What is the Al Ayala?
Al Ayala, also known as Yowalah, is one of the most famous features of Emirati society. Commonly known as the “stick dance”, Al Ayala is the traditional folk dance of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It has been a symbol of the country’s national and cultural expression for many decades. Performed by both urban and rural communities, Al Ayala was originally associated with the Bedouin tribes of the desert. Today, it is common for notable officials and rulers to participate in the Al Ayala to show their commitment to preserving the heritage of the UAE.
How is the Al Ayala Performed?
The Al Ayala follows a strict code of rules. It is usually performed by dancers standing in two rows facing one another. Wielding bamboo sticks, the dancers imitate a battle scene by synchronizing their movements to the accompanying poetic chants and drum beats.
The dance is led by a main figure known as Al Abu (father) or Al Ras (the head). He recites historic poems that convey the performers’ pride and loyalty to the UAE. The drummers are known as Ahl Alzana, while Al Yaweela throw swords or guns into the air.
Though not featured in the performance I saw, the Al Ayala also includes a row of women known as the Al Na’ashat. Characterized by their long hair, the women stand in front of the men and toss their hair from side to side.
Types of Al Ayala
— Ayyalat Ahl Albar: Also known as Razfat Al Ayala, this form is performed by the desert tribes of Abu Dhabi and Al Ain. There are no instruments, and the dance is accompanied by poetic singing.
— Ayyalat Ahl Albahr: Also known as Ardhat Al Ayala, the form is practiced along the coastline stretching from Abu Dhabi to Fujairah. The dance is performed to three rythmic tunes and percussion instruments.
Instruments used by Al Ayala Dancers
~Al Ras: Large drums with a deep sound
~Al Takhameer: Small drums
~Al Defuf: Tambourines
~Al Tous: Brass cymbals
UNESCO Recognition of Al Ayala
In November 2014, the Al Ayala was entered in UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. This was a joint effort between the UAE and the Sultanate of Oman.
Where to Find Al Ayala Dancers in the UAE
Traditionally, Al Ayala is performed at national ceremonies and weddings in the UAE. In addition, Ayala dancers often perform at public venues on major holidays such as Eid Al Fitr. The photographs in this post were taken at the Mall of the Emirates during the country’s 47th National Day celebrations (December 2nd, 2018).
Other times of the year, you can also watch Al Ayala performances at:
—Desert safaris (some not all)
— Every Thursday and Friday from November to May at Al Qattara Arts Centre, Al Ain
*** You can also watch videos of Al Ayala on my instagram under the story collection “UAE Natl Day 2018”. ***