I can still remember the anxiety and exhilaration of performing solo for the first time. During my sophomore year of college, I decided to participate in my university’s first-ever Urdu Culture Show. A few students from the Pakistani Student’s Association had come together to create something special, honoring our roots.
Since I am a dancer, I thought that my contribution should be a dance sequence. I chose a famous Bollywood song called Salaam-e-Ishq. This was a vintage piece harking back to a time when women danced in mehfils, adorned in layers of clothing and jewelry. Their moves were delicate and graceful.
Though I had seen the music video of the dance countless times, I didn’t have the choreography nailed, nor did I have time to do so before the performance.
The day of the performance arrived. I adjusted and then re-adjusted, and then re-re-adjusted my costume in a classroom, all the while doing breathing exercises and trying to calm the nerves that were telling me that I should do anything but walk out onto that stage, in front of my fellow classmates, professors, and other attendees.
As the performer before me was wrapping up, I was called on deck. I succumbed to my anxiety and told the organizers, my friends, that I really didn’t think I could do it. I hadn’t even memorized the steps. What if I got out there and forgot how to dance altogether.
“You have to! You got this! It’s time,” one friend pushed me to the entrance of the stage. It was all mine.
I walked onstage in front of aunties and uncles, teachers and students, and I realized that the only way I was going to be able to get through this was to forget that I was being observed. The music came on, and, at the expense of sounding incredibly cheesy, I gave myself over to it. I danced as if I had dressed up at home and blasted my own stereo, all in the privacy of my living room.
After the song came to a close, I felt euphoric. I stepped off-stage to robust applause. This is still one of the most memorable moments of my life. It’s a gem I keep in the treasure box of my happy memories.
My roommate organized a party at our apartment a few weeks after the Urdu Culture Show. It was almost like a delayed after-party. My Urdu professor, a literary academic who had recently moved to Berkeley from India, told me that my dance was one of the best he had seen. I was aglow.
As I stood in my kitchen, helping to organize the food, my classmate, a lanky South Asian guy we will call “Mo” came up to me. He was usually quiet and reserved.
“Do you really think that dance you did was appropriate?” he asked, catching me completely off-guard.
“What?” That’s all I could come up with. I hadn’t even considered the concern of propriety.
After I collected myself, I responded, “It’s called the Urdu Culture Show, not the Muslim Culture Show.”
The event was a celebration of a language and the ways it had been utilized in history. Urdu’s rich history is not bound to the rules of religion.
I walked away from him, utterly disgusted. Even at a university that serves as a liberal bastion, I was still confronted by a misguided boy attempting to shame me for dancing.
Language and dance are the main access points I have to my culture.
Urdu, one of the most spoken languages in the world, evolved somewhere between the 6th and 13th centuries. The language was quickly adopted by poets and dancers because of its mellifluous nature. As was only natural, an artistic culture developed around Urdu.
Because it is her native language, my mom homeschooled me in reading, writing, and speaking Urdu during my formative years, and it became one of my few, important keys to the South Asian culture that I’d inherited from my parents.
Dancing, along with Urdu, was another critical means for me to connect with my heritage. I learned to dance shortly after I learned to walk.
When I was quite young, my mom had taken me back to Pakistan for a few months during a trial separation between her and my father. My caretaker during the daytime was a young woman everyone called Guddo Baaji.
She was given the first name because she had the beautiful face of a porcelain doll, and Baaji means sister. Guddo Baaji worked as a professional wedding dancer. This meant that she performed at the ornate and large-scale gatherings that dominated family calendars during the summer months.
For days upon days, I watched her disciplined practice, and I learned eagerly from her. She was graceful and liberated in her movements. Unbeknownst to her, she was my very first mentor.
Being a dancer is not considered a respect-worthy hobby or job in Pakistani culture, but I thankfully didn’t get that memo until it was way too late. I was already in love with the art form.
My mother often animatedly recounts a story of me jumping onto a dining table to dance in rhythm when a popular Bollywood song came on during a party thrown by her conservative in-laws. I was too young to remember any of this. She and my father were both shocked at my meticulous choreography, which I had, of course, learned from Guddo Baaji.
My mother was embarrassed because my brazen performance signified that she hadn’t yet instilled propriety in her daughter. She hadn’t yet taught her daughter to give over her body to the rules of a culture that would seek to control it.
Even though I don’t remember the event, I can guarantee that I had a great time that night. I always have a fabulous time while dancing.
There are Place-takers, and there are Space-makers.
I identify as South Asian-American. At the risk of sounding like an ABCD (American Born Confused Desi), I’ll admit that I often get lost somewhere on that hyphenated bridge. Participating in the culture show helped me reach out to my inherited history and connect with my culture, and, regardless of stage jitters, I did it on my terms.
Culture is a controversial animal. Some people need it to stay constant, a reliable set of traditions and rules that they can use as the manual on how to live their lives. Others utilize it as a means of connecting through a shared history. I, for one, am more interested in its latter utility. It offers more breathing room.
In my college Asian-American studies class, I learned that there are names for these two major types of forces within a culture: The Place-takers and the Space-makers. While Place-takers use the existing rules of a culture to identify their place in society, Space-makers work to add space in a culture. They don’t sacrifice the parts of themselves that don’t conform. They help the culture evolve to be more inclusive.
Because of my privileged vantage point of being a hyphenated identity, I’ve had the opportunity to analyze the South Asian culture, keeping what works for me and leaving what doesn’t. This might ruffle some feathers, but I think each member of a culture should have that freedom. Otherwise, the risk is succumbing to a hierarchical system of beliefs that suffocates who you really are.
The truth is that culture is not just collectively experienced. It is also personally experienced.
How I personally connect with my South Asian identity is through language and dance (and obviously food), and while I love this rich history that I have received through my parents, I don’t want culture to just happen to me. I want to be a force within it as well, helping to shape it.
Mo might continue to be a prude who thinks what I did was wrong, and he’ll be in the company of men who give Friday afternoon speeches on women and shame and propriety and modesty.
That doesn’t change what I’m going to do. I will continue the work to create space for girls and women to express themselves in South Asian culture.
Because I believe no culture is exempt from the responsibility of progress.