Dabke : from Social Dance to Political Stance

Dabke : from Social Dance to Political Stance

Le 09/06/2020 by Sarah Amawi

What was Dabke?

What was Dabke? Dabka (also spelled dabkehdabkadubki, and with the plural, dabkaat) could be defined as : « a circling folk dance made up of intricate steps and stomps » (Rowe, 2011) [1]. « Once such origin may have developed from Canaanite fertility rites wherein communities joined in the energetic foot stomping dance to scare away malicious spirits, clearing the way for healthy and secure growth of their seedlings. However, the more popularly recognized origin is derived from traditional house-building in the Levant where houses were structured with stone and made with a roof consisting of wood, straw and dirt (mud). In order to have a stable roof, the dirt had to be compacted. To achieve this aim, it is said that family and neighbors would come together and perform what is now recognized as the dabka in order to make the roof work fun  » (This is where the most common music and dance style Dal’ouna originated from; it used to mean: “Come to help us”). ‘The rhythmic patterns were a joyful way to keep things in sync and effective.’ (Paliroots, 2018)  

Perfomance of palestinian Dabke, Jafra Group

What is Dabke?

« Until World War I the name Syria generally referred to Greater or geographical Syria, which extends from the Taurus Mountains in the north to the Sina in the south, and between the Mediterranean in the west and the desert in the east  » (Encyclopedia, 2020). Up until that point in history (will be discussed in the next section), dabke was merely a cultural tradition that extended from its use in building homes to being a celebratory dance performed in lines and circles in events such as weddings. In a postcolonial context where the historical (Greater Syria) turned into “Syria, Jordan, Palestine-later on Israel, Lebanon and Iraq”, the use and representation of dabke took a curve in each of the newly formed political countries. The lyrics combined with the pre-existing music styles became country-specific and highly political. Even the outfits and costumes displayed started carrying details that are area or city-specific. For example, in 1961, Adnān al-Manīnī published a manuscript called “al-Raqs al-Shaʿbiyya.” This manuscript reflects ‘contemporaneous debates on models of nationalism, specifically qawmiyya and wataniyya [2], and attributes dabke practice with new meanings that correlate with these national agendas, themselves steeped in the long traditions of liberal Arab intellectualism.  

Dabke is resignified as secular, rural, and youthful in ways that internalize other subjectivities, such as religious and tribal, and indicate how the modern Syrian nation is formed through the production of alterity (Silverstein, 2012). « Furthermore, dabke became a marker of difference for the Syrian nation amongst others in the emergent order of nation-states by which political and cultural leaders positioned their various interests » [3].

Dabke, according to Silverstein, was developed as « Folk Dance in and as Colonial Encounter ». « As a custom and tradition (adāt wa taqlid) practiced throughout the region, dabke was of particular service to models of state and society debated by Arab nationalists in the Mandate period  » (Silverstein, 2012). This discourse applies, and is not limited to, Syria and all the newly-formed Levant countries at that time. Each country developed this dance and its use and representation in slightly different measures, turning it from a folk tradition to a political statement each time it is performed on stage, locally and internationally. This whole debate of dabke’s transformation in context also resulted in change in the aesthetics of the dance. « Choreographers actively distanced themselves from the Oriental spirit (…) which means ruḥ sharqiyya that signifies and is signified by the popularity of the commercial and entertainment arts.  Their distantiation may be situated in the negotiation of ruḥ sharqiyya as a form of cultural intimacy that suggests distinctions of taste between these two fields of cultural production  » (Silverstein, 2012). 

Eventually, this discourse is an ongoing one. Political stances and their manifestations in arts and dance are in a dynamic relationship. The question that remains is how possible it is to see dabke on stage without any political or ideological ties stirring and restricting its limits in our current world? Above all, would it remain as meaningful to its performers and spectators?

  1. Rowe, N. (2011) Dance and Political Credibility: The Appropriation of Dabkeh by Zionism, Pan-Arabism, and Palestinian Nationalism. The Middle East Journal. Volume 65, Number 3, pp. 363-380
  2. Qawmiyya is generally understood as pan-Arab unity predicated on shared practices of language, history, and culture that bind together the Arab world as such. (Silverstein, 2012)
  3. Provence 2005, Gelvin 1998, Wein 2011

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