Noreen Sajwani: Faith, Culture, and Dance

By: Katie Rosenberg

October 19, 2015

Katie Rosenberg conducted interviews with Georgetown undergraduates from diverse religious backgrounds on how faith inspires their artistic work as part of her research as a Doyle Undergraduate Fellow.

Noreen Sajwani is a senior at Georgetown University, studying Health Care Management and Policy in the School of Nursing and Health Studies. Noreen practices Ismailism, a sect of Shi'a Islam, and cites the Ismaili community as one of the most important aspects of her upbringing. She was raised in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia and, growing up, spent much of her time on the weekends with her faith community. She explains, “We had a really large religious community, about 3,000 people on Fridays.” It was truly a communal gathering, in which much of her family and closest friends participated.  

Noreen is also an active dancer; she grew up dancing Bollywood, beginning when she was 2 1/2 years old and later, throughout high school, trained in ballet, jazz, tap, and hip-hop. She claims that the appeal of creativity and individuality are what first drew her to dance: “I really liked the idea of making something with my own body. I’ve never been a good painter, or done photography or anything. But the idea that the only tool I ever needed was myself, so at any point in time I could go anywhere and essentially make art, was really appealing to me.”  

Noreen still pursues her passion for Bollywood dance and has participated in Rangila here on Georgetown’s campus for four years now. She describes the Rangila community as colorful, vibrant, and welcoming. She explains, “A lot of people have never danced Bollywood, or don’t know what the words to the dances mean, or have never danced ever. But it’s a community – getting people together who have no idea what they’re doing and getting them to create something with their bodies. It’s very powerful.” For Noreen, and for much of the Georgetown community that participates in Rangila each year, these dances are an engaging, enjoyable way to introduce oneself to a new culture and a new form of expression. It is also a powerful way to bring people together and build community. For most Georgetown students, these dances and the Rangila experience are secular. Yet, for Noreen and others, this line is more blurred.  

Noreen explains that she strives to find distinction between dancing culturally and dancing religiously. In her understanding, Bollywood is a cultural activity: “I grew up in a South Asian culture and with that comes the idea that you watch Bollywood movies and know how to perform the dances. But, when it comes to a religious connotation, you need to scale back how you do the performing art into a very methodical manner. The songs that you sing have to be about Allah. The movements you make cannot be too ‘burlesque-y.’ You have to be modest in how you perform the art… Growing up, we used to do dances just for the Ismaili community, and even then we had to be careful about how we moved because it could be culturally interpreted as something that was not modest enough.”  

Noreen’s experience in dance exemplifies the ways in which religious and secular expression may be blurred, especially in the arts. She states, however, that this blurred line may be more of a concern in the performing arts than in other art forms. She cites the exquisite visual art and architecture produced by members of the Muslim community as an art form that is elaborate and widely accepted to both secular and religious viewers and religiously. In dance, modesty is more of a paramount issue, and finding the line between a religious and a cultural form of expression in the performing arts is something that she has been balancing for many years.

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Noreen Sajwani: Faith, Culture, and Dance