Exploring the politics of Palestinian dance
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette June 10 2010
Nicholas Rowe [pictured below] is a graduate of the Australian Ballet School and has worked as a choreographer and dancer with major dance companies in several countries including Finland, the Philippines, New Zealand and Turkey. But it was a trip to the Occupied Palestinian territories in 1998 that changed his life.
He decided to move to the West Bank, and lived in Ramallah from 2000 to 2008 working with young dancers on various projects. “Curiosity brought me to the West Bank, but love made me stay,” Rowe writes in his book “Raising Dust: A Cultural History of Dance in Palestine”, newly published by IB Tauris of London and New York. On his first trip to the West Bank he had met a beautiful and creative dancer, Maysoun Rafeedie. The two eventually married, and they are the parents of two young daughters.
Rowe is now an Associate Dean at the National Institute of Creative Arts and Industries at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. His book is based on a PhD thesis he completed through London Contemporary Dance School.
Rowe was recently in London for the launch of his book at the Mosaic Rooms, part of the A. M. Qattan Foundation, and for the screening at the Palestinian Film Festival of his 2009 film “The Secret World” made with Ramallah schoolchildren. At the launch he spoke with insight and humor about his experiences of working with Palestinians in dance workshops and training them to run workshops themselves.
Rowe’s account of the circumstances around his first visit to the West Bank shows the extent to which culture can be a minefield in the Israel-Palestine context. He had gone to Israel at the invitation of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs to write a critique of “Curtain Up – Zionist Movement”, the annual showcase of Israeli contemporary dance. A few months earlier some artists in Cairo had given him dance contacts in the West Bank, and he decided to combine his visit to Israel with a one-week dance workshop at the Popular Arts Center in Ramallah.
Rowe was struck by the contrast between the dance workshop, which was not very different from dance workshops he had taught in other places around the world, and the conditions the Palestinians had to endure. Each day on leaving the studio he would step “into a world so shaped by military oppression that the very thought of dancing seemed bizarre.”
At the workshop the young West Bankers had used movement to try to tell their stories in ways that might interest and inspire others in the community. In his published review of “Curtain Up” Rowe commented on how peculiar it was that none of these stories from the West Bank could be found in the tales of personal angst performed at the comparatively lavish contemporary Israeli dance festival just an hour’s drive away in Tel Aviv.
The Israeli Ministry of Culture never invited him to write about Israeli dance again. “’Why did you have to go and get political?” the Israeli cultural attaché in London bellowed at him down the phone. “We sent you to write an article on dance!”
In his book Rowe traces the numerous interrelationships between Palestinian dance and politics. The history of Palestine has been a highly contentious area of study, resulting in radically polarized versions of events. Israeli school textbooks for example, have largely ignored the pre-Zionist existence of a local Palestinian population, and the traumatic impact of Zionist colonization and nation building on that population.
“A presentation of local dance history that first recognizes the existence of a substantial local population in the region prior to Zionist colonization and then examines the collective trauma experienced by that population is therefore bound to provoke contention,” Rowe says.
His thorough and lucid study covers dance in Palestine from its ancient roots to the present day. The earliest reference he has come across was in a letter written 3,800 years ago by King Zimri-Lim of Mari to his wife Queen Spitu.
The book includes reproductions of a number of remarkable old photographs of dance-related events, some taken 100 or more years ago [picture shows Bethlehem women performing a wedding danceand song in 1940s]. Recent photographs capture the work of leading West Bank dance groups El-Funoun Popular Dance Troupe and the Sareyyet Ramallah Troupe for Music and Dance [pictured bottom].
At the heart of Rowe’s book is a discussion of the dance revival movements that have played a prominent role in battles over cultural ownership between Palestine’s indigenous population and the colonizers. The revival of dances from Palestine’s indigenous population occurred three times in the 20th century, associated with Zionism, pan-Arabism and Palestinian nationalism respectively. Each approached the revival process from different ideological and aesthetic viewpoints.
The Zionist “salvage” amounted to an appropriation of the dance practices of the indigenous Palestinians. The motive was partly a desire to forge a collective Israeli identity and to reestablish cultural links with an ancient Jewish past, of which local traditional dances were claimed to be a legacy.
In the 1930s and 1940s Zionist dancers researched the local Palestinian peasant dabkeh. The steps were re-choreographed into stage presentations of folk dance by Zionist youth. Israeli choreographer Shalom Herman said that the new Israeli dances became “one of the best known ambassadors of the spirit of the new State of Israel and its people.”
Pan-Arabist salvage was seen in the West Bank under Jordanian rule in 1947-67 when the stress was on pan-Arabism rather than Palestinian nationalism. Folkdance productions from Lebanon became particularly influential.
The Palestinian nationalist salvage of dance culture came after the 1967 war. Under the Israeli military occupation, West Bank academics researched folklore and looked to ancient culture to challenge the Zionist narrative and provide unifying symbols of collective Palestinian national identity. “By striving to authenticate a distinctly ‘Palestinian’ dabkeh, Palestinian nationalist folklorists were challenging both Zionist appropriation and pan-Arabist assimilation.”
Rowe terms the 1980-2008 period the “post-salvage paradigm”. This period included the first intifada, the Oslo peace process, and the second intifada. The Palestinian nationalist folklore movement continued to play a prominent part in West Bank dance revival but in the 1990s there was a dramatic increase in cultural encounters between local and foreign artists.
Dance artists were “forced to negotiate with both the ongoing local salvagist ideals of unchanging traditions and foreign definitions of modernism and postmodernism.” This led to disputes over cultural identity and cohesion in the early years of the 21st century, when the West Bank became relatively isolated once more.