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Dancing through occupation in the West Bank

Palestinian girls as young as three-years old are flocking to the territory's first ballet centre.

Last Modified: 23 Jun 2013 13:31
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'Ballet gives girls more confidence at a young age,' says Shyrine Ziadeh [Dalia Hatuqa/Al Jazeera]

Ramallah, West Bank - To the music and lyrics of Pirouette Cacahuete, a French children's song, more than a dozen tiny feet glide across the wooden floorboards of Shyrine Ziadeh's Ramallah Ballet Centre.

"Get ready for the plie," the 24-year-old teacher instructs the girls, many of them dressed in pink tutus and glittery ballet slippers.

They all take their places using the windowsills as barres. The ballerinas giggle and jiggle, but with a little coaxing from their instructor, they assemble in a line with their heels touching in first position, their tiny palms pointed inwards, before finally bending into a group plie. Ziadeh rewards them with a loud "bravo". 

In this first specialised ballet centre to open in the West Bank, Palestinian children in Ramallah are being taught the essence of an art that originated in the Italian Renaissance and was further developed in France. Once a week for one hour, the girls some as young as three are instructed to bend, flutter, kick and hop - as gracefully as possible.

The city of Ramallah has recently become a hub for cultural activities. Before Ziadeh opened her centre, ballet classes were only offered by a local church. In addition to the traditional dabkeh dance, taught widely in the West Bank, some centres have also started offering modern dance, zumba classes, and yoga.

Located at the top of a building in the old part of the city - with roads pocked by potholes and small markets selling vegetables and meat - Ziadeh's ballet centre is simple yet spacious, its walls bare except for a few pictures of pointe shoes and smiling children, its windows showing a panoramic view of Ramallah and letting in abundant Middle Eastern sunshine.

Ziadeh opened her studio two years ago after many months of giving free classes to children at summer camps and churches. "These classes were my litmus test," she said, as she sat down after an hour of flouncy flutters to Snow White and Swan Lake. "I saw that many people were interested and their kids were enjoying it, so I decided to open up my own place."  

The opening of the ballet centre is part of a renewed cultural renaissance in the West Bank. Cultural institutions, which include art and dance, have skyrocketed from 48 to 577 between 2000 and 2012. Today, there are seven operational theatres and 10 museums, and almost all have been open or operated as part of independent, grass-roots, people-led initiatives.  

Ballet gives girls more confidence at a young age ... courage and a chance to move away from the war-torn world we live in.

- Shyrine Ziadeh, founder of ballet centre

Ziadeh herself opened the centre with the help of a personal loan from her parents, and the Orthodox church that owns the space is flexible when she is short on cash and has to pay her rent late. So far, Ziadeh has been unable to find an art-supporting, non-governmental organisation to help her expand after seeing an unexpected rise in the number of interested students.

"I didn't expect such reactions from the community," she said. "Many mothers came and saw the place and immediately the classes started filling up."

Now Ziadeh is taking her skills beyond the confines of her studio. In addition to putting on an upcoming show for her little proteges at Ramallah's Cultural Palace - a spacious cultural centre with state-of-the-art facilities - Ziadeh will be giving free classes and lectures about ballet in refugee camps. "The money doesn't matter," she said. "I want to develop ballet in our part of the world. I want people, especially kids, to know what it is."

As she watched the girls flutter and tumble onto the studio floor, Ziadeh pointed to another challenge she faced: the absence of boys in her class. "Parents don't want to send their sons to the ballet," she said. "They have this image of their sons growing up strong, and that doesn't go with their view of ballet."

During one of the previous summer camps, Ziadeh had a talented male student, whom she likened to the protagonist of the play and film Billy Elliot. His mother only brought him in for one class, never to return, after she saw him surrounded by a sea of pink tutus. "The thing that parents don't understand is that ballet is incomplete without boys," she said.

For Fida, a young mother of two girls, ballet classes were exactly what the doctor ordered. "For almost two years, my daughter Yassmine would watch the Nutcracker on DVD and flutter about in the house, pretending to be a ballerina," she said.

"I was so excited when I found out Shyrine had opened up a studio. It's the only time Yassmine can really be a dancer. And it's my chance to get an hour for myself," the working mother added.

Ziadeh said ballet has helped her cope with life under occupation. Barely a few kilometres away lies Israel's Qalandia checkpoint, the mammoth structure lying next to the separation wall between Israel and the West Bank, another reminder that Palestinians enjoy little freedom of movement.

Back in 2002, as Israeli troops were invading the West Bank, Ziadeh, the youngest of four children, would go up to the roof of her home to train. She would put on her ballet shoes and dance, the music from her stereo barely audible amid the roaring sound of tank engines rolling by.

"We were under curfew and couldn't leave the house," she said. "For weeks I had to miss training. So with the help of YouTube, I used to keep myself up to speed with ballet classes."

Ziadeh said she hoped ballet would change the lives of her students. "Ballet gives girls more confidence at a young age," she said. "This is what I want for these girls: courage and a chance to move away from the war-torn world we live in."

Follow Dalia on Twitter: @DaliaHatuqa

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