Wednesday 24th April 2019

Transnational Tamils: How did Yamuna Sangarasivam get a chance to dance with Michael Jackson?

How did Yamuna Sangarasivam get a chance to dance with Michael Jackson in his iconic “Black or White” video — which premiered in 27 countries to an audience of 500 million?

Although she was a huge fan of the King of Pop, she never imagined that she would meet him, let alone dance a duet with him in one of his music videos! She heard of Jackson’s call for ethnic and modern dancers and auditioned — along with more than 3,000 others — because the amazing opportunity blended her passions for the anthropology of music and the anthropology of dance with her expertise in Odissi dance (classical dance tradition of Orissa, India).

When she got the call that she’d been chosen, she happily accepted, promised to immediately get an agent, calmly hung up, and “then I just screamed!”

Her duet with Jackson was shot on location during an approximately 14-hour session that shut down a Los Angeles expressway to film them dancing with stunt drivers whizzing through the foreground and background. This was 1991, when she was pursuing her master’s degree in the anthropology of dance at the University of California at Los Angeles. It was also the era of Los Angeles race riots and the brutal beating of Rodney King — an unarmed black man — by four white Los Angeles police officers. Jackson’s video was and continues to be a call to celebrate multiple cultures, while confronting and addressing the history of racism.

Sangarasivam has presented an analysis of the video at musicology and performance studies conferences, and continues to connect its themes, such as diversity, cultural integrity, and transnational formations, into her work today.

Yamuna Sangarasivam is a Professor of Anthropology in Sociology & Anthropology at Nazareth College in Rochester, New York. Teaching identity and culture hits close to home for Sangarasivam. Growing up in northern Sri Lanka, Yamuna studied western classical piano, Tamil Carnatic voice, and Bharatanatyam (Indian classical dance tradition of Tamil Nadu). With her father hailing from Singapore and her mother from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Sangarasivam learned three languages and lived in Sri Lanka and North Borneo before emigrating with her family to the United States when she was 9. This, Sangarasivam says, created within her “a very strong transnational identity while growing up in a multicultural context.”

Source: Nazareth College

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