just dance

Illustration by Anastasiia Zubareva

Just Dance

How we communicate gender roles, cultural identities and social phenomena through dance.

Oct 1, 2016

When I was five years old, I took my first dance class in one of the Armenian traditional dance ensembles in Yerevan. We were taught the pliable hand movements, the graceful posture and the sauntering steps of Armenian dance. We were communicating the elegant image of the Armenian woman and her sophisticated allure through our body movements and musical accompaniment. The nobility and beauty of Armenian women, as my dance instructor would say, were reflected in traditional dances. Today, the traditional dances performed by Armenian women are still highly praised, well-preserved and convey the values of Armenian culture. However, the concrete image of women in dance and society has evolved throughout time.
Armenian dance culture dates back to the pre-Christian era, during the days of pagan Armenia. There are rock paintings of dancing scenes from the fifth to the third millennia BCE found in the higher regions of Armenia. Dance was thought of as a vivid expression of Armenians’ personalities and aesthetic mindframes. It is still a means of expressing the character of the people, their inner worlds and attitudes towards nature and life. The Armenian ethos lives today in the vivacious male and refined female dances. As the paradox of gender roles keeps evolving, we observe the image of the dancing woman exiting the rigid framework of tradition and entering the world of artistic expression through many different styles of dance. We have learned to communicate far more intricate and profound ideas, including gender and other social concepts, through dance. For me, my own platform for social expression and transformation was hip hop.
After five years in traditional dance, I started taking hip hop classes. When I came to Abu Dhabi for Marhaba, we had a dinner and dance party in a fancy hotel with Al Bloom and around 170 freshmen from across the world. A fellow student that I didn’t know at the time approached me and started complimenting my dance techniques and the way I felt the music. Right there on the dance floor we decided to start a student organization that would bring together dance enthusiasts as well as people who simply wanted to learn to dance, regardless of their level and style. In a couple of weeks we had a meeting in one of the multipurpose rooms on the fifth floor of Sama Tower, where I got to know four other members of our team. Since we had three ballerinas, two hip hop dancers and a salsa dancer, we decided to offer classes in those three styles. The next thing I knew, I was appointed the head of hip hop and was filling out the New Student Interest Group creation documents for our dance society, Attitude.
The first two years with Attitude were fun and at times stressful, but very rewarding, especially the annual dance recitals. In my junior year, as the upperclassman university life became my reality, I no longer had the time nor the energy to continue being a part of Attitude. That fall I attended my first dance recital not as a performer, but as an audience member. I saw the couple that was telling the story of complicated relationships through contemporary choreography, the ballet performance centered on the ideas of peace and the hip hop performance that filled the West Forum with power and drive. It was also during the same semester that the founders of Attitude gathered to carry out a dance conference that engaged scholars, practitioners and students in a conversation around dance. This conference, Body Voices 2015: Reimagining Culture, Community and Politics, made me realize how much more there is to dance and what I’d missed by not attending dance classes for a year. I realized that I had lost the sense of dance and movement as a communication tool to build and reconstruct identities and societal experiences. After all, dance had shaped my individual and communal character in the first place, while also bringing me together with some of my closest friends. It was obvious that in the time since I was five years old and learning the traditional Armenian dance styles, my perception of social phenomena such as gender, culture and body image has changed tremendously because of and thanks to different styles of dance. Thus, I decided that it would be worthwhile to relive these experiences in my senior year and try to share them with the NYU Abu Dhabi community as well.
This semester I joined the executive board of Body Voices 2016, a conference that will take place from Nov. 18 to 19. The theme of this year’s conference is migration. Focusing on the Middle East today, the conference aims to explore movement and migration in relation to dance. We are interested in hearing about the speakers’ journeys as scholars, dancers and professionals through time and geographical space and how this movement has shaped their choreography and understanding of dance.
The conversation about how dance continues to influence individual and collective identities, the crossing of cultures and the blending of dance styles is of particular interest to me. As an NYUAD student, movement in dance as well as movement around the globe is an integral part of the person I have become. By traveling through the landscapes of Armenian tradition into the ups and downs of my dance experiences here in Abu Dhabi, I have come to understand the true value of dance as a platform for building my own image of the world, my culture and myself.
Anna Serobyan is a contributing writer. Email her at feedback@thegazelle.org.
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