Bringing Islamic culture to BYU

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Middle Eastern studies classes have attracted BYU students seeking to understand the culture of the region and the beliefs of Islam from a trusted source. This winter semester, a few students will have the chance to learn about the dance and music of the Islamic world in a class that gives context and allows for reflection.

“This class looks at the basic tenets of Islam and from there we observe how the arts are practiced, created and enjoyed by people in primarily Muslim communities, both in the Middle East and in communities outside the Middle East,” said Katherine St. John, class instructor.

Kathryn Mecham, a dance major-anthropology minor, took the class winter semester 2011. She said the class broadened her sensitivity in teaching Western dance to Islamic students and it increased her interest in music with aspects of traditional Middle Eastern music.

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BYU is offering a class on the dance and music of Islam to better connect students to the Middle East.
“I’m very interested in traditional culture and dance, so I thought it would be a really fun experience to know what their culture is like as well as their music and dance,” Mecham said. “It was really fun because we were able to watch video clips and give presentations on a dance style of our choice within the Islamic genre.”

St. John said she wants to help create a more complete understanding for students exploring Middle Eastern culture, which will increase their appreciation of the arts in Middle Eastern countries. She presents the arts in a historical context to show which events have altered music and dance in the Middle East.

There will not be any actual dancing done by the students, but there will be considerable time devoted to regional instruments and dance observation.

“Students will be introduced to a variety of instruments and rhythms that are native to particular areas (Arab, Persian, Turkish and others),” she said. “They will also observe dance and music events, private, public, staged and social, as found in this region of the world.”

St. John also said she believes the class opens up lines of communication and increases respect for other cultures.

“I believe that music and dance may not be a ‘universal language,’ as some have said, but music and dance aid in understanding social practices and help us to respect the aesthetics of one another, which in turn opens the way for respecting some religious practices as well,” she said. “This class is fun, engaging and pertinent to any study of world cultures.”

Students who took the class found that one of the subjects encountered is the multifaceted nature of Islamic views toward dance.

“It was interesting to me because … when you think of Islam you think of one church,” said Myrna Layton, a BYU graduate who works in the music library and took the class Winter semester 2011. “But, just like there is in Christianity, there’s a big variety in Islam. Some Islamic sects would be really against dancing, whereas for others it’s just a part of their culture and it’s part of what they do.”

The class runs Tuesdays from 5-7:30 p.m. and is listed in MyMap under the MESA heading, with the class code 467R Section 2.

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