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Ballet a Leap of Faith for a Palestinian Billy Elliot


An unusual story from today’s Globe and Mail in Canada. An 81-year-old Auschwitz survivor teaches a young Palestinian boy how to dance ballet at an Israeli kibbutz:

KIBBUTZ GAATON, ISRAEL — The story could have been drawn straight from the Billy Elliot movie script: A young boy who was first transfixed by ballet on television, and would dance secretly in his room at night, practicing what he learned from films and Internet videos.

But Ayman Saffah is a young Palestinian-Israeli – as he prefers to be known – from a small village in the Galilee, and young men in traditional Arab Muslim villages don’t dance ballet, at least not publicly. And so Mr. Saffah’s path to a remote ballet school at Kibbutz Gaaton, the preparatory school for Israel’s prestigious Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, has been riddled with stops and starts.

“I always wanted to dance,” says the young-looking 17-year-old, wearing jeans and sneakers, a pair of sunglasses dangling at his neck. “[But] when I saw it on the TV or Internet, I saw many, many girls dance, but I never saw boys. So I thought I couldn’t do it.”

… At 14, he mustered the courage to ask his mother for money to buy his first pair of simple black ballet shoes.

… “As far as this thing does no harm to him or to others he can do what he likes,” says his father, Khaled Hashem Saffah. “He loves what he’s doing, I cannot stop him from doing it.”

The younger Mr. Saffah’s friends were not so forgiving. Tortured by classmates who said ballet was for girls and sissies, he lasted just four months in the class.

… He was recruited by the kibbutz school a short time later and here, after a year of study, he has found acceptance.

… “With hard work, he can succeed,” says Yehudit Arnon, the 81-year-old founder of the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company and its preparatory school, who has taken him on as her protégé and is bemused by growing references to Mr. Saffah as an Arab Billy Elliot.

Ms. Arnon, who swore she would devote her life to dance after nearly perishing at Auschwitz for refusing to dance for Nazi officers at a Christmas party, founded her company in 1970 after years of developing dance in Israel.

… Ayman Saffah dreams of performing on stages across Israel and around the world. But more than that, he dreams of returning to his village a success.

“I would like to be famous. I would like to be the first Palestinian Arab ballet dancer,” he says…


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