Ramallah, occupied West Bank – The energetic tempo, the stomping, and the ancient traditions.
Dabke has a lot in common with various African dances, so Palestinian choreographer Sharaf DarZaid decided to combine the two.
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“I felt African folklore is one of the closest forms of dancing to Dabke in the world,” the 36-year-old father of two tells Al Jazeera in his office at Ramallah’s Popular Art Centre (PAC) in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Dabke, literally meaning “to stomp the feet” in Arabic, is a popular folklore line dance native to Palestine, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, widely performed on joyous occasions like weddings.
Folklore dancing is different to other genres of dance – it is an expression of a people’s traditions, cultures, and everyday life.
DarZaid had been dancing Dabke since he was 11 years old and teaching it to others since he was 19, but it was only when he took African dancing classes in Europe that he began to understand Dabke in a deeper way, he says.
In 2014, DarZaid made friends with Serge Tsakap, a dancer of Cameroonian origin, during a five-month dance scholarship in the French capital, Paris.
“When he showed me moves mimicking how they cut sugarcane, I realised how similar they are to moves in Dabke inspired by cutting wheat with a scythe,” says DarZaid, his eyes lighting up with excitement.
DarZaid says he found parallels in Cameroonian dances, inspired by farming and animals.
“They have moves related to praying for rainfall like we do, and others mimicking animals such as horses and birds.
“There are also moves inspired by the act of collecting water from wells, just like how we use jugs at springs. Or how they sieve wheat, and how we used hand mills to make flour,” he explains.
In addition to similarities in the inspiration, DarZaid saw resemblances in the style of dancing.
“What sets folklore dancing apart is that it is a bit rough. I call it elegant roughness. You cannot dance Dabke and be extremely elegant like in ballet. It is more popular, more about presence, charisma, personality, energy and liveliness,” all characteristics he found in African dancing.
The dances’ role in society goes beyond the moves themselves. “African dancing and Dabke are a popular practice that brings people together. Ballet, contemporary and jazz, for example, do not do this,” says DarZaid.
“Even from a political aspect: in Africa they use dance, and still do, to fight oppression. South Africa is the biggest example of this with apartheid,” he points out.
For Palestinians, he adds: “Our struggle with the occupier [Israel] is not only about the land … It is also an existential and identity struggle. The popular Dabke dance is a part of our identity, it is artistic, cultural heritage, and we hold on to it as a form of artistic and cultural resistance.”
‘I found myself in it’
After combining the two genres, DarZaid and Tsakap held classes in Paris and then embarked on an Afro-Dabke tour across France. When he returned to Palestine in 2014, DarZaid began giving Afro-Dabke classes at the PAC and has been doing so since.
While Palestinians of all backgrounds have taken DarZaid’s classes, they have meant more to some Palestinians than others.
Shaden Qous, a 21-year-old Dabke dancer, is one of a few hundred Afro-Palestinians living in the Old City of Jerusalem, which lies under Israeli occupation. She has been attending DarZaid’s classes since 2015.
“My experience with Afro-Dabke is particularly special because I am of African origin,” says Qous, noting that her grandparents immigrated to Palestine from Chad.
“It wasn’t just another style of dance. I felt a connection with it. I found myself in it,” the fourth-year law student at Birzeit University tells Al Jazeera.
A small community of about 350-450 Palestinians originally from Chad, Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan live in the Old City, while hundreds more live in Jericho in the occupied West Bank and in the besieged Gaza Strip. Most immigrated during the British occupation of Palestine (1917-48), while others came to Palestine as early as the 12th century.
While Qous has family in Chad, she has no connection with them. The experience of Afro-Dabke, she says, was a chance for her to get to know herself better.
“As part of the African community, I think it’s important to find even a small connection to remind you of who you are, and to explore your place in this culture that you are a part of, and which forms your personality and your identity,” she points out.
“I am Palestinian first, of African origin. Afro-Dabke is the same thing: my dancing identity is that I am a dabeekeh [Dabke dancer] first,” explains Qous, who has been dancing Dabke since she was six years old.
Dina Amin, a 27-year-old filmmaker and dancer living in Ramallah, has attended all his classes since returning from studying abroad in 2018.
“Afro-Dabke is very special to me. I do it when I want to be happy. Some days, when I wake up, I put on some Afrobeats and dance, even if just for five minutes,” Amin tells Al Jazeera.
Amin hopes Afro-Dabke will spread to other parts of the world.
“This will display our Palestinian identity to the world and build bridges and awareness. I think that was Sharaf’s intention.”
In 2020, the song Jerusalema by producer Master KG and singer-songwriter Nomcebo Zikode from South Africa, went viral, spawning a dance challenge with dozens of groups performing their own versions of the dance.
DarZaid choreographed a Palestinian version featuring Afro-Dabke, working with South African-Palestine solidarity groups as well as different dance troupes in Palestine to produce it. Dancers from five governorates – Gaza, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah and Jenin – performed in it, with more than 130 Palestinian dancers in total.
The widely shared video was watched more than half a million times on YouTube alone.
“I think the Jerusalema dance challenge was a turning point for Afro-Dabke,” says Qous, who trained the Jerusalem dancers for the video and appeared in it.
“This simple experience opened so many doors for us. It began building bridges.
“I think Afro-Dabke is very important, it built relationships between us and people in Africa. This is something we must think about as Palestinians: How can we strengthen relationships with the outside world to serve our cause?”