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Teaching Moroccans to Dance

Hind Benali. (Alice Defour-Feronce)
Hind Benali. (Alice Defour-Feronce)

“I get the feeling of [being] a warrior,” Hind Benali said in a recent interview with The Majalla via Skype from Morocco.

Benali, who is based in Casablanca where she grew up, counts herself as among the very few contemporary dancers trying to make a name for herself in Morocco. Her career choice has not been an easy one so far. She attended dance school as a child in Morocco before receiving formal dance training in France. Her dream of building a thriving contemporary dance culture in her home country began in 2003, after experiencing dance festivals and performances in West Africa.

“[After] spending a lot of time in Africa, looking at how very poor countries succeeded in dance festivals, I thought, ‘Everyone is happy.’ Each was a moment of exchange. I asked myself, ‘Why can’t we do this?’”

So in 2008 she began holding Action Danse, a festival and workshop for young dancers interested in dance training. It is part of the wider work of her collective, l’Association Fleur D’Orange, to compensate for the fact that, while interest in dance is growing among the younger generation, there is a lack of dance schools and training available for dancers beyond the elementary school age, especially for people in lower-income brackets.

Through l’Association Fleur D’Orange, Benali invites professional dancers to help teach Moroccan students.

“Each year I think, ‘I’m going to stop’—but it’s growing, and dancers hear a lot about it [and keep coming],” Benali continues.

While there are a number of notable Moroccan contemporary dancers, success is more easily achieved abroad; if there is anything Benali has learned over the years, it’s that cultivating an appreciation and practice for modern and contemporary dance in her home country is full of pitfalls, challenges and a lot of hard work.

Her goal is to encourage an exchange and cultural participation, without overly focusing on regulations or professional dance technique. She encourages artists to interact with the local community and create space for exchange and enrichment through their performances. In short, she is trying to bolster a new movement, rather than just performances.

“[I wanted to create a] place where artists could meet, without big [dance] companies, to create a moment where people can share their work,” Benali explains.

She is treading a delicate line: honoring Morocco’s traditional culture while simultaneously pushing boundaries; encouraging new conversations, but insisting on reflecting and honoring age-old traditions and core values. Benali supports the construction of an official infrastructure by holding her government to its word to financially and morally support arts and culture sectors, but she finds ways to make ends meet when funding falls short.

She doesn’t hide her feelings of frustration, but she also hasn’t given up.

This dichotomy is very present in her upcoming performance, given the working title IDENTITY. Benali will perform this piece in New York City, along with fellow Moroccan dancer Soufiane Karim, musician Mohcine Imrharn and calligrapher Yacine Fadhil, in September 2014 alongside dancers from around the world, in collaboration with Center Stage, a cultural diplomacy event organized in part by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the New England Foundation for the Arts.

“My solo [performance] is a chance to talk about my culture. There are so many stereotypes about Arabs, religion, etcetera. How can I bring another picture of my culture [to audiences]?” she asks, by way of explanation as to the inspiration for her piece. “I was trying to think of all the beautiful, artistic things about my culture—not the violence” (that is often projected onto Arab identity).

In her opinion, Moroccan identity is even more complicated than most: “We think we are modern, but at the same time, we are so conventional. We are [caught] in between modern and traditional, gender, taboos, sexuality, identity. So, how can I talk about this in my piece? . . . It is so important, but no one talks about it. It is so present, but unexplored.”

According to Benali, contemporary dancers in Morocco face innumerable challenges. Significant struggles include the lack of sanctioned economic support; societal restrictions arising from the fact that Morocco’s majority culture has increasingly swung towards conservative religious customs, especially in the past several years; and geo-political and security restrictions, where obtaining visas and documentation for traveling abroad to receive formal training is difficult.

In recent years, Benali has managed to cobble together independent funding, along with funding from the Moroccan government and grants from the French and US embassies.

The most difficult funding to secure, she says, is from the Moroccan state. Even when government funding is promised, she says the money often arrives long after an event is scheduled to take place: “You don’t know how many months you’ll have to wait—there is no guarantee.” But she acknowledges that the Moroccan government must necessarily have different priorities than affluent ones in the West, saying, “It’s hard in Morocco, with all the people [in need of state funding]—not just [those in] the arts.”

When she was nine, Benali received classical ballet training after a schoolteacher urged her mother to enroll her in ballet classes. “I’m one of the first generation of contemporary dancers—there are maybe five or six [who live and work] in the country.” Benali was twenty-one when she first left Morocco for formal dance training in France on a grant from the French Embassy.

While many dancers from Morocco build successful careers abroad—mostly in Europe—Benali explains that many face a disadvantage because they are unable to obtain a visa to receive good-quality formal training until they are much older than the average starting age for most professional dancers.

“Dancers here start old,” said Benali, “because it’s when they can leave the country . . . Most dancers here come from underprivileged families—they would travel outside, but they can’t get the visa,” explains Benali.

“Religion has been taking over and prohibiting dance culture,” explains Benali. “Politically and culturally, it’s hard. [In Morocco], so many people have not seen dance before . . . It’s a real fight. And it’s hard to get authorization when you say ‘dance’—this is something so abstract for people. They don’t know what it is and they get scared.”

“It’s dance—no one is naked, or unprofessional. These are people with families, making a living,” Benali says, clearly keen to defend her art and profession. “Since no one knows about dance, I am trying to reach new audiences every time.”

This article was updated on June 3, 2014, as the details of Hind Benali’s performance in New York in September changed.

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Clarissa Pharr
Clarissa Pharr is a freelance writer and editor specializing in arts, culture and media in the Middle East. She has worked both in Cairo and in New York, where she is currently based.

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