Song and dance in Burj al-Barajneh

s Lena Gatchalian brought the bachi wooden sticks to the taiko drums, the sound resonated like thunder surging across the rooftops of the Palestinian Burj al-Barajneh camp. She and fellow Dance Brigade members were giving a three-day workshop to a group of young Lebanese and Palestinians on how to hip hop as well as on how to play the Japanese taiko drums.

Following a performance and workshops in Cairo, the Dance Brigade flew to Beirut to dance at the closing night of the 2012 Spring Festival. However, the troupe’s remarkable Cavewomen: The Next Reincarnation also coincided with the launch of the Al-Jana Mobile Theater, for which the group gave the first performance on the new mobile stage.

Al-Jana, officially known as the Arab Resource Center for Popular Arts (ARCPA), is an NGO established in 1990 with the aim of engaging marginalized communities in Lebanon by promoting creative expression.

So it made sense that Dance Brigade founder and activist Krissy Keefer – who made her mark on the dance scene in the 1970s with her all-female, feminist troupe the Wallflower Order Dance – team up with Al-Jana to give dance workshops to youth from different backgrounds and communities in the Palestinian camp of Burj al-Barajneh and at the Sunflower Theater.

The dance company has thus far a number of impressive performances under its belt, focusing on various pertinent and often under-reported issues, such as women and alcoholism, high suicide rates among Iraq war veterans, Hurricane Katrina, domestic violence as well as global warming and the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre.

A few kilometers from the stage where the troupe performed its show, which was a celebration of feminine power and vulnerability, a j’accuse of global injustices, the dancers are in another world, where instead of teaching and empowering young women and girls as they do in San Francisco, they teach only men on the first two days. They maneuver narrow alleys with criss-crossed electric wires overhead on the way to the top of a four-storey house. The well-kept, open space used as a dance studio is only a few square meters in size and invites the smells and sounds of the camp.

Neighbors and children gathered on the nearby roofs to watch young men and a few younger boys learn how to hip hop with five fit, agile and highly energetic women as their instructors.

Fredrika Keefer and Sarah Bush started the second day of the workshop with warm-ups, followed by hip hop dance sequences that included a fair bit of coordination, jumping and shoulder rolling.

The small space had its constraints, namely washing lines and power supply cables hanging overhead. Again and again, the dancers showed the sequences in slow motion before expanding on them. Electricity permitting, the group danced the moves to music. The young men were as eager to learn as to impress their teachers.

When it came to teaching the participants the basics of the Japanese taiko drums, things proved a bit more difficult: Blisters on most thumbs from the previous day’s practice were painful. Taiko requires a sense of rhythm but also involves discipline to master the technique of how to obtain the best sound and how to hold one’s body in a martial arts warrior position.

Twenty-seven-year-old Khalid Kassab told NOW Extra of his newfound interest in taiko. “I really enjoyed the Japanese drums. I like to mix with other cultures – there is a spirit, [and] the barriers fall away. We are so afraid of each other.”

The message behind the Dance Brigade performance, Cavewomen, resonated with 24-year-old Ali Chemali. “Women, freedom and democracy – that is what the show was about. I believe we should support them in their message. Women should not be oppressed… It’s important to learn from each other. We learned from women how to drum – they are tough, they have more energy than we [men] have, they can continue all night to dance, they give a lot of themselves, they give everything in a smile.”

Throughout the workshop, which included young women on the third day, participants were given the opportunity to express themselves, to teach each other as well as their teachers. “We need to remind this generation of what happened, we need to speak the truth,” said 19-year-old Hani Temsah, referring to his rap performance addressing the Sabra and Shatila massacre.

For 21-year-old Wael Faour who had studied in England, it was his first time visiting a Palestinian camp. “I was nervous; everything [here] is different. It was good to listen to the rap songs. I rap in my spare time. There is a lot of desperation here. The girls brought joy. I liked all of it, the rap, the dancing, the drumming and the way they communicate with each other.”

Rap also provided Dance Brigade members with insight into stark realities of life in the camps, unresolved political issues and pressing social needs in Lebanon as well as ongoing defiance.

The American dancers greatly enjoyed learning the Lebanese folk dance, the Dabke, which Krissy Keefer deemed “a beautiful dance.”

“It was great! There are some amazing and talented kids here. Every time we tour, we teach kids and you realize this simple truth: we are all the same and we are all one,” Gatchalian said, summing up the workshop experience.

One drum was sent back to Burj al-Barajneh with Kassab including the promise of online lessons in taiko, which, in feudal Japan, were often used to motivate troops.

For more information on the Dance Brigade, please visit their website here.