Under the spell of dabke

Rows of people stand hand-in-hand on the dancefloor, swaying rhythmically to Arab beats. A live drum whips up the energy in the room to dizzy heights. We’re at the Dabke Night, a regular dance night revolving around the dabke: a new, addictive nightlife trend.

text: Willemijn Roodbol
photo header: Marcus Valance

In an attempt to acquaint more people with Middle-Eastern culture, good friends Tamer Alaloush and Iris Loos organised a festival in Utrecht. The DJ at this event (eight years ago) played dabke music, an energetic style of music that originated in the Levantine regions of the Middle-East. ‘People leapt up, went wild on the dancefloor and asked other people to join them in dancing the dabke,’ explains Iris. ‘We saw how the dabke connects people; I saw a power that I wanted use in the cultural activities I organise.’ So she read up on the dance and by her own admission, became ‘addicted’. Iris: ‘I soon started practising and training, and now I can’t live without it.’

Centuries old

The increasing popularity of music from the Middle-East and North Africa is reflected in the programming at festivals and podiums. From Egyptian classics to energetic Arab pop; more and more evenings are bringing new diversity to Dutch nightlife. TivoliVredenburg books a lot of artists with Arab roots, for example, and you’ll find dance evenings such as Disco Arabesquo Night, Yallah! Yallah! along with the Dabke Nights organised by Tamer and Iris.

‘The first evening was a great success,’ says Iris. ‘People kept asking us afterwards when the next edition would be. Not just people with a Middle-Eastern background, but enthusiasts who never normally listen to Arab music.’

Dabke Nights are now an item on the Utrecht night scene. ‘People drive here from all across the country to come to a dance evening,’ explains Tamer. ‘We even have regulars from Antwerp and Maastricht.’ He first encountered dabke in Syria, where it’s a traditional folk dance like in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq. It is centuries old with its origins in the Ottoman era. Tamer: ‘Dabke means ‘‘to stamp’’ in Arabic. There are stories about people who used to strengthen their loam roofs and smooth road surfaces by joining forces and stamping on them. But also about labourers who let off steam after a hard day’s work by forming a circle together and dancing the dabke.

They used to be accompanied by women singing, who managed to maintain the same rhythm for hours, often without instruments or just someone keeping time with a drum or flute. These days, a live band or DJ plays the music and the dabke is faster than the traditional version.’

Through the roof

Dabke is for men and women, young and old, and anyone in between, Tamer and Iris are keen to stress. This is an important feature of Dabke Nights. Iris: ‘The evening always begins with an introduction, an easy-to-follow workshop showing people the six basic steps. Then we all take to the dancefloor.’ The best dancer leads the way: they improvise, making deep knee bends and jumping up again. It looks elegant, impressive and impossible for novices. But everyone is welcome to join in, says Iris. ‘Some people are trying the steps for the first time, while trained dancers are going wild to the beat of the live drum and keyboard. Experienced or inexperienced, within five minutes, the energy levels are through the roof. That’s the thing about dabke.’ Dabke wasn’t originally a dance you’d come across in nightclubs; it was mainly a dance for parties and weddings. In oppressed countries such as Palestine, the dance is a symbol of resistance, a way of confirming your cultural identity. The latter also applies to the Dabke Nights, says Iris. ‘The biggest compliment we can get from visitors is to hear that they feel at home.’

‘Dabke is a great way of bringing people together,’ says Tamer. ‘The workshops make the evenings more welcoming to a wider group of visitors, including people who don’t have Arab roots but want to try something new.’ Iris: ‘We sometimes have five hundred people in the Pandora hall, all dancing the dabke together. It’s just amazing.’ Introducing dabke into mainstream nightlife was quite a risk, she continues. ‘The dance and music are in the blood of Arab people, it’s embedded in their being. But it’s a tradition that you have to respect and mustn’t change to fit in with a European concept. This would strip it of its credibility and authenticity. At the same time, we wanted to find a new and exciting concept for Dutch nightclubs. We had to find the right balance, and I think we managed.’

Proud of your roots

TivoliVredenburg programmer Loubna El Boujoufi can only agree that Dabke Nights are a great success. ‘There’s no point organising an evening like this just once a year. If you want to create something unique with your visitors, it has to be a regular happening, something very special. It’s a successful evening if the majority of the visitors understand the music, sing along and can identify with the artists.’ According to Loubna, it’s not just about the music, but the whole experience. ‘We serve typical Middle-Eastern food, such as falafel, tabouleh, baba ghanoush, kibbeh and baklava, and lots of different mocktails.

We want to appeal to the audience at every level, so they can enjoy the total experience of an evening out.’ ‘We want our Dabke Nights to be an evening when visitors can be themselves, have fun, and escape from the daily grind,’ Iris adds. ‘An opportunity to be proud of their roots.’ Loubna nods in agreement: ‘A place where everyone feels welcome.’

The Dabke Nights foundation organises cultural workshops and club nights throughout the Netherlands under the motto ‘Integration is a two-way street’.

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