Palestinian dancer seeks change through ballet

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 November, 2014, 8:27pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 November, 2014, 8:27pm

Dancer Shireen Ziyadeh wants to use pirouettes and plies to change the place where she grew up, training aspiring ballerinas to show that "something beautiful comes from Palestine".

In tights and a white tunic, her hair scraped back in a flawless bun, the 24-year-old Palestinian repeats instructions to a group of tiny dancers in pink tutus and slippers at her ballet school in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

The idea of teaching ballet to little girls came to the management studies graduate four years ago. "I wanted to bring something new and offer them other perspectives on the future," Ziyadeh says.

But - as is often the case in the Israeli-occupied West Bank - the dance classes also have a political dimension. "Ballet, which is a major art form, is a good way to revolutionise traditional Palestinian culture. I'm not only teaching them to dance but also how to integrate with others."

Ziyadeh's is not the first ballet school in Ramallah - she learned to dance there as a child - but she is one of just a handful of teachers across the Palestinian territories.

"Teaching ballet and its philosophy [here] is also a way of showing the world that something beautiful comes from Palestine. Ballet has its own universe, different from all other forms of dance. You have to express yourself with all the muscles in your body to show the full purity of this dance form."

Although ballet is a niche activity in Palestinian culture, traditional folk dance is everywhere. No marriage or other celebration takes place without participants dancing the dabkeh, the national dance.

Today, Ziyadeh's school has 60 pupils - all of them girls between the ages of four and 20 - but when it first opened there were challenges. Even in Ramallah, the political capital of the West Bank and considered the territory's most cosmopolitan city, there was opposition from more conservative Palestinians.

Some were suspicious of a school teaching a dance form that involves children and young girls wearing tight clothing and dancing on their own, rather than in a group as with the dabkeh.

And there were some who did not like the idea of a young woman starting her own business. "All new ideas generate rejection, but I always knew I would make it," Ziyadeh says.

To reassure her neighbours, she left the doors of the school open so anyone could come in and see what was going on. And to keep her project a fully Palestinian venture, she refused offers of foreign funding.

As the girls practised in front of a mirror stretching the length of the room, Faten Farhat and her seven-year-old daughter, Salma, arrived.

"Before we had no opportunity to engage in an activity outside of school. Today things have changed and it's up to us to encourage even more change to move towards an even brighter future," Farhat says.

Agence France-Presse