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Dancing Under Fire

Iraqi dancer Adil Oais Adil in Amman, Jordan

Battery Dance Company in Amman, Jordan spent time working with Iraqi dancer Adil Qais Adil, preparing him to perform with the New York-based company at the Amman Contemporary Dance Festival and the Amman Jazz Festival. Artistic Director Jonathan Hollander reflects on the experience of meeting for the first time with Adil, with whom he has been in contact over Facebook and Skype for the past six months.

By Jonathan Hollander

I was someone, but after I began dancing, I became someone else.

Adil Qais Adil’s simple statement above carries so much weight. A charismatic young man of 22, his passion for dance has completely alienated him from his surroundings at home in Baghdad. He views Iraq as a prison despite having a loving, tight-knit family and thousands of Facebook friends, including many fellow Iraqis, who offer adoring comments every time he posts photos or videos of himself dancing.

We are all here together now in Amman—a 90-minute flight from Baghdad for him, 20 hours of traveling for us. But unlike our long journey, Adil’s is a life-changing one.

The Jordanians I meet here in Amman all point to Baghdad’s recent past as the pinnacle of Arabic culture, on par only with Cairo, with Damascus running closely behind. How tragic it is to think of the talent and craft encoded in the DNA of the residents of these now unstable cities, controlled to a great degree by religious and social zealots who demonize the arts. Adil has the artistic DNA of Iraq in an especially concentrated dose, a brilliant light that is shuttered by his circumstances.

Adil rehearsing with Battery Dance Company’s Sean Scantlebury in Amman

Baghdad today is a dangerous place to dance, as the artform is considered profane. Women who dance mark themselves as prostitutes. A man dancing is inconceivable. It is assumed that men who dance are gay—and homosexuality is illegal, inviting defamation, or worse.

Where could Adil have seen and identified with such an alien activity? It turns out that his father was the unwitting agent for his son’s metamorphosis when he brought home a DVD of a live Michael Jackson and Britney Spears performance in Malaysia. Seeing Jackson’s moonwalk and slinky moves proved a defining moment for the impressionable 15-year-old Adil.

Five years later, after many hours seeking out dance films online, playing them repeatedly and copying the moves in the confines of his living room without access to an instructor, Adil heard about a program sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Two brothers in Adil’s neighborhood, Haedar and Ali (both of whom are now seeking asylum in the U.S.) shared his interest in dance. They told Adil about the Youth Excellence on Stage (YES) Academy, run by American Voices, an organization founded and directed by American musician John Ferguson. Adil’s parents reluctantly allowed him to travel to Kurdistan where he spent two weeks dancing with 15 other young men.

A teacher in BDC’s NYC studio helps Adil train via Skype in Baghdad

The training focused exclusively on hip-hop and break dance without the range of movement he had been exposed to online. Still, it was a remarkable opportunity to dance daily in a proper studio and to establish camaraderie with other teenage Iraqi dancers. Adil went home to Baghdad, continuing his academic studies until the next summer when he returned to Iraqi Kurdistan for YES Academy.

Then it all stopped. No more classes. No more dancing outside the living room. One day, Adil ventured outside to prepare a dance film. Two policemen detained him. They accused Adil of undermining “Islamic Iraq’s” religious laws. Quick on his feet and in his mind, Adil told the officers that he wasn’t dancing: he was practicing karate. The police left, content in their belief that Adil was performing a masculine and religiously acceptable activity.

U.S. Ambassador Alice G. Wells greets Adil and fellow performers at Al Hussein Cultural Centre

Adil’s film proved to be another instrument of change in his life. Its impact on me and on my colleagues at Battery Dance Company (BDC) provided us the inspiration to commit the time and resources to meet Adil in Amman.

Adil and I began chatting online early in October 2014. Our relationship grew through a network of Iraqi dancers who participated in a week-long Dancing to Connect* workshop conducted by BDC teaching artist Robin Cantrell, assisted by Roman Baca, an ex-Marine who returned to Iraq with Robin in 2012. The American Embassy in Baghdad funded the program, planned together with Sue Harville, an enlightened U.S. Foreign Service Officer then serving in Kirkuk.

Sue originally intended Dancing to Connect as a perk for Kirkuk students enrolled in an English language intensive course. However, terrorism in Kirkuk necessitated a change of plans. The students of the Institute of Fine Arts in Kirkuk went to Erbil and joined with a contingent of students from the institute located there. They participated in daily workshops; built esprit de corps between the Kurdish, Arab, Shiite, Sunni, and Christian participants. They created and performed their own choreography in a modest performance. During the certificate presentation afterwards, tears and hugs signaled the profound respect and affection that had been fostered.

Adil surrounded by fellow male dancers (from left to right), Sean Scantlebury and Clement Mensah of Battery Dance Company, with Jonathan Hollander (center).

In the years that followed, these young people, in their early twenties, searching for further training and opportunity in an increasingly violent and restricted environment, turned to Facebook to establish contact with fellow dance enthusiasts outside Iraq.

Adil was among those who ‘friended’ me and other members of the BDC as our virtual dance circle expanded. His isolation became evident in our conversations. I offered to connect him with one of my dancers, Sean Scantlebury, whose background in dance training included ballet, modern, and every conceivable style of urban dance. I thought that if Adil could send us video clips of his practices, Sean could at least provide a sounding board, criticism, and encouragement.

Adil had something completely different and far more ambitious in mind. He completed shooting and editing the short film that the police briefly interrupted, and dedicated it to me. The film displayed Adil’s dance prowess as well as his ability to convey pathos in a few gestures.

In the National Centre for Culture and Arts studio in Amman, Sean is choreographing a duet with Adil. Battery dancer Mira Cook is also participating. Dancing with a woman, being instructed and corrected by her—these are also firsts for Adil. New moves are coming at a feverish pitch. Years of training are being transferred in the course of hours. A dancer from Baghdad will perform next to dancers from Brooklyn—a living room dancer will become stage dancer in 10 days.

The Performances at Amman Contemporary Dance Festival and the Amman Jazz Festival were triumphs for Adil as well as BDC. Audiences packed each theater and enthusiastically voiced their appreciation. Adil nailed his routine, an extraordinary achievement considering how new it was for him, featuring mesmerizingly complex choreography and staging projected authoritatively to a large audience. The Associated Press along with Iraqi and Jordanian media outlets covered the event, from which Adil emerged as a person of interest.

What is the next chapter in this extraordinary epic? Reentering Baghdad will be a challenging step for Adil, as that will mean crossing an emotional and psychological chasm that begs many questions about this young man’s future. Among them, is Adil’s completion of law school in Iraq to take precedence over his obtaining an American visa and becoming an apprentice at the BDC? How will he survive the competitive environment in the U.S.? Only time will tell.

*Dancing to Connect is Battery Dance Company’s trademarked methodology of training young people in the skills of choreography, whether they’ve had prior dance training or not. Dancing to Connect was launched in Germany in 2006 and has since spread to over 80 cities in 40 countries.

*****

*****

Jonathan Hollander has been a Fulbright Senior Scholar in India, a Fulbright Specialist in Malaysia, a U.S. Department of State Cultural Envoy in Portugal, and is the Founder and Artistic Director of Battery Dance Company.

[Photos courtesy of Jonathan Hollander]

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