Mohamad Balchi is a general practitioner by day, folk dancer and musician by night. It’s not unusual to find the Sharjah-based Palestinian doctor dancing in wedding halls across the UAE. Juggling a night shift at the hospital is particularly hard, he tells Gulf News, but the 26-year-old will never miss a dabke gig the same evening.
Mohamad isn’t the only performer leading a double life, as we’ll find out. The Palestinian, Lebanese, Syrian and Jordanian expat communities in the UAE are fuelled by a common Levantine folkdance, the dabke. Its steps and rhythms have been passed down generation after generation, taught by mothers to sons, by older brothers to sisters.
In our conversations with the many UAE-based Arab expats performing in troupes, dabke is consistently described as a passion, more than a hobby. Through their fond memories, we take a trip down the memory lane and trace dabke’s ever-growing popularity in the UAE. (Hint: You get to learn it, too!)
What is dabke?
A performance of dabke (also dabkeh or dabka in different Arabic dialects) is hard to miss. Men and women form a line, led by the dance leader or lawih, with hands linked and feet shuffling to live drums and flutes. As they hop and kick to the counts of six, the lawih breaks the formation into a circle with a thunderous kick to the ground and a low drop, typically spinning a misbaha or a rosary. The entire group then alternates between jumps and drops, punctuated by rhythmic stomping, till the song ends.
Villagers of the Levant region kicked the ground under their feet the same way for days in the square before a wedding. In his book ‘Raising Dust: A Cultural History of Dance in Palestine (2010)’, professor of dance studies Dr Nicholas Rowe shares a description of a Jordanian village wedding in 1960, recorded by a travelling anthropologist Abdulla Lutfiyya. Each night before the wedding, the community would gather around a campfire and celebrate with 30-minute-long sets of dabke among other folkdance practices.
The (unsolved) origins of dabke
Was it Jordan, then, or Palestine, Syria and Lebanon that founded the dance? We reached out to Dr Rowe for answers, who tells Gulf News that no one knows, “… and nobody ever will know. We do know that what is called dabke is similar to a dance enacted on celebratory occasions in rural settings across the Levant region (with various localised variations) in the 19th century”.
Rather than dabke directly descending from an ancient folkdance, he says, it’s more likely that it absorbed multicultural influences from the groups that passed by the region then, from the Romans and Assyrians to Egyptians.
One clay stand is composed of figures facing left with their shoulders linked in a circle. Another clay seal excavated from Northern Palestine shows a pictorial of dancing figures linked shoulder to shoulder in a line. Could it be dabke’s ancestor? No one can say for sure.
But what we do know is that those who practise the dance say it’s been in the family for as long as they can remember.
Taught by mums and uncles, a dance of generations
Dabke is a social dance, which means anyone and everyone can learn it. With lyrics that talk of love, home and praise for the bride and groom, dabke performances are an open invitation to neighbours and strangers. Bringing the same spirit of camaraderie to the local scene are the youth of Levantine region in the UAE, who sometimes group together to form professional travelling troupes.
One such Dubai-based band is Shabibat Falasteen, a Palestinian zaffa (live wedding procession) and dabke group formed in 2014. Karim Renaoui, 38, a public relations officer and the band’s founder, was encouraged to learn the dance by his mum at 23.
Dabke is a way for our parents and families to teach us more about our culture. It’s a source of both pride and happiness.
“When I was in college [Skyline University College, Sharjah], there was a culture club for each country. My mother pushed me to become a member of this group; she also taught me. Dabke is a way for our parents and families to teach us more about our culture. It’s a source of both pride and happiness,” said Karim, who in turn inspired his nine-year-old son to teach other children via YouTube.
Shabibat Falasteen, consisting of 20 band members, perform Palestinian dabke set to their own choreographies and self-composed music like most groups. Each move is cleared in six counts before moving on to the next step.
While troupes perform in the traditional Palestinian clothing, which includes a long robe (qumbaz), baggy trousers (shirwal) and a black and white headdress (keffiyeh), dabke at home would be danced in casuals.
We perform at all weddings, not just Palestinian. We’re invited to Emirati weddings – even Indian and Pakistani.
“We perform at all weddings, not just Palestinian,” Ahmed Al Nims, 26, pharmacist and the lawih (dance leader) of Shabibat Falasteen, told us. “We’re invited to Emirati weddings – even Indian and Pakistani.”
Mohamad Balchi of the same band is a proud dancer of dabke since he was four, taught by his uncle. On his phone, he carries an old picture of his tiny self, swinging around a misbaha with uncontained glee.
It’s not uncommon to sprain an ankle or rupture a ligament when practising, says Mohamad. He recalls his uncle’s own dance group founded in Sharjah during the 1980s had an exercise regimen of squatting twice a week to keep the muscles in the thigh flexible.
Dabke on the world stage
Then there are those who trained in the art of dabke professionally, starting with ballet. Ali Mokhallati, a 36-year-old Lebanese expat and owner of Molayya Events in Dubai, followed in his father’s footsteps.
“My father had a dance school in Beirut called Molayya in 1983; I travelled with him around the world, performing at several cultural events in various countries, from the US to South Korea,” said Ali. “I learned dabke in Beirut when I was 14. Theatres will usually start [teaching you] with basic ballet moves in Lebanon, so that it’s easier for you to master dabke.”
I learned dabke in Beirut when I was 14. Theatres will usually start [teaching you] with basic ballet moves in Lebanon....
Word of dabke has spread so far and wide that Ali has flown out with his troupe to perform at a wedding in Kerala, India. Just this February 2022, the dabke and zaffa troupe was in Pakistan, as well.
A gathering of different nationalities
We caught up with another Palestinian band, whose initial members met while studying at the American University in the Emirates. Founded in 2014, Ard Kan'an is an active troupe of 20 members. But they call themselves family, who’ve come together to do what they love.
“When we perform dabke, we’re having fun, releasing stress and hanging out – we’re a family,” said Ahmad AlKhatib, 28, accountant and founder of Ard Kan'an. Jordanian by nationality, Ahmad worked as an accountant at the university after graduating, where he discovered young students who were as passionate as him about the folkdance. He began teaching whoever wanted to learn.
When we perform dabke, we’re having fun, releasing stress and hanging out – we’re a family.
“I learned dabke as a kid from my elder brother… I must have been in grade five or six in school. It was mainly just the basics, enough to dance with my friends at family gatherings. And then I wanted to do better, so I watched videos on YouTube.
“If you think about it, you dance to dabke holding the hands of your friends and family members. So it keeps reminding you that these people are with you and that you’re doing something for your heritage. We even want our children to carry on the band,” he added.
Ard Kan'an is home to performers from different nationalities – Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian and more – all of whom identify as Palestinian in origin. Learning dabke is not obligatory by any means, but Khaled Alagha, a 23-year-old customer relationship manager and member of Ard Kan'an, says it’s a family legacy. Khaled’s uncles taught him the ropes in the UAE at the age of nine, and now he hops and skips with practised ease.
Learn dabke with Ard Kan'an
Ahmad and his bandmates say it can take anywhere from days to a month to get the basics down, depending on the learner. How long would it take you? Here is Khaled’s master class on four beginner moves of Palestinian dabke, each composed of six counts.
Grab a friend and master the dabke!