Embracing the Unexpected

Iram Parveen Bilal (BS ’04) had a meticulous plan for her Watson Fellowship, at the time a $25,000 prize—now $30,000—that allows recipients to travel the world in pursuit of their “deepest interest.” Though she majored in environmental science and engineering, she had a deep passion for dance—an activity that her mother, with the weight of a conservative society behind her, thought was inappropriate as a career. Bilal was determined to use her Watson year—from August 2004 to August 2005—to provide an alternative reality to the taboos against dance.

Bilal had always been interested in the performing arts, Bollywood, and dance, even while at Caltech. She took all the film courses offered at the Institute and led various performance-oriented activities, from public speaking to dancing. Nonetheless, upon getting in with a full scholarship, she attended Caltech “with vigor,” she says, to appease her parents and partly to play “safe”—until her very first research project, where being stuck in a subbasement, redundantly stringing DNA strands onto semiconductor chips, made her realize that she was made for a career with more human to human interaction. She felt she was too impatient to have an impact on others through science—she needed a more interactive form of dialogue. So her senior year she applied to film schools, at the same time applying for a Watson, hoping to use the year to learn more about the world and to challenge the opinions of dance she had grown up with. “I grew up in a family where dance was frowned upon,” she says. “My mom thought dancing was just bad. She was very resolute about it, but I was also very determined to provide her with alternate explanations.” When she received the prestigious prize, Bilal made it a goal to uncover the depths of complexity behind the seemingly simple question, why do people dance?

She spent months preparing, proposing, and planning. The fellowship took her through India, Tanzania, and Ireland, studying the motives behind dance: worship, social and religious rebellion, tribal identity. She traveled through temples and dance villages in India, to Maasai villages and tribes in Tanzania, to Irish step dancer clubs in Ireland, interviewing everyone she met. In the end, she found that she still didn’t have a concrete answer for why people dance. What she did find, however, was that rhythm and a sense of body movement was natural and woven into the fabric of life.

“Dance is a very intrinsic, innate thing,” she says. “I set out with this mission of proving something, that dance wasn’t bad, but the more you dive into knowledge, the vaster the unknowns are. Whilst I can qualify by examples that dance is innate, I can’t possibly pass a judgment one way or another. That would be too immature and impatient.”

Through her travels, though, Bilal was able to arrive at an unanticipated conclusion—that things in life don’t always work out as planned. “The Watson wasn’t really about this project, it was about the experiences,” she says.

While she traveled and wrote and filmed and researched, Bilal spent much of her time alone. “I know myself very well, and a lot of that has to do with the amount of time I spent by myself,” she says. “The Watson is all about isolation-driven learning. And through that, I found that I’m a very free soul. I’m not rigid about ideology; I’m very liberal. And, I’m bloody persistent.”

In the years following her Watson adventure, the effects of Bilal’s time abroad reverberated throughout her life. Currently, she is working on a feature film about Islamophobia and dance.

“A lot of this project has to do with the same ponderings that were the propulsion for my Watson project,” she says of the movie, called Forbidden Steps, that she began writing in 2006 and has since put aside, resurrected, and rewritten many times. “There’s something very pure and personal with this film—the research I did during the Watson is definitely going into the emotional moments in the narrative of the film.”

Plus, seeing the world alone has given Bilal a solitary travel bug. “Every six months I try to take a trip by myself to settle back and reevaluate where I’m going with my life,” she says, “to try to live in the moment, whilst still reflecting.”

Photo: Courtesy of Dustin Snipes