Ballet survives in war-torn Iraq Students practice at the dancing studio at the Baghdad School of Music and Ballet in Monsur district in Baghdad (AP photos)
Ballet survives in war-torn Iraq
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Ann Khalid did not feel well. But she insisted on dancing a brief scene from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake with her classmates. The 12-year-old is determined to one day have a career dancing and teaching ballet. That's no easy path in Iraq, a country for years torn by conflict.

"My school and my church are the two things I love the most in Baghdad," the soft-spoken Khalid said. She was wearing her black leotard and white ballet shoes.

If she has a shot at her dream, it's because of the Baghdad School of Music and Ballet.

The school has managed to survive decades of turmoil. It's a feat that speaks to the resilience of Baghdad's residents through war after war. The Iraqi capital's past as a Middle East center of culture is a distant memory. But the school has carved out a tiny island of creativity.

"Where else in Iraq can you walk into a school and listen to a small boy playing Antonio Vivaldi on his violin?" boasts the school principal, Ahmed Salim Ghani. He is also a virtuoso player of the contrabass and the oud. That's an Arab instrument resembling the lute.

Another rarity: It isn't segregated by gender like almost all Iraqi schools. Male and female students take classes together from kindergarten to high school.

"The second you walk through the gate, you find yourself in a different world, one of art and culture," Ghani said.

Ghani proudly declares himself a "genuine" Baghdadi. He speaks nostalgically about Baghdad's golden age, the 1960s through to the 1980s. The school, founded in 1968, thrived.

Black-and-white footage of a 1977 school production of The Nutcracker shows a relatively high level of discipline, with the children dancing in professional-level costumes. In class photos from the era, the schoolgirls and female teachers wear miniskirts. The boys wear blazers and bow ties.

Things rapidly worsened for Baghdad and the school with Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. U.N. sanctions upset the economy and forced hundreds of thousands to leave their homes in rural areas. Many moved to the city to find work, bringing with them the conservative traditions of their villages.

The city plunged deeper into chaos after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and the school was looted days after Saddam Hussein was ousted. Later it was partially burned.

Amid the violence, religious extremism rose, nurturing the notion that ballet and to a lesser extent music is immoral and anti-Islamic.

The school removed its large street sign to escape attention. Children hid their musical instruments when out in public or left them at school.

The school's best Iraqi ballet and music teachers fled, seeking employment abroad. During the height of the violence, in the mid-2000s, the number of students plunged to an all-time low of 100-120, according to Ghani.

Today, security in the city has improved, but bombings continue.

"We hope it is just a phase that will eventually go away," said Salam Arab, whose 16-year-old son Maysara is considered one of the school's best male dancers. "It's a rare school in the Arab world, and it is very important that it continues to carry out its mission."

The school now has around 500 students. But many parents now pull their daughters out of ballet when they are 12 or 13 because they object on religious grounds. The parents don't want the girls lifted and embraced by boys their age while performing, according to Zeina Akram Fayzy, a 40-year-old ballet instructor.

Leezan Salam, who graduated this year, said that when she started ballet at the school, there were around 30 girls with her. By the time she reached 10th grade, "we were only three."

Khalid, the 12-year-old, says the moral questions surrounding dance don't dent her enthusiasm.

"Everyone says it is haram (religiously prohibited) and disgraceful. But my parents are happy for me to dance," she said. She's the daughter of artistic parents her father is an actor and her mother a television director.

Maysara said he doesn't tell people he dances. "Those in my neighborhood who have found out often mock me," he said.

As they did drills together, his fellow dancer Moayed Nawar interjected, "I want to dance professionally."

Then the 13-year-old added defiantly, "I am not going to stop, stay home and shut up about it."

Critical thinking challenge: What makes the Baghdad School of Music and Ballet a different world?

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COMMENTS (25)
  • karinag-Eic
    11/25/2014 - 03:18 p.m.

    Thats amazing and I never thought with the wars and everything they would teach children music. I feel so upset for the kids who told people and got picked on and stuff. Wow!

  • Mareenaawc
    12/01/2014 - 08:35 a.m.

    i think this is cool because she likes church and ballet i think she likes to dance and she is going to be a good ballet dancer

  • KarmenA-Pay
    12/01/2014 - 12:59 p.m.

    It is completely different than other schools in that region of the world. It wasn't segregated by gender and it teaches in a completely different style. To most people the entire idea was against religions beliefs but that didn't matter to the school, they would thrive and do amazing things and no one could tell them otherwise. That's what made them apart of a different world.

  • HaleyM-Pay
    12/01/2014 - 01:50 p.m.

    They are different because they are a school where they play musical instruments and dance. Also, the school is for both boys and girls. The school is seen as immoral and anti-Islamic, but they continue to do what they love even if they are judged for it.

  • HannahM-Pay
    12/01/2014 - 09:31 p.m.

    It is a world of art and culture, the school carved out an island of creativity. The school removed its street sign to lessen the amount of attention, and children hid their musical instruments when out in public or just left them at school. When other people find out that they dance they make fun of and mock them. The students are leaving the school because it goes against their parents beliefs.

  • GabiD-1
    12/01/2014 - 10:03 p.m.

    This is like a safe place to all of these kid whose have lives a filled with war. They are mocked and made fun of so they don't tell anyone and hide their instruments and dancing shoes in public. Most of the kids to take the classes don't stay in them because their parents think it is religiously prohibited. I think it is amazing how these kids keep doing what they love even though others don't approve.

  • HeatherB-Cal
    12/02/2014 - 02:32 p.m.

    What makes the Baghdad School of Music and Ballet a different world is that inside it's so different outside. During the wars the school is palace where they can escape and dance. these things make it a different world.

  • AlexaZ-1
    12/03/2014 - 02:20 a.m.

    This article is about a school of ballet in Iraq. It tells about the students who attend the school and about the history of the school. I can really relate to this because ballet has always been a dream worth pursuing for me. I cannot imagine what my life would be like without ballet so, I can absolutely relate to the students. I do not understand how they can live with the worry of their beloved ballet school shutting down.

  • Janelle-Arm
    12/03/2014 - 06:34 p.m.

    Those kids are probably beautiful dancers and musicians. It is a shame that they are afraid to express themselves because they are afraid of being made fun of. I also feel bad that the parents pull them away from something those kids love, even if it is for religion.

  • Janelle-Arm
    12/03/2014 - 06:34 p.m.

    Those kids are probably beautiful dancers and musicians. It is a shame that they are afraid to express themselves because they are afraid of being made fun of. I also feel bad that the parents pull them away from something those kids love, even if it is for religion.

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