We were seated onstage at the PAC, creating an intimate three-sided space for Amirah Sackett and her seven dancers from the Island community to perform. Being this close was entirely appropriate, as Sackett’s dances are highly personal. She creates enthralling work using the street-style hip-hop dance originating in inner city black and Latino populations in the 1970s, with Islamic themes. Sackett aims to bridge the divide between herself as a hip-hop dancer and Muslim woman.
Sackett spoke to The Times before the performance, sharing that she loved dance from as young as 4 years old, but as far as connecting her Muslim identity with her hip-hop identity, that took some time, she said, because sometimes “we aren’t always comfortable with all aspects of ourselves.”
“This really happened for me 2011,” Sackett said. “Like everyone who was a Muslim, we were seen as increasingly negative stereotypes being pumped through the media. I continued to see the image of Muslim women like myself and my friends just being voiceless, being talked about. One day, I was in a mall shopping [with my friends] and I overheard this woman saying, ‘I’m so sick of seeing these covered women.’”
Sackett explained how the hip-hop side of her wanted to go into battle mode, but the Muslim side was about peace. She said, “So I thought about it for a second, and I realized, we just don’t understand each other. She just doesn’t understand why we dress this way, and I’m mad at her for not understanding. What I started to realize is that I could be a bridge between these two worlds. What I saw was that a lot of people didn’t understand how our religion works, and didn’t understand the difference between the Taliban and the normal Muslim experience. So this started me on this path of being a bridge, being both American and a Muslim woman. And sharing my love of hip-hop.”
All three dance pieces used words of Rumi, a 13th century scholar, mystic, and poet, artfully mixed into her music. “I think the words really resonate with any time period,” Sackett reflected, and then went on to prove it.
Rumi’s haunting words resonated throughout her first piece, “Barzakh,” which in Arabic means separation or divide. It’s the place that the soul goes after death. This partition separates the living from the spirit world. Sackett said that the piece examines these two worlds and the barrier between them that we can’t see.
The lights came up to reveal dancers standing in a large V shape, with the narrowest point in the back and broadening as it came toward us. On one side, three of the dancers were dressed in different colors and on the other, the four dancers wore either all white or white and a light gray. The two sides didn’t interweave, each keeping to itself, thus evoking the sense of the barrier between the living and the dead. Likewise, the styles of each were somewhat different. The dancers of this world used the more jagged, sharp, robot-like moves of hip-hop, whereas the ethereal dancers often used more fluid movement.
“The second piece is a solo I made about romantic love because it’s a human thing,” Sackett explained. “‘Qadar’ refers to the concept of divine destiny in Islam. The dance is about accepting that that person left you, and that there was probably something about that person that wasn’t good for you. You have to accept what is written for you and what isn’t written for you. This is easier to say than to do. This piece is about a love that I had that I lost … and he’s still trying to come back,” but Sackett made it clear that wasn’t going to happen, making us all laugh.
For the piece, the lights came up focused on Sackett, who was wearing a black hijab and abaya, a full-length, loose-fitting cloak-like traditional garment Muslim women wear for prayer. As she danced, the word that popped to mind to describe her movement was puppet-like. Shortly after, the music’s lyrics were, “My heart said follow you … Don’t treat me like a puppet on a string … I don’t want to wait in vain for your love.” The music had a sweet yearning quality that evoked lost love. Sackett trained in classical ballet, and you could see this in the contrasting way she sometimes used her arms. Sackett’s repeated gesture of opening and closing her hands was immensely tender.
Although I was taken with all the dances, the third piece, “Love Embraces All” moved me most profoundly. The piece was essentially a kinetic ode set to Rumi’s poem, “The Alchemy of Love.” Sackett shared, “It’s really about the barriers we create around ourselves that keep us from reaching out to others. The barriers we perceive around us and breaking those barriers to choose love.”
Sackett, along with four of the community dancers, performed mostly in unison, mixing the aggressive, fast, blunt moves of hip-hop with more gentle gestures and the odd moment of whirling. The lasting image I have is of the end, when all five dancers stood in a line across the stage inviting us with their hands turning beautifully at the wrist and ending with palms up on extended arms, calling us into Rumi’s poetry, “You come to us from another world bringing the essence of love. You transform all who are touched by you … You light the fire of love in earth and sky in the heart and every soul of every being.”
After their bows and wild applause, the music started up again and everyone was urged to come join in dancing for the sheer joy of it. Young kids, parents, and adults on their own all came forward, extending the energy for a good long time.
Grabbing Sackett between those clamoring to speak with her, I asked how she felt the show went, to which she replied, “Oh my God, it was awesome! I love this space. I love the Island. I love the people. And then to see all these young kiddos just really made me super-happy. And my dancers rocked it.”
See a video of one of Sackett’s much-acclaimed earlier pieces at bit.ly/SackettDance.