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Stepping Into the Future

Part Two of Two

At New York’s 60th annual Israel Folk Dance Festival, held in April, a few dozen dancers at the opening session circled to their favorite Hebrew songs, those that recalled a time when Israel was a vibrant new nation. With plenty of gray heads and bottle brunettes among them, the middle-aged and older crowd didn’t bode well for a festival meant to convey the youth, vitality and creativity of Israeli dance in the 21st century. Only later that Friday evening, in the 92nd Street Y’s second-floor Buttenweiser Hall, when nearly 100 teenagers from Caracas, Venezuela and North Miami Beach showed up clutching shopping bags and cell phones, did the program step up the pace.

At the Y and around the world, change is afoot. After the Sabbath dinner, tables were stowed away, and stalwart dance instructor-cum-disc jockey Danny Uziel mixed both classic and new dances from his computerized sound system. The hard-to-please younger generation ignored almost every dance until a fast-paced popular song jauntily erupted through the speakers. The dance floor filled with bouncing 12-to-17-year-old girls, barely an adult in sight. The dance? “Riverdance,” badly borrowed from the popular touring show of the same name.

Since when is an Irish step dance part of the Israeli repertoire? When the first Israeli folk dance was created in Tel Aviv in 1924, the recreational form, much like the multicultural, multiethnic State of Israel, stitched together a colorful patchwork of international influences into a crazy quilt. “Every Diaspora culture brings its own style” to Israeli dance, or rikudei am, said Ronit Eizenman, who danced as a child in Givatayim, Israel, and now directs Nirkoda Israeli Dancers of Toronto, one of the few adult troupes that performed on the lengthy closing gala program. “Jews come to Israel from everywhere, so we see salsa, jazz and Bollywood. The future of Israeli dance is very vibrant, because it reflects the face of Israeli society.”

Despite its name, Israeli folk dancing, like the country itself, has roots across the world. From its first dance, created by Romanian choreographer Baruch Agadati, the “made in Israel” stamp has always appeared on parts manufactured elsewhere. Israeli folk dance has become an international phenomenon, according to Australian Aura Levin Lipski, a singer/songwriter who maintains a database of every Israeli dance. Choreographers and teachers, both Israeli and other nationalities, offer regular Israeli dance sessions in at least 32 countries.

“Israel is the most variegated population group of any in the world, maybe except for the U.S. or Australia,” Lipski noted. “There are hip-hop Jews and there are Hasidic Jews.” And they all dance.

The earliest dances grew from German, Romanian, Russian and Eastern European influences and included a few indigenous dances featuring the bouncy, flat-footed stomps of the Arabic debka step. In the 1960s, mizrahi, or North African influences, became the rage. As Israeli songwriters toured South America and Spain in the 1970s, swaying hips, shimmying shoulders, tango and salsa infiltrated the dances, and in the past four decades, Israeli folk dance has been shaped by myriad cultures. Today, Israeli choreographers borrow indiscriminately from world dance cultures: India’s Bollywood craze, North America’s hip-hop explosion, Turkish belly dance, the worldwide fascination with ballroom and, of course, Irish step dance.

Uziel, who has taught at the Y since 1962, has seen these changes accelerate. “In the past we held hands and we were all one,” he said, pointing out openings in a circle of dancers. Today, he explained, many dances are so complex — featuring multiple turns, complicated footwork and arm gestures — that holding hands is impossible. Another difference Uziel noted is that dancers try more dances per hour. When he first started, they would repeat dances three, four or even six times. “The young ones don’t have the patience, and we have so many more dances that twice around the circle is enough,” he said.

For Israeli-born, Los Angeles-based choreographer Dani Dassa, finding meaning and a connection to Israel or Jewish culture is what makes a dance Israeli, not whether he choreographed it in Tel Aviv or in L.A. He told a crowd of Jewish teens and adults at a Saturday afternoon workshop that he reads the Torah portion each week, seeking inspiration, and many of his dances have biblical themes. “I’ve danced for over 70 years,” he said. First it was Palestinian dances, then the cherkessia, which is a genre of dances from the Caucasus Mountains, and the polka. “When I came to this country [the United States] in 1956, people asked me, ‘How can you have Israeli folk dance? Your country is only eight years old.’ I said, ‘We’ve got 5,000 years of culture!’”

Even so, old-timers grumble that hip-hop, salsa or Bollywood styles just aren’t Israeli. Fifteen-year-old dancer Jamie Berger, from the Tzamarot troupe based at Albany’s Temple Israel, discounted that dissatisfaction: “I see more hip-hop and modern dances and not as many traditional dances. I think they’re still Israeli, because they have the message and they came from the traditional dances. They’ve just been tweaked and modernized. I like a mixture of the new and traditional.”

In Israel, folk dancing is big business. On Thursday nights, up to 1,000 dancers of all ages show up for Gadi Biton’s session in the large gym at Tel Aviv University. Beyond New York and Israel, Israeli folk dance can be found in the most out-of-the-way places. Michael Sherman, 25, dances on Sunday mornings at Mt. Sinai Congregation in Cheyenne, Wyo., where he’s stationed as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. He came east to New York’s festival to expand his dance skills, visit family and — he hoped — to meet (other) female dancers closer to his age. Most of the 15 to 25 dancers in Cheyenne are either middle-aged or children.

Folk dancing has also found its niche in Australia, where both daytime and evening sessions take place in such major cities as Melbourne and Sydney five or six days a week. With classes held exclusively in church halls and not in Jewish community centers (which don’t exist in Australia) or synagogues (whose halls are too small for dancing), a number of non-Jews have discovered a love and appreciation for Israeli dancing, even if they don’t understand the Hebrew.

Likewise in Johannesburg, where Haifa-born Miriam Jacobs teaches a group of anywhere from 20 to 40 dancers in their 40s and 50s. “In most countries it’s become a business, but here we just do it for fun,” she said. The Internet has made it possible for Jacobs to teach the latest dances within a week of their release in Israel. Like other markidim, instructors, around the world, she buys the music, video and written instructions provided by the choreographer from or other sources. “It’s almost too much to keep up with,” she said.

Jacobs’s most surprising encounter was with a group of Christian women from Cape Town, South Africa — devoted supporters of Israel, and avid Israeli dancers. They traveled to England and brought an international choreographer to South Africa this past year. A few have even, Jacobs reported, made aliyah.

Londoner Maurice Stone has been dancing since he was a teen in the Habonim youth group. “Dance cuts across social boundaries,” especially in class-conscious England, he said. In his Thursday night session, you might find a cab driver, an accountant or even nobility, but in the circle everyone is equal. Now, as head of England’s Israeli Dance Institute, he runs a summer course for 125, including 40 invited scholarship students from the former Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries. “We plant acorns everywhere,” he said. “We see Israeli dance as an important component of Jewish education and as outreach to other communities.”

In Eastern Europe, decades after the Jewish population was decimated, Haifa-based markid Oren Ashkenazi sees growing interest in rikudei am when he travels there to teach workshops. While some of the groups barely have a half-dozen participants, others, especially in Prague, Budapest, Bucharest and Sofia, attract larger crowds of energetic young adults ages 15 to 25, 70% to 80% of them Jewish. “Once in a village in Bulgaria,” he recalled, “there was a problem with electricity, and the Jewish community wanted so much to dance, we brought a car, opened the doors and used the CD player.”

In São Paulo, like much of South America, harkadot, open Israeli folk dance sessions, are less popular than lehakat, performing troupes, which are frequently affiliated with the Hebraica cultural centers that encompass sports, arts, education and social components of the South American Jewish community. In an e-mail to the Forward, Charlotte Vogel, a longtime Israeli dancer, said that the members of São Paulo’s seven performing troupes range in age from 6 to 60. Last December, about 1,500 performers from Argentina, Brazil, Israel, Miami and Uruguay shared the stage in a high-octane performance modeled on Israel’s famed annual Karmiel Festival, which invites the best Israeli dance performers in the world.

When fellow Brazilian Luciane Bleivas found herself in Hong Kong on business the week of April 7, she sought out a party where, she reported, 200 dancers — all Chinese, none Jewish — spent about 40% of the five-hour evening on Israeli dances; the rest of the program consisted of international folk dances. “They learn from the Internet and from international markidim who come for workshops. Eventually they visit Europe for updating. But, in fact, they are very up to date!” Bleivas noted in an e-mail to the Forward.

Remarking on its global appeal, Stone pointed out that folk dance has become a means of cultural transmission. Since it is clearly conveyed by easily accessible videos on the internet and doesn’t rely on language, it has a great breadth of appeal. Stone noted with pride that these days it is Israel’s largest cultural export.

Back in New York, festival director Ruth Goodman is carrying on the work of its founder Fred Berk, the father of Israeli folk dance in America, by going so far as to introduce the form to toddlers who clasped the hands of their dancing mothers onstage. “Within the Jewish community, Israeli folk dance has always been a way to connect with Israel and Jewish traditions,” Goodman said. “Israeli dance speaks to us,” she continued, “no matter where we come from or who we are.”

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