For Nawel Skandrani, a dance leader and cutting-edge choreographer in Tunisia, the Covid-19 lockdown has brought episodes of financial uncertainty but also time to explore and to reflect. It also gave her clarity about her leadership role in strengthening the Tunisian dance community into the future. Taking time away from the stage has given her renewed energy as an advocate for dancers to the Tunisian federal government.
Nawel Skandrani, who is responsible for bringing ballet education and performance to Tunisia, is now a leading choreographer whose work asks probing questions of political and social significance in Tunisia and across North Africa and the Middle East.
After our first interview with Skandrani, we decided to convene again to talk with Skandrani about what she has been up to during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Lockdown in Tunisia, explains Skandrani, began before there were many Covid-19 cases in the country. When the first lockdown was ended, the number of cases was still so low that many people did not take the threat of the virus seriously. When cases began to rise, especially as Tunisians living abroad returned home, the country went back into lockdown, as residents began to recognize how critical social distancing would be to contain the virus’s spread.
For Skandrani, the pandemic began with changes to her professional routine. The school where she had taught dance for many years shut down entirely, with no plans to reopen even after the pandemic. Skandrani had also been part of an ongoing program to teach dance classes in a Tunisian prison and another collaborative production in Palestine, but both projects were put on hold.
Although Skandrani was concerned about her financial future, she also recognized that after over 40 years of exciting but exhausting leadership in the Tunisian dance community, the lockdown allowed her to spend time doing other activities.
Instead, says Skandrani, she gardened. She cooked and exchanged food with her neighbor. She spent time with her parents, with whom she shares a building, doing many of their domestic tasks, sparing them the need to risk exposure by visiting stores.
Skandrani laughs, “I took time to watch a lot of videos, dance things, everything! Things that I’ve seen, that I haven’t seen, discovering new choreographers, teaching, a lot of classes, from Vaganova, City Ballet…I was watching a lot of classes, but also watching a lot of other things like everybody did!”
After trying online teaching, Skandrani made the decision not to teach dance classes via a virtual platform. When she was asked to lead a virtual workshop by the National Academy of Dance in Rome, she turned it down. She found it too difficult to teach dance mediated through the screen. Online performances, Skandrani reports, also did not sit well with her.
She explains emphatically, “We’re talking about performing arts. So even having performances by Zoom, for me something is missing. It’s a triangle. The triangle is with the dancers and the stage and the audience. If the audience is missing, there is something missing!”
Instead of dwelling on the limitations for teaching and performances, Skandrani instead turned her mind to the future. “I took this time,” she says pensively, “to really think about what’s next, when all of this will be over, what do I want to do?”
It turns out that one priority that rose to the top are her ongoing efforts to pave the way for the next generation of dancers, this time at the level of the federal government.
Over the last ten years, Tunisia has experienced successive periods of political and social chaos. Since the Tunisian Revolution in 2011, the country has had multiple regime changes and many ministers of culture, under whose jurisdiction dance as a national initiative falls. Currently, the country is in the middle of one of the most complex episodes of unrest as Tunisians have risen up to protest unemployment, inequality, and political brutality.
“After ten years of revolution—we just had the anniversary in January—a lot of demands, especially from the young people, are still not [met],” says Skandrani. “There are a lot of problems, lots of unemployment, which means that a lot of [young people] are trying to reach Europe.”
Confronting the Tunisian government to demand support is nothing new for Skandrani. Her efforts to work with the federal government on behalf of the arts and cultural sector long precede the 2011 revolution. With this experience in mind, Skandrani has spent recent months collaborating with a team of leaders in the arts to draft a legislative proposal to have the profession of “artist” recognized by the government.
Legal recognition for artists, according to Skandrani is an important step. Being identified as a member of a federally recognized profession unlocks a range of social and legal protections and rights only guaranteed to individuals who practice legally recognized professions in Tunisia. With such recognition, dancers could have the title of “dancer” added to their identification cards, giving them hard proof of their right to such protections.
Skandrani has also worked to explain to young dancers who this law will impact their lives. She notes, “A lot of young dancers were telling me…‘What are we going to do with the law?’ ‘First of all, on your ID card, you will be proud to have “dancer,”’ [I said]. And you will have access to social security! All of this they don’t realize.”
For dancers, the history of legal recognition is more complicated than it is for other fields, says Skandrani.
In fact, Skandrani recalls, “When I asked for [the Ministry of Interior to put ‘dancer’ on my ID card] in ’88 they refused to put ‘dancer’ or ‘choreographer’ because for them ‘dancer’ was kind of insulting. They would look at me and say, ‘Oh, you cannot be a dancer’ because for them a dancer is a dancer in a cabaret and for them a cabaret is not nice. Or [they believed that as a dancer you would be] persecuted.
The reason for this belief, explains Skandrani, stems from a 1960s Tunisian government initiative to gain legal control over sex workers. “In the ‘60s,” says Skandrani, “the Ministry of Interior, to control the prostitutes, gave them a professional [ID] card. But in order to not put that they were prostitutes, they put that they were dancers. So for the Ministry it was impossible to be a dancer. So I said, ‘Ok, let’s put choreographer then.’ And they said, ‘No, a choreographer—this doesn’t exist!”
Now, in 2021, Skandrani and team of artists in the fields of dance, theater, literature, circus, and the visual arts have finally drafted legislation that to improve the situation that Skandrani has been opposing for over 30 years. Earlier this month, a new minister of culture was appointed to the cabinet, and Skandrani is more confident than ever that the legislation she and the team have drafted will be passed.
This, Skandrani believes, is one of the most important legacies she can leave for the next generation. “I’ve always been an activist,” she reflects, “[but…] I don’t have energy anymore to go to the streets. Today I want to return to being an activist really for art and dance departments, as long as I have clear ideas, and I still can compose things and that young people are listening to me. I’m not doing it for myself.”