Natalie Rutiezer is a junior transfer student majoring in Near Eastern Studies and minoring in Dance and Performance Studies. She has studied Middle East and Central Asian dance for years and is currently the director of Adara Dance Company and UC Berkeley’s Central Asian and Middle Eastern Dance Company, Sorayya.
When Natalie Rutiezer arrived in Tajikistan last summer, she had memorized the Cyrillic alphabet and spoke some Persian, but knew she would rely most on the universal language of dance. Having studied Middle Eastern and Central Asian dance in the Bay Area for years, she embraced the opportunity to travel to a country she had studied and read about, and learn regional dances and their history firsthand from Tajik performers and teachers.
Natalie first became interested in Middle Eastern and Central Asian dance when she jumped into a Persian Dance class six years ago on a whim. She had taken jazz, hip hop, modern, ballet and belly-dancing previously, but this particular class sparked a whole new passion. “The music and dances were so beautiful,” recalls Natalie, “and I just became fascinated by Central Asian dance forms and the varied cultures that exist in these regions. There are some similarities between the classical dances because of Russian influences predating the post-Soviet states, but ultimately the many different regional dances are unique and distinct.” At the time, Natalie was taking a break from college in order to work and save money to transfer from San Francisco City College to UC Berkeley. “I worked and danced a lot during that six-year gap, and taught kids’ dance classes, fitness classes, and did silly things like dress up like a princess for birthday parties,” says Natalie. She also made time to start learning Persian and continued to pursue her interest in Middle Eastern and Central Asian dance, enrolling at UC Berkeley in 2014 as a major in Near Eastern Studies and a minor in Dance and Performance Studies.
Since most forms of Middle Eastern and Central Asian dance are passed down orally and through practice, from teacher to student, Natalie knew that travel would play an important role in her studies. “There’s not necessarily a lot of literature or scholarly writing about these dance styles, their techniques or their cultural significance,” Natalie says. “I want to create a base of knowledge for myself, and to share with others, and the way to do that is to travel there.”
Last summer, Natalie was able to expand that knowledge base by traveling to Tajikistan as a 2015-2016 Haas Scholar, a distinguished award bestowed annually on 20 talented UC Berkeley undergraduates that comes with research support and financial funding. In Tajikistan, dance — the sweeping gestures of the body, the symbolism, the hand movements and fast ecstatic spins — is an integral part of ritual, tradition, and expression of daily life. Using connections forged in the Bay Area dance community, Natalie spent two months researching regional styles and variations of Tajik dance, including the Soviet-influenced style of Shashmaqam, the Badakhshan style and the Kulobi style. Based in the capital city of Dushanbe and staying with host families, she also traveled around the country to observe and practice. “There are so many regional dances, and it’s fascinating how different each one is from the other and how much there was to learn,” Natalie says of her trip. “All of my instructors in Tajikistan were very excited to teach me all they knew about their local dances,” Natalie adds. “Hopefully I will be able to give back by sharing my knowledge back here in Berkeley, and also bringing them here on a cultural exchange.”
Natalie is sharing the knowledge gained during her travels in several ways. She is currently the director of the UC Berkeley student-run dance company Sorayya: Middle Eastern and Central Asian Dance Troupe, and taught its members a Kulobi dance last semester. She also taught the DeCal course “Middle Eastern and Central Asian Dancing: Culture and Communal Dance Practice” in Fall 2015 and will teach it again in Spring 2016. Last semester the class focused on Turkish, Roman, Saidi and Persian classical dance, and also addressed Orientalism, the idea of “The East,” and how belly dancing is a Western interpretation of regional forms. “The DeCal students, a mix of dancers and non-dancers, initially struggled with the rhythms and complex steps of unfamiliar dances,” says Natalie, largely because the dances in these regions are often done with odd counts. “Normally Western dance works in counts of eight, but these dances work in sevens and elevens and nines.” To add a live music element to the class, Natalie brought in musicians to play and share their knowledge of the music and their own experiences of the dance.
In the long term, Natalie is interested in doing more scholarly work on Middle Eastern and Central Asian dance forms (she’s applied for a Fulbright fellowship to travel and research more), but currently is excited to focus on her own dance practice and her teaching. “I love teaching. I’m going to be teaching the DeCal course this semester, presenting a workshop on Cal day in April, and I’ll be part of TDPS’s Exploration of Forms Series in the spring,” she says. “It’s great to feel so supported by my Berkeley community and to feel that these dance forms have a place in this community and that people are interested in helping me share what I’ve learned.”