Middle East

First Palestinian male ballet dancer battles prejudices

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Media captionAyman Safiah in rehearsal: 'Our culture does not really understand what ballet is about'

As the young ballet dancer stretches backwards lifting his leg over the barre and rising up on to demi-pointe, beads of sweat appear on his forehead.

The two hour-long routine takes place daily in south London in a practice studio surrounded by mirrors.

The practice is so demanding that it would break the will, not to mention the physical strength, of anyone less passionate about dance.

But it is not just the gruelling requirements of ballet that this young dancer has to contend with but also entrenched cultural prejudices.

'Completely alien'

As the only classically-trained, male Palestinian dancer, 21-year-old Ayman Safiah has had to face huge opposition from within his own community.

"My desire to study classical ballet was simply beyond the understanding of my classmates," he explains. "They only knew that it was something women enjoyed. It was completely alien to them."

An Arab citizen of Israel, Ayman was born in Kafr Yassif in the Galilee - the pre-eminent cultural town from where well-known artists and writers such as Mahmoud Darwish have sprung on to the international stage.

Relations between Arabs and Jews in the town are cordial and it has retained most of the land it held before 1948.

Safiah recognises that he is fortunate to come from a liberal family open to new ideas.

"My parents knew that ballet was going to be a large part of my life from early on," he says. "Even my grandfather accepted my career choice even though he didn't fully understand what it entailed."


But it has not been an easy road from being a student at the Rabeah Murkus Dance Studio, Israel's first Arab dance studio and located in his hometown, to graduating from the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance in Richmond, where he has been a student for the past three years.

"I was the only male student in the ballet class at the local cultural centre in Kafr Yassif," Safiah says.

"I was spotted by Rabeah Murkus, the first female Palestinian ballet dancer, who took me under her wing and helped me find funding to come and study in London." Initial funding came from the Clore Duffield Foundation.

Opposition from some of his Arab compatriots is based on religion.

"They say that performing ballet claim that it is against Islam," Safiah explains. "They say that for a man to wear tights and dance topless on the stage is 'haram', or 'forbidden'."

Safiah was able to shrug off being ridiculed when he went to buy tights and ballet shoes in his local area.

But now that he has graduated from the Rambert School he says he faces a new obstacle.

Image caption Safiah says he has been offered a place with the Matthew Bourne dance company

"When Yehudit Arnon founded the Kibbutz Dance School Gaaton, where I studied, the idea was to bring Arabs and Jews together," Safiah explains. "But now that the founder is no longer in charge, that ethos has changed and the school is reluctant to accept Palestinians."

The dance school denied the accusations, telling the BBC: "The parameters to get accepted to the Company as dancers are strictly professional and artistic, regardless of religion, race or sex... The auditions are open to everyone."

When the Israel Ballet, the only company in Israel performing the great classical and neo-classical ballets of the international repertoire, toured the United States, protesters demonstrated on the grounds that the Israeli government sponsored it.

The demonstrators also pointed out that that the company had no Palestinian dancers, though Israel Ballet told the BBC: "Our dancers are selected purely on their ability to dance beautifully… to suggest it comes down to something as crude as nationality or as inflammatory as race denigrates the ideals of Ballet."

But Safiah is unwilling to enter into this debate.

"The arts in Israel are more segregated than before, but I am not interested in that sort of environment. I don't like politics having a role in the arts. I just want to dance."

Building confidence

But visa requirements may force him to return to Israel.

"Even if I have to go back and spend a year in one of the major Israeli dance companies, I am sure my future lies here in London," he adds. "I've already got offers from the likes of the Matthew Bourne Company."

Having participated in the Wayne Sleep-choreographed short film, A Bigger Space for Dancing, projected at the Royal Academy's David Hockney show, A Bigger Picture, Safiah feels that his personal success is also enabling other Palestinians boys who want to be ballet dancers to withstand criticism with more confidence.

"When I last went back home I paid a visit to the cultural centre in my town, where I was the only boy taking classical ballet," he recalls.

"I was really surprised to see that there were quite a few boys in the class - eight or nine. They thanked me and said that they were grateful to me for showing them the way and opening the door."

Correction 24 August 2012: Parts of this report have been amended to remove a suggestion that Israel had adopted a policy concerning mixed dance organisations and to clarify specific allegations of discrimination within Israeli arts.