First Palestinian male ballet dancer battles prejudices
Published: 11th Aug 2012 00:54:25
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.
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."
They say that for a man to wear tights and dance topless on the stage is 'haram', or 'forbidden'”
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 faces a new obstacle - a change in the Israeli government's attitude towards "mixed" dance schools and ballet companies.
"When Yehudit Arnon founded the Kibbutz Dance School Ga'aton, 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."
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.
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."
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."
At 04:44:44 in HeadlinesFrom the moment a gust of wind blew the skirt of the duchess up, to the smiling baby prince and the cheering fans, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have been treated like celebrities in New Zealand.
At 04:24:59 in HealthBowel cancer screening uptake needs to improve, campaigners say, after figures showed just over half of those eligible in England come forward for the test.
At 04:21:00 in HeadlinesThe European Parliament is voting on a bill to draw up a blacklist to fight invasive alien species such as killer shrimp and Japanese knotweed spreading.
At 04:16:11 in EnglandBefore being sent to the Western Front, thousands of new recruits were sent to a training camp to prepare them for trench warfare. However, campaigners now fear the remains of this World War One heritage face being irreparably damaged.
At 04:08:14 in EnglandMusic at a UB40 concert was so loud it was "altering heart rhythms" and caused a fan's ear to bleed, it has been claimed.
At 04:00:16 in HeadlinesParents will find out whether they have got their preferred primary school place, as for the first time a National Offer Day allocates places across England on the same day.
At 03:36:11 in BusinessChina's economy expanded by 7.4% in the first quarter of the year, better than what many were expecting.
At 02:55:07 in HeadlinesBirds can learn to choose the best building materials for their nests, according to scientists.
At 02:53:20 in HeadlinesA ferry with about 450 people on board is sinking off the south-west coast of South Korea, coastguard officials say.
At 02:28:43 in BusinessThe US has told China its currency must be allowed to rise if it and the global economy are to see stable growth.
Harvard CitationBBC News, 2012. First Palestinian male ballet dancer battles prejudices [Online] (Updated 11th Aug 2012)
Available at: http://www.ukwirednews.com/news/1445671/First-Palestinian-male-ballet-dancer-battles-prejudices [Accessed 16th Apr 2014]
News In Other Categories
Claims that Aberdeen City Council's administration broke the rules by including a pro-Better Together letter to council tax payers have been thrown out by an independent watchdog.
Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael has promised to deliver greater powers for the Northern and Western Isles.
China's economy expanded by 7.4% in the first quarter of the year, better than what many were expecting.
Parents will find out whether they have got their preferred primary school place, as for the first time a National Offer Day allocates places across England on the same day.
Before being sent to the Western Front, thousands of new recruits were sent to a training camp to prepare them for trench warfare. However, campaigners now fear the remains of this World War One heritage face being irreparably damaged.
There have been dramatic headlines about 3D technology, encompassing ideas to use 3D printers to make clothes, food, firearms and the parts of a house.