Ancient Modernity #5 – Sacred Difference
Somehow time has slipped by and I find myself in week 4. After our initial teething problems the dancers clicked into my methods and became very prolific in week 2. We have now made at least a rough sketch of all the sections and the last week (and a half) is set for polishing and refining. One thing that has taken a lot of my energy has been the group dynamic. One big difference between the dancers here and in the UK is how personal they are here. This work is not just a job for them; it’s not something they’ve done every day for 20 years. It is passion; it is love. It’s mostly wonderful… But because of that, when people don’t get on, or don’t have a personal connection outside the studio, it can affect the process very strongly inside the studio. I worked very hard to establish a group bond and encourage them to be sensitive to each other. This was totally worth doing, and worked very well, but at a certain point (yesterday) I just had to say- “OK people, I did my bit, and I work very hard lifting and shifting the energy during our class and rehearsal and I’m shattered- your turn. Bring your focus, connect to each other, and leave your shit at the door. Khalas.”
Of course, we have a wide range of personalities in the group, and many differences of opinion, that was kind of the point… I wanted to make a piece about culture, I have a diverse group, and it’s not going to be all plain sailing. For me, healthy debate and disagreement has to be part of it. However, with so much testosterone and strong opinion floating around, it has been hard to keep the discussion within the realms of respect- and I for one am glad that the brainstorming and creating portion of events is now complete. (Though I feel sure the repetition and graft involved in polishing will present new challenges...)
One such debate brought to light a very interesting cultural issue; an attitudinal difference of a very sensitive and subtle nature. If one does not follow a religion, can ones beliefs be treated with equal reverence and respect? Italian sound and video artist, Claudio Curciotti, is contributing some of the sound for the piece. One of the sounds he gave me was of a funeral ceremony- taking place in the streets of Cairo. It is a beautiful, haunting sound and fits perfectly with a solo made by Aly (Khamees) in remembrance of his friends who died in the tragic events at the football stadium. However, when we played it Aly realised that it contained the words of the Quran. It would be highly offensive to some people to see him dancing to this, he told me. In fact, one of our dancers himself found it upsetting. Of course I agreed to change the accompaniment.
This echoed a similar incident that I had felt differently about, however. After publishing the publicity image we received a message on Facebook. The poster design includes an image of the Cairo skyline at sunset. Visible is a tower of the citadel and, in the distance, a mosque, among other buildings. This person wrote to us to request that we change the image because it was disrespectful to advertise a dance performance with an image of a mosque. (Some people believe that Islam forbids dance and that it is sinful or dirty.) Personally I did not want to bend to his will on this issue. For one thing, many people linked to the project are Muslims (most of the team in fact) and no one had raised it as a potential issue, so I felt sure that most people would not find it offensive. For another thing, I felt that by changing it I would effectively be complicit in perpetuating the belief that dance is some how wrong or base, or a sin. I simply explained to the man (via my hardworking Arabic translator, Kaml) that I respected his opinion but that I believe that dance does not go against God in any way. In fact, that for me, and a number of other people, dance is a way to connect to God, or to be spiritual. For me certainly, I feel at my most spiritual and believing when I am dancing. As I don’t practice any other religion as such, dance became part of my core belief system. Not just in an- ‘I’m obsessed by my work’- kind of way but in a genuinely personal and sacred way.
This art form moves me, this practice makes me a better person, and when I share my practice with others -be it children, adults, people with disabilities, audiences, or friends- I can see in their faces that it moves them too. Sometimes when I meet a child who is struggling with the rest of their education, but finds a way to communicate through dance, I feel that I can see a little piece of their soul. That for me is sacred. What’s more, I see technique class, or improvisation as sacred. I explained during our debate after this Quran issue came up, that I frequently have to put up with infringements on my belief system. Every time someone enters a dance class late, or plays with their phone during an improvisation, or makes a poorly timed joke, or laughs at someone else’s dancing. That for me is a small abuse of something sacred.
I will not use the Quran in a way that people will object to, because I do not have the right to decide that their beliefs are wrong, or to place my own choices above theirs when I’m a guest in their culture. However, I do not make this choice to comply with the assumption that my use of it would be disrespectful. My use of it would have been reverent, it would have been a celebration of its spiritual weight and stirring atmosphere, it would have been combining my religion with theirs. I made the choice not to use it out of respect and so as not to encourage further dispute between conservative Muslims and dance practitioners. In my doing so, I urge my dancers to meet me half way and respect my beliefs, each other’s opinions, and the sacred differences between us all.