Learning to pirouette, plie and perfecting their pas de chat is all in a day's lesson for these Kurdish girls. They're taking to the stage in a hired theatre hall in Sulaimani, as part of a private dance school known as Layzin, meaning dance in Kurdish. The school opened decades ago, yet only achieved official recognition in 2008.
It was then forced to close due to the unrest in the country and a wave of criticism from Islamic clerics who viewed ballet as being unIslamic, as Layzin Ballet school's director explains. "We were able to open a ballet school in 2008 after getting permission from the Ministry of Education of Kurdistan Regional Government and it ran for six years before being forced to close down.
Throughout these years we took part in several festivals in a number of countries abroad including Germany, Lebanon and Holland, receiving a number of awards and certificates,'' explained Nobar Ahmed who also choreographs and teaches the lessons. Pupils here can learn classical ballet and contemporary dance with the school offering classes to students from the age of six to over 50.
The school also accommodates complete beginners as well as dancers with a formal background who hope to resume their training. But the dance school has had a tumultuous journey and has often been under the microscope of staunch Islamic clerics according to Ahmed. "As an officially recognized educational institution, the school succeeded in introducing the art of ballet to the all people in Kurdistan of different age groups.
But six years later a number of religious clerics started to attack and criticize this kind of art as forbidden, forcing the Ministry of Education to close the school by the end of 2014.'' But Ahmed did not back down in the face of mounting criticism and instead she continued as a private ballet group, establishing the Layzin school.
''Nevertheless I did not stop in spite of the closure of the school and instead I continued as a private ballet group, taking part in three festivals abroad and eventually attracting more students,'' she added. According to Ahmed, more than 600 students have attended lessons here. But the majority of them are girls due to social taboos that deter boys from learning the expressive art from.
In addition many Muslim scholars say certain types of music are forbidden, and Islamic circles often frown on dance. "A widespread misconception that this art is for girls only prevented boys from joining the group. Furthermore, traditions and social norms have also helped keep boys away from this art and that is why we have only four to five boys in the group compared to 60 and sometimes 65 girls. I hope more boys would be courageous enough to defy this conception and join the group,'' she explained.
Each student pays 60,000 Iraqi dinars (50 dollars) a month, which is used to pay for the rent of halls and electricity and water and also to pay for the tulle costumes. Despite a lack of funding and limited resources, Ahmed is keen to nurture the talent of girls like ballet student Diya Shwan.
The school is the only one in Sulaimani and Ahmed hopes to establish a reputation similar to Baghdad's famed ballet school. In its heyday the Baghdad school sent its students to Russia and Hungary. The Baghdad Music and Ballet school, the only one of its kind in the Middle East, was established in 1968. As well as being a ballet school it is also a famed music academy.