NADIAH IDRIS: The Real Me
Nadiah Idris communicates with more than words, a 28 year-old dancer of South African-Malaysian heritage, Nadiah discovered her African roots through movement and hasn’t stopped learning since. Born in Australia, Idris moved to Malaysia at the age of six and explored movement through traditional Balinese dance. In 2008 Idris heard Dancehall music for the first time and describes that interaction as a moment that captured her. The Pin was captured by Nadiah’s vibrance and honesty and after almost an hour of conversation we luckily remembered to hit record.
THE PIN. Where did you grow up?
NADIAH IDRIS. I was born here in Melbourne and then, when I was six years old the family moved to Malaysia. I spent ten years in Kuala Lumpur and when I was barely 18, I moved to Brisbane. This is where I acquired my bachelor’s degree double majoring in Marine Biology and Ecology. I lived in Brisbane for seven yearsand now have been living in Melbourne for the last four.
What was your childhood like?
N. The first six years of being in Melbourne are my fondest memories and to this day I still think they are. I felt like no one really judged me for who I was but I guess maybe that’s got to do with the fact that as kids we are not prejudiced (yet) because we are still too young for the system to corrupt our minds.
When I was six we moved to Malaysia my dad really wanted us to adopt the Malaysian culture. He wanted us to speak the language, eat the food, wear the clothes and live like a typical Malaysian. Me and my brother were thrown into a government school so I had to learn the language pretty quick. This time was really, really challenging, being different was an advantage on some days then other days it wasn’t because everyone was like, ‘no, you’re the weird one, you look different’.
In Malaysia there is a word that they call foreign/caucasian people and that is mat salleh. I would always be considered the mat salleh. They would refer to me as that like it was my name. Can you imagine if you’re walking down the street and someone's like, ‘Yo, N*gger, N*gger, N*gger the whole time? What the hell?!’. I wouldn’t say there was any moment where it was easy living in such an environment.
How much is movement and dance a part of your identity?
N. It’s a really massive part of my life. I can’t even say part of my life, it is who I am, the essence of my being and something that has really helped me get through the struggles I was going through when I was growing up.
Now that I am older dance has grown to be so much deeper than just a passion. Ithas become my meditation and my constant healing. It’s my way to relay messages of happiness, sadness, frustration, all the emotions you can think of, especially when I can’t put it into words. What I tell people a lot of the time is that you can get to know me on a verbal level but if you truly want to know what I’m all about, feel my vibe at that moment or catch a glimpse of my story, just watch me freestyle and that’s Nadiah. That’s my pure soul right there.
Do you think that the two cultures you descend from have an impact on the way that you move and the way you see yourself?
N. Big time. Growing up the first styles of dance that I learnt were Balinese dance and traditional Malay folk dance from seven or eight years-old till eleven years-old. Throughout my high school years was when I started exploring my own movement and expression (most of the time in my bedroom) which was in response to dealing with my struggles. Only when I was seventeen, did I decide to pursue proper dance training in technical styles like Ballet, Jazz, Tap and all that before moving to Brisbane.
What's really interesting is the 360 roundabout way that I took to get to my roots through dance. What sparked that was Dancehall - a dance style born in the ghettos of Kingston, Jamaica. In 2008, a friend of mine came from New Zealand and started teaching Dancehall at the studio where I was taking regular classes. I had no idea what Dancehall was but what I did know was that the music...it just captured me. Have you seen that animated movie, he’s a squid and he’s like ‘oh my god, what’s happening to my body?!’.
N. Yeah, yeah! That’s exactly what I felt like inside when I heard Dancehall for the first time. At that point I’d never learnt any form of African dance but I started to move to the music the way my body wanted to move naturally and it wasn’t until someone pointed it out that I realised my moves were very organically African. This sparked my curiosity and made me want to learn more about Dancehall. The yearning to better understand and discover more about my South African roots grew simultaneously and that’s what drove my passion into dances from the African Diaspora.
The mishmash of these styles, my background in various other dance styles and the way I interpret music is what’s given birth to my personal expression and movement I now call RAGGA FUZION and AFRO FUZION. This is my identity.
What are some advantages and disadvantages of belonging to multiple cultures?
N. On the surface, when I want to paint a pretty picture, it’s great to be South African - Malaysian because in an ideal world, I would fit right in with both the African and Malaysian communities...however, the reality is I do but I also don’t. I find it really funny how when I’m in a non-African community most people are like ‘oh, this is my token black African friend’ then I feel all proud and that (I’m proud regardless) but when I go proudly into an African community, especially ones that are darker than me, I feel they give me this look of ‘you don’t really fit in here because you’re not really African because you’re lighter than us’. I find that aconstant struggle. I always feel like I have to prove myself and the only way I know how is through dance.
The advantages of being mixed is I feel free. I don’t have any kind of label, I feel like Ican belong anywhere I want to belong. I feel liberated but within that freedom there is such a weird contradiction because there are barriers to it. I can be free but as soon as I want to associate with a culture I am not enough. I’m this person in the middle. I’m everything and nothing at the same time. It has its benefits but it also has its challenges. I don’t think the challenges will ever diminish but I do feel that there will be more people being able to relate to it. I think when that day comes, that’s when people like you and me will belong to our own community where we get the struggle and can support each other through the tough times but right now we’re still a minority...
You explain it to Australian’s who are not mixed and they think they get it but they just can’t it. They’ll never get what it feels like to be us I mean how’s that typical question ‘oh, you’re Australian, but where are you really from?’. For that reason, I’ve never comfortably claimed to be “Australian”.
Generally speaking, people like labels to feel a sense of belonging, perhaps an idea the system of Babylon has implanted in our minds so there are moments where I am forced to abide by these invisible rules. However, the truth is I really only see myself as a global baby, a child of the universe so very blessed to hold a document that gives me permission to live in a stable comfortable safe country i.e. Australia...but I am dreaming of a place of peace, harmony and solace where people see past my skin and cultural background. Music and dance have shown me that they are really the only things closest to that right now.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about the skin you’re in, what would it be?
NADIAH IDRIS. Woah, that’s a really tough one. If it wasn’t a piece of advicebut it was something like an ability for people to be skin colourblind, that would be great. People would not be able to pass judgement or be prejudice simply by looking at you. The world would be such a different place so different I can’t even begin to imagine it...
- This interview have been edited and condensed
Photo credit: Gianna Rizzo