Al-Ayyala involves two rows of 20 or more performers facing each other in a stylised battle scene, with the thin bamboo canes representing arrows or swords. The men in each row stand shoulder to shoulder, with their left hand on the back of the person to their left.
Each row of performers makes alternating movements with their heads, shoulders, arms and canes to suggest victory or defeat – always moving in time to the beat of the drums. At the same time, they chant lines of verse, often from Nabati poetry, on the topics of valour and chivalry.
Al-Ayyala has been practiced for generations by people across the UAE, including both coastal and inland communities. The dance has such significance that it was inscribed in 2014 on the UNESCO 'Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity'.
Al Abu (the father) sets and maintains the rhythm, while between the two rows of dancers stand the drummers, who carry large and small drums, tambourines and brass cymbals.
Accompanying the performance is a group of men known as Al Jaweela, or “Al Yaweela” in Emirati dialect (the name implies movement), who move in a wide circle, stepping in rhythm to the beat and waving mock swords or guns, which they occasionally throw up in the air and then catch.
In addition, the Na’ashat, a group of young women wearing ornate traditional dresses called Al Mekhwar, stand in front of the two rows of men and toss their hair from side-to-side in time to the rhythm, a symbolic indication of faith in the protection offered by the chivalrous Al-Ayyala dancers.