Dancing with the Stars — and Planets

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Nancy Joseph 06/09/2020 June 2020 Perspectives
Zakkir Rahman (in front) dances in "Business as Usual," choreographed by Ieva Bračiulytė. The other dancers are Fernando J Eizaguirre, Helen Huang, Katie Janis, and Emi Nakatsu.

When Zakkir Rahman arrived at the UW as a freshman, he discovered that undergraduates must fulfill general education requirements, including courses in the visual, literary & performing arts (VLPA).  As a STEM student set on studying astronomy, he was annoyed. What did the arts have to do with him?

Everything, as it turns out.  This month Rahman graduates with majors in astronomy and physics — and dance.

Growing up in Malaysia, Rahman had little interest in the arts. He excelled in math and science, which led the Malaysian government to sponsor him to study in the United States. A lifelong interest in cosmology made astronomy a natural fit. Rahman paired that with physics since the two majors complement each other, with considerable overlap. 

After graduation, Rahman looks forward to immersing himself in the arts in Malaysia.

But there was still that pesky VLPA requirement to deal with.

A Malaysian friend, a double major in dance and psychology, encouraged Rahman to try a dance course. He signed up for DANCE 102 his freshman year. “It was an entry-level introduction to modern dance,” Rahman recalls. “I kind of fell in love with it.”

Rahman auditioned the same quarter for the annual MFA Dance Concert, choreographed by MFA students in the Department of Dance. To his surprise, he was selected for one of the dances. “At first I viewed it as just another fun assignment or activity,” he says. “But working with serious dancers, I realized it was more than that. I had to be physically and mentally engaged in the material, to live in the ideas that the choreographers wanted to present on stage.” 

Rahman continued with dance and has since participated in many more dance concerts including Chamber Dance Company concerts, UW Dance Presents, Dance Majors concerts, and freelance dance work in the Seattle area. At the end of his sophomore year, he added dance as a third major. He spent junior year immersed in both astronomy and dance as he pondered which field to prioritize post-graduation. 

...we need STEM to survive, but we need the arts to live.

In astronomy, Rahman completed a two-quarter research sequence that culminated with multiple visits to the UW’s Manastash Ridge Observatory (MRO) in central Washington. The observatory, dating back to the early 1970s, had long ago been replaced by more powerful telescopes for faculty and graduate student research, but the facility continues to provide excellent opportunities for undergraduates. 

“It was so much information at once,” Rahman says of the course that helps students gain skills needed for their observatory research. “But once we got up to MRO it felt worth it. The first time we went, when the dome was opening in front of our eyes, all the students had goosebumps. We almost cried seeing that machine open up, even though it was pretty old. It was just so special being up there.”

"It was so special being up there," Zakkir Rahman says of his time at the Manastash Ridge Observatory.

While Rahman was blown away by MRO, he was having an epiphany in dance as well. He took a graduate-level course on dance research methods, taught by dance professor Juliet McMains, and discovered he loved it. The course fed his curiosity about more philosophical questions in dance, including what dance means to us as humans. “That’s when I began to immerse myself in dance studies, reading articles by dance professors — not just from the Western community but from Asia as well — about what art is and how they see it,” Rahman says. “Spending hours reading this stuff is fun for me. I really enjoy it.”  

After completing the dance research methods course, Rahman pursued independent research with McMains as his adviser and his Malaysian heritage as inspiration. He examined how traditional performing artists in Malaysia approach preservation of their art form, and whether that preservation allows for innovation and novel work. This year he received a Mary Gates Research Scholarship to continue his dance research.  

Zakkir Rahman, right, performing with fellow dance students Louis Maliyam (Patsawee) and Estelle Thomas during a UW Symphony concert.

Rahman also continued to perform — and not just in dance concerts. Audiences attending School of Music concerts in 2019 may have seen Rahman on stage several times. The music connection started when percussion graduate student Emerson Wahl asked several dancers if they would perform in his final percussion recital. Rahman jumped at the chance. After that performance, doctoral conducting student Gabriela Garza invited dancers to choreograph and perform with the String Chamber Orchestra, which led to an opportunity to choreograph a dance for the UW Symphony’s performance of Debussy’s “Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune.” 

“For the UW Symphony, I wasn’t just acting as a choreographer but also as a dance scholar,” says Rahman, who was aware of Vaslav Nijinksy’s famous ballet choreographed to the same music. “I used that moment to research Nijinksy.” Rahman read Nijinky’s diaries and related books and journal articles. He then created an original dance for three dancers, using Nijinksy’s life as inspiration.  

As Rahman prepares to return to Malaysia post-graduation, he is no longer conflicted about whether to pursue a career in the arts or in science. Dance — more specifically dance scholarship — is his passion. He plans to attend graduate school in performance studies or a related arts field, but first he wants to spend a year immersed in the arts in Malaysia.

“I grew up thinking that STEM was the only thing I could do to have a successful and meaningful life,” says Rahman. “Now I think that we need STEM to survive, but we need the arts to live. The UW has given me a lot of tools and knowledge about the world and myself. It has given me the confidence to go into the world knowing what I want.”

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