November 15, 2022
Volume 4 Issue 1
By: Carson Mason
For Umi IMAN, dance is more than movement. It’s liberation.
IMAN was raised in an Islamic household in south Minneapolis and is of Black American, Caribbean and Tsalagi Native American descent. A relative newcomer to Atlanta’s dance scene, she is delving deeper into her ancestral heritage while building an international reputation.
Umi IMAN and her twin sister Khadijah Siferllah are no strangers to the struggles of growing up with intersectionality, meaning they were affected by a number of disadvantages and forms of discrimination due to their ethnic background. When their mother, who was also a dancer, sought to get them more classical dance training, they were turned away.
“Every studio we went to turned us away, either because we were Muslim and they did not want to accommodate our particular values or style of dress,” says IMAN, “or because we were dark-skinned or Black or all the other different intersections.” When studios denied the twins access to Western theatrical dance training, they began to self-teach, study and archive dances of the African diaspora, a practice they would continue for more than 20 years. “I really had to reach deep into, ‘Okay, what is the why?,’” says IMAN. “‘Why does my family dance when we get together? Why does dance feel so good?’ They’re all very foundational questions, but it led me to the point of, ‘Because it liberates me.’”
To further explore her indigeneity, IMAN moved from Minneapolis to Atlanta in the summer of 2019. She is now based in Mvskoke Creek and Tsalagi lands in Atlanta.
“I knew that my journey of understanding who I am and that identity came with moving where my people are originally from,” says IMAN. “I just wanted to get to the heart of the practices, the languages and the banter, so that brought me to Atlanta.”
The twin sisters co-created Al Taw’am, a multimodal dance duo that facilitates healing and curates indigenous arts. Creating Al Taw’am, which means “The Twins” in Arabic, has opened the door to collaborations with global communities around Atlanta and Minneapolis including Core Dance Atlanta, I.M.A.N in Atlanta and Chicago and SpringBoard for the Arts in Minnesota. The duo has also performed at several major cultural events including The Nobel Peace Prize Forum, Facing Race 2012, World of Dance 2015 and many more.
To this day, IMAN and her sister use movement as a tool for healing and understanding while practicing various styles of dance. One of those styles is jingle dress. Originating from the Anishinaabe tribe, jingle dress came to prominence during the 1920s for its healing powers. Since then, it is performed at powwows and is described as a “beautiful” dance by many.
“Sometimes I use quite literally healing dances like jingle dress, but other times it’s getting into hip-hop and house,” says IMAN, “or speaking about how medicine comes from the earth through the feet up to the body, and how dancing is a channel to get that energy moving throughout our bodies.”
As for their most recent endeavor, the sisters launched Sequoia Ascension last year. Their nonprofit organization seeks to bridge together Atlanta’s Black and Native communities and to cultivate health and wellbeing by way of dance and movement. Sequoia Ascension’s Artist In Residence Program (AIR) awards artist & cultural bearers one year of completely subsidized housing and resources for artistic development. Applications for AIR are due November 25. For those in the Atlanta dance community interested in getting involved, check out their website.
Carson Mason is an Atlanta-based dancer who grew up dancing competitively in Greensboro, NC before studying contemporary dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Carson has lived in Atlanta for three years and works full-time as a brand social media manager. She is also a substitute dance instructor at Peachtree Dance in Buckhead. A lover of writing and communications, Carson has bylines in several editorial publications including MLB.com, NBA.com, The State Newspaper, The Charlotte Observer, The Lansing State Journal, The Macon Telegraph and more. Carson is thrilled to be more involved in supporting dance in Atlanta as a volunteer on the DanceATL writing committee.