Meet the all-female Arab-American dabke troupe preserving and innovating the ancient dance

Malikat Al Dabke have been stomping their way to success

'Malikat al Dabke': All-women dance troupe brings Arab culture to Washington DC

'Malikat al Dabke': All-women dance troupe brings Arab culture to Washington DC
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In a mirrored studio in Washington, Fairuz Foty queues an Arabic song on her mobile phone and quickly leaps to join the other women lined up for their weekly dabke practice.

The dancers, dressed in black and with checkered keffiyehs wrapped around their waists, jump and stomp their feet in unison to the upbeat rhythm of the song.

Ms Foty, 33, is the founder of the all-female Malikat Al Dabke – Arabic for “queens of dabke”, which is a traditional folk dance popular in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq.

They say they are the first all-female dabke troop in the DMV, the acronym for the Washington, Maryland and Virginia region.

Using line and circle dancing and occasionally solos, too, dabke consists of synchronised footwork and the dramatic stomping of feet.

Often the dance is led by a laweeh, who directs the group and twirls beads, a scarf or a sword, before breaking out into an improvised solo.

Few agree on the exact origins of the dance and there is surprisingly little literature documenting the regional and stylistic dabke variations, let alone the names of the different moves.

But despite the mystery surrounding the ancient dance, dabke, which was once a mainstay in rural weddings and celebrations, is gaining popularity thanks to social media and young people who are eager to hang on to their ancestral identity.

Many troupes in the US and elsewhere in the world are all male, and those that are mixed, Ms Foty says, often have men leading the dance and making most of the decisions about the choreography.

“The inspiration was to create a safe space to explore Arabic dance,” Ms Foty, who is Palestinian and Egyptian, tells The National.

In co-ed groups, she adds, she often felt like, despite having the most experience, she was pushed “to the back of the line”.

“Being in an all-female troupe, we all choreograph together and we're all trying to highlight one another,” Ms Foty who is also an opera singer, says.

“There's really no hierarchy.

“And it became a hit because many other Arab American women in particular were feeling a similar sentiment.”

Dabke usually begin with a slower beat and dancers move together. As the music speeds up, the choreography changes, and the dancers form a line or a circle, or spread apart as the footwork gets faster.

So far, Malikat Al Dabke have performed at cultural events, festivals and private parties. They have six dancers in the troupe and are hoping to add more members later in the year.

Sonia Abdulbaki, a member of the group, says unlike belly dancing – the sensual dance that is generally performed by female dancers in the Middle East – dabke feels “masculine” to her.

“Because of all the stomping, it can be militant in terms of the lines, the synchronicity, the marching and having someone at the front leading,” Ms Abdulbaki, 34, who works full time as a user experience designer, tells The National.

“Not that it means only men can do it.

“There's just high energy to it and a lot of stomping which makes me think that it's masculine.”

Ms Abdulbaki, who was born in the US but lived in Lebanon as a child, said being part of the group is deeply meaningful to her, after years of feeling disconnected from her ancestral culture.

“Dabke has always been a passion of mine and I was really excited to join, especially knowing that it was going to be an all women's group,” she says.

Feryal Elorr, another member of the group, has been doing research on the origins of dabke, its diversity and its variations. She is also starting what she says is the long process of categorising the different movements and their names.

The absence of written documentation puts the ancient dance at risk of being appropriated by other dances or cultures, she says, which could erase it.

“I love learning dabke and learning the dance moves, but I'm always thinking about the things around it as well, I'm always thinking about the history, the clothing, the tradition, what it means to us,” Ms Elorr, 33, says.

But equally important to preserving the dance, she says, is embracing that change is an inherent and positive part of life.

“The traditional dabke is beautiful, because it's the origin and where it came from, and then fusion is also beautiful, because it's where we are now,” she tells The National.

“It's showing our identity, who we are right now, and giving us paths to who we want to be, to express who we want to be in the future.”

Updated: August 15, 2023, 12:41 PM