Class of 2012: Tousignant Combines Interests in Sufi Dance, Poetry

May 9, 2012 — Maura Tousignant has been a world traveler since the beginning.

The fourth-year University of Virginia student is the daughter of a U.S. Foreign Service officer and was born in Belgium. Growing up, she spent four years in South Africa, and also lived in Norway and Benin.

But it was two trips to Turkey while at U.Va. that nurtured her interest in Sufi dance and poetry, art forms that became the object of both her academic interest and her creative pursuits. Tousignant will graduate May 20 from U.Va.'s College of Arts & Sciences with a double major in comparative literature and Middle Eastern studies, and a minor in dance.

"Maura is one of our very special students," said Farzaneh Milani, who chairs the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures. "Indeed, she has been on a fascinating personal journey – that of an American devoted to learning Persian, to immersing herself in Sufism, to traveling to Turkey twice to learn from Sufi masters, and to writing an interdisciplinary, comparative thesis."

Tousignant traces her interest in the Middle East to a class she took in high school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. It was her first in-depth exposure to Iran and Persian culture.

"I always remember my teacher emphasizing the culture's memories of past greatness, and especially its literary heritage," she said. "As someone who is very passionate about literature, I knew I wanted to look into it."

Tousignant didn't know exactly what she would study when she came to U.Va., but by the end of her second year knew she was drawn to Persian poetry and dance. She was interested in adapting an Iranian novella, "Women Without Men," into a stage production with dance, and contacted Iranian-American choreographer Banafsheh Sayyad. With the help of a grant from the University Undergraduate Award for Arts Projects, Tousignant traveled to Yalova, Turkey, during the summer between her second and third years to attend a dance workshop with Sayyad.

"I knew that she was hosting this retreat at a Sufi house, but I didn't really realize what that meant until I got there," Tousignant said. "For many of the participants, it was more of a spiritual retreat than a dance retreat."

Sufism, a mystical form of Islam, originated within the greater Persian culture, but is no longer openly practiced in modern Iran, Tousignant said. Even in Turkey, Sufism is technically banned, though it's tolerated by area authorities who embrace public exhibitions by whirling dervishes – who practice Sufi dance and ritual – as a tourist draw, she said.

Her visit to the Sufi house in Turkey was a healing experience of a sort, Tousignant said, and she decided to stay an extra night to participate in the first night of Sema, a 66-day Sufi ritual ceremony.

"It incorporates basically constant whirling and live music," she said. "Both are devotional forms of prayer. I fell in love with it after my first experience."

Upon her return to U.Va., she began her double major in comparative literature and Middle Eastern studies, and minored in dance.

"I was really fortunate, because U.Va. has excellent programs in all three," she said. She also began studying Persian.

The summer after her third year, Tousignant used a student grant from the College to return to Turkey to observe and participate in 33 days of Sema, staying in a Sufi temple, or dergah, in the town of Gokcedere.

Because the practice of Sufism is still technically banned, the Sufi temple is referred to locally as a "cultural center," but authorities still required residents there to register with them, she said.

During her stay, she made observations for her senior thesis, an analysis of Sufi poetry, verse and ritual.

"Maura's desire to immerse herself in another culture, in another language and another medium of expression, her capacity to build a bridge between Sufi poetry, Sufi rituals and dance, is truly admirable," Milani said.

For her part, Tousignant said she was thankful that U.Va. is supportive of independent research, and described Milani as "one of the most amazing intellectuals I've ever spoken with, but someone who is still so kind and supportive of students."

After graduation, she plans to study choreography with a Persian dance instructor and continue to develop her own poetry and dance.

She's also developing an interest in a new creative outlet. Tousignant recently worked on a film project inspired by an Iranian poem, "The Blind Owl." She choreographed the movements in the film as well as editing it and discovered that she's drawn to the medium.

There may be a doctoral program in her future, though Tousignant said she's unsure whether it would be in anthropology or some kind of interdisciplinary study.

– by Rob Seal