Visiting scholar hopes to learn how young Muslim women balance modesty with the desire to dance

Ayrin Ersoz had a problem.

The young Muslim women at Istanbul’s Yildiz Technical University seemed eager to participate in her dance class, but two students clad in headscarves were expressing concerns: one because she feared her scarf would slide off; the other because she was not permitted to dance in the presence of men.

“This made me think: How can I reach these girls?” says Ersoz, a native of Bulgaria and the director of Yildiz Technical University’s dance program. “How can I teach a class that includes everyone? Dance is about being in front of the other. It’s our body that’s seen. For Muslim women, this is a negotiation--it’s their body that shouldn’t be seen.”

Ersoz says she hopes that her role here at Rutgers, as the Mason Gross Dance Department’s first Fulbright Visiting Scholar, will help her figure out how to make dance accessible to young Muslim women balancing their instinct to dance with their desire for modesty.

Over the next six months, she hopes to collaborate with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, the Department of African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian Languages and Literatures (AMESALL), as well as two Rutgers student groups--MuslimGirl and Woahjabi--to collect data about how Muslim women perceive dance.

“These are modern women, who have cell phones and go to parties,” Ersoz points out. “But you perform dance with your body, and the aim is to be seen. It’s the most out-there presentation of a human being. How can you separate your dance from your body? Because your body is you.”

Ersoz says she’s considering hosting workshops and perhaps even creating a performance or a video featuring Rutgers students. In addition, she’ll publish her findings in a research paper. At Rutgers, she says, “Most of the students are probably third-generation American, and they practice Islam. How are they navigating--how are their bodies navigating--East and West?”

Dance Department chair and artistic director Julia M. Ritter says she and Dean George B. Stauffer invited Ersoz to Rutgers in part because her research, which embraces dance, sociology, philosophy, religious studies, and cultural studies, sets an example for Mason Gross dance students. Ritter has long said that she wants to develop thinking artists with a global perspective.

Without a doubt, Rutgers offers fertile ground for Ersoz’s research. As Ersoz says, Rutgers “welcomes everyone and welcomes them to express themselves.” She recalls encountering Bulgarian folk dancing on campus--performed, to her delight, by non-Bulgarian students.

“That was fantastic,” Ersoz recalls. “There’s space for everyone at Rutgers, and space for everyone to be as they are.”

And if everything goes the way Ersoz hopes, she’ll carve out a space in the dance world where everyone--including religious Muslim women who long to dance--can “be as they are.”

Posted September 2016.