A dance-off with occupation: The female dabke troupe centring Palestine

UK-based dance collective Hawiyya Dabke are breaking boundaries to celebrate Palestinian culture and identity.

Hawiyya Dabke is an all-female Palestinian dance group based in the UK, who are breaking boundaries and creatively bringing the realities of Palestinian suffering under occupation onto the dance floor and directly to grass roots communities.

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In Arabic, ‘Hawiyya’ means identity; a name befitting this group of women fighting for the survival and freedom of the Palestinian people. This dance collective are first and foremost social activists, who use dance, performance and poetry to raise awareness of a brutal occupation.

“We use our performances to promote social justice for Palestinians and other oppressed people, and to celebrate our culture which has been suppressed for decades,” Shahd Abusalama, one of the dance troupe’s founders, told TRT World.

“Israel has long tried to appropriate the indigenous traditions and arrest, harass and restrict dabke dancers and other artists. We will not allow our culture to be appropriated and defaced by our oppressors!”

Shahd Abusalama, one of the founders of the Hawiyya Dabke dance troupe.
Shahd Abusalama, one of the founders of the Hawiyya Dabke dance troupe. (Hawiyya Dabke)

Dabke, a traditional folk dance from the Levant region, is one of the main dance forms in Palestine, and a living history of the people and their culture. Since 1948, the dance has become the voice of the voiceless, and a resounding statement of Palestinian identity, existence and resistance.

The meaning of ‘dabke’ is literally ‘stamping of the feet’, and historically was used to inspire people when they were working the land or joining together to complete communal tasks.

“Dabke is about rootedness, belonging and unity. There is a traditional dabke song ‘Ala Dalouna’ which means ‘let’s go and help’, and is now used as a call for all Palestinians to join together in resistance,” Shahd says.

Since 1948, a large number of Palestinians have become refugees scattered across the world, and are not allowed to return to their homeland while Jews from anywhere can claim citizenship under the Law of Return. The Palestinians who remain are basically prisoners in their land with no rights or freedom.

However, Palestinians are a resilient and creative people. Where they have been silenced, they use other means of resistance such as dance.

Hawiyya run dabke workshops all over the world, and spread awareness of the Palestinian cause through grass roots projects and creativity.

Being a women-only dance troupe gives Hawiyya the scope to reach spaces and audiences where mixed-sex groups cannot reach, which results in their message spreading to a wider crowd.

One such instance is how dabke empowers women participants to express themselves freely; especially those who have suffered from trauma or abuse. They connect themselves to the message of the dance, and can use it to release their suffering.

CURFEW (2018): A collaborative contemporary dance production by Hawiyya and the El Funoun dance troupe based in Palestine.
CURFEW (2018): A collaborative contemporary dance production by Hawiyya and the El Funoun dance troupe based in Palestine. (Hawiyya Dabke)

Nadia Sibany is a Hawiyya collective member and dancer who grew up in Nablus, and came to the UK when she was just seven-years-old. She joined the group in 2018 after searching for a way to connect more closely with her Palestinian heritage.

Nadia had been dancing from a young age, but she was not trained in dabke. However, with the worsening of the situation in Palestine over the years, and a sense of isolation from her people, she wanted to be part of the fight for justice.

“I joined Hawiyya because it combined my thirst for social activism with my love of dance,” Nadia told TRT World. “I wanted to be part of a movement which serves as a cultural and political unification for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians denied the right of passage or return to their homeland.”

“Being part of Hawiyya has given me this sense of identity and purpose. I love the fact that this is a women’s dance troupe. We are all from diverse backgrounds, and united for the Palestinian cause.”

Nadia says that while dabke has traditionally been viewed as male-led, the troupe are mixing it up and bringing the dance form to the present and the future.

“Women bring a unique perspective to this dance as mothers, sisters, aunts, wives and daughters, and we interpret the movements based on our experiences and realities.”

Members of dance troupe. Hawiyya run dabke workshops all over the world.
Members of dance troupe. Hawiyya run dabke workshops all over the world. (Hawiyya Dabke)

As a group from London, Hawiyya’s existence brings the story of the Palestinian people to the British public in a relatable way through arts and culture.

“The brutal occupation when heard in the news can seem distant. However, when the reality is depicted through a beautiful and emotionally charged performance, the audience can imagine the horrors of living under occupation,” Nadia says.

“We are determined to tell the world about the realities in Palestine, and living in the West allows us to connect with the arts movement both here and in Palestine, and to amplify the message.”

“Through our dance, we tell stories and once these are told, they are impossible to deny. To exist is to resist!”

With the sad state of affairs in Palestine, it is easy to feel powerless. However, Shahd doesn’t let that feeling dictate her.

“I feel power when I dance the dabke!” she states emphatically. “We have hope, as we don’t have the luxury of despair. Palestine is a reason to live for.”

“Recently I have seen many more people mobilising, and there has been an increased awareness about what is happening to the Palestinians. The Israelis are losing the moral battle.”

“We are living in a world where Palestine is being erased from the map. We want to remind the world that we exist, and that we have a beautiful history and culture. And despite Israel trying to destroy us, we will not be erased!”

When asked what supporters of Palestine can do to show solidarity, Shahd believes everyone has a role to play, and it starts with our own circles.

“Everyone has the power of change in their own hands. Sadly, the mainstream media is manipulating people and fuelling hate. However, we all have a responsibility to find out the truth.”

Hawiyya’s solution for the future is the implementation of the right of return for all refugees, which is already recognised by international law. They also call for the freedom for all people in Palestine, and for everyone to have equality and dignity.

These are basic human rights, but to quote Marc Lamont Hill and Mitchell Plitnick: “Except for Palestine.”

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