Dance and Political Credibility: The Appropriation of Dabkeh by Zionism, Pan-Arabism, and Palestinian Nationalism

By Rowe, Nicholas | The Middle East Journal, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Dance and Political Credibility: The Appropriation of Dabkeh by Zionism, Pan-Arabism, and Palestinian Nationalism


Rowe, Nicholas, The Middle East Journal


This article examines how the rural folkdance dabkeh has, in the last century, been appropriated and reinvented as a tradition in order to construct the imagined communities of Zionism, pan-Arabism, and Palestinian Nationalism within Palestine/Israel. This appropriation has led to extensive debates and suppositions on the source, meanings, and cultural ownership of dabkeh. The following historical narratives, emerging from interviews with dance practitioners and dance advocates in the West Bank, Israel, and Lebanon, and from literature in libraries and archives in the West Bank, Israel, and Great Britain, draw attention to the salient links between dance and politics and the multiple ways in which collective identities can be constructed and deconstructed. These histories further raise questions about how local cultural autonomy and sustainability within the Occupied Palestinian Territories have been affected by the process of political appropriation.

Dabkeh,1 a circling folkdance made up of intricate steps and stomps, has helped construct three very different political communities and cultural identities during the 20th century. Zionism, pan-Arabism, and Palestinian Nationalism have all gained political credibility through the public performance of a dance2 that, in the previous century, had no associations with any of these ideals. The three histories of dabkeh present a post-nationalist critique of dance in Palestine/Israel.3 Revealing how dance can be used to define (and re-define) a collective identity, these narratives highlight the artistic legacies of Zionism, pan-Arabism, and Palestinian Nationalism. More importantly perhaps, they provide a historical baseline from which new, innovative choreographic histories might be identified and celebrated.

Imagining , inventing, and salvaging cult ural identity thro ugh danc e

Across the world, the social dances and movement rituals of particular groups of people have been appropriated and given a "second existence"4 as physical spectacles. These spectacles display a homogenized cultural identity and help validate new national, ethnic, or religious boundaries around people and place. In the public imagining of such a community,5 the invention of shared traditions6 through national folkdance troupes and festivals can make politicized aesthetics, ethics, gender roles, and social hierarchies appear inherent to a community.7 This re-invention of dances is thus highly selective and can be seen as influenced by the ideological agendas of political elites guiding the appropriation.8 As the following histories of dabkeh illustrate, shifts in these political environments and agendas can allow the boundaries of a community to continue to be guided by historical precedent while remaining in flux.

Within Israel and Palestine, the search for historical precedents as a basis for contemporary cultural actions can have a particular urgency amongst population groups that have experienced collective traumas. War, exile, colonization, or other political and natural disasters can dislocate people from their cultural pasts, threatening a population's existing bonds and networks.9 Reviving elements of the distant cultural past and reconstructing them as a shared traditions can demonstrate that the past is not lost, but rather continues on into the future.10 When the traumatic events themselves are also projected across generations through cultural lamentations (in folksongs, dances, oral histories, and other arts and rituals), the disrupted social bonds of a traumatized community can appear resilient to the traumatic events.11 Folk dances can therefore be perceived as carrying both an ancient cultural past and a reminder of the threats to a traumatized community.

The revival of dance heritage can, however, be highly and purposefully selective. In Palestine, this selection has further been influenced by the ways in which local cultural history was documented in the early 20th century. …

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