Hala Shah’s story of dance, love and faith

“Being a better dancer makes me a better Muslim and, for the first time, I actually believe this is what I’m meant to do.” - Dancer Hala Shah
Sunday 10/03/2019
Choreographer, dancer and writer Hala Shah.  (Courtesy of Hala Shah)
Unique talent. Choreographer, dancer and writer Hala Shah. (Courtesy of Hala Shah)

When Hala Shah dances in a weekend ballet class or a performance on stage, joy shows on her face.

She doesn’t move through port de bras — she reaches, as if from some need to go farther. Each step exudes athleticism combined with grace.

As the music changes, she yearns. She crumbles. She elates. She feels.

“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” Shah said. “I put my whole life into it.”

But 15 years ago, when she was about to marry a Muslim-American man who was born in Pakistan to a traditional family, her love of dance collided with the love of her life.

As she explored her faith with her fiance and as they became stronger together in their religion, she said she needed to make a devastating decision: Would she have to give up her career in ballet or her relationship or might there be a compromise?

Shah explored her decision in an article in Dance magazine and — spoiler alert — will perform with New York Ping Chong and Company in “Calling: A dance with faith” May 23 and 25 at La Mama Moves! Dance Festival.

In the piece, she and another dancer explore their experiences with faith.

“I was so excited to dance ‘faith’ but also have it actually make my faith stronger,” Shah said. “We were fasting during rehearsal. We were dancing until we passed out on the ground. We were being so deeply, spiritually fed by dance and by our own faith.

“Being a better dancer makes me a better Muslim and, for the first time, I actually believe this is what I’m meant to do. I’ve found a way to be a dancer and Muslim and to be true to both.”

For her family, spaghetti-strapped leotards and pas de deux with male dancers had never come up as controversial; it was simply part of ballet and had been since Shah started dancing at age 6. However, many Muslims believe baring shoulders and dancing closely with men to whom they are not related go against the faith.

“This whole thing of dance and Islam didn’t come into play until I met Zain,” Shah said, referring to the man who sparked her internal strife.

Growing up, Shah’s Muslim-Egyptian father and non-Muslim mother raised her in the tenants of the faith but also encouraged her to explore. The couple split while she was a child.

“My dad taught me how to pray when he would come visit but it was really my mom who gave me my approach to Islam,” Shah said.

Her mother taught her and her siblings to see the similarities to other religions; that the core messages are the same and that, for her, “There is a God and God is this force that is bigger than all of us and more than anyone could imagine.”

When Shah, as an adult, started thinking about ballet in conjunction with her faith, she “opened a can of worms.” She studied whether prohibitions against dancing with men, dancing to represent a sexual story and dancing in body-conscious clothing were from her God or from her culture.

“When I first met Zain’s family, his brother said, ‘Hala’s a ballet dancer,’” Shah said. “His mom heard ‘belly dancer’ and she walked out of the room. They had literally just met me and already this poor woman is having a moment and walking out of the room.”

Someone quickly explained that Shah danced ballet, not “belly,” and that helped.

“But even in that first moment when you could see the culture and gut reaction to dance was really scary for me,” Shah said. “I thought: ‘This is serious.’”

Worse was her fiance’s reaction to the idea of her dancing with other men or wearing suggestive clothing. They married and she decided she would dance with more conservative companies with which she wouldn’t dance with men and she wouldn’t show as much skin.

“It lasted for about a second,” she said. “I was like, ‘This is not cutting it.’ I could only fake it for so long.’”

In another attempt at compromise, she tried to make dance a secondary career and began working at Georgetown University. She has a degree in Middle Eastern studies from New York University and was working on a master’s degree.

“My heart just coming back to dance,” she said. “I thought, ‘Is this really a limitation I believe in or am I doing this because I’m trying to appease people?’”

She and her husband faced more questions.

“At the end of the day, when I close my eyes, this feels like home,” Shah said. “This is me. How can this really, really me be wrong if God made me this way?”

In 2012, she enrolled in a master’s programme in dance at New York University.

“We had to talk about it a lot,” she said. “We had to talk about the changes in our marriage. We’re a team, we’ll figure this out. We love each other, as long as we keep an open line of communication, it’ll be OK.”

Shah said her husband, because he knows “I’m a good person,” is better about understanding her decision. She said he supported her completely.

“I think he and I both know there is no other option,” she said. “If I could have loved something more than dance, things could have been a lot easier.”

His mother? Shah invited her to see her perform in Washington.

“She hugged me and cried,” she said. “It was the moment I always wanted.”

Ultimately, Shah said, her dance is about her relationship with God.

“I want to be able to say to God, ‘I used dance to help people or to move people or to make them feel better or whatever they need that goes beyond what we are here.’

“I feel calm when I dance,” Shah said. “It’s total spiritual abandonment. It’s a little taste of faith, of heaven, of your soul smiling.”