Jan., 2008 Vol. 33 No. 1
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UH Mānoa Department of Dance

Published January 2008

A Tale of Two Sonjas

Dance ethnology scholars experience diverse cultures with passion, scholarship and performance

by Carol Egan
Sonja Hinz in green costume with drum
Sonja Hinz, here and below, did field work in Tajikistan and Sonja Sironen, on the magazine cover, studied dance in Sri Lanka in their pursuit of ethnodance.

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Department of Theatre and Dance points with pride to two of its graduate students. Ironically, both of the young women are named Sonja, and both have excelled in areas of dance ethnology not typically associated with Hawaiʻi—classical Indian and pre-revolution Iranian. Both taught and performed at Mānoa and in the Hawaiʻi community while pursuing their studies here.

"They are both wonderful students—each is a scholar/performer/teacher with an inquiring mind, strong work ethic and delightful sense of humor," says Professor of Dance Judy Van Zile.

The women attended a workshop for new dance ethnologists in Norway in 2005 and presented papers at a dance ethnography conference in England the following year. "The depth of their intellectual curiosity is astounding," says Gregg Lizenbery, departmental chair and director of dance. "Whether they are involved in a fundamentals of movement course, kinesiology or Laban Movement Analysis (a dance notation system), both women apply themselves thoroughly and make insightful discoveries."

Yet despite their shared name and similar traits, the two Sonjas traveled very different paths in life.

A journey to Sri Lanka

Sonja Sironen, born in Germany, originally planned to study the ancient Indian healing tradition of Ayurvedic medicine. During travels to Sri Lanka in 1992, she met a teacher of the classical Indian dance style bharatanatyam, and was challenged by the dancer’s offer to teach her privately, provided she showed an aptitude for the style after a two-week trial period.

"At first I thought I could learn some dance then switch back to medicine," Sironen says. "The possibility to study one-on-one fascinated me. I thought I’d be able to learn on many levels." Not only did the training encompass Indian history and philosophy, it also required that she learn Sanskrit. The complex dance technique includes learning hundreds of specific hand gestures and numerous facial expressions, gaining control of balance and mastering very complex rhythmic patterns that are often accentuated by the soft stamping of bare feet decorated with several layers of ankle bells.

Five years after beginning her training, Sironen performed her arangetram. Originally a temple event, this solo performance is presented after several years of study and marks a student’s debut as a dancer. Although well prepared as a performer by her teacher in Sri Lanka, Sironen felt she needed a more scholarly education. By chance she came to Hawaiʻi on vacation and met Van Zile, an internationally recognized dance ethnologist whose background in bharatanatyam, as well as other Asian dance forms, attracted Sironen.

Sironen enrolled at Mānoa in 2002, completed her bachelor’s degree and entered the master’s program in dance ethnology. Following a four-month return to Sri Lanka and India for fieldwork, she is completing her thesis on the contemporary practice of the arangetram and has presented papers at conferences on the mainland and in France.

Dancing in Tajikistan

Sonja Hinz, a native of Bellingham, Wash., took some ballet as a child but found her real love for dance while a student at Evergreen College. "I started studying Indian dance and really liked it," she recalls. Her interest expanded to include Spanish, Middle Eastern, North African and Central Asian forms. She joined a flamenco dance ensemble and created a small company of her own in Bellingham. After receiving her undergraduate degree in anthropology from Western Washington University, she moved to Seattle and started another group, this time devoted to Iranian dance.

Sonja Hinz in red embroidered costume

When she discovered an Iranian dance specialist in Los Angeles, Hinz trained in the dance style. Accompanied by complex rhythms, Iranian dance emphasizes fluid and articulate use of the shoulders, arms, hands and head. The feet, clad in soft shoes, do gentle pedaling up-down-up-down steps, either in place, spinning or traveling through space. The female dancer’s costume often reaches to the feet making use of the legs less important than that of the upper body.

Hinz also learned about form from watching videos of 1970s Iranian television shows. Because dance was banned after the 1979 revolution in Iran, Hinz says, "whoever is doing it now is reinterpreting pre-revolution dances by watching old television shows and films."

Her interest in the dance of Iran also exposed her to the Persian language, Farsi. Because Farsi is not taught at UH, she engaged a tutor who coached her for a year and a half and satisfied her language requirement by passing a rigorous exam through a telephone interview. Hinz put her language ability to work during two months of fieldwork in the mountainous eastern part of Tajikistan and four months in the country’s capital, Dushanbe. While there, she was invited to perform on the local television station. Her trip diary and the TV video appear online in her travel blog.

Her thesis, completed in May 2007, is devoted to spirituality and sensuality in the dance of Tajikistan.

Hinz received a John Young Scholarship, and both have received support from the College of Arts and Sciences Advisory Council, the College of Arts and Humanities and the Graduate Student Organization.

Carol Egan is a retired UC Berkeley professor of dance and a Honolulu freelance writer and dance reviewer


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