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
Lexile

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, not an 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, in her black leotard and white ballet shoes, said with pride after the dance.

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, 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 amid the violence that is an inescapable part of daily life and the religious conservatism that now defines public life.

"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, 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 during that era.

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. The school was looted days after Saddam Hussein's ousting. 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 to the girls being 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?

Assigned 13 times


COMMENTS (9)
  • Kendall-Arm
    11/24/2014 - 01:19 p.m.

    The Baghdad School of Music and Ballet is a different world for Ann Khalid and other students. It is located in Iraq which is a worn tore country and war is still there. Bombings and other attacks have ruined the town but the school is still there. It is a different world because it gives the students a chance to escape the reality of there real war torn world. It also is a boys and girls school where usually the boys and girls are separated. They just get the chance to escape the real world and express their feelings freely.

  • haleeni-Sch
    11/24/2014 - 03:18 p.m.

    this is and internal conflict because she wants to have a dancing career but it is hard because there is a lot of war in iraq and she cant dance that much.

  • Eugene0808-YYCA
    11/24/2014 - 07:25 p.m.

    I think this is amazing because students are still hoping to pursue a career in dancing while trying to stay with it in war-torn Iraq. Also, they are doing it even though it is against the rules of Islam. Their parents must be happy because they want their child to succeed even though war is in their paths. They don't care if they're going against the rules, they only care about their child's futures. Same thing with the Baghdad School of Music and Ballet because they managed to stay standing despite what happened in the past.
    Critical thinking challenge: What makes the Baghdad School of Music and Ballet a different world?
    Answer: The Baghdad School of Music and Ballet makes "a different world" from withstanding decades of conflict and turmoil and it gives students a chance to pursue a career in music or dancing.

  • cassidyc-Eic
    11/25/2014 - 10:36 a.m.

    I am glad she loves to dance. I dance to it is my favorite thing to do then it is school. I bet she has won a lot of stuff for dancing.

  • annal-Eic
    11/25/2014 - 11:29 a.m.

    I do enjoy ballet a lot myself, and that would be amazing to have a ballet school stay up after so many storms. Now, that's something I would be thankful for.

  • haileeh-Eic
    11/25/2014 - 01:50 p.m.

    I think that it is so cool that that is her dream to teach ballet.I myself have been doing dance since i was 3 and i enjoy it too. I think that it is really cool there are male dancers.

  • 8GOMMAHANENE-Flo
    11/25/2014 - 02:09 p.m.

    The baghdad school of music and ballet are both a different world to the author because the narrorator sees a personal way of how she views the school as mandatory while ballet is when she can do what ever she wants

  • SoleilE-5
    11/25/2014 - 07:40 p.m.

    In Baghdad, Iraq, war and destruction are everywhere, religion and stigma rule people's lives. However, despite notions that music and art are anti-religious, the Baghdad School of Music an Ballet stands. There, hundreds of male and female students are educated together in dance, playing instruments, acting, etc. However, many people discriminate against the school, saying that boys and girls should be separated. Many of the students hide the fact that they go there, while others are proud of their talents.
    I think the Baghdad School of Music and Dance is an important juxtaposition to the outside, war torn environment. It shows that education and happiness can grow from a place that has practices not completely agreeing with the Koran and that those practices can thrive. The fact that the school has survived so long is a testimony to how important it is to its students and teachers.

  • ImanB-1
    11/30/2014 - 12:09 p.m.

    In Banghdad a 12 year old girl named Ann dances ballet in her school. The 12-year-old is determined to one day have a career dancing and teaching ballet, not an easy path in Iraq, a country for years torn by conflict."Where else in Iraq can you walk into a school and listen to a small boy playing Antonio Vivaldi on his violin?" the school principal said.The school removed its large street sign to escape attention. Children hid their musical instruments when out in public or left them at school. This is going to be hard for Ann, but one day she will achieve her dream.

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