Palestine: Dance Prodigy Hopes to Make it Big

Ballet Prodigy by Ben Heine

Art by Ben Heine (click on the link to see the full sized version)

Every once in a while, you hear about a story that makes you stop in your tracks. One that is so outside the norm, that is seems as if the central figure has been born in the wrong time or place.

Ayman Safieh is a 16-year-old Palestinian Muslim hoping to make it big in the world of classical ballet. His teacher is 81-year-old Yehudith Arnon, an Israeli Jew and Holocaust survivor, who is known as one of Israel's top dance instructors.

Safieh has loved to dance from the time he could walk, his mother tells us. Five years ago at the age of 11, Safieh saw the movie Billy Elliot, about a boy who defied the traditional gender roles of his small English mining town and insisted on dancing ballet. “I have to dance ballet,” Safieh told his mother. “I dream to be like him.”

The challenge, then, was to break the news to his father. Seeing him dance for the first time, his father says, “I cried. I had no idea my son was that talented. You know, I have a bit of understanding about sports and art, but when I saw my son dancing, I was shocked. This was my son. This was his body, his legs, his muscles, and shoulders. I just wished I could see him more often and on a bigger stage.”

Safieh says, “People told me me it's not right for men to be so romantic. It's too feminine. I say, why can't men be romantic and passionate? Why is it only for women?”

Safieh was discovered by Raba Murkus, a Israeli Arab dance instructor whose studio was in his home town of Kfar Yasif. Murkus invited Safieh to join her children's dance troupe, but quickly learned he was meant for bigger things. “He was just amazing,” she says. “In rehearsal, he was great, but on the stage, suddenly I saw, I saw the dancer in his heart and his soul, and he surprised me. And I said, ‘Okay, we have a dancer here and we have to take care of him.'”

Murkus introduced Safieh to her own teacher, Yehudith Arnon. Dance embodies passion and Arnon has her own story to tell.

Arnon is a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Holocaust's largest Nazi concentration camp. A recognized ballerina, the Nazis ordered Arnon to dance in their Christmas performance. She refused, knowing she would likely be killed. But that was not her punishment. Instead, the Nazis forced her to stand barefoot in the snow for hours on that freezing December day, clad in her thin camp uniform. “If I survive this, I will dedicate myself to dance for the rest of my days,” she said to herself.

Safieh has been formally training with Arnon for one year. This year he danced his first major performance in the Russian National Ballet's Christmas rendition of the Nutcracker.

Despite CNN's profile, from where this story and video (recommended viewing) were sourced, it has not yet reached the attention of the blogosphere. Commenters on CNN's Inside the Middle East Blog have this to say.

A reader identified as “Spirtual Life” comments:

“This is an incredible article without politics or religion. I really want to see more reports like this. As far as Ayman goes, good luck with all your ambitions. If I were a rich person I would give him a lifelong scholarship to any dancing school in the world. I love ambition, and he's got it in abundance. More power to you, young man.”

Ms. Ramey, a ballet instructor from South Gate, California, says:

“Bravo, Ayman Safieh! I am posting this article of you on our dance studio bulletin board. I'm sure you will inspire the male students in my block two dance class. This is the first year of dance class at South East High School. I've also had a rough time getting the male students to accept dance in a positive view. Hope to see you dance one day on an international ballet tour.

On the Desert Peace Blog, who sourced CNN's story, readers’ responses were equally positive.

Lenny Bruce, author of the Through Other Eyes blog and a self-proclaimed American Israeli Dutchman, remarked:

“A very uplifting story. The reaction of his father and his friends was so cool to see.”

Commenter Julia Deming says:

“This young man moves beautifully, and I wish him every success.”

And a reader who calls himself The Master adds:

“It’s GOOD to counter the perception almost everyone in the West has that ALL Palestinians are terrorists!!”

My own thanks to professional artist and blogger Ben Heine, whose depiction of Safieh dancing (see above) inspired me to write about this story.

So what do you think? Does Safieh have a future in the field of dance? What can we learn from his story? Will he inspire generations of young dancers from Palestine who will follow in his graceful footsteps?


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