The first time Salma Ataya saw a group of young women dancing the traditional Palestinian dabke dance, she wanted to jump on stage and join in. “I remember seeing a girl dancing and thinking, I want to be like her. I had a passion for dance. I would finish school and go straight to dance class. I wanted to be dancing all the time.”
Ataya was 15 when she and her two sisters started attending dabke classes. Unlike her siblings, she felt a deep connection to dance and began going to contemporary workshops while continuing the dabke training. “With traditional you have to smile all the time and jump to a specific height. There’s lots of rules. I felt with contemporary it’s all about the way your express yourself. You can speak about anything you want, express yourself. Both dances were fun, though: they took you away from what you’re thinking. When I’m dancing I’m in a different world.”
The second-eldest of six children, Ataya was born and brought up in the city of Ramallah, in the Palestinian West Bank. She describes living in the city as being in a bubble where “you don’t feel what’s happening around you that much”. “We were all aware of what was happening, of course, with the settlements, but the cities felt closed into little bubbles.”
Ataya’s parents, a hairdresser and a social scientist, were supportive of their daughter’s love of dance but encouraged her to study for a “real” degree, in journalism and social studies, when she finished school. In the meantime the young performer became an active member of the Saryyet Rammallah Dance Company, a group that performed all over the country and abroad in countries including Jordan, Libya and Norway.
Ataya was in her final year of her undergraduate degree when she joined the Belgian company Les ballets C de la B as part of a group of Palestinian dancers for its badke show, a contemporary performance based on the traditional dabke dance. The production toured the globe, bringing Ataya to places such as France, Switzerland and Canada. Crossing European borders without being stopped and questioned was such a relief after years of strict border controls in her home country, says Ataya.
“It was so cool to be in the Schengen zone and crossing into countries so easily. It opened the world for me. I saw this is how borders are supposed to be. That’s why I love whenever I get a Schengen visa, it takes you to all these places. That freedom of travel is so important.”
After four years with the company, Ataya decided to return to education and applied to study for a master’s degree in dance performance in Toulouse, Strasbourg and Limerick. Although she was offered a place in Toulouse, the University of Limerick offered a full scholarship to attend its Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, so Ataya decided to move to Ireland.
“I had been touring for a long time. It was fun, amazing, but I needed to step out. I needed something new. I’d been dancing and taking classes in all sorts of techniques, but I never got deep into the education of dance. I wanted to dig deeper and study it.”
The young dancer arrived into Dublin Airport on a sunny August day in 2016 and boarded a bus to Limerick. The friendliness of staff at the airport and their willingness to help surprised the young dancer. “Even coming through the airport, people were telling me welcome so much, I thought this must be the friendliest airport ever. There was no stress that day.”
But Ataya soon felt lonely in Limerick. She was used to being surrounded by people on the dance tour and was unaccustomed to living alone in student accommodation. She slowly became friendly with some of her international classmates but struggled to get to know her Irish peers. “Maybe it was because I was a bit older than some of them, or maybe I wanted to be alone for a while. But it was easier to meet international students. The Irish had their own friends and lives here. I didn’t have the energy to put an effort into it; I prefer friendships to come naturally.”
During her studies Ataya started working with the Irish choreographer Catherine Young and decided to stay in Ireland after completing her master’s degree, despite originally planning to spend only a year here. She briefly traveled to France to dance with the Orléans Theater in Paris but based herself in Limerick while continuing to work with Catherine Young and John Scott’s Irish Modern Dance Theatre. She also started dating an Irishman and secured a visa to stay on in Ireland.
The Irish dance scene offered “space of individuality” and a chance to work with both Irish and international dancers, she says. “In other places there was more pressure. I feel Ireland is calmer than other places and you have time to develop and dig into your dance.”
This need for quiet and calm was, in part, connected to the chaos of her home country, admits Ataya. “In Palestine your mind is always thinking ahead. There’s a lot of noise, and you can never really live in the moment. But here I’m aware of being in the moment.”
Although she missed her family during the pandemic, Ataya says, the lockdowns gave her a chance to stop moving. “The world shut down and there was no pressure, and because I’m such an overthinker that was a good thing. I love Palestine and everything about it, but I needed this time for myself.”
She’s conscious that when people watch her perform they often see her as a “Palestinian dancer” and link her work to the instability in her homeland. “It’s hard to step away from those politics when I perform… but I’m trying now to speak about normal stuff and just express my body and my movement as a human.”
After nearly six years in Ireland Ataya is hoping to apply for citizenship. An Irish passport would give her the “freedom to move”, something that is very challenging for Palestinians. “It would give me security, something that everyone should have. It’s really a basic right to be able to move, but lots of people can’t do that. That piece of paper would give me freedom.”
She’d like to live in Palestine again someday but is very happy in Ireland for now. “I feel like I’m from a mix of places now—a mix of different cultures and countries. I really consider myself as a person from everywhere. I do feel like Ireland is my home, but it’s not that I don’t miss Palestine: I just have two homes now. It feels easy to live here. I feel accepted.”
Salma Ataya performs in Irish Modern Dance Theater’s The Wandererwhich premieres at Cork Opera House as part of Cork Midsummer Festival on Monday, June 20th, the United Nations’ World Refugee Day