The Ramallah Ballet Center, where girls in white tights and pink tutus twirl in front of a long mirror, seems a world away from the street below, where butchered lambs hang for sale, resentment lingers from the last intifada, and horns blare as cars snake dangerously close to each other in the narrow streets.
“Doesn’t the music make you feel so peaceful?” asks studio owner Shyrine Ziadeh, as she surveys her students. “That’s one of my favorite things about dancing.”
Ms. Ziadeh’s dance studio is the first to open in Ramallah and the only one she knows of in the West Bank, following years of foreign instructors teaching lessons out of their homes or in local schools. (Read more about female entrepreneurs in the West Bank here.)
Ziadeh, who grew up in Ramallah, planned to leave the West Bank to study dance abroad after graduating from Birzeit University four years ago. But she changed her mind after she opened the studio last year and saw how popular her classes are. If she leaves, she fears no one will be there for the students.
“The kids here, they have many talents but no one to support them,” she says. “So when I find a talented girl, I support her with all my heart.” Ziadeh says part of her motivation was the fact that when people around the world think of the Palestinian territories, they don’t see hope or talent, but violence.
Ziadeh sees her studio as place where local kids – she teaches between 30 and 40 students a month – can come to have fun in a safe place.
“I want to show the world that as Palestinians, we have talent and can defend our land not only in violence, but in the arts.”
Ziadeh sees the studio as a success, though it’s not yet profitable. She charges 200 shekels (about $55) a month for two classes a week, but some parents can’t afford to pay. The Orthodox Church that owns the studio space has so far allowed her to pay rent late when needed and she’s still repaying a loan her parents gave her.
Some Israelis who heard about her business offered to give funding, something she’s so far declined in the hopes that Palestinians will be the ones to provide support.
In a region where the political conflict is reflected in so much of society Ziadeh says Israeli-Palestinian politics have complicated her business. She can’t get the costumes she needs because West Bank stores don’t sell them and she doesn’t have a permit to travel 15 miles to Jerusalem to buy them. Instead, she goes to Amman, Jordan to buy the outfits necessary for performances, or has them made by hand.
Hoping for more boys
Another challenge Ziadeh hopes to overcome is gender. Her classes have been predominately female, but she thinks it’s important to involve boys as well because of the impact dance can have on them. She hopes that boys will start to enroll if she offers hip-hop classes.
“The problem is not with the Arab culture,” she says, citing a friend who teaches more boys than girls in the Egyptian royal ballet. “I think it’s here, the boys want to be more tough.”
Being ready for an intifada is a prominent part of how boys are raised, she says. “[They say] ‘how can I dance when I have to defend my country?’ But they can defend the country by dancing,” Ziadeh says.
Fadia Othman, the mother of one of Ziadeh’s students, says the classes help her 6-year-old daughter to be calmer in school.
Hadeel Kamil, a German-Palestinian gum surgeon who also has a daughter in the class, praises the decision of people like Ziadeh who stay in the Palestinian territories, sharing their talents locally instead of moving to a potentially easier and more lucrative life abroad.
"Palestine deserves people who know how to think," Ms. Kamil says.