A few months before our Master Programme was concluded, we and our mates from cohort 1 decided to carry on with the peculiar activities of our Choreomundus group through creating an Alumni Association. What we were mainly attempting to do was to conserve and to strengthen the transnational network that Choreomundus had created. A network of experiences made of dialogical and practical sharing of dance. Our main hope was to re-create the possibility for transnational conferences on dance studies in general and dance anthropology in particular, as well as for transnational, multicultural dance workshops and performances.
Things are certainly going slowly, however, after a few months spent thinking and discussing through skype meetings, we probably had what we could define as the first concrete event organised by the Choreomundus Alumni Association. With a dialogical mode of narration, we (Sara Azzarelli and Şebnem Sözer) will tell our readers about our first “Choreomundus style conference”, which took place on the 10 of April 2015, in the city of Ankara, Turkey.
Şebnem: This semester, I am giving a course called “Theatre in the East and Islamic Countries” at Ankara University Theatre Department. My Choreomundus experience has been very influential, while I was trying to design the scope of this course. Sara has been my guest for giving a lecture to my students about her own anthropological research on queer experience in Indian classical dance Bharatanatyam. Within her audience, there were also some professors, graduate students and guests from LGBT group in Ankara. I can say that most of the audience had no or very little knowledge about Bharatanatyam, as well as dance anthropology and a research on queer experiences in relation to performing arts have probably sounded quite new to the younger. I would like to ask Sara about what she thought and how she felt about being in front of such an audience. What are her impressions about being in Ankara and speaking at a performing arts audience?
Sara: First of all, it was really touching for me, to feel that we were finally recreating the ambiance that had fed us for two entire years. A very important thing characterising our Choreomundus experience was, in my opinion, the constant exchange of knowledge among us and also with other scholars and other people in general, an exchange stimulating reflections, questions, dialogue. The lecture I gave at the University of Ankara, which was initially supposed to be addressed only to Şebnem’s students but ended up being an open call for the whole theatre department, was a really stimulating exchange. Talking to people who knew very little about what I was saying has been extremely interesting and enriching, not only because I could share with them some new knowledge but also because their reactions and questions stimulated my own thinking. Particularly interesting for me was the really spontaneous reaction of a male student to my exposition on gender theories. Talking about my research with LGBTIQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer) Bharatanatyam dancers, I briefly introduced the concept of gender as something we perform, and so not a natural, biological feature, but a cultural construct. Thanks to his confusion in relation to what I had said, I interestingly found out that in Turkish language there is a unique word to define both biological sex and gender, with the distinction that they can add the adjective “social” to the latter. This is, indeed, a quite relevant information for a scholar working on gender. I would like to ask Şebnem to explain us better this linguistic trick and how she thinks it could influence Turkish people’s perception on gender and LGBTIQ subjects. Moreover, I would like her to tell us also something about the reactions of the people who attended the conference, if she had the opportunity to speak with them after I left Ankara.
Şebnem: This is true that in Turkish we use “sex” (cinsiyet) for biological sex and “social sex” (toplumsal cinsiyet) for gender, and it is funny that I recollected this fact at the moment I was trying to translate Sara’s presentation. I guess at the first half of the presentation, for gender I mostly used only cinsiyet, the Turkish word for sex. I think that this is due to the fact that in Turkish we do not use the term “transgender”, but “transsexual” or “transvestite”, and most recently only “trans”. This makes me think that there might not be a clear difference for Turkish people between the natural and the cultural. As a native speaker, in my mind I feel like the term cinsiyet might mean both sex and gender, although academically I know the difference. I should also confess Sara that I translated the term “cross-dressing” used by her as “men dressing women’s clothes”, although I was quite aware that the meaning of the word encompasses also the other way. I guess this is due to the fact that the Turkish use of the term “transvestite” basically corresponds to men wearing women’s clothes. Again this makes me think that women to men transgender and cross-dressing experiences, and maybe also women’s homosexuality are not quite visible or talked in Turkey.
On the other hand, there were not many reactions about Sara’s presentation except remarks about it being interesting. Maybe Bharatanatyam was quite new to all. Only one of the members of the LGBT group said that there is not much research on dance in relation to LGBTIQ subjects in Turkey, and it is needed. But I believe that the audience was interested a lot.
Besides this, I would like to talk a little bit about my own reaction to Sara’s presentation. Although I followed almost all steps of her research process during our two years education, for the first time I realised its importance for the LGBTIQ subjects and their visibility. After spending 16 years in the academy as a graduate student and a teacher, being to different academic contexts, I sometimes get the feeling that it is just a game played and known by academicians, not touching to any other people. However by giving a voice to her queer interlocutors, Sara seems to have started a discussion about a very important issue prevailing almost all parts of the world. I believe that her research on this very delicate subject and her confident stance touched a lot to her audience in Ankara, including me. I listened to her from a new perspective. I know that she wants to continue her research and I think that it worth doing.
I wonder if Sara’s experience of representing her research out of Choreomundus context changed her look at her subject. And I also wonder how she found the academic environment in Turkey, although she couldn’t spend a lot of time? One last question is about her remark that Ankara is more real than Istanbul.
Sara: My idea of doing anthropology has always been related to the possibility of telling people’ s stories, especially those stories that tend to remain unheard and sharing them with other people in order to stimulate their reflections. I guess this is what has stimulated me since I first approached anthropology and in particular during this research on LGBT experiences in Bharatanatyam. However, the conference I gave in Ankara, largely strengthened my perception of anthropology as a valuable means of communication, which may even stimulate social changes. It made me face, at one time, a group of university students aged around 20-25 years who did not have much idea about queerness and LGBT experiences and, on the other hand, some members of the LGBT activist group of Ankara constantly asking for more visibility, more events and discussions on the topic. It is really important for me, to see and remember quite often that academic research, and in particular an anthropological approach to it, can be something more than pure theory and that our work as researchers and scholars can at times be involved in practical actions.
As concerning the academic environment of the department that hosted me in Ankara, it was in my experience extremely warm and friendly. I felt as an old friend who had collaborated with the people working there for a long time: a few minutes after Şebnem brought me at the university I was sitting in the head of the department’s office, drinking a delicious herbal tea with her and all the PhD students. Everybody seemed to be sincerely glad to host a foreign researcher there, to take something and give something, to exchange. I really hope I will have the chance to go back to Ankara soon, and collaborate again with Şebnem and her wonderful colleagues.
What about Ankara? Well, I loved it, especially because during my staying I found myself to be surprised more often than I thought. Before going to Ankara for giving the conference in Şebnem’s department and participating also in a Congress of Anthropological Sciences, I have been to Istanbul for a couple of days. In a city where tourism is such an important resource and where there are tourists in every period of the year, it is quite normal to feel sometimes like almost everything is prepared and packed for you as a foreigner. Arriving in Ankara from that environment I had this strong feeling of estrangement, like if the city did not care much about how a foreign could perceive it, and I loved its cold and sometimes hostile appearance. I probably meant this, when, just arrived from the airport, I told Şebnem that Ankara is more real than Istanbul. During the days I stayed there however, this feeling changed somehow its taste and shape, because staying with Şebnem and her husband, spending time at the university and with Şebnem’s colleagues and friend, I felt part of their everyday life, part of the current political situation in Turkey, part of their everyday reality and this gave me a lot. Back in Bologna, like every time I come back, I felt changed, enriched and grown up as a scholar and as a person.
I could thus conclude saying that I’m looking forward for the next “Choreomundus Style” exchange, hoping that it will involve many of us, giving us and other people a lot, as every time.
Şebnem: Thank you Sara. It was a joy for us to host you in Ankara.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in all posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the association or the MA program.