I sit alongside May Motawi as she perches herself on the low-ledged windowsill of a studio cradled within the maze-like inner workings of the National Theater at Jaber Al Ahmad Cultural Center. She firmly calls out feedback to the dancers before her, who are rehearsing their opening sequence for their (at the time) upcoming show, Rise Up and Make a Difference. “I want to see you in time with the count, Leya!” she directs with poise, pride and a sense of experience. This position of power has been earned.
Flashback to 1974, in Kuwait’s original Hilton Hotel, where the magic all began. Miss Andi Thomas, who would later be widely known by her marital name, Mrs. Hicks, directed the art of modern ballet to a small group of girls of different ages and ethnicities, eventually forming Kuwait’s first known dance school. At the tender age of nine, May was one of her first students.
“I was her first student!” May says fondly, as we sneak off mid-rehearsal to have a private heart-to-heart about the whirlwind environment she has immersed herself into for the last forty five years. “I was one of her first Head Girls. I was in her first production of CATS in the 80s, and I continued dancing and working with her throughout it all. In between graduating high school, obtaining a university and Master’s degree, starting my career as an English teacher, and even getting married and having babies.”
This may seem like a huge accomplishment to the outside eye, but anybody who knows about the sense of community the Kuwait School of Dance instills into you once you’ve been a part of it, wouldn’t be surprised by the sentiment. Because, since its founding in the 1970s, the nomadic institution has bred generation upon generation of ladies who would follow in May’s piqué footsteps.
Before the tribes of dancers who have pirouetted on KSD’s many stages, May paved the way towards a rite of passage that gave her the position as one of Mrs. Hicks’ dearest friends and most treasured alumni. In fact, her input and experience to the company dates back to when dancers accompanied Mrs. Hicks on international trips to further their education and experience. In my past as a KSD dancer, I always thought this was a hyperbole, a KSD legend that I had oft misheard from retold tales, but May was able to confirm.
“She took us everywhere,” May muses thoughtfully. “We accompanied her to the Minsk Ballet in Russia, the Ballet Rambert and Pineapple Dance Studios in London, and were exposed to so many different courses and classes over there.”
It goes without saying that such trips became few, and far between as the years had passed, but a lot had changed over the years in that respect. The days of May’s dance took up way more time and discipline.
“We weren’t as busy as kids are today in terms of practice and dedication. Back then, we had three-hour classes – not just rehearsals. We held classes during Ramadan, even if we were fasting. Today, kids have way more activities and interests and it feels like they’re doing a thousand and one things at once.”
Change isn’t always a bad thing, however. In fact, KSD under May’s direction has only highlighted the positive messages the school’s legacy has been enforcing over the past 40 years. For one, she has further minimized the focus of classical ballet in the school’s curriculum, giving it a more inclusive and empowering feel to students.
“Of course, classical ballet is important as a foundation, but pointe work, going in and out of the studio, gluing yourself to the barre, being obsessed with your body and weight – it’s all so bloody boring! It’s not what we’re about.”
Since her full-time takeover in 2015 after Mrs. Hicks’ departure back to the U.K., each performance done by May has been completely contemporary. 2016’s Arabian Nights, loosely based off of the famous Aladdin, had “a jazzy feel to it, really,” and of course, 2017’s Rise Up was completely contemporary. This ushered in their latest production, having recently taken place at the grand stage of JACC’s National Theater, as a derivative of the previous year’s performance [of the same name].
“We expanded Rise Up to give a message. Everything that happened in the world last year is still happening this year, and will still be happening next year. I think the message is strong, and I believe in it.”
That’s not to say that the performance is completely identical to the one that preceded it. In fact, KSD has been known to repeat its productions over the year, but does so with new interpretations, updated choreography and detailing that makes it another unforgettable show.
“It all depends on the company you have,” May says in response to my wonderment of why the school, for example, performed in Cats at least 5 times since its initial showing in the 80s. “The production we give at the end of the year is reflective on the dancers we’ve had, and the ideas we’ve had. But because we’re all about self-expression, each girl who comes into our studio offers something different while she expresses herself. No two dancers are ever the same, and with an ever-changing company, no two performances have ever been the same.”
One thing that can be agreed on, however, is the legacy the Kuwait School of Dance has held in Kuwait, and the impact its founding mother has had on most people who have met her, danced for her, or worked with her, May included.
“Andi Hicks,” she says with a warm smile, “has this thing about her that just makes you want to please her. Growing up, I never cared about the audience who would come watch us dance. I just wanted to please her. Everything I did on stage was always for her, and I’d look out to see the light shining on her face as she watched me. I was always terrified she’d wake up one morning and think I wasn’t as good as she thought I was, or as she used to say I was.”
May’s fear never came true. Instead, she lived to become an important member of the KSD family, and even inspired her teenage daughter Jailan, KSD’s current Head Girl, to follow in her footsteps since the age of 4.
“She’s even better than I was!” she says enthusiastically, “and I would like to think that she’ll continue to carry on the school’s legacy like I did.” But is Mrs. Hicks, KSD’s backbone, still involved in this legacy? “Oh, I know she’s watching over us,” she says wryly with a tired smile. “And I’m sure she has comments, and yes, she sees everything we do.”
Up Close and Personal Questionnaire
What do you most value in your friends?
Honesty and compassion.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
It does not exist, but contentment comes close.
What is your greatest fear?
Not being able to give.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Self-doubt and availability.
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Dishonesty, cruelty and apathy.
Which living person do you most admire?
The person who lives to give, works from the heart and does everything with passion.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
What is it that you most dislike?
People who chew or eat with their mouth open.
Which talent would you most like to have?
If you could have any job, what would it be?
I have it already- the dance school and being a mother.
What would you consider your greatest achievement?
Haven’t reached it yet and hope I never do because that is when you stop trying and creativity dies.
What is your most treasured possession?
What do we truly possess? Everything is transient- savor what you have for what is here today may not be here tomorrow.
What is your most marked characteristic?
Passion, and speaking without a filter.
Where would you most like to live?
By the beach.
What are your favorite words to live by?
Treat others how you like to be treated yourself.
The Kuwait School of Dance welcomes new students every September. Follow them on Instagram @kuwait_school_of_dance and on Facebook as Kuwait School of Dance. Studio photos taken by Muneera Alkhulaifi @i9ora on Instagram. Performance photos courtesy of Kuwait School of Dance.