A few Novembers ago, upon realizing that I had no contract for the remainder of the dance season, I reluctantly, annoyedly moved back to my family’s home in Virginia. A ballet job hadn’t worked out for various reasons and I chose to leave mid-season. No part of me was proud or excited to move back home, to take up my job teaching at a local dance studio again, to reluctantly catch up over coffee with the people from my high school who never left our town. However, I forced myself to see this unexpected lull in my dance career as a time allotted to me in order that I may develop my other talents, pursue my other goals.
I decided to start taking classes at the university in my hometown, concluding that I might as well reawaken the academic in me while the dancer nursed her ego. The University of Mary Washington is a small, liberal arts school that was originally a women’s college. It sits on the edge of the historical downtown area of my hometown- Fredericksburg, Virginia. There, I decided to embark upon a new linguistic journey and begin learning Arabic. The reasons behind this choice aren’t really profound; Arabic had intrigued me as a language and culture for some time. With Middle Eastern conflicts dominating global news for my entire life, I foresaw Arabic fluency as an asset to a vast array of future, post-dance, professional endeavors.
It was a shockingly fast-paced course with an unforgiving professor who constantly challenged our six-person class. I often went to her office hours, and one of those times, told her I was a dancer. I muddled through the story of my winding up at the University of Mary Washington, while the shame of it pierced my brain. She immediately suggested I join the Arabic Culture Club, which had a dabke group. Dabke (dab-kuh) is a traditional Arab folk dance, practiced in many countries throughout the Levant including Jordan, Palestine, and others. My professor urged me to contact the club member who was the head of the dabke group and start coming to rehearsals. The group had two small performances coming up. I had no idea what dabke looked like or what kind of skills it required, yet she insisted I would be great at it. I had little desire to spend free time I could utilize practicing at my ballet studio to be a part of a university dance club. However, I contacted the club member and was then a hesitant, but confirmed dabke participant.
There is nothing more terrifying to a dancer than showing up to a first rehearsal, especially when the rehearsal is for a performance of a foreign dance form.
Before my first dabke rehearsal, my perfectionism, cultivated by dancing ballet for years, stirred up a familiar anxiousness to quickly, effectively prove myself to the fellow dabke students. I wanted them to be aware that I was a professional dancer, who had been paid to dance before this.
I walked up to the rehearsal on that first Sunday night with the same collection of emotions I usually had before ballet auditions, as if my success in an extracurricular college dabke group would determine my fate as a dancer. I unintentionally ignored the unique cultural immersion I would be experiencing— the ethnographic significance of my venturing from ballet into Arab folk dance. All I was focused on was asserting my ballerina identity in this new arena. Maybe this was a defense mechanism, screaming my name, proudly but a little nervously from the top of my hill, to the unknown. I think I purposefully wore a T-shirt from a ballet company I danced with just to better illustrate this identity.
I walked up to the building and inside, encountered our “rehearsal space”: one of the foreign language classrooms with the desks pushed to the sides of the walls. I shrugged to myself, somewhat unimpressed, and scanned the other dabke dancers. Here I was confronted with a reality I had never encountered in dance. Not only was I the only person wearing what I considered ‘dance clothes’, I was the only white girl in the room.
Though diversity is fortunately flowing through it more everyday, ballet is a predominantly white art form. That fact had been my reality since I was little, though I never really thought about it. My race had never once been brought up in all the dance classes, rehearsals, performances, and workshops that I had done. Being the only one of something, of a color was new water for me, and certainly pushed a small wave of subtle shock through my ballet T-shirt in that classroom.
Those desires to prove myself vanished a little bit and that odd feeling of being singled out took its place. That ribbon of condescension tied around me fell to the ground. I retreated into myself as I peered at who I later would learn were Afghani, Palestinian, and Lebanese students. I now understood that what I was doing, despite its apparent insignificance in my dance career, was stepping into a culture that was not my own. Tightly gripping my ballet identity would give me no advantage in dabke, I would have to open myself to the experience a little more.
I had never had to do this in ballet, so it was an uncomfortable, internal switching-off. Ballet and all the nuances I had adopted from it over the course of my life were comfortable, natural, instinctual. Shedding that invisible ballerina costume that I always wore didn’t come easily. That costume characterized me, it outlined me in every scenario, even outside the realm of ballet. Leaving those idiosyncrasies, that mindset, left me feeling bare, vulnerable, insecure. I didn’t know how to act or think in a dance situation like this, especially one where I was so starkly different from the other dancers. That confusion and blankness was alarming to me as someone who was so secure in myself before this, like running into the snow wearing just a bathing suit, and that bathing suit was the only thing you owned.
And so I stood in the back and copied the movements of the other girl dancers, still feeling the reality of the racial makeup of the group. Some of the girls were familiar with dabke, and others weren’t. The movements were simple, but the timing of the music was not something I was used to.
I wanted to count the Arabic pop song in perfect, balletic eights, but was promptly corrected when I tried to do so. This music had timing of its own. I wanted to fully straighten my knees and show the lines and shapes of the movements, but this dance was not supposed to be technical. Dabke is a folk dance usually performed at weddings, it was supposed to convey celebration, joy, fun.
Sunday after Sunday, I showed up in the classroom and learned a dabke routine to be performed at an Arabic Culture Festival at the end of the semester. There were seven of us, three guys and four girls. We were all pretty faithful to our dabke commitment. At rehearsal, I stopped wearing workout leggings and sneakers and began wearing jeans like the other dancers. I stopped trying to force ballet ideals into this jubilant folk dance. I also found that, despite their obvious technical differences, despite the seriousness with which I was pursuing them, ballet and dabke had a shared aspect: my race was not called into question in either dance form. No one ever commented on my being the only white girl in the dabke group, though it was a fact that had made me a little uncomfortable from day one.
We went to the Arabic Culture Festival in April after having rehearsed for a few months. Our group had solidified our short routine and become better friends with each other. I remember walking into the room where we were to get ready and strolling past the other performing groups. As I walked by them, following behind my fellow dabke dancers, I proudly smiled. I was newly happy about being a part of this group. We had these common steps linking us to one another, and the knowledge of this link eroded the previous, pointless discomfort I had felt. I was dancing a new style I never would have guessed I would try, with people whose families came from places I had no connection to until then.
I put on my yellow headpiece and jingly yellow sash in the green room. I couldn’t resist applying some ballet stage makeup, even though it was just a little show in a college ballroom. I slid on some black eyeliner and an extra swipe or two of mascara. Meanwhile, the other three dabke girls did each other’s makeup. They had been friends before this, so they were much closer to each other than I was to them, and they giggled and joked during the makeup applications, speaking to each other in a mix of English and Arabic.
The leader of the dabke group decided that their lipstick should match for the performance. She pulled out a tube of deep, brick red lipstick, the one already on her lips, and put it on the other two girls. It looked fantastic on them, complimenting their olive skin without being overkill. I sat by, admiring. Then she came up to me, and said “Here, you should match us, too.” I blushed and the awareness of the different colors of our skin rose to the surface again.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I replied. “That color probably wouldn’t look very good on me.”
“Yes, it would! Let’s try it.” And she put the red lipstick on me while my hands shook a little bit. I looked at the faces of the other two girls when she was done. They beamed. What they said made me beam:
“Oh my gosh, it looks so good on you!”
“That’s totally your color!”
We went backstage during the act right before our dabke dance. A traditional Arabic poem was being read by a Middle Eastern Studies scholar. He spoke softly with passion, and I was able to pick out a few words. It calmed me and reminded me of how I was first connected with this vibrant culture. I felt united with this new language and dance and customs, from a part of the world I knew little about before, a part of the world that is victim to so many false generalizations. And the entirety of my involvement with this precious sliver of Arabic culture had ironically blossomed out of me stepping away from ballet, and coming home, rather than venturing far away.
Backstage, I breathed with the same urgency and felt the same beads of palm sweat as I did before ballets. The girls and I checked each other’s lipstick and made sure the guys’ shirts were tucked in. This part was familiar to me, one of my favorite parts of performing. We went on, danced dabke together, and finished with the whole audience clapping to the music and some of them rising, and dancing with us.