twenty years ago and our friendship has grown stronger and stronger.”

After this meeting Laurel wanted to restructure her dance troupe and focus more on Central Asian dance. In 1982, she founded and directed Tanovar—an Uzbek word for a genre of music and dance that expresses women’s desires and wishes. For ten years Tanovar performed throughout the Seattle area in numerous venues including museums, opera houses, theaters, science centers, and at the 1990 Goodwill Games. Both Michele Boucreé and Delilah danced as guests with Tanovar.

“Rakslar Guidasta” (A Bouquet of Dances), a concert produced by Laurel Victoria Gray, televised on Uzbek TV, Tashkent, 1993. Photo: V. Kovrin

Laurel’s interest in ethnic diversity and Middle Eastern cultures stimulated an interest in Persian dance. She knew that Uzbekistan had once been in the Persian Empire—roughly twenty-five percent of the Uzbek language has vocabulary from Persian. From her visits to Uzbekistan she learned about Tajik and Bukharan dance–both areas that still have Farsi-speaking people. Seattle did not have Uzbek dancers and musicians but it did have Persian musicians. Laurel began taking private lessons from Shamiran Urshan–a Persian dancer and singer of Assyrian descent–who eventually made guest appearances with Tanovar. Shamiran was “a wonderful performer who took over the stage. She didn’t really have a teaching system–she put on music and danced.” But Laurel wanted a system. She knew the five positions of ballet and the seven positions of Uzbek dance. Why not take that idea and apply it to Persian dance? So Laurel decided to create Persian positions. She began her research by closely observing Persian musicians and dancers. What was the position of the hands and arms? What was the position of the body? She went to libraries and museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, searching for Persian miniature paintings. She studied hundreds of these paintings. She noticed the asymmetrical positioning and the curved, sinuous lines. She read and analyzed Persian poetry. What images did the Persians discuss? What was their concept of beauty? She studied Persian architecture and its form. She drew inspiration from these different sources and created her system of Persian positions.

Laurel’s system consists of sixteen different poses, including “Sun,” “Moon,” “Nightingale,” “Archway,” “Taaj (crown),” “Gulbahar (spring flower),” “Saghee (wine bearer),”and “Shamiran” named for her teacher. She began to form and teach the positions in 1986. In 1992, when Laurel lived in Uzbekistan, she had an amusing experience involving her Persian dance positions. “One dancer told me she knew Persian dance and said she’d show me. I watched and felt so excited because I recognized some of the movements. Then I asked her some questions and darned if this dancer had learned it from a woman from the U.S. who had studied with me. I was getting shown back what I had invented!” Laurel has continued to develop and refine her Persian Positions to great success. In January, 2000, at a Persian Dance Concert with the Silk Road Dance Company, the Iranian born organizer, Ellie Vali, commented that Laurel’s choreography of the Persian Miniature followed by a dance based on her positions was “one of the most truly Persian dances I have seen.” 4

In 1984, the Mayor of Seattle took a reciprocal delegation to Tashkent. The Mayor and his wife wanted Laurel to join the delegation. The Mayor offered his home to Laurel for a fund-raising event to help cover the cost of the expensive tour. Laurel and Tanovar performed and raised enough money for Laurel to participate as the cultural representative of that delegation. Laurel met with Kizlarkhon again. Laurel’s Russian language skills “were very, very useful,” Kizlarkhon states. “This was the time when Russian was the state language throughout the Soviet Union. Each time she came to Tashkent her Russian improved.” She also met several famous Uzbek dancers: Tamara Khanum, Bernara Karieva, Galia Ismailova, Rozia Karimova. When she returned to the U.S. Laurel founded the Uzbek Dance and Culture Society, which she still administers.

Then in 1985, “out of the blue,” a telegram arrived with a phone number telling her she should call them in Tashkent regarding her trip to Uzbekistan. “What trip to Uzbekistan?” It turned out that the Vatan Society, (Fatherland Society) an Uzbek group that encourages cultural relationships for Uzbeks living abroad, had sponsored her to come to Uzbekistan. They said it did not matter to them that Laurel was not an Uzbek because they knew she wanted to promote and preserve their culture and they wanted to support her.

“That was a challenging trip,” Laurel said. The United States and the Soviet Union had an extremely tense relationship at the time. On September 1, 1983, a Russian military plane had shot down a South Korean civilian plane killing all the passengers including sixty-one Americans. The leaders of both countries issued harsh statements and the geo-political relationship hit a new low.5 As a result the U.S. government issued a policy refusing to allow the Russian airline Aeroflot to land in American airports. Laurel had to travel to Canada to catch her flight. “It was an incredible ordeal. I decided it was a test of how badly I wanted this. This wasn’t just about dance lessons; this was about life lessons. And I had to earn this trip.” She went to Vancouver. The flight from Vancouver to Quebec was late and she missed her connection so she had to go back to Seattle for three days and then try again. When she flew into Moscow soldiers with guns surrounded the plane. “That’s how welcome you felt.” Now it was Laurel’s turn to have a “special agent” assigned to watch her every move. She transferred from the international to the domestic airport under his careful gaze. One time in Samarkand, she admitted, “I managed to slip my chain. When he realized he couldn’t account for me for several hours he raised his voice to me, ‘LAUREL!!’” Kizlarkhon remembers the difficulties. “Laurel was always watched and chased. Everything had to go through Moscow and get their official clearance.” Despite the difficulties Laurel felt extremely grateful to have been given this trip.

Although Laurel studied with Kizlarkhon every time she came to Uzbek-istan, for this visit she received permission to have a birthday dinner at Kizlarkhon’s house. “That was so difficult. She had to get clearance and papers signed in order to have a foreigner in her house. We take so much for granted here. Yet that in itself was pioneering and revolutionary to have an American come to your house.” During that visit Laurel was the subject of a Tashkent television show later shown on New Year’s Eve. Cameras followed her everywhere. “One time they wanted me to improvise a dance to a song I’d heard only once. It seemed impossible and technically I should have refused. But I understood that I was a symbol of the friendship between the American and Uzbek people and I didn’t have the right to say no.”

Eating her powder milk biscuits, she went out and did what had to be done. Kizlarkhon, familiar with the song, stood by the camera and danced while Laurel, who knew Kizlarkhon’s movement vocabulary, followed along. That is when Laurel received the sobriquet “Gray Khanum.” The singer Sherali Djuraev could not pronounce “Laurel” but Gray sounds like “Girey” a famous Khan of the Crimean Tatars. Khanun is an honorific title meaning “Lady.” He sang on that New Year’s Eve show improvising an amusing song about his singing and Laurel’s dancing.

The more Laurel learned the more she taught. In addition to directing a dance troupe she taught private lessons, classes, and workshops. She also published numerous articles in dance journals. Laurel met many dancers through her articles and workshops, including Artemis Mourat, in 1985. “I was very impressed by her detailed approach towards the dance and her insistence on describing culture to us [workshop participants] as well as describing the dance. I think that’s essential.” Because of her international experience and language abilities she began to teach in Western European countries as well. When Delilah received a request from a German dancer about Persian dance she referred her to Laurel. Morocco also recommended Laurel to a dancer in Frankfurt, the late Dietlinde Karkutli—an important promoter of Oriental dance in Germany. Laurel began to travel every year to Germany to teach workshops. Soon Austria and Switzerland were added to the itinerary. Some years her tour extended to two months. In 1995, Laurel traveled to Australia at the invitation of dancers there. She taught in Sydney, Mel-bourne, and Bris-bane. Add that to her travel in Central Asia and Laurel often found herself overseas for several months each year.

As she traveled back and forth between Central Asia and the U.S., Laurel saw that the dancers there lacked basic supplies and equipment. Anticipating the extraordinary political and economic change in the near future, Laurel created a means to have direct dancer-to-dancer contact: “Sequins for Peace.” Laurel invited dancers throughout the U.S. to donate dance materials to the dancers in Uzbekistan. “I knew that people had all kinds of costuming supplies squirreled away in closets and on shelves–they wouldn’t have to buy a single thing.” The U.S. dance community, including Delilah and Artemis, responded generously to this diplomatic gesture and donated a wide array of materials ranging from spools of thread to entire costumes and, of course, sequins. Over fifty pounds of items went to Uzbekistan between 1988 and 1992. Some of the fabric and supplies, too small for dancers, went to a puppet theater in Tashkent. Laurel felt extremely proud of the US dance community. “It was a wonderful exchange of energy. And remember that sequins reflect light.”

In 1988, Laurel returned at the request of the Georgian and Uzbek Union of Theatrical Workers. She studied dance in both Uzbekistan and Georgia.6 In 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, the theatrical workers again invited Laurel to bring a thirty-member delegation to Uzbekistan. Laurel chose and led the delegation, which included Delilah, Helen Noreen, and Sharlyn Sawyer as well as Selma Jeanne Cohen, editor of the International Encyclopedia of Dance. “Characterizing Laurel as an “extraordinary woman,” Ms. Cohen recalls it as “an unforgettable experience.” Laurel impressed her as someone who thoroughly understood “not only the technique of Uzbek dance, but also its inherent relations to Uzbek culture.” Laurel, reflecting on that historic 1989 delegation admits,

I was quite mad to do it. I decided that since Seattle had the largest number of equity theaters in the US (after New York City) I would take a representative from each of the theaters. We had set designers, playwrights, actors and directors. We called our show “East meets West” and did some incredible performances.

The delegation presented two shows for women only because, as Delilah remembers, “It sold out the first night. It was so exciting. We all stayed in people’s private homes.” That was so groundbreaking that it was reported in the Soviet newspaper Isvestia. Kizlarkhon agrees. “It was big progress in warming up the [international] relationships.” That delegation toured for two weeks. Laurel stayed on for an additional two months studying dance in Uzbekistan and Georgia. In 1993, inspired by Laurel’s delegation, Uzbekistan’s Theatrical Union hosted the East-West International Theater Festival.

In 1992, the State Academic Bolshoi Theater invited Laurel to Uzbekistan, and she lived there for two years. “Living in Uzbekistan was my warrior quest. I knew there was much more to this dance than I had been able to grasp. The only way to really learn it was to live there.” Laurel took lessons from different teachers, studied traditional Central Asian dance— Uzbek, Crimean, Tatar, Karakalpak, Uighur, Russian Rom—traveled to different outlying regions, and participated in Sufi rituals. Laurel also taught Arabic dance at Tashkent’s Choreographic Institute. She produced an entire concert with forty performers called Rakslar Guldastaci—“A Bouquet of Dances.” In this show Laurel worked with professional dancers and children. “Students from the Theatrical Institute performed a skit based on my experiences with taxicab drivers. These young actors made it so funny the Uzbek audience members were rolling in the aisles. Five of the young men also performed an Arabic dance in drag to Uzbekistan’s number one pop hit, Jinouni. This was quite risky since the members of the musical group Yalla, who wrote and performed the song, were sitting in the audience.” As it turned out, Yalla enjoyed the parody.

Laurel has visited Uzbekistan ten times—about every other year so “it will soon be time for another visit.” During those trips she did historical research at several of their national archives; this also enabled her to add photographs to her extensive collection. This served her well when commissioned to submit articles to the International Encyclopedia of Dance (editor Selma Jean Cohen praised Laurel’s contribution as “one of the finest,”) and to the World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre.7 She was the English style editor for President Islam Karimova’s book, Uzbekistan; The Road of Independence and Progress.8 At the invitation of the Ministry of Culture she judged at several of their international culture festivals. In a letter of recommendation written by the Uzbek Ambassador Sodyq Safaev, he states, “Ms. Gray has refined her skills making them amazingly perfect. The fact that an American woman showed an interest in Uzbek folk dance and learned its professional techniques has greatly impressed Uzbek people and touched their hearts.”

Laurel’s travels have enabled her to amass an immense and stunningly beautiful collection of antique costumes. She performs both in antique costumes and in costumes she has designed herself. For Laurel, costume and color are an integral aspect of her choreographies. As Delilah observes, “Laurel has incredible color sense. The thing one always notices about her costumes or her troupes’ costumes is the fabulous use of color and light design. It all works together: the dance, the costumes, the props, the backdrops, and the lights.” Artemis notes that, “Laurel is a perfectionist. And she is meticulous about replicating the physical appearance of a costume—it’s fabric and texture and feeling and flow and color. Kizlarkhon proclaims, “As a historian Laurel has a special approach to costumes. She pays attention to the color, to the hat, to the jewelry. She builds a picture and when a person builds the national dress like that it reflects and shines through time.”

In 1994, after Laurel returned from Uzbekistan to Seattle she felt herself standing at a crossroads. As much as she adored Seattle she felt it was “just not the right place for me anymore.” Laurel’s sister lived in Richmond, Virginia and she had many friends on the East coast. They encouraged her to move across country and she relocated to the Washington, D.C. area in 1995. For Laurel this move offered her the opportunity to live in a culturally and politically diverse and dynamic area. Thanks to encouragement from Michelle Forner and Artemis, Laurel proceeded to found and direct the Silk Road Dance Company. Silk Road performs a large repertoire of dances including those from the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Caucases. Immediately embraced by the Persian community, Silk Road has performed for numerous festivals and celebrations sponsored by the local Iranian community. The Egyptian community admires Laurel’s accurate representations of folklore and elegant raqs sharqi choreographies and has engaged Silk Road to perform at festivals, banquets, and weddings. This success does not surprise troupe member Keylan Qazzaz, who spent part of her childhood living in Iraq and Iran with her Kurdish father. She took lessons and workshops from Laurel before joining Silk Road. Keylan joined Silk Road because she knew that Laurel cares about the dances she creates. “Her dedication to authenticity and her knowledge of Eastern society means she presents these dances with respect and thoughtfulness.”

In addition to moving across the country in 1995, Laurel also co-hosted the first Central Asian dance camp with Travis Jarrell. Travis first knew about Laurel by reading some of her articles about Uzbek dance in Arabesque. With a broad dance background, Travis wanted something more Oriental than she had found in Middle Eastern dance and felt an immediate affinity with Uzbek dance. In 1988, she met Laurel at the Mendocino Near Eastern Music and Dance Camp and learned the Khorezm choreography Laurel taught. “I felt like a salmon swimming upstream [like coming home]. It was completely enriching to me.” After she returned to her home in New Mexico, Travis discovered that Santa Fe and Bukhara were sister cities. She met and communicated with people who traveled back and forth between the two cities. In 1992, she lived in Bukhara for a month. She and Laurel met while there and studied Uzbek dance together. “Laurel was very generous and helpful to me. She took me all around and translated the Russian for me. She made it possible for me to find what I wanted in the dance.” After returning to the U.S. Travis kept in touch with Laurel. In 1994, Travis moved to an artists’ community on a gorgeous ranch in Santa Fe. She proposed to Laurel that they host a dance camp there that focused on Central Asian dance. They had the camp at the Santa Fe ranch for four years. Kizlarkhon joined them in 1998 and ‘99. This year they held the camp at the Embassy of Uzbekistan in Washington, D.C.

Hosting a dance camp is a difficult enterprise. Because Central Asian dance does not have the broad appeal of Middle Eastern dance, planning for the dance camp presented a financial challenge. Laurel and Travis knew that fewer people would have a familiarity with this dance form and, therefore, fewer people would apply. But their love of the dance stimulated their determination and squarely facing the odds, they began their enterprise. They promoted the camp via word-of-mouth, a mailing list, brochures, and a publicity campaign through dance journals and workshops. The number of attendees grew steadily each year. This year was the largest yet. Beginning in 1997, the camp presented a formal public concert and included the campers in one of the numbers. “We are unique in this,” commented Laurel, “but I feel it is crucial since it allows participants to see the dances on a concert stage while broadening our audience base.” This year’s concert, attended by a standing room only audience, was filmed by Uzbek television and shown on their evening news programs.

The D.C. area also has numerous teaching venues for Laurel. Artemis, who teaches Middle Eastern dance and specializes in Turkish and Turkish Rom dance, knew about Laurel’s skills as an Arabic dancer and encouraged her to teach Arabic dance technique. As a result, Laurel is one of the area’s most popular instructors of Arabic dance with nearly seventy-five enrolled students. Laurel teaches five Middle Eastern dance classes and numerous privates each week at D.C.’s well-established Joy of Motion studios, where Michelle Forner taught the first classes in Middle Eastern dance. She and Artemis have taught several workshops together, including one on the dances of the Turkish and Russian Roma peoples. Laurel has taught at George Mason University, North Seattle Community College, and the Iranian Community School; She has lectured at the Middle East Institute, UCLA, the University of Oregon, and the Geta Institute (Sydney). Laurel continues to teach workshops throughout the US and in Europe. She won the International Academy of Middle Eastern Dance award for Ethnic Dancer of 1999. She was a guest performer at the first International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, CA in 1997. Last March she performed with the Middle East Ensemble at the University of California at Santa Barbara; their dancers, directed by Alexandra King, presented several of Laurel’s choreographies.

Laurel has traveled to five continents, researching, teaching, and creating choreographies. Her experience as a cultural diplomat and historian gives her a unique perspective on the dance world and its place in social and political evolution. She has personally witnessed the profound effects of the breakup of the Soviet Union. That momentous event begat both tremendous opportunities and complex difficulties. Certainly traveling back and forth to Uzbekistan is much easier now for both Laurel and Kizlarkhon. Neither has special agents assigned to watch their every move anymore. Laurel can meet with dancers when she wants and she has. But losing the automatic economic support from Moscow has created numerous financial challenges for the people of the republics of the former Soviet Union including Uzbekistan. The artists have struggled to survive and many have left. Those who remain face adversity. Kizlarkhon credits Laurel with inspiring her to found her own independent ensemble, Mundadzhat, focusing on classical Central Asian dances and costuming. She even followed Laurel’s example of using antique costumes and jewelry for some of the dances.

Laurel has also witnessed change in the lives of Uzbek women. That, too, has its perplexities. Uzbekistan, like other Moslem countries, has a patriarchal culture. In the early twentieth century the new Soviet government encouraged the women to unveil. Some women lost their lives when they first removed their veils but soon the culture accepted that change. The act of unveiling, however, did not change patriarchy. As Kizlarkhon reports, “The men were always a little higher than the women.” But men, alone, do not make patriarchy. Laurel notes, “I can say that patriarchy can only exist with the consent and cooperation of women. Women participate in oppressing other women and getting them to conform. Some women told their children to lean out the window and spit on other women who didn’t wear a headscarf or didn’t wear harem pants beneath their long dresses.” A traditional sexual division of labor remains. When Laurel lived in Uzbekistan she had a female friend who offered to help Laurel wallpaper her apartment ”on the condition that I never reveal her identity to anyone because that was a shockingly unfeminine thing for her to do.” But the act of Laurel living in that apartment by herself without a man to watch over her was a rebellious act and noted by the Uzbek women. When Laurel did not want to do something she would say, “I do things in American style.” Laurel heard an Uzbek friend’s daughter use that same “I do it American style” excuse when she did not want to do something either.

But a more subtle change has occurred as well. The opportunity to experience Western culture has opened Eastern Europe and Central Asia to some of its more disturbing aspects ranging from terrible violence to terrible movies. The newly available consumer items make life more comfortable (and who can blame them) but in embracing Western materialism some of the more spiritual components of the culture have begun to fade. Dance, Islam, cultural interchange, and femininity have always woven an intricate pattern. Since Islam encourages modesty, the traditional costumes “cover-up” the dancer. The Persian influence inspired a love of beauty and the traditional costumes are, in fact, beautiful. Central Asian culture celebrates femininity and its power. The movements in Uzbek dance are delicate and subtle yet suffused with meaning and intent. In her workshops Kizlar-khon repeatedly stresses that through-out the East the dancer expresses what is in her heart and her facial expressions play an indispensable role in her dancing. Both Laurel and Travis feel concerned that in accepting some of the more crass and vulgar aspects of western culture, Eastern women have lost touch with their own feminine power.9 As Laurel observed, “Compared to young Western girls, the Eastern girls are naive and inexperienced. They don’t have the knowledge about sexual matters that American girls have but they do understand the exchange of energy. They know that without doing anything except standing in a certain way they can exert tremendous power over men. I saw some incredible cases of this exchange of energy in which men, based on the thought of a possible promise, would go to all kinds of trouble to do something nice for a woman. We’ve lost that in the West. In the West the girls are completely tuned out of the power of their sexuality because they only know the raw parody of sexuality.”

This concept of feminine power is one that Western feminists struggle with. Is this a power based on manipulation, feigning weakness in order to get what you want? Or can women celebrate their differences with men and enjoy the romantic and sensual dance between the sexes without conceding their equality with men? Feminism has been the most revolutionary change in Western culture and Western women have benefited tremendously. In the twentieth century alone, Western women overcame obstacles they had faced for thousands of years. But history has shown repeatedly that revolutions are notoriously difficult to control. On the one hand, Western women can now vote, attend any university, and hold any job. On the other hand women still suffer with poverty and violence and young girls face tremendous peer pressure to perform sex acts without any thought of their own emotional needs. No one could predict the outcome of the feminist revolution and Western women would not want to return to the “good old days.” Western women continue to construct and develop a feminism that includes the equality of women and men and still takes into account the differences of each. For Laurel feminism means to uphold all the wonderful things that femininity means: compassion, tenderness, and gentleness, “to do things in a beautiful way.” “Her ability to be unabashedly feminine was refreshing and eye-opening to me,” Keylan observes, “I had never considered that before I met her–that you could dress like a delicate, fairy princess while moving with profound strength.” Laurel believes that bringing beautiful, feminine dance forms across the continents and introducing them to different cultures touches the hearts and souls of people and advances the goal of world peace. As Michele Boucreé once said to Laurel, “You’re not a consumer of ethnic, you’re a believer in ethnic.” To that end she continuously creates choreographies that address the roles of women and encourages dialogue. One of her most provocative and moving is “Cry of the Heart,” a dance that utilizes Sufi movements and women’s dance gestures from a variety of Eastern cultures. The dancers wear veils so that only their eyes show. The choreography begins with the women on the floor, during the dance they raise their arms in anguish and questioning, by the end of the dance they slowly walk towards the light of hope and peace. Women, including Arab and Persian, resonate to this dance and have complimented Laurel; Muslim men have told her it makes them feel uncomfortable. Kizlarkhon finds it the most powerful choreography in their repertoire. Silk Road performed this dance for a benefit for the women of Afghanistan sponsored by Artemis.

Egypt never ceased to fascinate Laurel. Her interest had begun as a young teenager, and she continued to read and absorb information about that ancient world. While living in Seattle, the King Tut exhibit came through and Laurel eagerly visited, studying the artifacts and hieroglyphs. During that time King Tut and things Egyptian appeared in popular culture–but not accurately as far as Laurel was concerned. “I watched as people did the ‘King Tut strut’ and stiff, overly somber choreographies. I knew that the Egyptians were obsessed with life—not death! It’s just that the buildings left are either temples or tombs because everything else was built out of mud bricks which don’t last.” So Laurel decided to create “Egypta” honoring the eponymous work by Ruth St. Denis. “ I wanted to bring Egyptians to the stage who were living, breathing human beings. I didn’t want to do funeral processions.” She continued her research about ancient Egypt. She read numerous works about the history of Ancient Egypt and visited the Egyptian Museum in Berlin and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. She carefully studied their artistic renditions of dancers: the position of the foot, the angle of the leg, the turn of the head. “Though we often point to the Amarna period as the most fluid and lifelike, even in earlier periods there is some amazing art where you can hear the drums and feel the swish of a woman’s hair as it twists from side to side.” She looked at existing forms of dance in Egypt studying the folkloric dances and Coptic rituals. Laurel used Lomax’s principles of choreometrics in creating the choreographies and put spiral movements in the dances. She also looked at other cultures that still had traditional ritual dances: Polynesians, the corn dance of the Santa Domingo Pueblos in New Mexico. She spent time in Cairo visiting their museums and studying folkloric and dervish dance technique with performers from the Ghouria Palace. Laurel wanted to create ritual dances, celebratory dances, and astronomical dances that showed the diversity of life activities in Egypt. She created the first dances while listening to a walkman on the trains in Germany.

Egypta made its debut in Berlin with dancers from two dance troupes, Duo Havva and Bassiema, and the Oasis Ensemble. The Egyptian ambassador attended the premier. The German press loved it and Raqia Hassan praised it in print. In another German production, Laurel herself presented a sinuous snake priestess dance and Delilah performed the roles of Hathor and Cleopatra.

Continually working on this project, Laurel recently read an article about current research in Egypt. Researchers found silk fibers in a sarcophagus that suggests the Egyptians had access to silk a thousand years before the Greeks came to Egypt. “This was very exciting and gave me precedent for creating silk dresses for the Egyptian priestesses.” The Silk Road Dance Company was hired to present an abbreviated version of Egypta at Baltimore’s Egyptian Festival and at a benefit for the Library of Alexandria, Egypt.

Laurel continues to create intricate and elegant choreographies. Her latest work is performed to music recovered from the court of Tamerlane. This piece includes dance movements from cultures who lived in Tamerlane’s capital–Arabs, Turks, Chinese, Uighurs, Persians and Mongols. Artemis states unequivocally, “I think that Laurel is the most brilliant choreographer in the entire Middle Eastern dance community.” Acknowledging the many wonderful Middle Eastern dance choreographers throughout the world, she nevertheless points out that Laurel’s background is so broad and her creativity so effervescent and never-ending. “For many people it could cause cultural whiplash.” In one year she produced dances from many diverse regions and historical epochs: Pharoanic, Russian Romany, classical Persian, Uzbek folklore, pre-Christian Georgian, interpretive veil, and a Timurid reconstruction. “ I don’t know any other choreographer in the Middle Eastern dance community who can do that.”

Footnotes

1. Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff, The Modern Researcher, 4th edition, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1985, pp. 56-59.

2. Ibid, p. 127.

3. Elizabeth Wayland Barber, The Mummies of Urumchi, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1999; Women’s’ Work; The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times, New York: Norton, 1994; Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages with special references to the Aegean, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

4. Elli Valli stated this to the dancers at the dinner following the performance by the Silk Road Dance Company at North State Carolina University.

5. Ralph B. Levering, The Cold War, 1945-1987, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1988, p.173.

6. Laurel Victoria Gray, “The Goddess Dances: Women’s Dances of Georgia,” Habibi, 14:1 (Fall 95), pp. 17, 39.

7. Selma Jean Cohen, ed., The International Encyclopedia of Dance: a project of Dance Perspectives Foundation Inc., New York: Oxford University Press, 1988; Don Rubin, ed., World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre: Asia, London, Ontario: York University Press, 1999.

8. I.A. Karimova, Uzbekistan; The Road of Independence and Progress, Uzbekistan Press, 1992.

9. Laurel Victoria Gray, “Samarkand Adventure: The Sharq Taronalari International Festival”, Habibi 17:3 (1999), pp. 28-31.

Anne Apynys has a Ph.D. in American Women’s History and teaches at George Mason University. In addition she has worked as a psychiatric nurse for twenty years. Her interests include the similarities and differences between women and their interpretations of feminism in Western and Middle-Eastern cultures. She is a member of the Silk Road Dance Company.

The author wishes to express much gratitude to the people who provided interviews for this article: Kizlarkhon Dustmukhamedova, Artemis Mourat, Travis Jarrell, Delilah, Keylan Qazzaz, and, of course, Laurel Victoria Gray. Special thanks to Lola Gulomova who acted as translator during my interview with Kizlarkhon.

Copyright © Habibi Publications 1992-2002, Shareen El Safy, Publisher.

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