Badke: Dancing for Their Lives


Badke: Dancing for Their Lives

The stage is black, suffocating. A row of figures just visible in the gloom; lined up in the darkness. Silence. And then the beginnings of a rhythm. Feet stamping in time to an inaudible beat, punctuated by calls and cries that ring out in the gloom. Faster, more frenzied; a caucophony of unseen noises.

The lights suddenly flick on. Loud Arabic dance music booms out of the sound system, the row of dancers illuminated as they step their way, knees high, feet stamping, into a celebratory dance. Arms draped around their shoulders, their backs to the audience, the unmistakable beat and shuffle of enthusiasm fillign the stage.

Thus begins Badke, a collaboration between Belgian choreographers Koen Augustijnen, Rosalba Torres Guerrero (les ballets C de la B), Hildegard De Vuyst (KVS) and ten Palestinian performers from different personal and dance backgrounds, including traditional dabke, modern dance, hip-hop, capoeira and circus. Performed in London as part of this year’s Shubbak festival, the performance’s name is a deliberate inversion of the word “dabke”, the traditional Arab social dance often said to originate in Palestine (although most countries and communities in the Middle East have their own version). The end result is an infectious, high-octane, exhuberant spectacle, the dancers skipping and stamping their way to exhaustion in a gruelling hour-long performance.

We as Palestinians, we’re not heroes and we’re not victims anymore. We’re just human beings

Badke is an exercise in perserverence. At once point in the show, the stage is plunged into darkness and the music cuts out, evidently remeniscent of the power cuts so ingrained in the everyday lives of so many Palestinians. But the performers will not give up so easily, whistling, clapping, drumming and singing their way into new throes of celebration. Even when the music diminishes to nothing but a muted thumping, the dancers prostrate on the floor, their hands over their ears, they do not give up.

Moments later, they are on their feet again, twirling and jumping in ever more daring feats of acrobatics.

Throughout, behind the smiles and the joyful hand-clapping and catcalling there are darker elements that seep through into the dance. The dancers grow increasingly frenzied, their bodies slick with sweat, wild-eyed and dizzy from their efforts to affirm their own existence. The music drones on, occassionally a wailing siren call, occasionally a banging electronic rhythm punctuated by Arabic words and phrases.

Ultimately, Badke offers a nuanced and subtle portrait of the Palestinian condition; the contant struggle to simply be, to live without constraints and to embrace the everyday normacly of human life. This is a Palestine that familiar to any who have experienced the joy and exeuberance of an Arab social occasion – the solidarity, the communal joy, the wanton abandonment – but less familiar to those audiences fed a contant diet of misinformation and sterotypes; of the repressed and silent Arab stripped of their voice and of their humanity. Badke gives that voice back to the Palestinians themselves; physically affirming their existence against seeminly insurmountable odds. As one of the dancers themselves put it in the post-show Q&A: “We as Palestinians, we’re not heroes and we’re not victims anymore. We’re just human beings.”

The Shubbak festival runs from 11-26 July 2015.


Image courtesy of the Shubbak festival, ©DannyWillems

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review. A writer and journalist, she is currently completing PhD Middle East Politics at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. She has written about the Middle East and Arab world for numerous publications, including the Economist, the New StatesmanOasis Magazine and the Telegraph.