January 10, 2008
The Arab "Billy Elliot"
Ayman Safieh is a young Palestinian ballet dancer going against the grain. He has embraced his love for ballet in a culture that is not only unfamiliar with the art form but sometimes frowns upon men engaging in stereotypically female activities such as classical dance.
But not Ayman's family and friends. Atika Shubert profiled the 16-year old ballet prodigy for this month's Inside the Middle East. Check out her impressions and pictures of the shoot below:
CNN producer Nidfal Rafa, dancer Ayman Safieh, CNN's Atika Shubert and Ayman's brother
Atika Shubert writes:
The first thing that struck me about Ayman Safieh was how happy he was. When we first met him, he had a huge grin on his face.
And it wasn’t just him. His high school buddies, his dad, his mom, his brother and sister. Their smiling faces just spoke volumes about the kind of support Ayman gets.
Good thing. Ayman has chosen a very unconventional career: Ballet Dancer. Not a popular choice for a young Palestinian man growing up Muslim in Israel.
What really impressed me is how much his family and friends had taken Ayman’s decision to heart.
Ayman’s father admitted he was a little reluctant at first, but after seeing how passionately Ayman felt, quickly opened up his checkbook to pay for dance training. Fortunately for him, it didn’t cost anything!
The decision may have been hardest for Ayman’s friends. His older brother, an avid fan of rap and hip-hop, was especially reluctant. When we interviewed them, they were candid: It’s just not hip to do ballet. Ballet is for girls, they said. And above all, none of them wanted to be branded as being gay.
But Ayman is nothing if not persistent. And he won them over. Going so far as to read them the history of ballet. What’s wrong with passion and romance, he would ask them.
It must have worked. Ayman’s brother is now one of his staunchest supporters, rallying neighbors to attend performances. In fact, Ayman’s popularity has actually increased the number of boys attending dance class at the local school!
Ayman is also lucky to have an inspirational teacher. Yehudith Arnon is an 81-year old survivor of the Holocaust. She still has a concentration camp id number tattooed on her arm. Dance has a special meaning for her. She told me this story:
At Birkenau concentration camp, she was ordered her to perform a Christmas dance for the Nazis. But she refused. She was terrified because she was sure she would be killed. At the same time, life had become so unbearable in the concentration camp that she welcomed death.
But they didn’t kill her. Instead, they forced her to stand barefoot in the snow for hours. As she felt her limbs freezing, Yehudith made this promise to herself: If I survive this, I will dedicate myself to dance for the rest of my days.
Ayman is just one example of that dedication. Yehudith takes a special interest in Ayman because she sees the same passion for dance in him. Dancing is more difficult at 81. Her joints creak and she drives to her dance lessons in an old golf cart.
We watched as she coaches Ayman through an improvised dance. As soon as the music starts, her eyes light up and she guides Ayman with her voice. She gets so carried away that she spreads her arms out and lifts onto her toes. Sometimes she forgets, she’s too old to pirouette anymore, she says.
Ayman is clearly born to dance. In his improvised session with Yehudith, his emotions were plain to see. It was riveting to watch this young, passionate man exploring all of his conflicting emotions with a graceful tumble or a striking leap. Sometimes, he would simply stand with quivering hands held out in front of him, as if he were marveling at the sheer physical expression of his body.
Personally, I consider myself lucky to have met Ayman and his wonderful family and friends. And I look forward to seeing him at his next performance.
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