Palestinian Dance Education under Occupation: Need or Frill?

Members of the Palestinian dance troupe El-Funoun in action (Image: El-Funoun)

Despite an almost obvious and persistent need to promote creativity, imagination and freedom of expression as crucial ingredients in cultural development, dance as a form of spiritual and cultural education as well as a useful medium in education has been virtually non-existent in the formal education system in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt). Music, drama and plastic arts may have fared relatively better, but not by much. It is high time to challenge this deficiency head-on, both from a cultural and a political perspective, particularly since its causes are self-inflicted, to a large extent.

Arabs in general have traditionally viewed and practised dance as a communal expression of happiness, experienced during revered folk festivities of all sorts: a good harvest, a wedding, even a spiritual occasion, although the latter demands its own, quite different choreographies. Unlike in some other world cultures, where traditional dance may express grief, fear, defiance and readiness for battle, among other dramatic themes, folkloric Arab dance — of which Palestinian dabkeh is a branch — as a genre has for generations been restricted to more or less a single celebratory theme. Among other effects, this mono-thematic prevalence limits the value of dance as an educational medium and as a field of education in its own right, as it prevents dance from artistically adapting to more complex or demanding themes and from enhancing the cognitive and critical faculties of participants and spectators alike.

In the Palestinian context, decades of occupation, exile and colonial oppression have left their mark on the Palestinian collective approach to art, where the above limitations are evident. While theatre, plastic art and film had more flexibility and agility to adapt to changing circumstances and needs, even in the formal education sector, the movement alphabet of traditional Palestinian dance was, comparatively speaking, set in stone. To make a “new” dance about prisoners of conscience, say, you only need to compile steps from the same old constrained repertoire, only set to the “right” song with prisoner-related, preferably direct, lyrics and a familiar traditional tune that guarantees applause from start to finish. Such artistic experiences, if they can be so called, can rarely touch minds or hearts, let alone play any transformative or liberating role; they can only appease some sectors’ basic obsession with familiarity and stability — stagnation, really — in a sea of political turmoil and rapid socio-economic changes.

Under conditions of occupation Palestinian dance has been largely viewed as yet another tool for political agitation against the oppressor or a politically-motivated exercise in reviving cultural roots, again in defiance of the will of the occupiers, who have consistently tried to confiscate or altogether suppress any expression of Arab-Palestinian cultural heritage. Artistic excellence, innovation and growth, deemed far less significant than political content, were thus forfeited or ignored. As a result, developing dance — in both technique and content — even as a form of artistic resistance, open to the fresh influences of world cultures and changing Palestinian circumstances, has faced serious challenges from within society, not just from the occupation authorities. Social conservatives were particularly incensed by the tendency inherent in contemporary Palestinian dance, as in all contemporary art forms around the world, to defy anachronistic norms, challenge patriarchic and clerical authority, or rebel against molded, inherited parameters of allowed thought and expression.

With boldness and almost a sense of mission, some Palestinian dance groups were able to build on the roots of Arab-Palestinian folkloric dance, while wisely and selectively integrating techniques and style details learned through international exposure, to create an altogether fresh spirit, texture and movement terminology that is distinctively Palestinian in character yet universal in appeal. This development succeeded in capturing new audiences, particularly among Palestinian youth, who for many years have been gradually and steadily losing their devotion to — and sometimes their belief in — Palestinian cultural manifestations and symbols. Being Palestinian was no longer exclusively associated in their minds with being traditional, or being like their grandparents! It can be fun and hip to be Palestinian, too! If only for this, education officials and experts alike must reconsider the current exclusion of dance from art education in the school system.

But the value of integrating dance into Palestinian education goes well beyond its function in rehabilitating a sense of identity among youth or invoking self-respect for Palestinian culture and its potential. Dance, as an art form that involves the coordinated and expressive movement of the entire body, has its unique, critically needed, therapeutic effect on a community deeply traumatized by Israel’s relentless crimes: wanton destruction; indiscriminate killings; the medieval-like siege; the colonial Wall; denial of education rights, and all the other systematic efforts designed to induce gradual ethnic cleansing. For children and youth facing such terribly inhumane conditions, artistic expression, especially through dance and drama, becomes a necessity, not a luxury.

Finally, aside from its internal benefits, so to speak, dance, like other local arts, is a vehicle through which Palestinian culture may be presented to the world in our untiring effort to counter, to refute, to substitute the myriad forms of dehumanization we must reckon with at the hands of our oppressors, their fervent lobbies, and their enormous media machine. But for dance to reach a deeper medium in our international audiences’ thinking and feeling and to be worthy of its name, it should by all means avoid falling into the trap of “victim art,” begging sympathy — which is transient, sometimes patronizing, and often superficial — instead of building solidarity — which is more lasting, respectful, and principled. Many in the West think of Palestinians as one-dimensional, as if placed in a mental box. We may indeed be incarcerated in the world’s largest open-air prisons, surrounded by the world’s most barbaric concrete walls, but our minds can still be free, and so can our ability to express ourselves in movement, music, poetry, or any other form of artistic articulation. It is time we told the world our whole story, not as victims, not as heroes either, but as human beings who aspire to live in dignity, in freedom, and who struggle to realize their fullest humanity without fetters, colonial or otherwise.

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    Omar Barghouti is a dance choreographer and trainer with Palestine’s leading dance company, El-Funoun. This article was originally published in This Week in Palestine and is reproduced with the author’s permission.