Regardless of who dances the dabke, each other’s differences go hand in hand

Some people would prefer every day dabke to dance. The uplifting music alone makes your feet move as if by themselves. And the fact that the dabke is danced hand in hand only further fuels this energy. It is not without reason that the traditional folk dance is danced in style in countries such as Palestine, Lebanon and Syria, especially at weddings and other festive occasions.

In Arabic, dabke literally means ‘to stomp’, but the dance style is a mix of circle dance and line dance. Dance experience is not required as the basic steps of the dance are simple and fun always comes first. This makes dabke an accessible way for many people to become acquainted with Arab culture and traditions.

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Tamer Alalloush (36) and his good friend Iris Loos (43) saw in dabke an opportunity to connect people with different backgrounds and increase the inclusion of Dutch nightlife. Since 2016, the two together with a team of eleven volunteers have organized evenings under the name Dabke Night. In addition, the team gives dabke workshops to very different groups.

Almost half of the approximately 700 visitors to a dabke evening are not originally from the Netherlands

And both successfully. This summer, thousands of festival goers at the Lowlands were introduced to dabke through a workshop. In addition, the Dabke evenings – which usually take place four times a year – invariably attract hundreds of visitors. In this way, the organization manages to attract a target group that is often difficult to reach with other venues. Almost half of the approximately 700 visitors to a dabke evening are not originally from the Netherlands.

social dance

The idea for Dabke Night arose in 2015; the year when Alalloush and Loos meet. Alalloush himself is new to the Netherlands at the time. He fled Syria and is staying at an asylum seeker center where Loos currently works as a volunteer. The two quickly began working together as volunteers at a shelter for asylum seekers.

Thereby, they make smart use of each other’s knowledge and skills. For example, Alalloush mainly contacts the people at the shelter, and Loos, as a marketing and communication expert, uses his skills to mobilize the Dutch to hand over items to the emergency entrance. Loos already realizes: “Together we know so many languages, we understand so many cultures and we have so much knowledge.” It is the beginning of a close collaboration and a special friendship.

I have told my flight story a hundred times, but no one asked me what it was like in Syria before the war

Meanwhile, there is a growing need at Alalloush to show people in the Netherlands another side of the Middle East. He has noticed that many people here are curious about the current situation in Syria, but hardly ask any further questions. “I told my flight story a hundred times, but no one asked me what it was like in Syria before the war,” Alalloush said.

He thinks this is a shame, because he sees integration as a two-way street; which requires effort and a certain curiosity from both sides. In 2016, he therefore organized a festival in Utrecht together with Loos and forty volunteers – many of whom were Syrian – full of dance, music and stories from the Middle East. When the DJ plays dabke music at the end of the day, everyone is encouraged to join the dance circle. This creates a special mix between the Dutch public, volunteers and artists.

The moment made a lasting impression on Loos and Alalloush: “Dabken is such a social dance. It doesn’t matter where you come from, whether the person next to you is a man or a woman, or what your story is, you just shake hands,” explains Loos. From that moment, Alalloush and Loos decide to organize workshops and evenings with a team.

Playing with expectations

The dabke workshops often start with stories about Arab culture and tradition, after which experienced dancers give a demo. Only then do the participants themselves begin to work on the basic steps of dabke. But for Alalloush and Loos, transferring the choreography is by no means the most important thing: “There is always a social motive behind what we do,” says Loos.

The content of a workshop is therefore tailored to each group; no workshop is the same. For example, a recent workshop with a group of political officials on migration started with jokes about politics. The contestants sometimes don’t even know in advance that they are going to dance that day.

Picture of:
Judith Tielemans

By playing with expectations, the pair hope to break through certain group dynamics and patterns. It sometimes leads to unpleasant situations. Like recently during a workshop with a homogenous group of white Dutch people. Loos: “I am approached as a Dutchman, but in that case I take a step back because Tamer is giving the workshop.”

Alalloush and Loos also use their culturally sensitive approach when organizing the Dabke evenings. The organizers look again and again for opportunities to integrate the wishes of their target group into the entertainment concept, so that everyone continues to feel welcome. They are always looking for the right balance between the different cultures. For example, during a Dabke Night you can just drink a beer, but the evening starts a few hours earlier than is usual in the Netherlands.

For the first time at home in the Netherlands

For many people new to the Netherlands, Dabke Night is a first introduction to Dutch nightlife. Alalloush and Loos also see that not everyone wants to get on the dance floor right away. The foyer is therefore furnished with cushions and carpets. In this way, someone can first sit quietly and simply taste the atmosphere. And behind the scenes, everything is well thought out to ensure the right balance in the audience.

Loos believes that choices in communication, representation, media and language use are important. For example, the organization generally communicates in Dutch or English. After all, Dabke Night does not aim to be a 100 percent ‘Arab night’. At the same time, the organization wants to remain accessible to everyone. Loos therefore sometimes deliberately chooses to send messages in Arabic.

The organization is regularly told that it is the first time that someone feels at home in the Netherlands

The visitors’ reactions show that the choices Alalloush and Loos have made can actually make a difference. For example, the organizers are regularly told that it is the first time that someone feels at home in the Netherlands. And even from Belgium and Germany, people now come specifically to the Netherlands to experience a Dabke night.

The Syrian community in the Netherlands is now also very proud of the organizers. “I can’t even put into words what it means,” says Loos. But the biggest compliment, according to Loos, is when a woman in a hijab leads the dabk on the dance floor: “Then my mission is accomplished.” You rarely see that, and apparently we managed to overcome something in terms of stereotypes and expectations.”

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