April Student Spotlight: Heather Rastovac

Heather is a PhD candidate in Performance Studies with a Designated Emphasis in Women, Gender and Sexualities. Her work extends upon 15 years as a dancer, choreographer and artistic director among diasporic Iranian communities in the U.S.

Rastovac_SkinOfLimes1_cropHeather Rastovac, a dance artist, dance scholar and graduate student in Performance Studies, was recently awarded the Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor Award for The Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies (TDPS) by the Graduate Division. The award criteria includes innovation in teaching, ability to motivate students, and exceptional engagement in departmental and campuswide activities that promote teaching and learning. Heather’s response to learning the news: “I feel so honored and lucky at this moment.”

Of course, luck has little to do with it. Time and again, Heather has proven herself to be a dedicated instructor to undergraduate students, as well as a community member committed to inclusivity who generously contributes her time and expertise to TDPS. For the upcoming Cal Day on April 18th, Heather is once again giving her time; she will facilitate a workshop entitled “Experimenting with Embodied Histories: Social Memory as a Source for New Dance Techniques.” The workshop is from 2:30-3:30 PM in Bancroft Dance Studio and she invites all community members and alumni to participate, regardless of their movement background.

Heather’s CalDay workshop is modeled after, and informed by, the course of the same name that she developed and is teaching this semester. The course involves both practice and theory and invites students to see dance as related to the world outside the studio, and the format is inclusive of all dance forms and the varying movement backgrounds that students bring with them into the classroom. Explains Heather, “The course honors students’ diverse dance lineages while facilitating experimentation based on these lineages and other inherited ways of moving in the world.” Through readings and practice, she also asks the students enrolled in Experimenting with Embodied Histories to “interrogate the hierarchies historically constructed between Western dance forms and those categorized as ‘Ethnic’.” The responsiveness of the students is satisfying. “I feel privileged that I’ve had the opportunity to teach at UC Berkeley,” says Heather. “I am always amazed by the students, their openness, and how willing they are to put themselves out there. I gain so much through watching their growth.”

Heather began dancing in her late teens, taking every type of dance class she could find, from ballet to hip-hop. “My interest in dance practice and performance has always been one that approaches dance holistically,” Heather says. “I’m interested in more than a technique or representation of a form, but rather how any given form is rooted in multifarious contexts, histories, and relations of power.” In her dance practice,  Heather traveled internationally to study various dance forms, and her interest in Middle Eastern languages, poetry, literature and politics eventually led to intensive study of Middle Eastern dance forms.

“Dance was really my entry into an international involvement and study of the Middle East as an academic field,” says Heather. Following the events and aftermath of September 11, Heather’s engagement with the field deepened, she explains, as “a response to this disconnect between this community I was so privileged to be involved in, and the rampant racial profiling of that community that I observed.” Heather began taking community college classes at age 24, then transferred to the University of Washington where she studied Persian Languages and Literature, as well as narrowed her dance performance practice to an Iranian focus. Simultaneously, she enjoyed a semi-professional career in dance, co-directing and performing with various companies, including Delshodeh Dance Ensemble, until she left Seattle to attend graduate school at UC Berkeley in 2009.

Despite her intense study of Iranian dances and her work as a professional dancer of these forms, for years Heather regarded herself as a guest to the form. As she continued to study Iranian dance during her graduate coursework, questions of the style, the marketing of the style and her representation of, and participation in, the style became amplified. However, she eventually found the focus of her dance practice shifting. “Rather than statically representing a form, I am increasingly interested in conceptual questions about how embodied histories are animated and reconfigured in the present, or, more simply, how to experiment with tradition,” Heather says. “I am exploring how these questions can manifest themselves in emergent movement forms that simultaneously nurture the forms in which I’ve been trained and the communities of which I’ve been part.” Thus, through her doctoral research, she is able to remain closely involved with Iranian communities and dancers, many of whom she considers to be extended family.

Currently, Heather is working on an article for a special edition of the Islamophobia Studies Journal that focuses on issues of race, gender and sexuality. In the article she explores ways in which Iranian artists in France are situated in what she refers to as ‘a hierarchy of benevolence.’ “Because of the ban on public dance performance in Iran, I suggest that French media construct Iranian dancers as what transnational feminist scholar Inderpal Grewal calls ‘objects of rescue’.” says Heather. “I am drawing parallels between Euro-American ‘imperatives to save’—which we’ve seen through the West’s missions to ‘save’ the veiled Muslim woman—but I’m thinking about it through the case of Iranian dancers. My concern is how these saving narratives surrounding émigré Iranian dancers become a means of upholding the neo-colonial narrative of the West as the beacon of exceptionalism, freedom, and benevolence.” As in the rest of her research, she also examines representations of these artists’ works through the lenses of race, gender and sexuality.

Heather is also hard at work on her dissertation, “Performing Iranianness: The Choreographic Cartographies of Diasporic Iranian Dancers and Performance Artists.” In it, she looks at the work of Iranian dancers and performance artists in North America and France and analyzes the ways in which geopolitical landscape impacts their lives and artistic works. This fall, Heather will focus on finishing her dissertation and entering the job market, with a goal to work as a professor at either a research or teaching institution. Ultimately, she hopes that her work with diasporic Iranian dancers and performance artists makes critical contributions toward the fields of Dance and Performance Studies, as well as in other interdisciplinary fields such as Gender and Women’s Studies. If Heather’s tenure at UC Berkeley is any indication, she will certainly succeed in the goals she has set for herself.


April 2015