The Roots of my Rhythm

I think my first dance memories come from my Mom and I singing and dancing around the house to Pakistani music. I only have a shadow of these memories, but they are still there. Hopefully, one day I can unlock the full picture and more. Other times include when my parents would dance to the Lambada by Kaoma – obviously they didn’t dance a lambada as they would in Brazil, but they did their own version of feeling the music and enjoying it. Growing up in Southern Ontario, I remember my dad taking my brother, sister and I to a Pow Wow on the Six Nations Territory in Caledonia – the powerful rhythm of the drum and each step of the dancers, resonated so deeply within me.

In elementary school and high school, air bands were a popular aspect of my dance nurturing. Between the Spice Girls and the 90’s boy bands, we were never in shortage of choreography and songs to learn, dress up and perform for our classmates or entire school. So, early on, I got a taste of how much I love dance and choreography and the challenge of keeping up. In high school, I had a longing for being a part of the Step Squad, however, internal forces like my own shyness, self-limiting beliefs, and external pressures like only “cool kids” got to audition or be part of it, or that I was still a visible minority (but not the cool kind) steered me away from taking a stand and going to an audition, plus my own self-image and dealing with my mother’s death, kept me focused on what I was good at: school, and community service.

However within all of that, I have very fond memories of going to all ages nights with my bestie throughout high school, or rockin’ it with my glow sticks at a high school dance or at the Toronto Caribana Festival every August. These experiences allowed me to embrace the rhythm and flow of energy through my body, slowly awakening my essence.

Live. Learn. Be Brave. Find your Path.

I don’t know if it’s my Pakistani roots, a past life…or just the true essence of my soul, that I am born to dance. I come alive from hearing percussive sounds, and fill with joy when I feel the bass in my bones, or a song that resonates in my depths.

Although as a child I felt this urge to dance, my parents put me in piano and soccer lessons – where I was to focus on those skills. Being from a submissive culture, where there is no room for being open minded and where you don’t challenge what your parents think is good for you, I never explored my feelings about dance and succumbed to being shy, quiet and introverted. I remember taking a jazz class just once during the summertime – a program put on for low income communities, and I seemed to enjoy it very much. However, I’d say that cultural and religious pressure kept me focusing on my academic path of “doing well in school” so I could make my family proud and get a good job…like be a doctor or a UN ambassador someday (true aspirations).

I wish so hard that I had had a way to nurture my dancing soul and let it shine, so I could show that potential to my parents. But…as it appears, artists in my family are not common, and definitely not supported…so even if they had the potential, they would have never blossomed into an artist for me to see it.

My brother has a lot of skill in sketching since he was a little child, and welcomed teenagehood, teaching himself electric guitar, and then acoustic! My dad never supported him once, or acknowledged the talents of his son! Just complained of the “noise” my brother made with his scratchy amp…and instead of giving up a case of beer once in a while to gift him some good sound equipment, he constantly put him down and made him feel like he wasn’t enough. My mom, seeing the beauty of her child, was very open to my brother’s artistic talents, but I still feel that deep in her heart, she still wanted him to excel in math and English so he could “do well” in school and then get a good job.

So, is that all parents care about? Good grades in the institutionalized education system we have? I know since the 90’s things have changed, however, I believe we really need the unconditional love and nurturing support of our parents to have that open door to explore our heart’s desires, without them questioning or steering you off of it.

Back to me. So…wishing hard doesn’t really change your circumstances – you just have to create the life you want. Yeah…how? Your strict, immigrant, low-income, Catholic parents don’t have or give you the resources to show you how. I will come back to this later. I only realize now that I am where I am because of the decisions I’ve made – so yes, because of my circumstances my path has been maybe more windy than some others, but at least I have listened to my heart and steered myself back on course. So, I don’t blame my parents anymore. I’m learning to be grateful for my struggle and embrace my dance story; that it’s unique and solely mine…all obstacles and opportunities included.

The seed was planted, but how did I grow?

I was a dedicated student and member of my church and local community throughout my childhood and adolescent years. Losing my Mom at 15 really woke me up to the realities of life and many other things. I learned how to live life with a big grain of salt. And although my naivety sticks with me in tiny amounts now…it took me years to really wake up and smell the bullshit, hypocrisy and ingenuity of most people, and replace it with courage, strength, love and light. I realized, I only have me, and I have to follow my heart – no one else is going to do it.

My childhood passions for social justice, community development and language really allowed me to listen to my heart and explore the world through music and dance.

Merengue in El Cacao and Sundays in La Habana

I would say that I didn’t really have my first “dance lesson experience” until I visited the Dominican Republic during the last two weeks of my summer vacation after graduating high school…just before heading off to university. I was staying with a family in the mountains outside Santo Domingo in a small coffee-growing village called El Cacao. It rained heavily for a few days as we were approaching hurricane season. As the mom prepared a big lunch for the homecoming of her son from studying in Cuba, the two young girls in the family, maybe 9 or 10 years old…put on some music and taught me how to dance merengue! It was amazing! Merengue is just like walking on the spot, but with the right flavour, you’re dancing! The son Eli, came home and danced with me a little and showed me a little more…and then taught me the basics of bachata, the traditional dance of the Dominican Republic…it was like a door opened and dance just flooded through.

That evening, to celebrate more, Eli took me and the other volunteer to a bar in the village where I didn’t get a chance to sit much as many of the guys kept grabbing me for a dance. I could see Eli noticing my hesitation after one guy wanted to hold onto me for more than two songs…and a merengue can last ten minutes sometimes! He told me not to worry and tell the guys “solo un baile!” (Only one dance!). What an experience! It was an exciting time to experience this – the cultural exchange and hunger from the locals but also the reality of what traditional social dancing and dance culture (outside of the Western dance institution, theatre performance, or clubbing) is about. I must add that I was still an innocent, naive young woman…who was just starting to explore the world in person…rather than through books, news and movies.

Coming back to Canada from this trip and entering university I felt curious about Hispanic culture and dance. I had a Cuban housemate during my first year of university, who showed me some basics of Cuban salsa, and it was only in my second year at Dalhousie that I started taking salsa classes with Cindy & Danny at Halifax Salseros and flamenco (Read More! link to Flamenco post) with Evelyn at El Viento Flamenco. At first, I enjoyed learning new dance steps and styles because I enjoyed the rhythm and music. I suppose we call this self-expression. Dance was and is the way I express myself.

In 2005 I went to Cuba for a three month exchange as part of my International Development Studies program. Although I didn’t take any dance classes there, I did enjoy going out to as many live music shows, dance parties and clubs which offer such lively, exciting ambience and a true local experience. The Afro-Cuban worship at Callejon de Hamel every Sunday in Centro Habana is an unforgettable experience. The rawness of the Afro-Cuban percussion and singing to the Orishas, calls to a place deep within you and plants those rhythms there for you to carry on.

Returning to Halifax from this exchange, I continued with salsa, African and flamenco classes. Each dance form bringing out different emotions and parts of my personality. Salsa is fun and social; African, earthy and liberating, especially for me who is shy (but I never went in the centre of the circle in those beginning years); and flamenco, for many reasons – challenging footwork, confidence, beautiful, feminine outfits, and raw expression.

Dancing from the Depths

Each dance has taught me, shaped me and helped me grow as a person and an artist.

So, after all that I feel, and after all that I have learned, there are many questions about where I go from here? And…who am I really? Am I a dancer?

I am not what is called, a “professional dancer,” or a “trained dancer.” I have a lot of respect for the beautiful souls who have dedicated their lives to the art of graceful movement, and so don’t consider myself a dancer in the institutionalized form.

I might not have much turn out or flexibility, but I’d say I have an inner fire and exceptional rhythm, that stand with their own unique purpose.

So, I can only express myself: I am a dancer. I am a mover, a feeler, an interpreter.

Today, although I am most passionate about flamenco, my soul likes to dance to different rhythms. So, I also dedicate my time to bachata (traditional), kizomba and salsa, while still learning about many other styles of dance and movement. I’ve explored ballet, barefoot ecstatic, belly dance, African, samba, tango and many Latin American folk dances (Peru, Mexico, Colombia) to enrich my style and expression.

I have been a very shy person for most of my life, however, through dance, performance and exploring my own self-limiting beliefs, I’ve been able to let go of some of that shyness, and embrace my true self-expression – being proud to share my expression, without letting ego take over.

We all have a story. There are hills and valleys, and some serious mountains to climb; then there are all the beautiful encounters that paint the journey with colour and energy! We are a sum of every moment until now; life is dynamic and vibrant – teaching us, pleasuring us, and opening doors to all the possibilities.

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