Arts, Culture & Media

West Bank’s only ballet school offers refuge for Palestinian kids

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Shyrine Ziadeh, left, opened the Ramallah Ballet Center in 2012. (Photo by Matthew Bell.)

Schoolgirls leap into the dance studio on the upper floor of a stone building in the Old City of Ramallah, the de facto capital of the Palestinian territories.

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Several of the kids are wearing pink tutus, of course. And they start prancing in front of the huge mirror, telling their dance teacher they want to run through the routine they did for the Christmas recital.

A Disney tune on the stereo system has to compete with the call to prayer emanating from a nearby mosque. But that does not seem bother these young ballerinas-in-training at the Ramallah Ballet Center.

Shyreen Ziadeh, 25, opened the dance school last year. Growing up in Ramallah, she took private ballet lessons with a Russian teacher who believed in being strict with young dancers. Ziadeh said she would have loved to have a place like this as a kid.

Local politics and the pressures of living under Israeli occupation, Ziadeh said, can be stressful. And ballet is a refuge.

“To me, having art is like escaping from this, escaping from all the violence,” she said. “I like to see the little kids dancing and expressing the feelings they have and (to express them) ... in a good, positive way.”

Ziadeh started the school with financial help from her family. She has about 35 students now and talked about her hopes to hire other dance teachers and grow the business. At first, she said some Palestinians failed to understand what she was trying to do with the dance school.

One news article came out, she said, attacking her for teaching little girls a racier form of dance that is well known all over the Arab world.

“They thought that ballet is belly dance,” Ziadeh said. “They thought that we’re teaching the kids belly dance. And they were like, ‘we don’t need this in Palestine. We need girls to think about education, about how to fight.’ I think they were ignorant. That’s it.

“Anyone who knows what ballet is, they find it very pure and I’m sure everything I get is positive,” she said

It would probably be far more difficult for Ziadeh to run a ballet school in more conservative parts of the Palestinian territories. In Gaza, for example, the Islamic group Hamas that rules the territory has even cracked down on western style dress and hair styles. But Ramallah is about the most cosmopolitan Palestinian city.

Still, one area where Ziadeh said she feels that she has fallen short, is attracting boys to her dance classes. At one time, she had two brothers taking one of her ballet classes. They liked it a lot, she said, but their father decided to put an end to it.

“Ballet is for both, for boys and girls. But I think because of culture issues they think only ballet is more for girls, because ballet is something more soft and they want something more masculine," she said.

Ziadeh said she never planned to make a career out of running a dance school, which is the only one that she knows of in the Palestinian areas. She wanted to go to business school, and maybe study abroad. But now she says she is too attached to her students, and the thought of leaving them without a ballet teacher makes her want to stick with it.