Dabke and Debka

A tale of two dances: Will the line meet the circle?


A tale of two dances: Will the line meet the circle?

The foundation of the state of Israel in 1948, referred to in Palestinian historiography as the Nakba (the disaster), has politicized all areas of life and culture for both peoples. Dance is no different.The stories of the national dances of Israel and Palestine, much like the political histories of those two countries are very much intertwined. This piece will examine and juxtapose the parallel histories of these two national dances in their social and political context.

Dabke has been the traditional folk dance in the Middle East, across boundaries and In different regions, for centuries. Dabke is danced in celebratory events, weddings, and gatherings more broadly. It is essentially a participatory dance in which a line is formed and can be expanded by people joining the moving chorus. The dance is led by a Lawith, who is followed by a chorus of movement. The dance involves moves up and down in space, and involves rhythmic stomping, clapping, and changes of pace, as well as breaks between dances dancing solos and the group responding to them.  Dabke is a dance organized around storytelling, and as such, in this specific context, has developed and transformed with the changes in the nature of the Palestinian society. Over time it had become a method of communication between different parts of Occupied Palestine; a way to keep conversations alive in movement when checkpoints and walls hinder them otherwise. But beyond its actual content, dabke served an important function— preserving the heritage of Palestinian society.

The state of Israel was formally founded in 1948, following the UN declaration and the termination of the British Mandate. However Jewish immigration to Israel started much earlier; big surges are documented from the 1880s onwards. The immigration to Israel was International in nature. People came from all over the world and spoke many languages. As such, dance, the art form requiring least use of verbal language, acquired a prime position in the process of state- building, in creation of national cohesiveness and solidarity. Folk dance was orchestrated and developed by the Zionist regime. There was even an office in the main Trade Union, the Histadrut, responsible for folk dancing. In the early years of state— building in Israel, there was competition between different narratives on defining what it means to be an Israeli. The Horah became known as the most famous Israeli folk- dance; drawing on Romanian dances (the first few immigrants to Israel were heavily from that region). The Dabke became Debka; it was termed as a ‘minority dance’ became a constitutive step in Israeli folk dancing. The Debka step became intertwined in Israeli folk dances and even a title for several of them. Israeli folk dances are most typically performed in a circle, and in these cases, circles incorporating the Debka step. The participatory element of the Dabke changed into organized dances in circles, choreographed and taught during the early years of Israeli history. The circle is perhaps the most staple characteristic of Israeli folk dance. As a state drawing on socialist ideology accentuated equality of all participants; and in the circle everyone is equal.

At the same time, these developments in Israeli folk dancing, and Israeli society more broadly, had their echoes within Palestinian communities. During the British Mandate, Palestinians danced the Dabke as a statement of resistance to growing numbers of Jews arriving to Palestine before 1948, as well as the growing support for Zionism internationally. In 1923 in the village of Nebi Musa during a protest against the arrival in large numbers of Jews there is evidence of Dabke being danced in explicit political context. After 1948 there were Dabke dances choreographed which told stories of lost villages.

After the Six Days war in 1967 that had led to the annexation of further territories by Israeli forces, the Dabke gained further political weight. By the 1970s, all Palestinian political parties had Dabke groups. Dabke was performed at political rallies and demonstrations.  The politicization of Dabke did not go unnoticed by those across the border: Dabke dancers were detained at checkpoints and suffered human rights abuse for their will to perform Dabke as a national dance.

Like many aspects of the histories of Palestine and Israel, the histories of both dances are intertwined. They also clash. It is impossible to comment on the Debka in the context of Zionist history without thinking of it’s sources, as well as its influences, on Palestinian Dabke; and the influence of Dabke on Debka is clear and teaches us quite a bit about power relationships between the two narratives. Those two stories must be told together, to be put in tandem, in order to reflect the relationships of power which are part of both peoples’ histories.  Sadly, more often than not, Israel and Palestine make world news through violent clashes rather than dance. The peace process seems to have stalled completely and there is no end in sight to surges of violence and human rights abuses. It is left to wonder, then, when the two histories can converge, when truly equal citizens can dance Dabke and Debka, acknowledging wrongs of the past but focusing on a better future together. We remain hopeful that one day the circle meets the line, and all dancers can celebrate being free and equal, together.

Further reading:

Nicholas Rowe, Raising Dust: A Cultural History of Dance in Palestine, Tauris, 2010.

Ruth Eshel, Dancing with the Dream, Poalim Library, 1991.

Dance and authenticity in Israel and Palestine : performing the nation

Kaschl, Elke.

2003 | Leiden : Bril


Dr. Dana Mills is an activist, dance and political theorist. First book: dance and politics: moving beyond boundaries was published by Manchester University Press.

Dr. Dana Mills is an activist, dance and political theorist. First book: dance and politics: moving beyond boundaries was published by Manchester University Press.