Sitara Lones

2019 Ambassador Sitara Lones

Kathryn Harden : (00:04)

Hello, My name is Kathryn Harden, and I am with Dance Wire in Portland, Oregon. I’m here with ambassador Sitara Lones on October 1st, and we’re going to talk about her life career in dance as part of Dance Wire’s Artist Stories series. So welcome, Sitara, good morning. How are you doing?

Sitara Lones: (00:31)

I’m good.

Kathryn Harden : (00:31)

Good. Can you give me an overview of who Sitara is and what your current and titles are?

Sitara Lones: (00:43)

With regards to dance, I’m a performer, a teacher, a friend of dance, and we can talk about that later, and most importantly, a student.

Kathryn Harden : (01:02)

I love that, we’re always a student, everybody.

Sitara Lones: (01:05)

I’m also a nurse practitioner, and though it may seem like it’s a totally different career, I feel like all those titles help one another. 

Kathryn Harden : (01:18)

I’m sure there’s a lot of parallels with those too. Great. And when did you start dancing?

Sitara Lones: (01:25)

I believe since I could walk, but, I was born in Afghanistan and really have been dancing since I can remember and from all the stories everyone tells me. My mom really tried to find dance classes in Cairo in the seventies, which didn’t exist, formal dance training. When we fled Afghanistan and made it to The States, that’s when she enrolled me in the first ballet school that she could find in New York City. I was about six or seven.

Kathryn Harden : (02:05)

Do you remember dance in Afghanistan?

Sitara Lones: (02:08)

I have faint memories of basically dancing around a house, I mean, it was everything from the Bollywood songs and old movies and things that we grew up around, also just our own music. It’s a cultural thing too. Dance is a part of regular life at home, so it was in my blood. I loved it.

Kathryn Harden : (02:34)

That’s amazing. What were some of the biggest differences of training in New York that you noticed?

Sitara Lones: (02:42)

Difference from?

Kathryn Harden : (02:45)

From Afghanistan, and cultural differences that really stood out to you?

Sitara Lones: (02:50)

Well, like I said, I don’t really have distinct memories of dance as an isolated thing in Afghanistan. In fact, whether it was in ?? or in The States or in Europe or India, or all the places we’ve had to live, it’s just a part of normal life. So the fact that it was a formalized class with the teacher and you’re learning technique, that in itself was completely different.

Kathryn Harden : (03:20)

Amazing. What does dance mean to you and what has it meant to you in your life?

Sitara Lones: (03:32)

Oh my gosh, it’s everything. Really, I think it’s that old friend that I’ve always had as part of growing up. It’s been something that helps me get through hard times. It’s helped me become healthier in my body. It helps me express myself artistically, poetically, and it has helped me connect. But at different times in the last five, six years, it really has become a much bigger connection point to other people, and my community has served a lot of roles and benefits for me. But honestly, it’s just my imaginary friend that you have when you’re a kid it’s, you know. A few years ago I came to the realization that, other than maybe when I was unconscious after surgery or something, there has never been a day in my life where I did not dance at least once in my head. And so it really is the little Sitara who was two or three who was dancing in her head has never stopped. And so, it’s just the many, many, many gifts.

Kathryn Harden : (04:48)

It’s a part of you.

Sitara Lones: (04:50)


Kathryn Harden : (04:52)

Amazing. Were there any challenges that you faced in your pursuit of dance? Yes, I’m sure many, right?

Sitara Lones: (05:02)

Oh boy. There’s not one answer to that. I mean things that, both internally and externally, that vary, a wide spectrum of things that have directly affected my course and dance, my life course and the fact that I never really allowed myself to let it be more of a, what’s the right way of putting it, more of a clear and known path for me, as opposed to my best friend that’s always hanging out in the back. Externally, just my culture where I come from, you know, dance is taboo for performing, for performing and especially if you get paid. Dance in exchange for money or making a living is very taboo, which really is a big contrast to how dance is such an important part of our social culture.

There’s this very defined ways that dance is totally embraced, and very defined ways that it is actually considered shameful. So that in itself, and that still is a part of my life now. I’m in my mid forties, that is probably one of the, if not the top challenge, even. It’s not just about when I was young or growing up or being a young woman. I’m married, I have kids; doesn’t matter. It’s still a challenge, even within my family, my extended family. That’s always gonna be there, you just choose to move on and ignore it and have confidence in your role in life. Additionally, just being from another culture, and it’s not just about my skin color, but just coming from another culture and having a different perspective on dance.

Sitara Lones: (07:14)

When you come from that framework to especially ballet, ballet was my training from when I was about six, seven into high school. Because you’re young, and you don’t know the difference between your framework of life culturally and someone else’s, you know, but you do experience a feeling of isolation or feeling excluded, just because you don’t interpret dance in the same way. I don’t know how to put that, but also honestly, direct racism. I have experienced it and the ballet school was one of the only places in my life where I noticed it directly. Not at the time, but when I was older and I looked back and thought, why did I feel so alone? Why didn’t I get promoted in a certain way or get rewarded the way the eight other girls in my classes did all, and so things like that, it was very clear. But it made me stronger, and helps me to learn how to communicate my framework and how to communicate who I am, and that difference can actually be very empowering.

Kathryn Harden : (08:34)

So using that, those experiences to leverage your work now and propel you.

Sitara Lones: (08:41)

Yes. It’s my nature to try to understand why, and by doing that, it helps me understand people and then you can build bridges, and that sounds really cheesy. But build bridges within ourselves, between my feeling sad and sorry for myself and feeling empowered. I think understanding people and other people’s humanity and thinking that, well, I might have a role to play helping this person be a better person and be more informed by just being a better version of myself. That I think is pretty powerful.

Kathryn Harden : (09:25)

Wow. I love that. What resources, people and opportunities helped you the most, maybe anyone that you can think of that helped you through challenges or that just really stood out to you as a mentor in your life?

Sitara Lones: (09:47)

I wish I had more insight on my challenges when I was younger. And by younger, I mean, in my thirties too, I was young. Even a few years ago, I know I would’ve had more help in that. I just didn’t have enough insight, and maybe my hurt was still there that I didn’t reach out. There’s nothing I thought I could do about it, but there are some people that distinctly have been pivotal in my life. My family, for sure. Just always being supportive of my dance and enjoying my dance, you know? Especially my grandmother, my grandmother Safaya, also my daughter’s name, beautiful. She’s just a lover of art and poetry and beauty and design and fashion, and she’s an amazing tailor and all that.

Sitara Lones: (10:48)

The enjoyment, she is always taken of me dancing for her, like, wow, just hanging out at the house, dance for me. Okay. You put on a song and you dance and oh, wow. But she takes such pleasure in seeing that, you know, and I really believe that she was born in the wrong time. She really was, because she herself would’ve been an amazing artist. That, I think has always been, not just about people appreciating me in my dance, but really connecting to someone else’s joy. You know, you’re dancing and you’re seeing how much they love it. And it’s not just because they love you. But it’s because they love the dance, and that really taught me from a young age.

Then another person is my guru, my classical Indian dance guru ______ she is truly like a big sister. When people are a good example to you of not just being a dancer or a teacher, but just in life, just a person who has a lot of integrity. Even though I started that dance form relatively speaking late, when I was 18 or 19, she still was a role model for me, and still is. I love that even though I haven’t formally trained with her for many, many years now, I still feel compelled to go visit her and spend time with her, and learn wherever I can, and that’s what a good guru is.

Kathryn Harden : (12:29)

It goes beyond dance, but who they are as a person.

Sitara Lones: (12:33)

The way they value dance, and the way she values dance and her students and the community she’s created is something that inspires me. There are lots of wonderful people in Portland since I’ve been here, because my dance life really was reborn after we moved here. Just where I was in life and my kids being older and, just a shift. I was able to make space for dance mentally, emotionally. I was able to permit myself to allow dance in my life in a more obvious public way. By doing that, it has connected me to amazing people, like meeting you again, here. But, Elise Morris from Jambala really was pivotal for me.

My first year back living here, I was really craving performing and I hadn’t performed in 15 years. I just, off the couch, no rehearsing, just did an old piece of pet theft dance that I learned when I was young and performed it. I watch it and I cringe because I see all the technical things. But the fact that what she created with Jambala and, it’s now I want to say nine years, but I hope I’m right. Eight or nine years into it. It is just creating that opportunity for people to both dance, but also experience dance with people that I called the dance curious, to go and check something out without it being a whole lot of effort, but then also a lot of collaboration and connection and creating space for people that normally don’t have opportunities in the dance world to really show their stuff.

Then the workshops, and just the general exchange of energy that happens is beautiful. I just got involved every year and then a couple years into it, I reached out to her and said, what can I do to support your mission? Because, it’s just beautiful. It has been really satisfying to be a volunteer grant coordinator for Jambala in these past few years. These are the things that help me connect with dance on more levels than just as a teacher or a performer. But actually to be a friend of dance. And a champion of it.

Kathryn Harden : (15:19)

Ingrained in your life.

Sitara Lones: (15:19)

And at least has been pivotal for that for me.

Kathryn Harden : (15:22)

That’s wonderful. I’m glad that Portland has been giving that sense of community and uplifting for you. That’s really special. Love it. What stage do you feel you are in at your career? I know you had mentioned nurse practitioner earlier and, with that, with all these different moving parts of your life, how do you want to move forward? And what goals do you have with those?

Sitara Lones: (15:51)

Because dance has been so siloed most of my life, I feel like I did myself a disservice by not thinking of all the skills that I have outside of dance. Like, being a nurse practitioner is not my first career. This was a change of career that I started five years ago. I’ve been in non-profit work, international work, and far more.

Kathryn Harden : (16:22)

Many hats.

Sitara Lones: (16:23)

Yes. And, have different skills. Being part of it is understanding your own self-worth. Because all those things were so siloed, and even my skills as a parent, all those things were so siloed, that I didn’t get to experience the full breadth of having dance as a career. Like, what that would mean for me personally, because I knew when I was in my early twenties, I was asked to go to India to train. I said, no, because in my mind, I could never take a break from college to go, why would I leave college? It was just very naive. I didn’t quite have the social family support to do something like that. 

But for me, that was a really pivotal time, that’s when I really chose not to make dance training on like basically a path for myself. But I realized also recently in the last several years that that wouldn’t have satisfied me at the time. I mean, even if that’s where I was now, I wouldn’t have been satisfied. Dance for me has much more meaning as an expressive movement, as a way to bring communities together, as a way to promote healing, not just as an art form. But an actual element of wellness and social connection, family connection, education. It has so many other roles that movement can play. That is where I’m at now, where I have all these interests as a dance student. I have trained Brazilian dance for years, and I love it. And it grabs my heart.

Sitara Lones: (18:20)

It’s classical Indian _____ dance and Brazilian dancing, are my twins, soulmates, you know? I have a lot of intellectual curiosity about dance as well about its role, wellness is the only way I can think of it. And how to promote that. When I started performing and getting connected here in Portland, I created Dance Inspired as a goal just as this placeholder, because I knew at some point I would probably want to create some kind of organization that addresses that, but I did want to take my time and get to know the community and what was already here and volunteer instead of recreating the wheel. Why not support the people that are doing the things that fit my mission, like supporting Jambala, or I’m very inspired by ERO who, owns and runs this fire project and trying to support that when I could.

Kathryn Harden : (19:23)

I love that.

Sitara Lones: (19:24)

You have to get to know what’s out there already. Not just for business purposes, in terms of not wasting resources and things like that, but there’s breath and life out there already in the dance community and I want to be a part of that, and not feel like I’m the only one breathing that mission. I hope to, in the next one to two years, have really honed and developed an organizational purpose. My mission hasn’t changed, which is to make dance more accessible to the community. That’s very broad, not accessible as in just more classes, or more stage performances that are cheaper, or more opportunities to perform, but really accessible like deep in their heart. There’s lots of people that do a lot of things that fit parts of that mission, but I’m starting to see where now that I’ve gotten to know these wonderful people where I can contribute. And so I’m really excited about that. Wow.

Kathryn Harden : (20:29)

You are incredible! I’m so moved! 

Sitara Lones: (20:35)

I’m trying to be calm right now. Because I know you’re recording me, but I’m getting all excited.

Kathryn Harden : (20:39)

No, I’m excited for you. It’s really inspiring, because you’re right. There’s a lot of reinventing or trying to reinvent the wheel, but there is so much already in place, so much opportunity. And like you said, breath that I think if people really took the time to research and dig deeper, that they would really understand that, myself included.

Sitara Lones: (21:04)

That’s the thing, I think you have to give. You have to put your time and money and effort where your mouth is. I try to hold myself to that. Whatever comes in front of me, but I can’t be everywhere and do everything. Your job, I have a life, I have family, and obligations. But the more I’m connected with different people in the community, the more opportunities. And I see them as opportunities that I have to do the things that I say I want to see. I want more of those, and it’s just a matter of time.

Kathryn Harden : (21:43)

That’s great. It sounds like the path that you took has definitely shaped your framework in that sense, had you not had those experiences? Well with that, do you have an artist statement or a long term vision that you hope to accomplish through your work, which you’ve kind of already hit on already, but with the organization that you’re creating, in the research and development process, what do you hope the overall outcome is besides connecting with people on a deeper level with dance and making it more accessible?

Sitara Lones: (22:36)

When you set out to do something, and I’ve noticed this in different fields I’ve worked in and personal life, you’ll one day decide, I want X, and then you go about the business of figuring out how X can happen. Why X hasn’t happened. Then you find that the process of addressing those things, those gaps in itself is a service and a benefit. And X is just sort of the cherry on top. For me, one of the things that I looked at when I was thinking about, okay, dance, accessible community, people, homes, families, all those words, all those connection points. 

A lot of it for me comes back to when I look back around the community, and I’ve been so grateful and blessed to make friends and network and get to know people in different pockets of the dance community from the Indian community over on the west side to the Middle Eastern dance community to the ballet contemporary community to the Brazilian, there’s so many, but what I’ve also noticed is that they are also siloed. There is a lot of crossover of people and some ideas, but I think there’s a lot more collaborative spirit that we need. And part of thinking about making dance more accessible to the general community outside of dance is about bringing people within the dance community closer together to be willing to work together as opposed to compete. Resources are rare and a lot of times in the nonprofit world we operate from a place of poverty where you have to hold on to everything, every opportunity you have, and it’s understandable. And that happens in every industry, honestly, but sometimes if you let go of that as a priority, once in a while, not all the time and think about ways you can give outside of the work that you yourself are doing. You end up benefiting your work a lot more. 

I’m hoping to inspire that by making myself available and acting as a bridge through the organizational projects that I have in mind. That would be great being a dance ambassador for Dance Wire has been great in that way too, connecting with not just other ambassadors, but getting to know that through the directory and the members of Dance Wire, all that is out there. And how little people know about each other. Had I known about Dance Wire when I came here, that would’ve also been a very pivotal thing for me. Absolutely. I didn’t learn about it until just recently. It’s an amazing resource.

Kathryn Harden : (25:50)

Yes, and sounds like it came in at a good time.

Sitara Lones: (25:53)


Kathryn Harden : (25:54)

That’s awesome. Something I wanted to touch on with that, I love your mission. I love what you’re trying to do. When I first came here too, I noticed there was a lot of almost segregation in that people stayed in their pockets. You’ve been here for about six years, you said. You’ve gotten to see the changes you’ve made these connections over time and it sounds like you’re really starting to impact these different pockets, which I love. So I support you.

Sitara Lones: (26:44)

Thank you.

Kathryn Harden : (26:44)

I wish you the best. Well, from, from your experience of being here for six years, how would you describe the current dance scene in Portland? Things that you think Portland is pretty successful at, or driving at, and then maybe some things that we could be doing better as a community, and you kind of touched on this.

Sitara Lones: (27:11)

Yes, we touched on it. I’m psychic. I answered these questions before you even ask them, no. Coming from the Bay Area, which is a Mecca for dance and art and music, especially styles outside those normally found in the U.S., Indian dance and everything. It’s amazing. But it can also be quite intimidating for a lot of people because you have the best of the best.

Kathryn Harden : (27:43)

You’re competing.

Sitara Lones: (27:44)

I love that Portland has a robust dance community and that there’s a lot of dance. I was so pleasantly surprised to see all the different varieties of dance styles that I have come across in Portland. At the same time you can, if you wanted to and dance was really core in your life, you could be an amazing medium fish in a medium town, you know. Medium fish and a medium pond, it is just the right balance, in my opinion. That said though, that cross collaboration is where I think there is a gap and Portland in general, there’s a lot of curiosity. That’s why I feel welcomed. In fact, I have never performed Afghan dance, Avani dance or Persian dance, which is stuff I grew up with and I’ve done all my life. I performed, in terms of informally part of, you know, gobs of people just as a social thing. But it wasn’t until Portland that I felt inspired to really make it into a performance piece for me, or a way of performing, it never occurred to me to get on stage and perform off money dance, you know? I think that’s what Portland inspires, which is great, that curiosity that people have, but there’s a good step in between that curiosity and creating the opportunities for people to really understand and learn and get to know and embrace different dance forms, and not just dance forms, but people’s own journey to becoming a dancer.

Kathryn Harden : (29:43)

We all have our paths.

Sitara Lones: (29:45)

One of the most precious things that I’ve learned from ?? dance, it’s a dance form that you take into old age our living legend, the torch bearer of Katak dance in the world,_____, he’s 81, I want to say, and performing. And that is the essence of these dance forms, unlike ballet, we’re so used to the idea that if your physical body can’t perform certain things, then the dance has less value. Whereas culturally, a lot of places in the world don’t see it that way. But in Portland, we could use that knowledge, we could use that exposure. It’s not just a philosophy, but it is actually a standing belief and understanding that dance takes you through the courses of your life.

Kathryn Harden : (30:43)

It’s a lifestyle.

Sitara Lones: (30:44)

And that there’s more meaning to dance and, the value from the deep spiritual wisdom and deep, deep technical knowledge that comes from having done this dance for 80 years makes people line up, pay tickets, sell out shows, whereas here would not do that. Because no matter how much people might appreciate it, it does not contain the same value as a dance form. So those are cultural differences. And I would love, if I go back to school again for the third time, which my husband would love, I’m sure, I would go and study this, and research this, these concepts of what makes dance a valuable art form and commodity in a community and in society. Portland could use that, a shift in that thinking.

Kathryn Harden : (31:45)

I think America could use it.

Sitara Lones: (31:46)

Yes. America could use it. But Portland being a wonderful medium pond is a good place to start those things.

Kathryn Harden : (31:54)

With the open mindedness, the platforms, to be able to do those things.

Sitara Lones: (31:57)

Hence my dance inspires. 

Kathryn Harden : (32:01)

Hopefully you are at the forefront of that. I support it. I’ll be the first to sign up. No, that’s really great. I think as Americans, it’s easy to value something based on the time and quality of it, but it goes deeper than that.

Sitara Lones: (32:22)


Kathryn Harden : (32:23)

Last but not least, if you were to paint an ideal, realistic picture of dance in ten years in general, and in Portland, what would that look like for you? Which again, you are psychic.

Sitara Lones: (32:45)

It would be a mural that would span four city blocks to have all these different stories. I couldn’t pick one picture. This picture would be this massive, beautiful, abstract, multifaceted multi-layered image. It’s hard for me to pinpoint one particular thing. If I were to just think about some of the programs that I have in mind for my dance inspired mission. One thing that I really would love to see is the quote-unquote lay person, who’s not a dancer and who does not normally pursue dance classes to develop a sense in our community of dance just being a normal part of life. I know that might sound abstract or farfetched. Just like music, not everybody’s a fan of music and not everybody goes out of their way to go buy music or listen to music or play music. 

But seeing, hearing music out in public does not surprise them. Seeing someone play music in their office while they’re working does not surprise them. When I’m in clinic and I start to dance, which I do for whatever reason, people that know me, they’re no longer surprised, but I would love it that if you are sitting and having dinner with your friends and somebody puts on music and just starts dancing, which is the way it’s in my culture, I would love that to be more normal. Then there are so many ways to paint that picture. But I think it does start with the dance community and how we choose to share dance in the community. And brings us back to the accessibility of it.

Kathryn Harden : (34:39)

Wow, you are so insightful. I’m going to keep talking to you after this interview. Great answers. I think that concludes everything. Is there anything that you want to add, or you feel like you want the public to know, Dance Wire?

Sitara Lones: (34:59)

I think we’re good for now. Just stay tuned to the Facebooks and the Instagrams and the hulabaloos for promotions for classes coming up.

Kathryn Harden : (35:15)

Thank you so much.