When an Achilles injury forced Sara Al Homood to return to Kuwait after three years studying at the prestigious Joffrey Ballet School in New York, she thought she would have little opportunity to dance socially. “In New York, I had taken some salsa classes for fun and I would go out to socials [group practise sessions] with friends. Then when I got to Kuwait, I discovered there was a prominent salsa community,” says the 20-year-old dancer.
Kuwait’s salsa aficionados tend to be in their early 20s or 30s and are a mix of locals and expats. “Some people here are just phenomenal dancers on par with people you would find in New York – and they go to conventions in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. It’s incredible, I had no idea this was here, so I would like to do something similar but with my styles of dance. People from this part of the world do want to dance and they enjoy dancing. It is here, you just have to look for it,” she says.
Born in Singapore to a Kuwaiti father and a Mexican mother, Sara grew up in the UK and Kuwait, and started ballet when she was just four years old. At 13, the budding ballerina successfully auditioned for a summer course at Joffrey and discovered her vocation. “I fell in love with New York and the whole dance and art scene, and I knew this was what I wanted to do,” she says.
The following year, Sara was accepted into the school’s Jazz and Contemporary Trainee Program, a four-year course that prepares students for careers in the competitive world of dance. “It was a really big challenge for me because I hadn’t done any other styles [of dance]. I was the typical stiff ballerina; movement didn’t really come naturally, so it took a while to adjust,” she says.
Dance school meant seven hours of training, five days a week, followed by academic study in the evening- quite an undertaking for a 14-year-old. “After a full day of dance, I would sometimes have rehearsals or auditions or have to see the physical therapist, and then I would log in and do high school online,” she says. “I was very overwhelmed at the beginning, especially because the way they train was completely different, so I felt like I had to start at ground zero. And then to top it off, I was the only Arab girl there.”
Sara’s family and friends were supportive of her desire to pursue a dance career, but she did encounter some resistance in local society, where dancing in public is considered indecent and provocative. “As I grew older, I noticed people ask my family, ‘What is Sara going to do after dance?’ My dad would say, ‘That is what she’s going to do – she’s going to go into dance.’ They never said it to me, but I always felt it,” she says. “I understand that people from a conservative society might not be okay with pursuing a career that involves a lot of gaudy movements, but I think as long as you look at it from an artistic point of view, I don’t see anything wrong with it.”
With her dance dreams on ice – for now, at least – Sara is pursuing an Economics and Finance degree at university. She would like to pursue choreography and is keen to open a dance studio in Kuwait that incorporates contemporary dance styles.
“I would like to see older girls continue dancing. Once they turn 13 or 14, their parents tell them they should stop. I would like people to see dance as more of an art form and less about showing yourself, because people here appreciate [dance] but then they say, ‘But I would never do that myself’.”
After such a liberal and independent upbringing, Sara admits it was difficult at first to adjust to life back in Kuwait, although she does believe attitudes are slowly evolving. “It’s almost my second year back now and I’ve noticed a lot of changes, especially in the youth, who are really pushing for change,” she says. “I would like to see older girls continue dancing. Once they turn 13 or 14, their parents tell them they should stop. I would like people to see dance as more of an art form and less about showing yourself, because people here appreciate [dance] but then they say, ‘But I would never do that myself’.”
The young dancer also hopes the new Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmad Cultural Centre, the first building in Kuwait’s emerging cultural district, heralds a new era for cultural expression in the country. Opened in October last year, the centre hosted its first dance performance, by the US-based shadow dance troupe, Catapult, in January.
The show was tweaked slightly to suit local cultural sensibilities, but director Adam Battelstein says this is often the case, whether the company is performing in China or America. “We had very full houses and it seemed the Kuwaiti audiences loved our show,” he says. “We have much to learn from each other and that happens best when we share our art and culture.”
Lara Brunt is an Australian-British journalist.