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From Zero to 4,678 in 80 Short Years

Part One of Two

In 1924 there was just one Israeli folk dance, “Hora Agadati,” created in Tel Aviv. Within a year of gaining statehood, Israel could boast 75 folk dances. And by 2005 there were 4,678, according to Dina Roginsky, an anthropologist and lecturer at Yale University who has studied the growth of Israeli folk dance.

This brings into sharp relief the importance of New York’s Israeli Dance Institute, which is celebrating 60 years of folk dancing from April 1 to 3. Festival 60, presented as a joint venture between IDI and the 92nd Street Y, features workshops and parties at the Y and a festival performance. The program features 300 dancers from 16 groups spanning kindergarteners to senior citizens, who have traveled from Caracas, Venezuela; Toronto; Miami; Washington, D.C., and Albany, N.Y., to perform in the longest-running Israeli dance festival in the world.

Accompanying the showcase performance, the institute plans a weekend of workshops to honor two stalwarts of the Israeli folk dance circuit: the Y’s Danny Uziel, who in 1978, along with ballet-trained dancer and educator Ruth Goodman, took over the Y’s Israeli dance department and its popular Wednesday night session, and Dani Dassa, the prominent Jerusalem-born, Los Angeles-based markid, or folk dance leader. Uziel and Dassa, with Danny Pollock, a rising presence on the folk dance circuit, will teach both old and new dances April 1 and 2. “There’s plenty of room for dancers of all abilities,” Goodman said. “This is a chance for anyone who wants to absorb the amazing energy, spirit and, really, the soul of Israeli folk dance, along with people for whom this was their lives.”

Over the past 60 years, the Y has become the epicenter of Israeli folk dance in America. The first Israeli folk dance ever created was by Baruch Agadati, a Romanian immigrant to prestate Israel. He created a vigorous dance for a Tel Aviv theater production that later was named after him and loved as “Hora Agadati.”

View a slideshow of images of Israeli folk dance throughout the years:

Mayim Mayim,” by far the world’s most popular Israeli folk dance — and the hit of many a Jewish wedding and bar mitzvah — was created by German-trained dancer Else Dublon in 1937 to celebrate finding a water source on a kibbutz. Its basic step, the grapevine or mayim, remains the foundation for the majority of Israeli folk dances even today, though the newest dances eschew Zionism and the Bible in favor of pop culture.

Those early dances represented the new, idealized Jew, according to Minneapolis dance scholar Judith Brin Ingber, author of the forthcoming “Seeing Israeli and Jewish Dance” (Wayne State University Press). This “new Jew… owned his body in a whole new way: Your body is going to behave differently in your own free nation and you’re going to express yourself in that place in a whole new way. Dancing in Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel] showed a different strength than had been a part of the Jewish ideal before,” Ingber told the Forward.

These early dance creators consciously fashioned a strong, healthy, athletic Jewish body through choreography loaded with dynamic leaps, skips, jumps and runs. “Folk dancing was for the folk, for the people,” said Bob Levine, chair of IDI and a longtime folk dancer. “Linking arms was a symbolic and a physical way of uniting people together and turning them from individuals into a group.”

The 92nd Street Y has long welcomed dance. America’s most illustrious modern dancers, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Paul Taylor and Alvin Ailey all premiered some of their game-changing choreography in the center’s Kaufmann Auditorium. In those same decades around the Second World War, artists like Anna Sokolow, Sophie Maslow and Pearl Lang dealt with Jewish themes and subjects, but most dance programming was decidedly secular in the humanistic tradition of American modern dance. But in 1951, the Y opened its doors to a new form of this art.

Fred Berk, a Viennese-born, German-trained modern dancer, created the first American classes in what was then called “Jewish dance.” He taught the 100 or so choreographed dances from Agadati, Dublon, German-Israeli dancer Gurit Kadman and others to ardent young Zionists who, on the heels of the devastating news of the Holocaust, were intent on resuscitating Jewish culture and on preparing themselves for a future in the Jewish homeland.

Some arrived at dance through Zionism. One of those young Zionists, Levine, now a tax accountant and attorney from Teaneck, N.J., recalled how important dancing was to the Zionist youth movements. A Young Judaea leader in the 1940s and ’50s, Levine instructed other youth leaders in how to teach folk dance. With his group, he danced in Berk’s first folk dance festival, 60 years ago at Hunter College. “People really worked hard to make their organization shine,” recalled Levine, who is a Jewish National Fund vice president. “It was very exciting. There was a communal sense that surrounded the dancing: We were all Jewish Zionists expressing our love and fervor for Israel at a time when Israel had just been created.”

Others, like choreographer and dance educator Livia Drapkin Vanaver of New York’s Hudson Valley, came to Zionism through dance. As a Queens teenager, she danced with Berk’s Hebraica company in the late 1960s, which imbued her with a love for Israel and Judaism. Her company, The Vanaver Caravan, will perform Berk’s dramatic Holocaust work, “Song of the Ghetto,” in this year’s festival. “Being able to express one’s feelings of connectedness to the spiritual part of ourselves as Jews,” Vanaver said, “you can’t get a better form to do that than through dance.”

“In the beginning, you danced to feel connected to a revived culture in this revived land,” Goodman said. “The world has changed. Israel has become a multiethnic tapestry that we dance to.” Unlike those first American festivals programmed by Berk, which featured an alphabet of Zionist youth groups from AZYF to Masada to Hashomer Hatzair, this year’s festival includes groups from day schools, community centers and synagogues.

“We want to carry the light, or l’rokdim, to dance” said Goodman, who has been Israeli dancing since she was a teen, “and to light the way for the next 60 years, which will be ad mea ve esreem — until 120.”

Festival 60 Israeli Folk Dance Festival, April 3, 3:30 p.m. MLK Educational Campus, Amsterdam Ave. at 65th St. opposite Lincoln Center.

Workshops April 1-2, at 92nd Street Y.

Read Part 2 of the series here


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