Suhaee Abro likes to say it the way it is

Performing artist on acceptance of dancers in Pakistan, why audiences in smaller cities are more appreciative

Sophie Gindele June 15, 2016
A performer with training in Indian classical dance, Abro also ventured into acting in 2006. PHOTO: PUBLICITY

HYDERABAD: In a country like Pakistan, a woman might be able to get acceptance for her talents as a musician, a painter, a writer or an actor. But dance is still looked down upon, plausibly for its historical baggage and association with royal courts in the region.

However, performers such as the young Suhaee Abro prove that, unlike promises, stereotypes are meant to be broken. Having received her training in Indian classical dance at the tender age of seven from Tehrik-e-Niswan founder Sheema Kirmani, Abro set out to experiment with her own individual style. Her performances amalgamate traditional elements with contemporary dance.

Abro, also a budding actor making a TV appearance every now and then, might have successfully broken free from societal shackles and made a career out of her passion but she has still has her own share of challenges.

Art not sex, Pakistan's dancers take a stand

“My mother and grandmother told me that I was just a few months old when I started moving my body before I even started to walk,” she said. Luckily for Abro, she received all the encouragement and motivation she needed at home. Her mother is a writer and poetess and her father an artist. Neither of them ever questioned her choices and they continued to support her in every possible way, right from the get-go. Their support played a vital role in silencing other members of the family who tried to speak ill of Abro’s passion. “Nobody could say anything to us,” she recalled fondly.

However, this does not mean she is not reminded, time and again, of the harsh realities of the patriarchal society she is part of. Abro often gets confronted with questions concerning her decision to dance.

The question of why she dances, or more precisely why she needs to dance, also comes up when she consults doctors for health problems, forcing her to remember what society thinks of her performing art — unprofessional and “not a very nice thing to do”.

She expressed the problems that she faced over the years and shared that there are some who think it is just an issue of semantics. “Just call it theatre, not dance,” they say to her. But Abro likes to tell it the way it is.

A performance labelled as just theatre is more likely to attract people who just want to see a performance, she added. Theatre is still acceptable since it does not share a history with courtesans and sex workers.

Using art to change social perceptions

The budding dancer fails to understand this. “If I call it dance, people who like dance or who like my kind of dance, will come,” she said confidently.

Growing up in Karachi, Abro noticed a difference in the reactions of audiences from different demographic backgrounds. She shared that when she performs in smaller cities, she gets more appreciation since the people there rarely get the opportunity to witness classical dance.

“When they get to see it, they go crazy. It’s amazing,” she gushed. For her, this happens not just because they are entertainment starved. “They certainly have a better understanding of the arts. This makes it easier for us. It’s nice to perform in smaller cities.”

There is still one big question left to be answered. Is a change in the acceptance of dancers perceivable? “Things usually don’t work out,” noted Abro. “Dancers still don’t get enough opportunities to learn and perform in Pakistan. But things in general are getting better. There is very small change. But there is change, yes.”


The writer is an undergraduate student at the University of Heidelberg, Germany


Published in The Express Tribune, June 16th, 2016.

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