Katharina Pfannkuch
Last updated: 27 February, 2013

Dancing as resistance (VIDEO)

With the assassination of Chokri Belaid, violence has returned to the streets of Tunis. Conservative Islamist forces target artistic freedom. But an initiative of young Tunisians now reclaims the streets. Their weapon is dance.

The pictures are reminiscent of the images that the world saw two years ago: angry protesters in the centre of Tunis, the police fighting them with tear gas, young men throwing stones. The struggle for power continues, Tunisia’s future is again uncertain. The murder of the secular politician Chokri Belaid shocked the country and brought back the violence into the country’s streets. With the renewed uncertainty, the fear is back: secular Tunisians, but also moderate Muslims worry about the growing influence of Islamists. Not only has the Ennahdha party unsettled citizens. Since the fall of Ben Ali two years ago, the Salafists have become a visible part of Tunisia. The religious extremists do not hesitate to show Tunisians their own boundaries of the permissible. One of the most important targets is art.

RELATED Ideological polarization in Tunisia is only an illusion

Bahri Ben Yahmed saw first-hand how they seek to limit artistic freedom. In March 2012, the choreographer and dancer was performing together with members of the Tunisian dance project “Art Solution” on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, when Islamists appeared and interrupted the performance. “Go inside your theaters, the streets do not belong to you anymore!” they shouted. A dramatic experience for the young artists, remembers Ben Yahmed: “We realized that we had to start fighting for the place of artists in public space. Those extremists threaten freedom.”

Ben Yahmed and his dancers also started discussing the role of art in post-revolutionary Tunisia. “The Tunisian society today is insecure and pessimistic. The desire for security is high, and many Tunisians paid a high price for security: they lose their dignity, their freedom and their joy of life.” The lower the social class, the more difficult is the access to art, adds Ben Yahmed. “But arts should not be a luxury,” says the 35-year-old dancer and choreographer, “every citizen has the right to have access to art.” With these reflections in mind, the idea of the project “Danseurs Citoyens” was born.  

For several months now, the “Danseurs Citoyens” have been bringing art to the streets of Tunis – with unannounced performances. The marketplace becomes a stage for the young dancers, as well as the bus station and Avenue Habib Bourguiba with the Ministry of Interior in the background. Men and women, educated and self-taught, surprise passersby with elements of street dance, classical ballet and modern dance. They bring the dance into the daily life of people. And they are welcome; the audience responds surprised, but positively to the handful of dancers who are enjoying a growing awareness – thanks to YouTube and Facebook. The recordings of the performances are a huge success on the Internet, the number of clicks on the videos called “Je danserai malgré tout (I will dance despite everything)” is increasing every day. The videos capture unique moments: A young ballerina turning pirouettes between vegetable stands, a couple dancing at Kasbah Square in front of police cars, a street-dancer showing his moves to passengers waiting at the bus station.

The dance as a weapon: “We will continue”

At first glance, spontaneous dance performances on the street that combine modern dance, ballet and street dance might not seem particularly revolutionary – but in post-revolutionary Tunisia, things are different; modern dance still has no fixed place in the cultural landscape. The newly inflamed debate about the role of women in Tunisian society also provides a challenge to Bahri Ben Yahmed and his dancers: the young women, with their hair open and wide trousers dancing in the middle of the street, are targets of harsh criticism. But the “Danseurs Citoyens” are not intimidated.

“Dance is our form of resistance against social and religious dogmatism,” says Ben Yahmed. “We remember the Tunisians that only themselves are allowed to determine their own body. We appeal to their joy of live and we invite the Tunisians to share the art with us.”

The audience accepts this invitation. An elderly man imitates the moves of a young street dancer, they dance together and embrace shortly, a veiled woman joins the dancers in a circle of enthusiastic spectators next to the Bab el-Bahr in front of Tunis’ Medina – moments like these make the videos of the young dancers unique. Limits of age and gender, dancing styles and social constraints do not matter in the moment of dancing together. In a society that is exhausted from its long struggle for freedom and that is unsettled by violence, a project like “Danseur Citoyens” requires great courage.

Even now, after the murder of Chokri Belaid, where new power struggles are expected, Bahri Ben Yahmed and his dancers want to continue their project and even expand. “We will organize performances in other Tunisian cities and in the rural areas,” announces Ben Yahmed. The more famous Bahri Ban Yahmed and his colleagues become, the more likely it is that they come under the scrutiny of self-proclaimed religious moral guardians. “I am sure that there will be more obstacles for us in the future,” he says, “but we will continue. The street also belongs to us, the artists, and we will defend it. Instead of using weapons, we dance.”

Katharina Pfannkuch is a German freelance journalist who contributes to ZEIT online and SPIEGEL. She focuses on cultural and social issues in the Arab world. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Your Middle East.

EDITOR’S PICK Voices from Tunisia two years after the revolution