Wrapping Their Feet Around the Music

By William Meyers

Published September 05, 2003, issue of September 05, 2003.
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‘Klezmer dancing? It’s not really a sitting and listening kind of music; it’s a moving kind of music,” said Amy Zakar, one of the young fiddlers at the eighth annual KlezKanada Festival of Yiddish/Jewish Music and Culture, held August 19 through August 25 at Camp B’nai Brith, in the woods north of Montreal. “I just try to put away my fiddle before I get swept into it,” Zakar said.

This year, along with workshops and lectures in instrumental performance and composition, literature and theater, amulet making and cooking, KlezKanada offered an expanded curriculum in Yiddish dance. So every day at 10:45 a.m., groups met under the leadership of Michael Alpert and Walter “Zev” Feldman, two of the world’s best-known klezmer-dance figures. Both men are professional musicians and musicologists who combine direct childhood experience of the dance tradition with considerable professional expertise in other folk-dance traditions. And both dance with zest and talk about dancing with considerable earnestness.

When Alpert yanks out his white tikhl (handkerchief) and flourishes it over his head, it is a signal that the dance is about to begin. He is tall, thin, usually dressed in black, and moves with grace and what seems like limitless energy. Wherever he is, people follow his lead in the dance. Alpert is a co-director of KlezKanada, a pioneer of the klezmer renaissance best known for his fiddling with such groups as Brave Old World and Khevrisa, and he dances with great precision. He is particularly mindful of the etiquette of dance: the eye contact and body signals that make it a social form for couples as well as groups.

Feldman, like Alpert, is American-born and saw Jewish Bessarabian dancing when he was young. Moving with elegant control, he demonstrated not only men’s style, with its fancy footwork, but also women’s style — leading with the shoulders. He explained how Jewish dance forms differ from the Balkan and Eastern European versions. For instance, Jewish dance culture emphasizes respect for age — so sprightliness and restraint are emphasized rather than strength. He is keenly aware that for a generation there were no klezmer musicians who knew how to play for dancing, which is an art in itself. “My mission,” Feldman said, “is to popularize this dancing, to help people find themselves in the movement and enjoy it.”

Everyone at KlezKanada understood this was a rare opportunity. Where else can one go to learn Yiddish dance? There are not many people left who remember from their youth the shers, the broyges tants and other traditional dances and can still demonstrate the tricky moves, the hand gestures and the stamps. Helen Winkler, a recreational folk-dance teacher, came to klezmer dance by way of Israeli dance. She even maintains a Web site called Helen’s Yiddish Dance Page (www.angelfire.com/ns/helenwinkler), but pointed out ruefully, “It’s hard to learn style on the Internet.” Steve Weintraub, who already teaches dance at KlezKamp and the Circle Lodge, wanted to see more dances and “get them into my body. Once you have a good grounding in the traditional patterns,” he explained, “then you can feel free to improvise.”

Violinist Deborah Strauss, of the Strauss/Warschauer Duo, was particularly glad to play for the dance classes. “You can’t divide the music from the dance,” she said. “I always have my students dance at lessons. To wrap my feet around the steps and feel where the pulse is, where it’s strong and where it lifts, the phrasing, the tempo — it all makes me a better musician.” In fact, in the course of the dance classes, she tended to wander away from the band toward the dancers, and while her arms kept fiddling, her feet moved along with the dance. “It’s hard to stand still. The whole cultural context — it all ties together in this beautiful tangle,” she said.

Four hundred people attended KlezKanada this year, and at one time or other almost everybody danced. The most concentrated time occurred at night after the staff and student concerts in the gym, when the chairs got cleared out of the way and what Weintraub calls the “wild nighttime” feeling, the freylekh feeling, took over. The white tikhl came out and fluttered overhead; circles and lines formed and re-formed; people who had attended the classes danced with people who just liked moving to music. Lines bunched up, broke off and went in counterdirections. Elderly people danced with teenagers. The shyest felt free to enter a line. People parted hands to invite a stranger in. “The dancing,” singer Inna Barmash said, “doesn’t just illuminate the music. It’s all about relationships, forming relationships on the dance floor. And playing.”

There were other dance times built into KlezKanada traditions. One was the “backward procession” modeled on a Friday night tradition of the chasidic community of Safed in Israel. To greet the Sabbath queen, the people of Safed would go with musicians to the Western edge of town, toward the sunset, and escort “her” to the synagogue, walking backward to show respect for royalty. At KlezKanada, everyone goes to the lake and walks backward to the dining hall, where they enjoy a festive Sabbath dinner. Only they not only walk; they dance.

Alpert’s high point for dancing came the last night of the festival. The concert was over at 2 a.m., and people were so eager to dance that the chairs were cleared and people were on the floor dancing before the last set of musicians took their final bows. The energy rose higher and higher. The band was playing the strongly accented dance called the bulgar. Alpert recalls that he looked around and thought to himself, “This is the best bulgar that has ever happened here. Everybody was rocking out in a Jewish way. They knew what to do. They were loving the movement, loving being together. It was a consummate social moment and a consummate dance moment.”

Three hours later, after the nightly late-hours “klezcabaret,” the traditional die-hards drifted out to the lakeside to serenade the chilly sunrise. There too, singing chasidic nigunim and swaying with the last of their energy, they danced “to keep each other warm.”

Inspired by the week’s dancing, Hy Goldman, KlezKanada’s founder and motivating force, plans to expand the dance program for next summer’s gathering.

William Meyers is a photographer and writer. Work from his project “Outer Boroughs: New York Beyond Manhattan” can be seen at www.wmmeyers.com.






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