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History & Heritage


Dabke: where does this dance come from and why is it so popular in the Levant?

Hands together, palm to palm, in a line forming an open circle: this is how Levantines dance the dabke.

The word dabke means “stamping of the feet” in Arabic. This etymology aptly describes the dance’s distinctive feature: the rhythmic, synchronized stamping of the dancers’ feet, accompanied by interlaced arms and melodic chants.

How is the dabke performed?


Dabke is mainly performed in a line, with the dancers standing side by side, facing outwards or towards the audience. There are several versions of the dance, but the most common consists of a sequence of steps in which the dancers alternate between their left and right feet, crossing one foot over the other. Dancers performing this sequence, similar to a 6-beat line choreography, generally move to the right.

The leader of the line, called ra’as or lawweeh, is a key player in the successful execution of the dabke. Placed at the head of the formation, he sets the rhythm and dictates the steps to the dancers. This role requires expertise in dabke, as well as precision, agility and the ability to improvise. He alternates continuously between the performers and the audience, orchestrating the dynamics of the dance.

Ayman Aboutaleb, dabke instructor, believes that this dance is becoming increasingly popular. “It’s an exciting dance. I think people want to be part of that excitement,” he told Detroit Channel 7.


Where does it come from?

The dance’s origins, though shrouded in the mists of time, are steeped in ancient traditions. According to Lebanese historian Youssef Ibrahim Yazbec, dabke can be traced back to the Phoenician dances that flourished thousands of years ago, originating in ancient Canaanite fertility rituals linked to agriculture. In these rituals, dance had a function that went beyond mere entertainment: it served to ward off malevolent spirits and protect the tender shoots of young plants.


But this is not the only explanation given for the dance’s origin. Another legend evokes a more practical aspect. In ancient times, the inhabitants of the Levant built their homes from tree branches and mud. When the weather changed, the mud cracked, leaving the roofs vulnerable to the elements. In a collective effort, family and community members would join hands, form a line and trample the mud back into place. This work would have evolved into a dance of necessity, a means of protecting their homes and ensuring their survival. In the colder months, they would even sing as they worked to lift their spirits. With technological advances and the advent of better roof construction methods, the choreography and singing that accompanied roof repair rituals would have become a tradition passed down from generation to generation. “Dabke is a way that I stay connected to my identity,” explained Arab-American dabke student Danya Zituni to media outlet WXYZ.


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Published on 18 July 2023