Iraq’s national folk dance group struggling to survive

Sunday 29/05/2016
Scene from a show by the Iraqi National Folklore Group.

Baghdad - They rehearse daily, driven by the hope that they will be able to perform in front of an audience once war and chaos around them subside.

But, for the time being, members of the Iraqi National Folklore Group, established in 1971 with the mis­sion of preserving and perpetuating typical folk dances, are performing without spectators.

“The challenges are tremendous and festivals in which they par­ticipate are rare but training and rehearsals have been going on un­interrupted,” said Fouad Thanoon, former director of the troupe who recently retired after several dec­ades in the position.

“Until 2003, the group enjoyed great official support. Leading in­ternational choreographers and folk dance masters used to be con­tracted by the government to train the dancers. Subsequently, Iraqi choreographers could take over the training themselves,” Thanoon said, as he watched dancers re­hearsing at the Iraqi National Thea­tre in Baghdad.

Financial constraints, insecurity and conflict post-2003 have taken a heavy toll on all cultural and artis­tic activities in Iraq. In today’s Iraq, with conservative religious parties and radical militias exerting grow­ing influence over every aspect of life, dancing has become a danger­ous art and an act of bravery.

“The group has shrunk in size,” Thanoon said. “It is attracting fewer performers because of the bad per­ception (of dancing) in our increas­ingly conservative and radical soci­ety, in addition to the poor monthly pay, which does not exceed 500,000 dinars (about $400). This has driven many, especially female dancers, to quit.”

The group now includes five fe­male dancers and eight male per­formers, a skeleton crew compared to its past complements of 15 wom­en and 25 male dancers backed by a similar number of performers.

“The drop in the number of fe­male dancers has forced us to change choreographies to accom­modate the gender imbalance in the group,” Thanoon explained, noting that the troupe was deprived from participating in the annual Babel Festival after it was voided from ac­tivities involving singing and danc­ing, restricting it to poetry recitals.

“The reason for that is the con­servative thinking of officials in charge of culture and arts in the country after 2003,” he said, stress­ing that the dance shows proposed by the group are “very respectful in terms of the movements and the costumes, as they reflect the true cultural heritage of our ancestors”.

The troupe’s first two decades were golden years, when dancers frequently went on international tours. In 1980, the dancers per­formed at the United Nations in New York and visited Paris. They have gone to Italy, Japan, Bulgaria, the former Soviet Union and China — 80 countries in all — and won nu­merous prizes along the way.

The present Iraqi government, controlled by conservative religious parties, cares little for the arts so it is not inclined to support groups like the dance troupe, says lead fe­male dancer and trainer Hana Ab­dallah.

“The group has become totally neglected,” she said. “It is no longer a regular troupe as it should be be­cause art is no longer important in the country.”

“Many obstacles stand in our way, especially the lack of financ­ing. Members of the troupe have not cashed their stipends for the past eight months but it did not stop them from rehearsing,” Abdal­lah said, cautioning that “if things persisted in that way, the group will just cease to exist after more than four decades of hard work”.

Prerequisites for joining the troupe were relaxed to attract danc­ers, especially female candidates.

“We have been very flexible in our requirements with regard to the artistic background, age, weight and height of female dancers for the sake of ensuring the continuity of the group,” Abdallah said. “But trainers are having a hard time pre­paring the dancers and, in many instances, once they become ready to hit the stage, they just quit either to get married or move to other jobs with better pay.”

Muhammad Mashi, a member of parliament’s Media and Culture Committee, said he has proposed more than one plan for enhancing cultural life in Iraq, including the al­location of 0.5% of the state budget to help fund cultural activities.

“We need to show the positive face of Iraq, which is rich in arts and culture. By promoting culture, we unveil the beautiful image of this country and change the wrong per­ception that life in Iraq has come to a standstill due to the bad security situation,” Mashi said.

The dance group has rarely per­formed abroad since 2003. Its most recent appearance on stage was in February at Kuwait’s Qurain Cul­tural Festival.

“We are not able to answer the in­vitations we receive from Arab and international festivals because we have to bear travel expenses and no such funding exists,” Thanoon said.

Nonetheless, the dancers prac­tice daily in front of empty seats at the dilapidated hall of the National Theatre, which has become more of a sanctuary from the country’s mayhem.