Imana knows the power of words and therefore uses very few. Yet our conversation spanned five hours, filled eight pages of notes, and left me with years of material to consider.
Quiet by nature, she remembers her grandmother complimenting her writing when she was in middle school, and what it meant to her because of her grandmother's usual reticence. "That means a lot coming from her," Imana's mother said at the time. It was then that Imana decided to harness her inclination toward silence and use it to her benefit. Now, when she speaks, it has weight. Her compliments mean something to their recipients, her employees at our student newspaper listen attentively when she does feel pressed to talk, and she seems preternaturally wise as the ratio of good ideas to bad is one-nothing.
However, it's a disservice to say the aura that surrounds her ("I feel the need to impress her and I don't know why") comes from the power she exercises over dead air alone.
Rather, Imana's reputation as an unusually smart, thoughtful person is based on her innumerable talents and the sheer effort she puts into pursuing her numerous passions. Talking at peak heat on Pride Day, first over crepes, and then just water and notebooks, we touched on major social issues, matters of identity, and the difference between works of personal catharsis and the creation of an artwork that holds meaning for a larger audience.
Imana has a large personal bubble. It's clear from her posture, expression, and the sticker on her laptop that warns "Stop Telling Women to Smile," that she's not exactly touchy-feely. She's certainly not one for hugging in the spaces between hellos and goodbyes (though her greetings are warm), or being tugged along by the wrist (not least because she usually sets out for adventure solo).
But as Dance Church, a Sunday morning movement language dance party, was winding down, we both found ourselves in a room of two dozen sweaty strangers prancing and gliding toward the center of the floor to partake in a giant group hug, smiles on our faces. It's what Imana calls the "dance bubble." Though she usually sits at the center of an invisible hamster wheel, the dance bubble is skin tight.
Never having danced outside of a down and dirty house party, I wanted to attribute the feeling to the Elle Woods theory that endorphins really do make you happy. Imana, however, knows the sense of physical certainty and safety dance can create quite well. According to her, it is also a result of the safe space of the studio, where a boob grab isn't groping but a silly mistake or a reasoned part of a choreography with a larger message. It also has to do with the common ground so easily found between people who are engaged in the creative process.
And Imana is engaged in the creative process. She is equal parts journalist and dancer, pursuing each career with zeal and achieving great feats in both fields. In her free time (when there's free time), she writes poetry and essays, has a knack for photography, produces podcasts and radio pieces, plays the piano, and sings. She somehow never seems flustered and is constant in her generosity and thoughtfulness despite having more obligations than most people I know.
We first met in the crumbling and chaotic world of journalism. From the moment I began work at The Daily, our school's student newspaper, I recognized Imana as one of the most talented reporters on staff. She was someone of whom everyone asked, "Why are you still here?" not because we didn't want her around, but because it was obvious to us that she could be writing for The Seattle Times, or any number of other, better publications.
Yet she chose to stick around our grimy newsroom and make a paper with us and from this we were able to watch her in action. We saw how she asked questions and to whom she chose to direct those questions. We watched her craft her stories and communicate her ideas crisply. We heard about her exploits in Jordan and Indonesia and learned from her interest in discovering new stories and immersing herself in the diverse communities that nurtured these new narratives.
Just twenty years old, she has been paid for her reporting for almost four years, in cities around the globe, and it's not the only work she does at a professional level.
Some people are single-mindedly focused on journalism and achieve half what she has. She excels in the world of journalism and maintains a whole nother world: the world of dance.
Imana began dancing when she was in elementary school, mostly because she needed an outlet for her excess energy. She stopped in middle school, and did sports, channeling her restlessness into soccer and basketball. As a teenager, she returned to dance as a way to deal with angst, not only allowing her a space for physical activity, but for expression. At UW, she double-majored in communications and dance, working through a modern-centric curriculum that incorporated opportunities for performance, with the chance to create and arrange pieces, and study other aspects of the form, like dance anatomy.
Her technical ability is obvious, from her improvisation in Dance Church to her labored performances on the stage. But her keen choreographic mind is perhaps even more impressive, and often goes unconsidered.
A self-proclaimed "secular Muslim" woman and "whitewashed" Indonesian-American, her work often deals with matters of identity, whether her own or others. She is concerned with the diversity of representation in dance, especially in the largely homogenous Seattle area. For example, she wrote a review of a local company The YC's original piece "Splurge Land" that questioned whether the hedonism exhibited on stage was a successful satire (raising questions for the audience, exposing discrepancies) or simply a misguided regurgitation of the culture it proposed to critique.
In her choreography, Imana aims to be different, more deliberate. She often starts with a universal abstract concept, like loneliness, and works outward, looking for others experiences to weave together with her own and create something to which any viewer can relate. She has also created a piece on her time in Jordan, reflecting on the sociopolitical issues in the Middle East, that draws from the work of Czech author Milan Kundera, as well as friends, family members, and reports from the popular press.
All of her work has an important message that she works tirelessly to make clear, yet she understands that not everyone will interpret her work as she would hope. Intent does not always mirror impact. As an artist, she doesn't find this to be a problem, she said, as long as the audience feels something as a result of her efforts. However, she believes in social responsibility, and the need for artists to be open and explicit about the meaning behind any of their work when it brushes up against controversial topics.
This core belief in the importance of meaning in each piece, and the ability to communicate that meaning to any- and everyone, is perhaps where the overlap between Imana and the journalist and Imana the artist is most clear.
For her, the two disciplines, journalism and dance, complete each other. Art can isolate a person from the world, from reality. Journalism threatens to envelop people in some of the darkest realities of human life, plucking out their eye for beauty. Engaging in both simultaneously can help a person to say sane. It can also help them to create socially-conscious, but restorative, choreography, as well as a creative, but hard-hitting, article.
Further, dance says what words can't. If there is something she doesn't want to articulate, or doesn't know how to articulate yet, Imana can turn it into movement. Sometimes that movement serves as a release, freeing her from the need to verbally express the feelings. Other times, it is serves a tool, helping her to process what she is experiencing so that she can turn it into words both written and spoken.
Between writing and performing, not to mention her smaller projects and hidden hobbies, Imana is able to explore the depth and breadth of her individual experiences, as well as the broader human experience, in a way many of us could only hope for. Doing so allows her to walk through the world with the confidence of someone who knows themselves, and knows how to relate to other people.
As Imana and I split ways, her sauntering off to another dance rehearsal, and me hobbling up the steps of the bus with tendons in my calf muscles I didn't even know existed raging like a wildfire under my epidermis, I made a quick mental note of my new homework assignments:
First, I need to speak less.
And second, I need to listen to Imana more.