Dancing to a different tune – Ramallah Ballet Center brings new art forms to the Palestinian community

Legendary choreographer Martha Graham described dance as the hidden language of the soul, and hundreds of Palestinians have learnt to communicate anew thanks to the community-run Ramallah Ballet Center, writes Matt Smith.

Now located in Ramallah’s old city, the centre provides classes not only in ballet, but a vast range of other dances and artistic forms such as salsa, contemporary dance, belly dance, yoga and tango.

“Girls love to dance, and I wanted to bring some more art to Palestine,” says founder Shyrine Ziadeh, who opened the centre in 2011 in her hometown soon after graduating in business from the nearby Birzeit University.

With Ramallah and the wider West Bank under Israeli control since 1967, dance is giving Palestinians a creative outlet and psychological release from the restrictions and denigrations of the occupation.

“It's a kind of therapy. It builds your creativity, develops you as a person as you connect your body, your mind and your soul,” says Ziadeh, 30, whose family is descended from Rashid El-Haddadin, Ramallah’s 16th century founder. “When you start dancing or doing any kind of art, you're more connected to yourself and you become more aware of your surroundings. Maybe you can be a better human and think in another way. This is my way of how to get out of the occupation - through art.”

Although not a trained instructor herself, Ziadeh has danced ballet since she was five and was determined to bring it to a wider audience despite initial community suspicion. The centre’s first home was in a room owned by Ramallah’s Catholic church.

“A lot of people questioned what I was doing, and I received many negative comments, but I continued regardless,” she continues. “In the beginning, I kept the studio door open, so our neighbours could come and watch and they found they liked the music. At first, people were calling it a nightclub; now they say ‘arts centre’. So, it's about changing attitudes too.”

Ziadeh began with providing ballet classes, but to her surprise found many of her young students grew bored quickly and so expanded the range of classes available.

“Maybe it was because we're always under occupation, so people needed to be able to express their artistic freedom more, whereas ballet is more about limits and rules,” said Ziadeh.

“The centre is very popular because there aren’t a lot of other activities available, for kids or adults. Dance makes them feel more alive and gives them a sort of taste of freedom because during our classes they're can move freely in a country that freedom does not exist. Dance enhances creativity and improves confidence, as well exposing our students to other cultures.”

The centre was initially self-funded and now relies on students’ tuition fees to pay its teachers and building rent. Ziadeh has refused support from international organisations because she wants to retain the centre’s independence, although individual support is gratefully received.

For four years, the centre had a partnership with Estonia, whereby dance teachers from the Baltic state would provide classes for three months – the maximum stay as per Israeli visa rules – before being replaced by a compatriot.

While thankful for the Estonians’ support, students found it difficult to adjust to being taught by a new teacher every three months and so Ziadeh sought longer-term instructors. An American dance teacher, Yuki, answered her call, staying for one year. That is now the typical duration of a teacher, although shorter-term tutors are always welcome.

Having devoted several years to establishing the centre, which offers classes to children plus men and women of all ages, Ziadeh has been studying for a two-year masters’ degree in dance anthropology and will graduate in June 2019.

Part of Europe’s Erasmus programme, the course involves six months’ study in each of Norway, France, Hungary and Britain. On graduation, she will return to Ramallah to apply her newly acquired skills and knowledge to expand the services available at the centre, which is being run by her mother in her absence.

“I'm taking advantage of being in Europe by recruiting people to work with me in Palestine,” adds Ziadeh. “My plan is to develop the studio more and do more in terms of cultural development. Dance is my passion.”