Photo of Douban Dance Troupe, Jerusalem


UN Women/ Cindy Thai Thien Nghia

Blog Post

Entranced by Dance, a Jerusalem Teen Founded a Professional Dance Troupe to Empower Others

A decade ago, a Jerusalem teen who was intoxicated with dance and its transformative capacities made it his mission to create spaces for Palestinian children in the area to overcome their loss and despair through controlled and deliberate motion.

Launched as a volunteer nonprofit organization with 16 talented female students and 3 choreographers and teachers in 2012, today Douban Professional Dance consists of more than 50 young Palestinian dancers from all over East Jerusalem and other parts of the West Bank, who have trained together for several years and remain committed to the troupe, even still as volunteers.

In addition to its performing company, Douban offers artistic support in the form of dance lessons and more throughout the community, impacting the lives of over 1,200 Palestinian students, which the organization website refers to “our seeds for change.”

We spoke with Hanna Tams, 27, who is the artistic director, choreographer, and founder of Douban Professional Dance at its headquarters in Beit Hanina, Jerusalem. Over three hours, Tams expounded on his conviction that dance is a powerful way to express one’s identity and find healing, a journey he had experienced first in his own life.

Hanna Tams, artistic director, founder, and choreographer of Douban Professional Dance

Hanna Tams, artistic director, founder, and choreographer of Douban Professional Dance, at the company offices in Beit Hanina on May 1, 2022


Mays Shkerat for Jerusalem Story

Healing and Empowerment through Dance

“Dance is known to boost one’s self-confidence,” Tams explains. It increases strength, flexibility, balance, and rhythm, yet perhaps more important, it helps individuals discover and express their identity. In this respect, dance has the capacity to bring joy and the potential to heal.

The very first expression of dance, after all, was a sacred ritual. “It was prayer,” Tams describes. In India, 10,000-year-old religious paintings depict figures that appear to be dancing; written records of dance date back some 4,000 years in Egyptian tombs. The healing powers of dance were known even then.

Some parents remain unconvinced. Youth who set their minds on pursuing dance frequently get stigmatized, ridiculed, or dismissed by their own families and peers. Tams himself was no stranger to this as he was growing up; he was bullied because of his love for dancing. “I always felt different,” he recalls, a sentiment that would only get reinforced through dance and movement: “Dance is the only place where I felt like myself . . . the only place that made me feel special.”

“Dance is the only place where I felt like myself . . . the only place that made me feel special.”

Hanna Tams, artistic director, founder, and choreographer of Douban Professional Dance

Hanna Tams and a partner from Douban Dance Troupe in Jerusalem dance a duet

Hanna Tams and a partner dance a duet


Douban Professional Dance website

From Swimming to Dancing: A Personal Journey

Born in Jerusalem in December 1994, Tams became fascinated with dance as a child. He spent the first years of his life watching his sister take dance lessons; he would go to her classes and gape at the magic of ballet.

He had his own activities: at age 10, he was an accomplished swimmer. He was unusually disciplined for a child; he trained literally day and night, taking breaks only to study. (He suggested that his focus was associated with his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; he had a lot of energy.) He won first place (“Best Swimmer of Palestine”) at the East Jerusalem YMCA competition one year and went on to train more seriously at the (West) Jerusalem International YMCA, where he won prestigious awards. However, he was told that he could not compete at international levels in swimming unless he obtained Israeli citizenship, an option that he and his family declined. 

At some point, he started to feel a little “bored” with swimming; it seemed too repetitive. At about that time, he started to become aware of the magic of dancing: “I would watch my sister take ballet classes, which she did not appreciate as much as I did. She preferred hip-hop classes.” Hanna’s parents eventually signed him up for dabkeh (folk dance) classes, but he was not accepted in the dance troupe. “I was classified as ‘too feminine,’” he recalls, a label he rejects because movement, in his opinion, is not about gender labels. “Everything is energy.”

At age 12, Tams was diagnosed with a thyroid gland disorder, which required him to stay at home for a year. He spent his time watching YouTube dance videos, such as the Caracalla Dance Theatre in Lebanon, and his love for dancing continued to grow.

Young Men’s Christian Association — East Jerusalem (YMCA)

A Christian association that promotes holistic youth development

Dance has the capacity to bring joy and the potential to heal.

A year later, he was appointed as one of the summer camp leaders at the Collège des Frères summer camp and got the chance to choreograph a dance for a group of campers there. That performance exceeded everyone’s expectations and had people take him more seriously.

After that summer, he officially took up ballet as well as modern dance and dabkeh. He was extensively trained by the prominent Palestinian Jerusalem-based dance choreographer and artistic director Watan Kayyal (of Oushaq Arts Center/Ouf Dabke Troupe).

Intoxicated by dance, it was a shock for everybody who knew Tams during high school that he managed to get impressive grades even though he hardly ever studied. He was accepted to Birzeit University to study biology and nutrition, but in the third year, he decided to switch to business and marketing. He graduated with honors in 2017. Throughout that time, he was choreographing dance performances and teaching dabkeh to children, mostly in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

After graduation, he took part in a two-month dance program in San Paolo, Brazil, and went on to pursue his love for ballet in Austin, Texas (USA), as well as the International Summer Course in London. In 2019, he obtained his Master of Arts in Dance from the Liverpool John Moores University. “I practically had no life that year,” he recalls. He was immersed in theoretical as well as practical training, working strenuously to develop his technique, and rehearsed for more than 10 hours almost every day.

Oushaq Arts Center Jerusalem

An art space that encourages creative thinking through dabke and other art forms

Hanna Tams, Jerusalem dancer and Douban founder, January 1, 2019

Hanna Tams, January 1, 2019


Hanna Tams Facebook page

Douban Professional Dance and Global Recognition

The bullying and rejection that Tams experienced as a child gave him an instinctive understanding of the pain that Palestinian youth experience. Having found himself through dance, he made it his mission to share his ways of coping with others. In 2012, the 17-year-old was on his way to establish Douban Professional Dance in East Jerusalem. The name Douban refers to an exquisite performance style by professional dancers reserved for royalty in Persian courts.1 Most of the students had no previous background in dance.

Douban was fortunate to have the partnership of the Collège des Frères in Beit Hanina, which provided space and administrative support.

Douban Dance Troupe performs for International Women's Day in Jerusalem

Douban Professional Dance performs “Celebrating Palestinian Women,” sponsored by UN Women and the British Consulate-General of Jerusalem on the occasion of International Women’s Day, al-Kasaba Theatre and Cinematheque, Ramallah, March 8, 2016.


UN Women/Cindy Thai Thien Nghia

One year later, the Douban dance troupe had grown to include more than 40 young dancers aged 14 to 22, and it performed for the first time in various Palestinian cities. The show was successful, but some audiences found it shocking. Most of the criticism was about the skirts that the young women dancers were wearing, “even though they were wearing tights under the skirts!”

Still, Tams was pleased to see that the show allowed the audience to stir up conversation. “One of the best parts of a dance performance is when people ask me questions at the end . . . when they reflect on the issues presented.” Tams is a strong believer in raising awareness through conversation. By 2016, Douban reaped the benefits of coordinating with distinguished teachers and trainers from different countries including Cameroon, Switzerland, Spain, Ukraine, and Brazil. More than 300 Palestinian children and youth received academic certifications through these programs.

In 2017, at age 22, Tams received the Emerging Young Leader Award bestowed by the US Department of State. This prestigious award is granted to 10 young leaders aged 18 to 24 from around the globe. He recalls the discussion over what country he would list as his own. (Like most Palestinians in Jerusalem, he has no citizenship, only permanent residency.) Eventually, he was listed under “East Jerusalem,” an entity without a flag.

Having found himself through dance, he made it his mission to share his ways of coping with others.

To mark its third year, Douban had a performance day of celebration on January 29, 2016 (see video).

A record of the day of celebration put on by Douban Professional Dance on the occasion of its third year


Douban Professional Dance

Dance as a Means of Identity Preservation

Tams and his team find that the preservation of Palestinian identity is crucial.

In 2020, Douban produced a full-length show titled Salal, which used elements of modern dance, dabkeh, ballet, Afro dance, as well as flamenco set to Palestinian music to portray the cultural and social diversity of Jerusalem throughout history.

According to their website, the piece shows:

Video Salal: A Message from Jerusalem, about Jerusalem

A stunning live performance work created by Douban Professional Dance that shows how Jerusalem has benefited from its diversity, and how diversity shapes Jerusalemites’ identity still.

. . . how the city of Jerusalem has benefited from its diversity and how this diversity has shaped our current identity as Jerusalemites. Through each gate into the old city, a group of dancers representing different cultures (Armenian, African, Moroccan, European, Turkish, Coptic, Kurdish) will perform dances that reflect various styles of traditional and contemporary dance, and through storytelling and movement will show how evil can be overcome when people focus on common human values and work together as a community.2

This major work brought together 170 artists from around the world to cooperate and put their unique signature into the project, which resulted in a dance composition as well as a music CD.

The poster for the performance of Salal

The poster for the performance of Salal


Hanna Tams Facebook page

Douban dancers perform at Yabous Cultural Theater in East Jerusalem on July 2, 2021.

Douban dancers perform at Yabous Cultural Theater in East Jerusalem on July 2, 2021.


Douban Professional Dance website

The preservation of folklore is essential, in Tams’s view. He reminds us that the word consists of two parts: “folk,” relating to the common people, and “lore,” the body of knowledge that is passed among community members. “It is therefore important to keep the two connected in order to stay relevant.”

In the Palestinian context, dabkeh is a deep-rooted folkloric dance form, yet “it is important to keep it relevant for the new generation,” Tams insists.

Dabkeh can sometimes be romanticized in a way that keeps it rigid and immobile,” he explains. He continually searches for ways to preserve its character while making it dynamic, relatable, and relevant to younger generations.

Outreach into Schools

Douban managed to integrate dabkeh into the curriculum of St. Joseph High School in the Old City of Jerusalem. Introducing drama, theater, dance, and folklore in Jerusalem high school curriculums is one way of helping Palestinian youth remain connected to their identity and heritage.

Dancers from Douban Professional Dance performing

Dancers from Douban Professional Dance performing


Douban Professional Dance website

Dance as a Means of Coping with Traumatizing Jerusalem Realities

Tams insists that formal instruction in dance theory can be “thrown in the trash can” if not combined with practical experience. He maintains that his work with children several years ago at al-Saraya Center for Community Services as well as in al-Sa‘diyya neighborhood gave him more actual dance expertise than any of his academic work.

Al-Sa‘diyya is one of the toughest neighborhoods in the Old City of Jerusalem, and Tams admits that it had been a real challenge for him to deal with some of its kids who struggled with various social and political issues, such as violence and police brutality.

“The violent space in Jerusalem is overwhelming for Palestinians. Children and youth find it difficult to make sense of their identity or find ways to express who they are,” Tams asserts. A dance teacher who works with children from different backgrounds, he observed countless behavioral problems among children and youth, many of which can be traced to the oppressive circumstances in which they live.

“Children often emulate the behaviors of adults in their surroundings,” Tams notes. These patterns, he explains, are often toxic, macho, and violent, and they can easily become destructive, with negative consequences for society at large.

When asked to identify some of these destructive patterns, Tams answers that they “depend on what part of Jerusalem these kids are from.” Children in Beit Hanina, Silwan, or Sur Bahir, for example, have different circumstances than those in the Old City of Jerusalem. Just as the geographic map of Palestinians has been fragmented by Israeli rule, so too have their realities and situational circumstances.

In the Old City of Jerusalem, he explains, many families struggle with estrangement; others are burdened by their stifling conditions and turn to drugs. Residents of the Old City of Jerusalem are in direct confrontation with the Israeli police and soldiers and Jewish settlers. “They have no space to let their energy out, as they are confined in overcrowded places,” Tams adds.

Besides the political constraints, there are also social, mental, emotional, and physical types of abuse and intimidation that the youth, including young women and girls, face. All of this makes it difficult for them to feel comfortable and confident in their bodies.

By and large, Tams says, there is a visible sense of desperation and loss among young Jerusalem Palestinians. As a dance teacher who has instructed hundreds of children between the ages of 12 and 18 over the past 10 years in Jerusalem, Tams is well aware of these issues. “These kids feel alone. They find themselves in a violent culture where they have to face everything on their own, with no guidance or mentorship.” Most of the kids struggle to make sense of their identity under the Israeli occupation, which considers them inferior beings while imposing itself on their education and livelihood.

By and large, Tams says, there is a visible sense of desperation and loss among young Jerusalem Palestinians.

However, Tams embraced the challenge of working with troubled youth: “It was clear that the boys wanted to be ‘tough guys,’” so he managed to pique their interest by letting them see his classes more like gym sessions where they would pump up their bodies and build muscle. Near the end of the practice, he would integrate dance moves, slowly transforming the focus from typical core exercises to more fluid and graceful dance moves.

Young students in dance class at the Douban studio in Beit Hanina, East Jerusalem on May 1, 2022.

Young students letting loose in class at the Douban studio in Beit Hanina, East Jerusalem on May 1, 2022.


Mays Shkerat for Jerusalem Story

Tams revels in the knowledge that the dance rehearsals managed to both bring out and celebrate the uniqueness of these challenging kids. “It’s special to stand witness to their transformation: I would observe the same kids who were once deemed as ‘problematic’ turn into popular and likeable individuals.”

“I have come across boys who are not at all responsive, young men who are scared of being perceived as feminine, and girls who are ashamed of their bodies,” Tams shares. Dancing enabled them to release the toxins from their bodies in an empowering way. “To watch them build confidence, open up, and transform themselves through dance is always inspiring,” he reflects.

“To watch them build confidence, open up, and transform themselves through dance is always inspiring.”

Hanna Tams, artistic director, founder, and choreographer of Douban Professional Dance

Dancers from Douban Professional Dance performing

Dancers from Douban Professional Dance performing


Douban Professional Dance website

Societal Pressure

Tams identifies the adults, not the children, as the source of problematic issues. The conservative mindset that rejects dance as an art form is still prevalent in Palestinian society; even parents who may encourage their daughters to take up ballet, for example, may do so because it lends an air of prestige to the family, but change their minds once their daughters hit a certain age. Once their daughters become teenagers, many parents find it inappropriate or undesirable for them to call attention to their bodies in front of audiences.

“Out of the 16 young women we had trained and prepared for our grand performance, only 4 of them have made it.” (This includes Rand Zeid Taha, who was a ballet dancer in high school and then a Douban dancer, and who went on to become an accomplished ballet dancer. She pursued her postgraduate degree from the Copenhagen Contemporary Dance School, and won third place in the annual Gertrude Strauss Choreography Competition in 2018.) “The other 12 simply disappeared. I know nothing about them.”

Clearly, Tams had been personally invested in the growth of these individuals, and it saddens him to see them give up on their passions due to societal limitations, parental pressure, or unsupportive spouses. Such societal pressure does not only affect girls: “It might actually be worse for boys, seeing that boys are prevented to take part in the space of dancing, especially ballet.”

“I Cannot Live Outside of Jerusalem”

In addition to maneuvering within the political and social constraints of Jerusalem, the realm of dance itself is full of challenges. Hearing Tams talk about how rigid his daily practice sessions are makes one realize that becoming a dancer entails hours upon hours of grueling work; you have to be not just highly motivated but maybe even a little obsessive to develop the required skill. In dance, Tams notes, “One is always criticizing oneself. The challenge is not only physical but also mentally exhausting. It is very demanding, and there are few opportunities.” He sees that the country lacks the capacity for growth.

Even though he could have a real career as a dancer elsewhere, Tams is right where he wants to be. “I am a Maqdisi Palestinian,” he tells us, by way of explaining. Like many Palestinians who are enthralled by their city, Tams talks about the “scent” of Jerusalem, which he yearns for when he travels. “I would feel irrelevant abroad. I cannot live outside of Jerusalem.”

“I would feel irrelevant abroad.”

Hanna Tams, artistic director, founder, and choreographer of Douban Professional Dance

The scent of Jerusalem is not all roses: As Tams walked the Jerusalem Story Team out of the Douban studio in Beit Hanina, his eyes became irritated. “It’s the teargas,” he indicated, and one gets the impression that the instructors at Douban deal with this regularly. After all, the studio is located right next to the Separation Wall by the neighborhood of Dahiyat al-Barid, close to al-Ram and in view of Qalandiya checkpoint, where Israeli soldiers often attack Palestinian children. Covering their noses with tissues, the young dancers who had just been rehearsing rushed out of the studio and were picked up by their parents.

“There is beauty in knowing that in such a difficult city, there is still space for those who cannot travel or leave the country to find ways to express themselves through dance,” Tams tells us. The purpose of the dance performances, for him, is to relay a message about the preservation and celebration of identity and self-expression. “Even at this location, right next to a Separation Wall, there is freedom.”

Hela Hela, by Douban Professional Dance, part of a show titled “Desert Dream,” which showcased a unique modern dance style that infused Palestinian traditional dabkeh dance with modern dance. The performance involved more than 40 young dancers (aged 14 to 22). The show was performed in Jerusalem, Birzeit, Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Nazareth, as well as during the cultural week festival in Kuwait in 2014.

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