The Palestinian-Israeli conflict gets more than its share of attention. And yet, listening more attentively to the narrative of the dabke, Palestine’s national dance, gives a new angle to resistance and struggle.
By Dana Mills
In July 2015 Palestinian activists in London took to the streets to hold a Day of Rage to commemorate the bloodiest day of the Protective Edge, Israel’s 2014 war in Gaza one year earlier. In addition to signs and posters, chants and cries, protesters stormed the British Museum and Barclays Bank in London with a dabke flash mob. In 2012, students at Arizona State University commemorating the Deir Yasin massacre in 1948 also danced dabke.
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The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has had more than its share of coverage. Dance history, however, is not always the first place one goes to find political stories. And yet, listening more attentively to the narrative of the dabke, Palestine’s national dance, gives a new angle to resistance and struggle.
The dabke is a participatory dance in which people form a line that can be expanded as new dancers join the moving chorus. The movements of the line are led by a lawith, a dancer who leads and initiates changes in the line formation, and who is followed by a chorus. The dance involves movements up and down in space, and includes rhythmic stomping, clapping, and changes of pace. There are breaks created by individual dancers performing solos and the group response to them.
But dabke is much more than just a dance. It is a form of storytelling through movement, and for many, a way to showcase solidarity and cooperation, cultural resistance, and the strength of the human spirit.
The use of dabke is hardly new. During the British Mandate, Palestinians danced the dabke as a statement of resistance to Jewish immigration to Palestine before 1948 (there is evidence of performance of the dabke in 1923 in the village of Nebi Musa during a protest against the arrival in large numbers of Jews), as well as the growing international support for Zionism. After 1948 dabke dances were choreographed into stories of the villages destroyed in the Nakba. Like many other elements in Palestinian life, dance has always been connected to politics.
After 1967, dabke became even more politicized. Before the 1967 War, it was mainly performed as a traditionally rural dance; after the war, dabke began crossing class divides, and was used as an overtly political tool. By the 1970s, all Palestinian political parties had dabke groups, with performances at political rallies and demonstrations.
Dabke’s subversive potential was soon recognized across the borders of Palestine. Palestinian culture had already been subjected to censorship through increasing military and political presence in every day life, but after 1967 the interventions became starker and harsher. Israeli authorities regularly delayed permission for West Bank performances honoring indigenous heritage and folklore to travel to perform abroad.
And yet, folk dance has managed to escape many of the more invasive restrictions on Palestinian cultural work. One paramount example is in the history of the El Fanoun dance group. El Fanoun is considered the foremost dabke troupe in Palestine. Founded in 1979, it established itself as a non-partisan group, as opposed to the troupes that were associated with various political parties, and thus became a site for artistic exploration and innovation. The dance troupe made a deliberate attempt to move away from factional politics, aiming instead to dance for the sake of art.
After the First Intifada broke out in 1987, Israel tightened restrictions on Palestinian rights, targeting El Fanoun dancers in particular. Many of the dancers were sent to prison without charge, where they were subjected to mental abuse and physical torture. During the intifada, dancers did not use their names publicly, and even getting up on stage was considered a heroic act. But the dancing went on. Much of El Fanoun’s choreography in that period was created inside Israeli prisons.
After Israel and the PLO signed the Oslo Accords in 1993, Palestinian society began to open up more the international community, bringing a glimmer of hope to the dance world. El Fanoun was provided funding for the first time, dance facilities were built, and international sponsorship enabled the founding of dance troupes for children in refugee camps. International choreography was introduced into dance curricula across Palestine, from classical ballet to the Martha Graham technique, changing the style of performance of dabke in Palestine.
Eleanor Roosevelt once asked, “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home…such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination.” Dabke is just one way in which Palestinians have protested human rights violations while celebrating their equality and dignity. Perhaps in its next phase, it will be used to celebrate independence, peace and eventually cohabitation.
Dr. Dana Mills is an academic and an activist. She has held positions at University of Oxford, NYU and Bard College, among others. Her first book ‘Dance and Politics: Moving beyond Boundaries,’ was published by Manchester University Press in 2016.