RAMALLAH, West Bank – It’s Tuesday evening, and a small group of young women has gathered for their weekly dance class. Warming up with sensual, yoga-like movements, they eventually face one another in coordinated steps.
Dressed in tight black leggings and oversize T-shirts, the women could have been members of a troupe in the United States or Europe. In fact, their session would not have been out of place in the modern-dance studios of Tel Aviv, not more than 40 miles away.
But this practice took place in an old arabesque building in West Ramallah.
While Palestinians might be better known for the dabke folk dance, these women are pushing the boundaries of their conservative society by embracing a more contemporary style of movement.
Most of the dancers in the Sareyyet Ramallah company are women in their 20s, although a few are teenagers, and all say they dance to escape from the daily grind of work or the monotony of their studies, as well as from the nearly 50-year Israeli occupation.
Named for the building in which the dancers train, Sareyyet has been around for more than 10 years. In its early days, it included only a handful of dancers who vied for space on the stage with traditional troupes.
But things are changing, said Jumana Dabis, the group’s volunteer choreographer and facilitator. Now, there is even a yearly spring festival in Ramallah that showcases contemporary-dance performances from around the world, and Sareyyet often performs at formal events.
Last month, the dancers appeared at the inauguration of the Yasser Arafat Museum in the city. Among the dignitaries in attendance from the Palestinian Authority and the Arab world was their president, Mahmoud Abbas.
“Abu Mazen was very happy with us; he even shouted ‘bravo’ after we had finished,” said Dabis, referring to the Palestinian president by his popular nickname.
Most Palestinians expect such public performances to involve folkloric dances, “but we like to take people out of their comfort zone and provoke or inspire change. We want people to feel things,” said Dabis, a political activist by day who has studied contemporary dance around the world.
Still, she conceded that the group toned it down for the prestigious event at the museum. The women even incorporated some dabke steps into their free-flowing, often improvised show.
“I also told the dancers to dress appropriately. We settled for black leggings and short-sleeve T-shirts, although someone did wear a sleeveless top,” she said, shrugging and giving a sly smile.
It was a small but bold step for a society in which women usually dress modestly and often cover their hair.
“It was a nice experience to show our leaders what we are doing,” said Aminah Bassa, 20, a ballet dancer by training who prefers the freedom of contemporary dance.
Even so, modern dance faces many barriers in the West Bank, the dancers said.
“The occupation is the biggest barrier. It’s not just physical, it’s also cultural. The Israelis steal our music, our dance, our culture,” said Jassi Murad, 17, referring to Israeli control of the Palestinian territories, as well as numerous aspects of daily life.
Dabis added: “We are not just dancing pretty. What we do stems from the politics here.”
In October, the troupe premiered their dance “Ajal” at an international festival in Berlin. “Ajal,” an acronym for “refugee” in Arabic, was inspired by the global refugee crisis and challenges viewers to view displaced people as human beings.
In the spirit of contemporary dance, each performer was told to move according to her feelings about the refugee crisis. Dabis then weaved the steps into a cohesive dance. The Berlin show was sold out.
“I wanted to show the human side of refugees, people who once had regular lives but were forced to suddenly pack up and leave,” Dabis said. “Palestinians are the ultimate refugees. We have experienced this because of the Israeli occupation.”
The troupe hopes to premiere “Ajal” in April at the festival in Ramallah, which is more cosmopolitan and less conservative than other Palestinian cities. Ramallah has long been known for its modern music scene, rappers and even breakdancers. Now the performers of nontraditional dance hope it’s their turn in the spotlight.
“We know it will take time for people to get used to contemporary dance, but it’s time to ease people into it,” Dabis said.