Born to Dance

Esti Ahronovitz
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Esti Ahronovitz

A pouring rain drenches Kibbuz Ga'aton as a group of young female dancers bursts out of the bus and into the main entrance of the studio. The girls quickly shed their coats, scarves and umbrellas and use the few minutes remaining before the start of the lesson for a quick snack and a chat. "Is Ayman coming?" asks one, glancing at the wild weather outside. A few minutes later, the car from Kafr Yasif arrives.

Ayman Safieh is the current star of Kafr Yasif. He is stopped wherever he goes. People call out his name and want to shake his hand, and Safieh enjoys every minute of it. At the end of a twisting street, at Abdi's falafel shop, he is given a royal welcome and at the end of the meal, the owner adamantly refuses to accept payment. "Ayman is like my brother," he explains.

It wasn't always this way. There were times when Safieh preferred not to wander the village streets. He was called derogatory names, or laughed at, and sometimes heard people whispering behind his back. Even his good friends ostracized him. But today his standing has changed. Safieh, 17, is considered the first Arab classical-modern dancer.

His day begins with regular classes at the Kafr Yasif high school. Then, after a short break at home, he is picked up and taken to Kibbutz Ga'aton, where he changes out of his jeans into his dancing tights, switches his tennis shoes for ballet shoes, and for the next four hours is in the hands of some of the country's best dance teachers.

In Ga'aton, he is swallowed up among all the girls. Just before they head up the kibbutz paths to the large studio for rehearsals of a dance they will perform as part of a special project in old age homes throughout the north, Yehudit Arnon comes in. Arnon, 81, the founder of the studio and an Israel Prize laureate in the art of dance, is a petite woman with large, shining blue eyes. The young people surround her with warmth and enthusiasm.

Arnon has come quite some way since the time when, as a young girl, she was forced to dance in front of SS officers. She has lived on Kibbutz Ga'aton since arriving in Israel in 1948. The dance center she founded includes a studio for children from elementary school through high school; a dance workshop where young people who have completed their army service can train; and the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, directed by choreographer Rami Be'er.

In the past year, Arnon has taken Safieh under her wing. She and the studio director, Sharon Hadas, have devoted much care and attention to the young dancer who came to the school a year ago and joined the tenth-grade class without any prior professional training. The dance studio has 230 students (with the exception of another boy in the fourth grade, all the rest aside from Safieh are female). After the rehearsal, Safieh hurries to a private lesson with a teacher of classical ballet. There, Safieh stands at the barre and begins doing countless repetitions of the plie, releve and pirouettes to a piano accompaniment.

It's not every day that you see a lithe Muslim teenager in leggings and ballet shoes. "I'm happy with this kind of dancing and with these clothes, too," he says. "The revealing dress doesn't bother me: The debka has its way of dress and ballet has its way of dress. These are the clothes that are the norm all over the world. There were people in the village, relatives even, who said that I was wearing men's underwear, and it bothered them. It doesn't bother me."

Ayman is the middle child of Hashem and Bandur Safieh. The extended Safieh family is the biggest family in Kafr Yasif. They live in the same stone house where family members have lived for generations. Hashem's brothers live on the upper floors of the building. The home has a spacious living room, attractively and comfortably furnished. Hashem makes coffee for everyone before he leaves for his afternoon shift at Hagalil Taxis in Nahariya. He has been working there for 25 years. "I'm the only Arab who ever got the job of dispatcher," he says. Behind his tough facade, he comes across as a sensitive guy with a hearty sense of humor and a doting father always ready to fiercely protect his son. He is in continual contact with Arnon and Hadas and keeps up on his son's progress. When Ayman talks about attending a summer seminar abroad, his father can't hide his concern. "I asked Yehudit if she needs me to come along as an escort," he says, half-jokingly.

"When Ayman told me he loves ballet, I was pleased," he relates. "Ballet is culture, it's education, it's values. We Israelis, unfortunately, take a lot of negative things from the Europeans: I see my son's friends with piercings in their ears, in the nose, with dyed hair. Ayman wanted something good."

You weren't opposed in the beginning?

"Ayman also thought I'd be opposed because I've always been very strict about their upbringing. No earrings or gel in the hair, for instance. But there's nothing bad about ballet. Ballet is art and there's also no religion that would oppose art."

And what about the neighbors in the village?

"Look, with the Mizrahi Jews [with origins in the Muslim countries], too, there aren't a lot of men who would go and dance. Try telling a Moroccan: 'Take your son to ballet' - He'll laugh in your face. I once asked this Georgian guy who works with me if he would take his son to ballet, and he looked at me like I was crazy. People don't have an open mind. But if I'm certain about something, then, with all due respect, I ignore what people around me are saying. I do what I think is right. And what's right is for Ayman to study ballet."

The elder Safieh admits that not everyone in the family was so fond of the hobby chosen by his son. "They said - 'What does he need it for? There's no future in it, it's not masculine.' I told them that I believe my child has a great future. And today the whole family is proud of him."

Ayman's mother, Bandur, is the house mother at a boarding school in the village. In the afternoons, she comes home from work and gets busy in the kitchen. Today Ayman has the day off from school to prepare for the matriculation exam in mathematics. The couple have two other children - a son, Adham, 18, who works for the Yellow retail chain and plans to study nursing, and a daughter, Ishtiya, 11.

Ayman began to talk at a relatively late age. Up until age 3, he expressed himself solely through movement and dance. He continued dancing as he got older and at every family event, relatives would gather round and clap a debka rhythm for him. When he was 6, he was sent to a debka class at the village school. But what interested him more was the class that followed, the ballet class. He saw the movie "Billy Elliot" three times, and each time identified further with the English boy who is supposed to learn boxing but falls in love with ballet and tries to hide it from his father and the rest of his family.

"After the debka lesson I would stay to watch the girls," says Ayman. "I was mesmerized by their long movements, by the nobility of the dance. I wanted to try it, but I was scared. Who around here ever heard of a boy dancing ballet?"

For years, he kept his yearning for ballet a secret. Sometimes, when no one was home, he would lock the door to his room and clumsily try to imitate the movements he had seen the girls practicing. The only person who knew of his secret was his mother. Bandur wasn't upset; on the contrary. She smothered him with affection. When he turned 14 and asked if he could join the girls in the ballet class, she gave her consent. But the mother and son made a pact. Both feared Hashem's reaction and decided not to tell him about it. "It was just our secret," says Ayman. And so, with great excitement, Ayman went to his first ballet lesson.

Now, looking back, Hashem laughs about the "big secret." "If he had told me at age 9 that he liked ballet, I would have let him do it," he says, chuckling heartily, "and by now he would have been dancing in Europe."

Ayman Safieh vividly remembers his first ballet class. The girls asked him if he was serious, if he had really come there to dance. And he told them he was just trying it out. The teacher was a young man of Russian background who taught in the village. "He was very pleased to see me and gave me a warm welcome." For the first time, Ayman stood by the barre and the teacher began instructing him in the movements that for years, he had only imagined doing. "It was a fantastic feeling. I felt different from everyone, the most special, I felt like this is what I was born for. And I've had that same feeling ever since."

But rumors quickly took flight. By the next day, he was already being teased at school. "Does somebody have a problem with it?" he angrily asked his friends. And the answer wasn't long in coming. Within days, Ayman was a target of scorn and ridicule. "They were talking about me all over the village," he recalls. "Laughing at me, saying I was gay, that people shouldn't talk to me. I couldn't go down the street without someone taunting 'There goes Ayman the dancer.' But the thing that hurt me most was that good friends all of a sudden stopped talking to me. I tried to explain to them that everyone is born for something, that everyone has a destiny. For some people it's basketball or soccer, and for me it's dancing." But the explanations didn't help. After two and a half months, Ayman couldn't take the social ostracism anymore and quit the ballet lessons. He went back to dancing the traditional debka with the village men. But in his room, when no one was looking, he kept on practicing his pirouettes.

The turning point came a year later. When he was 15, the debka group performed at a village event. The performance was seen by Raba Murkus, a professional dancer and former member of the kibbutz dance company, who had studied with Yehudit Arnon. Murkus, director of the Roots dance company, proposed that Safieh join her company in preparation for a major performance in Shefaram. He agreed immediately. This was the second time he began to study dance professionally. This time, he was also exposed to modern dance, as well as flamenco. He planned to surprise his father with his participation in the big show in Shefaram. But his father couldn't come; only his mother saw the performance.

"I couldn't stop crying the whole time," she said this week. At the end of the show, someone from the dance school in Ga'aton approached Murkus and suggested that Safieh come to the professional dance school on the kibbutz. When his mother heard the offer, her response was simple: "You need to speak to his father."

And so, with no little trepidation, Raba Murkus came to talk with Hashem. Ayman waited outside the living room. "And my father, without asking any questions, said yes," he recounts. "We were all in shock. I was astounded by his response. I thought he'd have the same ideas as most of the people here in the village, and so I was sure he wouldn't allow it. I ran in and hugged him. That same day we filled out all the forms for Ga'aton.

"My father asked me just one thing: 'This school is from three until nine at night - will you be able to handle that?' I said yes. Then he said: 'If this is what you want, then I'll support you.' I felt like my dream was coming true. Then my excitement turned to curiosity - How does the place look? How will I be accepted there? What will they say?"

It's only a 10-minute drive from Kafr Yasif to Kibbutz Ga'aton, but for Ayman Safieh it was like traveling to a whole new and exciting world. "The first difference was just in how the place looked," he says. "It was the first time I'd ever been to a kibbutz. Suddenly everything was green and quiet, there were trees and grass. I couldn't have imagined a place like this. You never hear any noise here. I was used to the village with all the buses and shops and shouting. I couldn't believe that people lived this way, the way the do on the kibbutz."

Did the people seem different to you as well?

"For me, all people are the same. I grew up with Arabs and Jews. Five years ago, a friend took me to a conference of the Communist Party in Kafr Yasif and I've been active in it ever since. We're for peace between the two peoples and human dignity and so it makes no difference to me if the person standing next to me is an Arab or a Jew."

The girls at the dance school fell in love with him right away. "A boy adds a lot to a group of girls," says Sharon Hadas. "They rely on him, they're helped by him, they really love him, and he's the only guy here."

Ayman: "When I first told the girls that I was an Arab, their first reaction was: You're lying. You don't look like it.' And once they understood that it was true, they kept asking me how my parents let me come to Ga'aton. I still get those kinds of questions."

Safieh was accepted as a dancer in the professional track, which includes a matriculation certificate in dance - comprising an exam in classical ballet, modern dance and choreography - and a matriculation certificate in music, history of dance and anatomy.

"One day, Raba comes to me with a DVD and says, 'Take a look at this guy,'" recalls Arnon. "I was very impressed. He never studied dance, but I could see the talent. I said to her: 'This boy has to study.' When we met, I explained to Ayman what it means to study dance at the school. I asked him if he could handle the discipline that's required here. Because I always say that whoever doesn't really have to dance, shouldn't dance."

Arnon sees Ayman as a flower that is just beginning to bloom. In her philosophy, a dancer's path to development is never-ending. Unlike most of the other students in his class, who began taking dance lessons many years ago, Safieh has a lot of material to make up. Arnon also gives him private lessons.

"What sets him apart is that when he's on stage, you see Ayman!" says Arnon. "It's a gift. Not every dancer has it. And for it to be real, you have to work hard. He has the musicality and the physical ability to hear and see and learn what the teacher is giving."

Hadas is less circumspect. "I see him becoming part of one of the major dance companies in Israel or abroad," she says.

Hanging above Safieh's bed are pictures of ballet dancers and an array of articles that have been written about him in the local Arab press. (After he took part in the promotional film "Rak Lirkod" ["Only to Dance"] for the "Born to Dance" television program, the international press also discovered him.) His daily schedule is jampacked. When his high school classes are over, he comes home for a half hour and has a bit to eat. At three-thirty he gets a ride to Ga'aton and only returns home around 9:30 P.M. Then he has to do homework and study for tests.

Recent months have been particularly hectic and exciting. "It all started when Channel 2 called the school in Ga'aton and asked if they had a boy that dances. They called all the dance schools looking for someone to be in the film. The film's producers couldn't believe that there was an Arab Muslim boy who danced ballet. At the time I wasn't thinking at all about publicity." After people from the production company met with Safieh and his father, and got his permission, the filming began.

It isn't every day that a film crew comes to Kafr Yasif. Ayman will never forget the way people from the village crowded around the house, their curiosity piqued by the television crew that went inside. "I felt that something good was starting to happen," he says. Hashem tells how he got a group of pensioners in the village to come play backgammon at Abdi's falafel shop, where Channel 2 wanted to film some background shots with Ayman.

The film "Rak Lirkod" tells the story of three people for whom dance is an overpowering force: Ruth Yitzhaki, a wheelchair-bound woman who dances for her beloved - the doctor who cared for her and married her; Dave Sokolov, a 9-year-old social outcast who dreams of becoming the next Mikhail Baryshnikov; and Ayman Safieh.

"It was a kind of victory," he says. "All of a sudden, the guy everyone was laughing at is going to be in a movie." Overnight, Safieh went from being the village's outcast ugly duckling into a swan. His life changed completely.

While happy about the positive publicity, Safieh is maintaining a good sense of proportion. "I'm a dancer first of all," he says. "I think it's a shame that a person has to become famous to be appreciated. Now, all of a sudden, my friends want to see where I'm studying dance, what I do there, what this dancing is all about. This week two friends came with me to Ga'aton and afterward they said to me: 'You really work hard.' So maybe it's true that because of the publicity, people are starting to take an interest in what I do. It's important to me, but it's too bad that it's only because of the publicity."

He says he's really being treated differently now. "People say to me, 'It's you, right?' A month ago I had a seminar in Tel Aviv and people even recognized me there. On Dizengoff. It was funny. And exciting. I recorded the reactions on my cell phone. I wanted to immortalize these moments. It's amazing. In one minute, my life changed. Here in the village there were friends who stopped talking to me because of the dancing, and they came to ask my forgiveness. Some even told me that they had always wanted to dance, but didn't dare. I think there are a lot of boys who'd like to dance but are afraid of the stigma."

The publicity brought with it several offers of financial support from Israel and abroad in the amount of a few thousand shekels. Safieh also received an offer to model for a company that manufactures ballet clothes in London. But he had to turn it down because it would have meant missing two weeks of school and dance lessons.

Hashem Safieh doesn't like to talk about it, but his son's studies are a financial burden. "I earn about 5,000 shekels a month," he says. "The expenses for his dancing can amount to thousands of shekels." Ayman is eager to work. "Even as a waiter," he says. But his father will have none of it. "I'm guarding him," he says. "His body is an asset. How can he work as a waiter? He could get a slipped disc."

But that is not Hashem's biggest fear. He is more worried about the racism his son could encounter. "People are racist," he says. "There are Jewish racists and Arab racists. I explained to him, and to my other children, that there's no difference between one person and another. That's how my father raised me. And that's how I'm raising my children. I've been working at the taxi company for 25 years. We have warm coexistence there. There are Arabs, Christians, Georgians, Russians, Moroccans, whatever you want. But I still encounter racism. There are people who are bothered by the fact that I'm an Arab. Unfortunately, I'm certain that Ayman will encounter racism at some point, too."

Ayman is also annoyed that his religion is mentioned everywhere. "In the media they love to describe me as a Muslim. It's true that I'm a Muslim, but what does that have to do with anything? I'm first and foremost a dancer. First and foremost a human being. Then an Arab and a Muslim."

For now, at least, Ayman Safieh is surrounded by loving attention at the dance school. His father regularly comes to the studio to watch him dance. "I understand ballet now," says Hashem. "I can tell you who's a better dancer and who's not as good. I could even replace David - the judge on 'Born to Dance.'"W

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