Dance, Exclusion and Cultural Policies

Editors’ Note: NICHOLAS ROWE teaches dance to Palestinian children on the West Bank. He has recently returned to the Occupied Territories from a trip to Brazil, where he gave a speech to the Dance and the Child International conference. His speech, reproduced below, caused quite a stir. The Israeli delegates interrupted it half way, protested and left the conference as a result. Delegates from the US similarly condemned it, but delegates from the rest of the world overwhelmingly supported it.

“You’re either with us, or against us.”

When President Bush made this statement in the wake of the September 11 attacks, it was to define the playing field of his so-called “War on Terror”.

I admired this statement because I thought, “Oh good, at last a US President is openly admitting what the US government’s foreign policy has been for fifty years”. You’re Either With Us, Or Against Us.

It was a great opportunity. Citizens from all over the world could see the ultimatum, respond and say: “Actually, no, to either choice. We believe there are other options”.

The people did and protested. Too many politicians didn’t , however, and nearly two years and two wars later, the “with us or against us” policy has carved up the world into sections of increasingly righteous hatred.

Leading historians and academics such as Samuel P Huntington and Bernard Lewis press this political thought towards the belief that cultural differences must eventually result in a “Clash of Civilizations”, and specifically that there is something “wrong” with Islamic Civilization.

Do we, as dance artists of the world, agree?

Well, we can say “Yes, Mr.President, we’ve got Scheherazade and belly dancing now, the rest of that culture just seems angry and bearded. We are also scared of this terrorism thing. Unleash your dogs if you must.”

I want to speak to you today from a part of the world that is often lumped in the “against us” side of President Bush’s equation. The Occupied West Bank, or Palestine, where I have been working for several years now on dance development projects with children.

I will be talking today about issues that are contentious.

I expect that some of you might take offence from the ideas that I am presenting.

Perhaps your own view of the history of the conflicts and their impact on dance and children differs from the view that I will present. I respectfully say to you that my intention is not to offend, but to afford you the chance of seeing the world from another viewpoint.

I make no pretentions about presenting a neutral perspective, either in what I say today or in the text already published in the proceedings.

Neutrality is such a subjective thing, and what is often paraded in the West as neutrality is really just an apathetic submission to the greater force.

When we are dealing with multi-cultural issues, is there an objective definition of what terms and processes are neutral? Who defines them?

I do not know, and so I will simply say that the perspectives on cultural exclusion that I am presenting today are more representative of the “them” in George Bush’s “Them or Us”equation.

A few days ago I read, on a board in the lobby outside, the dreams of the DACI executive committee. The collective dream is such a worthy one, a dream of bringing all the children of the world together through dance. It is a dream that will hopefully make George Bush’s divisions even more unpalatable.

I also noted, however, the severe lack of representation here of children and dancers with an Islamic heritage. Now those people do exist. Dancers, dance teachers, dance organisations and dancing children are numerous in Morroco, Tunisia, Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, Bosnia, Pakistan, India, Indonesia and various other countries.

They constitute such a large part of the world. To help DACI engage with them, I would now like to take the time to consider some of their perspectives of dance and cultural exclusion.

Today, I will specifically be talking about dance and exclusion in Palestine. In the paper that has been published within the proceedings I discussed the various ways that dance writing has been used to marginilise and exclude Palestinian cultural identity.

Now I will focus on various obstacles within contemporary Palestine, factors that attempt to exclude dance from Palestinian cultural life.

These factors can be considered in four categories-

Religious Social Political Physical

I will now discuss each.


Last week I was in an Islamic bookstore in London, doing some research. I asked the shopkeeper, a Muslim, if he had any history books on dance in the Islamic world. He tersely replied that there is no dance in Islam, that dance is forbidden in Islam. Through patiently gripped teeth, he looked at me as though I had somehow completely confused my subjects.

I wandered on into the store, and emerged from the shelves half an hour later with half a dozen books, each containing a variety of citations from noted Islamic clerics and even the prophet Mohammed. These citations not only condoned dance but also described dance’s spiritual and social value.

The shopkeeper nodded, and conceded that he thought I meant belly dancing, which he said was sexual and forbidden.

Where did he get such an idea?

In Egypt these dancing and singing Alma and Alawim were considered cultural treasures throughout the Islamic age, right up until European colonization of the Middle East began in the 19th Century. As the subsequent massive influx of new European tourists and adventurers hungry for cheap exotic brothels arrived, they managed to push the image of these “women learned in culture”, into an image of prostitution- a phenomenon European tourists later replicated amongst dancers in South East Asia.

Through this and various other socio/cultural threats, certain elements within Islamic culture have reacted harshly. The Post-colonial period has seen a growth in resistence to anything that might appear “western”. As such women who dance publicly within the community became shameful in many regions.

Whilst such historical anecdotes and religious quotes may be a way to annoy a shopkeeper in a London bookstore, it is not necessarily the best way to gain access to the Palestinian refugee camps, however.

In “The Cultural Viewpoints of the Leader of the Islamic Revolution of Iran” the Ayatollah Seyed-Ali Khamenei says

“When an artist presents his art, it is a valuable gift to mankind. Art is an instrument. Although the artist is elated by his art, art is still a tool. ”

“Your art should be used for deepening values.”

This may contrast with many other approaches to art that seek to glorify aesthetics or pander to market forces or social trends. But it is not at all an unworthy goal, and if this view typifies the way that certain Islamic societies generally like to value artistic endeavours, then there is no reason why it should not be applied to the development of local dance.

By using a dance workshop that encourages positive social values and reflects local ethical standards, the Popular Art Centre in Ramallah has gained access to local communities and taken dance workshops to more than 15,000 children, the vast majority of whom had not previously participated in structured dance activities.

The choreographic work of local dance groups has thus been very much based on local social and religious values. This has allowed them to be accepted in the wider community, and to explore new and unique choreographic challenges.

Added to this is a socio-cultural obstacle. Palestinian society is used to associating dancing with celebration, such as at weddings.

When the intifada broke out, Palestinian children were being killed everywhere. So far 1,800 non-combatant Palestinian civilians have been killed by the Israeli military. That equates to about 120,000 citizens from the United States.

Under these circumstances, it is very hard for dance to continue finding a role. Although very well-meaning and well-intentioned, dance projects continued to face the local phrase “people are dying on the streets, how can you think of dance.”

Again this ideal of dance that reflects important social values became a key to dances continued existence in such a social sphere.


Certain political obstacles have been far greater at excluding dance from the lives of Palestinian adults and children.

Any understanding of the development of dance and culture in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has to be understood in this political context- fifty years ago, in 1948, the fledgling state of Israel was creating a homeland for the worlds Jewish population. approximately 700,000 people, or two thirds of the local non-jewish population of the region, were forced out of their homes and into exile by this process. Thirty years ago, in 1967, about half of those existing Palestinian refugees fell under military occupation along with other local residents, when Israel expanded and annexed the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Whatever other historical or biblical justifications are presented regarding this situation, for the 3 and a half million people of The West Bank and Gaza Strip living without any civil or political rights, this is the past and present reality.

So. Palestine. Refugees for fifty years, under military occupation without citizenship rights for thirty of those years. Under these conditions, can dance exist and remain creative?

Fascinatingly, yes. In the late 1970’s the El-Funoun Popular Dance Troupe began exploring Palestine’s traditional folk dance form, the dabke. As dance enthusiasts, they were one of many local groups bringing dabke on to the stage. El-Funoun have continued on through several decades, and are now Palestine’s leading dance company. They have toured extensively internationally, and their evening length productions such as Zaghareed, The Plains of Ibn ‘Amer, and Haifa, Beirut and Beyond, portray both their political and cultural experiences.

Their junior company Bara’em, made up of 8-16 year olds, has grown alongside them and fed the main company with vibrant young dancers. In the past three years, as travel restrictions have stopped adults from the main company from leaving the country, the children’s group has grown in prominence, touring more internationally.

I would like now to tell you more about their work, and the choreographies of other dancers from that region. I want to share with you some examples of their energy and passion, from their children especially, and how it manifests in dance.

But I’m not going to. No. Lets wait until they have the opportunity to present it here at daCi themselves. That is the fairest way.

Instead, I am going to tell you now about the political and physical problems that they confront, obstacles that would seek to exclude dance from their lives. This way, when you do get to see them, and you will, you will understand what they have gone through to get onstage before you.

So what are these impediments?

Of direct relevance to dancers, and all performing artists, are the political restrictions on freedom of travel that I previously mentioned.

Israeli military barriers, or checkpoints, dot the West Bank and Gaza Strip, indiscriminately stopping Palestinians from travelling between refugee camps, villages, towns and cities.

For El-Funoun this has meant that for years they have not been allowed to travel to certain cities and refugee camps to perform.

It means that when they do go, they are performing illegally, and that many of the male dancers have to be smuggled into the towns via dirt tracks through the mountains.

Of greatest difficulty, however, are the restrictions placed on international travel. The Israeli government sporadically refuses the entry of artists from other countries to work with Palestinians, and more consistently refuses to allow Palestinian dancers to venture abroad to study or perform.

As such, Palestinian cultural exchange with the outside world has been very limited, and it has been easy for the outside world to presume that Palestinian dance and cultural activity does not exist.

This is a continuing phenomenon. Such restrictions continue to be imposed during this so-called road map to peace.

Only two weeks ago Marwan Abdo, a highly acclaimed Palestinian musician living in Austria was scheduled to appear at the Jerusalem festival. Although he had all the necessary visas issued by Israeli embassies abroad, on arrival at the airport Mr. Abdo was detained for 24 hours by the Israeli military then deported to Austria. No explanation was given.

As an Australian passport holder, I am currently speaking to you at this festival because other leading Palestinian dance artists working with children, such as Mohamed Atta, are still not allowed to leave the West Bank.

Another impediment is military curfews. Performances and rehearsals are impossible to schedule when curfews randomly yet consistently hold everybody indoors for days on end.

Some other random examples of direct political interference in the lives of artist might include-

* Omar Barghouthi, one of Palestine’s leading choreographers, had his home destroyed by a stray Israeli tank shell two years ago. Eight months later he and his young family were driven out of their new rented apartment by Israeli soldiers who wanted to use it as a base camp.

* Khaled Qatamish, artistic director of El-Funoun dance troupe, pulled out of his home in his pyjamas at 2am and used as a human shield by an Israeli military patrol as they raided the neighbourhood, whilst his wife and children watched on from the window.

* Lana Abu Hijli, another choreographer, whose elderly mother was recently assassinated whilst sitting on the verandah of their family home. Shot for breaking curfew.

* The Popular Art Centre, the organisation that I work through, had it’s studios and computers vandalised and smashed by marauding Israeli soldiers.

These are the overt political problems that effect children and adults alike. But how do these manifest in physical exclusions?

Virtually every male and many female dancers and choreographers have spent time being held, interrogated and tortured in an Israeli prison, without charge or trial, for periods ranging from one month to three years. For many this has left various physical restrictions.

This phenomenon is not simply limited to dancers, however. Imprisonment without charge or trial is so common in the Occupied Territories that it would seem to be a rite of passage. Something that Israeli soldiers arbitrarily provide for Palestinian youth, to help the kids understand their limitations.

To best illustrate this I will recount an event that occurred six weeks ago.

I had just finished teaching a dance workshop to a group of young men and women in Ithna, a town just South of Hebron. Five of the young men were escorting me back to the main road when an Israeli army jeep pulled up. With such vicious intent the soldiers leapt out of the jeep and pushed us against a nearby wall. One by one they took these young men and slapped them, punched them, kicked them, smashed their rifle butts into their backs, ribs, foreheads, shins and knees. With a gun cocked to my head one of the young soldiers dragged me down the line of young men and demanded that I identify them.

These young bodies, that had only minutes before been swooping like eagles and leaping like cats of their own invention in a creative dance workshop, were now stooped into well-experienced postures of submission.

They did nothing to stop the blows and tried to not even wince or flinch with each actual or threatened punch, well aware that any possible resistance would provide the soldiers with an excuse to use their guns.

And who were these four soldiers? They were like most Israeli soldiers that I had encountered. Adolescents, with heavy guns, tight hatred and zero accountability. One had a small silver stud through his lower lip. As I watched them kicking and hitting Shadi, shoving him into the back of their jeep and hitting him some more, I knew that there would be no legal inquiry into this action. It just happened, and its causes and effects would be left drifting in a void.

I tell you this account not because it is unique but because it is typical. I do not know a Palestinian man who has not at some stage, been beaten like this by Israeli soldiers. Some have had it many times. All live with the fear and expectation that it will probably happen again. What does this do to a dancing body? To the very physical aspect of a dancer’s freedom of movement? How does it effect an entire community of dancers, when they are all indiscriminately subjected to this sort of actual bodily control?

And so physically, Palestinian dancers are also challenged in ways that might exclude them from pursuing an interest in dance.

Posture is becoming worse. A Palestinian Hump is evolving from the daily humiliations, cueing at the checkpoints.

To explore these impositions on physicality, at Ramallah Dance Theatre (a Palestinian contemporary dance group) we are exploring The “Aesthetics of Humiliation” in choreography. It contrasts markedly with the “Aesthetics of Power” predominent in most contemporary and classical Euro-american dance forms.

It is one way of making dance remain relevant to the contemporary existence.

So these are the various religious, social, physical and political factors that may exclude Palestinian children from actively participating in dance. But what about outside of Palestine? How should we, in the international arena, confront any Palestinian children who want expand there horizons through dance?

The first obstacle we can remove is a sense of alienation, when they do come out. DACI presents a very broad forum. Palestinian children can come here and dance.

They might gravitate towards dancing with kids from Soweto, or to others that have known political oppression.

Perhaps they will want Brazil’s indigenous children to share how they use dance to deal with land dispossession.

Perhaps they will choose to go to others. I do not know. But at least DACI can provide them with such a wonderfully broad choice of alternatives, for relevant cultural exchange.

The dream now is to expand DACI and truly make it a very non-exclusive, very global organisation, in touch with children and dance everywhere. In this process we are going to confront various aesthetics, ideals and ethics, being reflected in the medium of dance, by children. This week we have all been enthralled by the beauty of this diversity, during the performances of children from many different places.

I am probably not the only one to have noted some varying ethical values. We watched a very, very young Brazilian couple kiss passionately onstage. We watched several Finnish kids beating each other up quite brutally. Then there were the kids from Canada who exposed their fears through dance. And who could forget those German boys who just funnily watched it all go by?

If we are to mix in kids with an Islamic heritage, lets face it, it’s sure to bring another very challenging vision of dance. Perhaps they will present images reflecting their personal experience. We have seen kids make dance sensual, psychological and funny. Perhaps other kids will bring strong political views into dance, as political oppression pervades the dance space that they inhabit.

How should we react?

NICHOLAS ROWE can be reached at: