The dabki is a group dance by definition. It is performed by a group of people whose number can be increased or decreased depending on the context in which it is enacted. The number of dabki dancers performing on stage, for instance, is normally less than that which partakes in it in community events. In both cases, however, dancing the dabki in groups is a defining characteristic of this folkloric dance. When performing the dabki, people have to cross their arms and hold each other with their hands by tightly interlocking their fingers (as a sign of modesty, a female dancer, when interlocking her fingers with those of a male dancer, does not clasp her fingers against his). This physical link between the dancers suppresses the individuality of dancers and generates instead a heightened feeling of group identity. This feeling is further exacerbated by another requirement that each dancer should keep his or her shoulder closely attached to that of the next dancer so that the repeated movements performed by the dancers are totally synchronised. As a result, the movement of one becomes totally integrated in the movements of others. Furthermore, like most types of dancing, the dabki is a rhythmic dance based on a set (or sets) of steps, which is repeatedly followed by the dancers and is accompanied by sharp and irresistible shouts thrown out intermittently by mostly male dancers. The physical bonding of the dancers, their synchronised and repeated movements and their occasional shoutings, all create a sense of solidarity intensely experienced by the migrants who participate in the dabki. The heightened sense of solidarity generated by the dance is literally embodied in the round or semi-circle shape of the dabki. The anti-clockwise direction of the dabki evokes the feeling of a closed unity which is difficult to break down.
In her study of Greek dance, Gill Bottomley wrote: 'The large circle dances offered participants psychic and physical communication, shared pleasure, perhaps a relief of tension and an expression of joy'. I argue that the dabki does not only offer its participants a shared feeling of 'pleasure', it also creates a sense of 'communitas'. 'Communitas', according to Turner, involves rituals 'in which egalitarian and cooperative behavior [sic ] is characteristic, and in which secular distinctions of rank, office, and status are temporarily in abeyance or regarded as irrelevant'. The people whom we interviewed variously expressed this sense of 'communitas' generated by the dabki. A female librarian who migrated to Australia in 1982 and is married with two kids, pointed out this sense of 'communitas' in the following words: 'The spirit of participating with others is expressed in the dabki. All the dancers make the same movement. It [the dabki] makes us united, and unity gives us a nice feeling, a bigger momentum'.
Another migrant, who arrived in Australia in 1977, stated: "The nice thing about the dabki is its communal aspect; all the people equally participate in it regardless of their dancing skill. People become comfortable in a group environment. Social boundaries are broken down; the boundaries between the young and the old; the rich and the poor. All are equal."
A third (a public servant, middle-aged male who came to Australia in 1980) interviewee declared: 'It [the dabki] reflects an inner feeling. It's an act of meeting with one another. It gives a feeling of happiness'. At another point in the interview, he mentioned that the dabki 'introduces people [Australians] to the positive things in our culture in contrast to the stereotypical images of a camel driver or a gangster'.
In an interview that I conducted with a second public servant of Lebanese background (arrived in Australia in the early 1970s and was in his mid-50s), the respondent told me that he personally liked the dabki because it provided him with the opportunity to spontaneously express his joy and happiness. More importantly, he added that the dabki generated in him a feeling of belonging to Lebanese culture. It offered him the venue 'to express his belonging to a group, and participate in a group action'.
During an interview with a high school student, the theme of belonging and the drive to preserve 'the Lebanese heritage and traditions' featured very prominently. George, a 17-year-old youth, was born in Australia, but his parents came from Lebanon. At the time when the interview took place, George told me that a 'big fight' between Asian and Lebanese students occurred at his school.
This incident made him even more motivated to learn the dabki. When I visited George at home to make the interview, I found him even wrapping himself with the Lebanese flag. 'It's Lebanese heritage and traditions, mate. We have to preserve them'. This was George's justification for learning the dabki. As a matter of fact, he asked his uncle to teach him the dance and, more particularly, the leading role (al-qaydeh) in the dabki. For George, learning the dabki enabled him to participate in its performance when attending community celebrations. This act of participation will allegorise the unity of his community, which he strongly needed to protect himself from the threat of the non-Lebanese 'other'.
More importantly, the sense of 'communitas' generated by the dabki assumes an additional significance for the Lebanese migrants because of their particular experience of living in an Australian environment characterised by urban, capitalist relations and at times racist treatment of the migrants. In his insightful study about the difference between the rural and urban sensibilities, Simmel claimed 'that urban life demanded an attitude of reserve and insensitivity to feeling because of the multiplicity and diversity of stimuli in the metropolis'. A similar conclusion is reached by Brian Turner in his book on The Body and Society (1986). In this book the author suggests that 'industrial societies emphasise ''closed bodies''. Emotions and intimacy are limited to privacy, and the ''public'' is defined by formality'. The dabki as an act of spatial inscription disrupts the 'formality' of the 'public' space by generating a feeling of solidarity, associatedness and egalitarianism. Although these attributes reveal the reification of the dabki at the hands of the 'aggrieved Lebanese other', they remain needed to resist the mounting racism that the Lebanese migrants have been experiencing since the 1990s. Accordingly, the Lebanese dancers transform the dabki into an act of 'strategically essentialising' Lebanese ethnicity.
It is this urge to generate a sense of group belonging and obtain symbolic power in an otherwise alienating environment which explains the changes that we observe in the way the dabki is performed in Australia. During the many times in which the dabki was observed, I noticed Lebanese migrants attending a community event showed an unusual interest in the performance of the dance. Almost everyone in the hall where a community event is organised would take part in the dabki charged with affective intensity and remarkable enthusiasm. Male and female migrants of various ages, class backgrounds and generations of migration, always showed a keen interest in learning the dabki and participating in its performance. During this fieldwork, I also observed people remarkably spending most of the time dancing the dabki. Even when the music or the song is not suitable for the dabki, people continue dancing the dabki, hoping that the next song would be rhythmic enough for their preferred dance. At many weddings and community functions I noticed that when the band keeps ignoring the wish for dabki music by a persisting crowd, many people refuse to leave the dance floor unless their request is met. The drive to achieve symbolic unity via the dabki is far stronger than the desire to listen to non-dancing songs and music. By comparison, this situation is not encountered in Lebanon where dancing the dabki at festivals and ceremonies makes up only a part of the event's program. The other part may consist of listening to tarab songs and music (i.e. a slow-pace music that would require careful listening) and watching performances of belly dancing.
The drive to create group solidarity is further illustrated by the fact that Lebanese migrants tend to participate in all types of dabki dances regardless of regional differences. Despite the tiny size of the country (10,452 square kilometres), each region in Lebanon is known by a specific way of dancing the dabki, and people who live in a particular area would normally perform the type of dabki which characterizes their own region (and sometimes a particular village, such as Ehden in north-east Lebanon, develops a particular way of dancing the dabki which is used to reinforce its distinctive identity vis-a`-vis other villages. The dabki, in this instance, becomes a defining element of an in-group). Usually, the name of the region is given to the dance in order to distinguish between the various types of dabki. So in the north district of Lebanon, people dance the so-called Northern dabki, whereas in the south and the Beqaa Valley they dance the Southern and the dabki biqua'ya, respectively.
In Sydney, on the other hand, Lebanese migrants coming from different regions in Lebanon would join in the dabki regardless of its regional character when attending a community event or celebrating a festival. People who are unfamiliar with the dabki would quickly acquire the skills needed to join other dancers. Even the migrants (including the author) who come from the cities in Lebanon and who normally look at dabki dancing as a sign of social backwardness, do not hesitate in learning this new dancing skill and becoming an active participant in its performance. The inner drive to belong to a group, felt by alienated and 'aggrieved' migrants, overcomes all other divisive factors emanating from their country of origin. This is not only encountered among first-generation migrants, but also among second-generation migrant youths, as exemplified by the case of George who, as previously mentioned, showed remarkable interest in learning and dancing the dabki. Accordingly, the dabki is being re-negotiated within the context of a host society characterised by individualism and ethnic discrimination. Dancing the dabki becomes a public statement of Lebanese ethnicity, delineating what Benedict Anderson calls, 'imagined community'.
The Impact of Dabki on Group Solidarity