Geena Parvaiz Saleh, the dancer driving change in Pakistan
Have you ever noticed the resilience of a woven piece of cloth? The way in which the warp just catches the weft as it weaves? Or the way in which the weft reinforces the warp as it winds? Clearly, there is some reciprocal relationship between the warp and the weft on a weave, and so I ponder: if we consider our weavings as metaphors for our writings and our works, as oh so many have before us, what makes our metaphorical warps and wefts work well together?
After speaking with my new friend and peer in the Arts in Education (AiE) Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Geena Parvaiz Saleh, I feel moved by the ways in which she has sought strength throughout adversity. I would like to be a part of sharing her story as a Superstar of Culture.
Geena, born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan, was always acutely aware of her relative privilege to have access to dance.
"I grew up in Lahore, which is like a metropolitan hub, but my ancestors came from Balochistan, the most neglected province in Pakistan... generally the conditions there are far worse than what we have in Lahore. Growing up I went to an all girls school and I was lucky enough to receive some education in dance. And by education I mean after-school clubs like the ballet club I joined through grade eight. Honestly I am very privileged to have gotten that opportunity because in Pakistan we don't have dance classes."
Dance meant a lot to Geena growing up, and so when it was taken away, by tradition, in her eighth grade, she struggled.
"I remember right in the middle of grade eight they stopped giving us classes and I really didn't understand it. The reason they stopped was that it was no longer okay to dance. It was not feminine to stretch your legs in public. And it all fed into the conversations of women's honor. I gather that parents were complaining about their girls learning something unladylike. It was difficult for me because by grade eight I really felt like I was getting that much better and I needed more training. I was fortunate that I had friends, though, who liked to dance. And so we started to dance on our own. We started our own after-school club and it was all self-taught. We received a lot of encouragement from our peers... In twelfth grade I ran for President of the Dance Society. I was really passionate about it, but people told me not to run for it; they said I was an A-grade student and I should run for something else like the English Society. They told me I was wasting my potential. But I thought I could change the way people thought of dance at least in school. And so I ran, and I got elected and I started organizing activities. I hosted my school's first talent show... After that, every Friday or so we would meet in the common room and I would have my stereo and we would just dance. I would teach one day and someone else would teach another and so on. And really, we formed this kind-of underground gang or dancing crew. It was amazing. We were about twenty or thirty in that common room every Friday just dancing. And there was no one to stop us. It was our own space."
I admire Geena immensely, not just for her willingness to talk about those early and then-later struggles, but even more for her determination to do everything in her power to make it so that those younger than her in Pakistan do not struggle in the same ways as she has. Instead of succumbing to her struggles, Geena carries within herself a deep sense of drive.
"I think and I hope that I encourage people to get into dance... I believe that everyone is given a gift -- it could be dancing, it could be writing, it could be painting, it could be anything -- and if you don't stick to it you will go into a state of depression because you are not embracing a part of you that is your core. That's what I did in college; I did not dance. I have been, though, very fortunate to have friends encourage me to go back to dance... It was my study abroad in Athens, when I was asked to teach students about my culture, that I realized the importance of teaching people about the dances of my culture... I was just so happy to see all of those kids embracing those dances. I loved seeing the kids excited to ask when they would learn the next number. I got the reassurance that I was bridging cultures through dance. Even though it was just one month in this school, it meant so much to me. It showed what one month of dancing could do. They were from Greece and I was from Pakistan and we were just dancing. I will remember that for the rest of my life. By my senior year, I knew what I needed to do in the future; I needed to create spaces for dance for people in Pakistan."
There is, and always has been, a place for dance in Pakistan, and Geena is determined to remind her culture of their connection to dance by opening up Soul Beat, a dance and wellness studio.
"There are positives and negatives to any society, but that being said I've found a support system of people who are willing to put their lives and reputations into dance, a thing that is stigmatized... even though dance has been pivotal to our culture... When I came together with those people in Pakistan, we agreed we needed to create spaces for empathy through dance... We came together to form a dance and wellness studio. We got investment. We found a space. We started to receive an overwhelming response. And we are aiming to call the space Soul Beat... Things need to change and the key will be patience."
As par to the course, Geena realizes the significance of sacrifice. Though being here at the Harvard Graduate School of Education for the year is a sacrifice for her organization, the payoff, she expects, will be enormous.
"I want to learn more so that I can teach back home and help students pursue dreams of dance. It's not only about teaching dance; it's about giving an avenue or a trajectory to students. It's for the future generations. From all backgrounds... I was fearful when I was in high school; I had tried to mold myself to fit society. There is nothing worse than that. This time, though, I am not afraid. I know what it is like to not pursue what I am really meant to do and I feel empowered. I think fear was important because it made me realize what life without dance would be like."
As an active, invested listener to Geena's story, I feel moved. I see her quest to bring together struggle and success as a sure #superstar way of being and I hope you will join me in applauding and admiring her resilient weaving of a story.
[photo credits: Geena Parvaiz Saleh]
Superstar snapshot: Geena Parvaiz Saleh
Superstar strength: patience
Superstar secret talent: empathy
Superstar inspirational quote: "take the first step in faith, you don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step" ~ Martin Luther King Jr.