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In Israel, Still Dancing After All These Years

Israel will be 56 on April 25. They’ve been 56 trying years, so you’d think she wouldn’t be dancing as much as when she was younger. But the country seems to defy all odds. Though she dances differently than she did when she was young, she still dances with uncommon vigor and creativity.

When Israel was young, Independence Day was celebrated with Israeli folk dance — dancers filled the streets in Israeli cities, moshavim and kibbutzim, and radios blared synchronized instructions for the steps to the new dances, made up from the dances and rhythms of the different Jewish immigrant communities crowding into Israel.

The newly created Israeli folk dances were seen as the very embodiment of Israel. Inventive and ardent dancers combined Yemenite, Hasidic, Russian and Romanian features to portray the joyful ingathering of the new nation. Israeli folk dancing became an important element of the new culture, and for Jews outside of Israel a way of identifying with the new country. The newly created folk dances projected a strong, vibrant view of Jews. The hora in particular became the outstanding symbol of Zionism, as it and similar dances came to be seen as the quintessence of Israel. The dances traveled with dance leaders and emissaries of the Israeli government and other institutions to represent and personify Israel in Zionist activities outside the country.

Today, folk dance in Israel is no longer the favored expression of its national holiday. It’s a more regular part of life. You can find it in schools as part of the curriculum, in the town squares, on the beach with public amplifiers blaring out the music, in gymnasiums, at youth-movement gatherings, in the army and in hotel lobbies. It doesn’t look like the hora anymore, either. The dancing has broken away from the circle or lines in which dancers hold hands or dance shoulder-to-shoulder. Despite the overriding rhythm, there’s a defiant independence among the dancers, each out there in his or her own space. The rhythms accompanying modern Israeli folk dancing are a polyglot of global sound, reaching beyond the ingathering of Jewish communities: techno, pop, salsa tunes, Greek and Mizrahi — an Oriental fusion of Sephardic and Arabic rocking with an Israeli pulse.

As befitting a grown-up country, the dance in Israel has developed in all ways and the theater dance companies tour extensively and draw big audiences in Israel and abroad. Dance, in all its fullness and stylistic variation, is a vigorous enterprise in Israel, and it is different than what you might expect. The definition of popular Israeli folkdances changes rapidly, and the Israeli public — as well as those abroad — seem to maintain an insatiable appetite for each new dance creation.

Today, Israeli folk dance has become a business, and its creators meet the demand for innovation by churning out ever-new combinations of dance steps with challenging sequences. Videos, DVDs and recordings are dispatched weekly all over the world to popularize the dances. And dance leaders travel to festivals and workshops worldwide at a far greater pace than in previous years. By now, Israeli dance has spread everywhere in Europe, England, South America, New Zealand, Australia, the Far East and, of course, throughout the United States.

Independence Day celebrations outside of Israel still include a big emphasis on folk dancing at festivals. In New York, which arguably has the biggest Jewish population outside Israel, there has been an Israeli Folk Dance Festival for 53 of Israel’s 56 years, sponsored by the Israeli Dance Institute.

The IDI festival director, Ruth Goodman, spoke to the Forward recently about the power of Israeli folk dance. “Festivals embrace all manner of Jews, from the whole political and religious spectrum — everyone is swept up in the excitement,” she said. “Like Israel itself, with its tensions between secular and religious, the different ethnic communities, and between right and left politically, everything can still come together for an ideal moment in the dancing. Our fragile world can be strengthened by the marvelous energy. The dancing shows that special spirit which built the country of Israel, dafka — in spite of everything.”

Throughout recent decades, the nature and shape of these festivals have changed, as Goodman’s dance partner and assistant, Danny Uziel, explained. In the first festivals some 50 years ago, the participants represented Zionist youth movements. It was all under the direction of the charismatic Fred Berk. “Now the landscape has changed and there’s no longer one forceful figure. Festivals all over America draw on Jewish children from all kinds of day schools, from elementary to high schools, to college and Jewish community center groups, quite apart from the old Zionist ideologies.”

This year, IDI’s festival was held a month early (along with others in Boston and Miami), but on the actual holiday, you can still find much Israeli folk dancing stateside. In New York, a big party with folk-dancing tutorials of older, classic dances takes place at Bridge For Dance with Rikuday Dor Rishon. In fact, this spring offers a plethora of folk-dancing possibilities. For 30 years, Lorraine Arus has run a festival that has instilled the joy of Israeli folk dancing in upstate New York synagogues; this year’s takes place on May 2 in Page Hall in Albany for an expected audience of 1000. In Florida, the vivacious Silvio Berlfein and his Hora Israeli Dance Troupe will perform at the Meyer Jewish Academy in West Palm Beach on April 26; at the Donna Klein Jewish Academy in Boca Raton on April 27, and at the David A. Stein Jewish Community Alliance in Jacksonville on May 2.

The New England Folk Festival Association meets in Natick, Mass. on April 25, and in Minneapolis, Shira Schwartz presents two different teen folk dance groups within a big community celebration, overseen by the community emissary from Israel, Itai Tennenbaum. (Tennenbaum is one of 24 emissaries sent to the U.S. by the Israeli government in cooperation with different Jewish American communities.)

Marathons and weekend workshops offer enthusiasts other opportunities to learn and practice Israel’s newest dances along with its classic folk dances. Moshe Eskayo leads camps and workshops, especially his Sababa festival over the upcoming Memorial Day weekend May 28-31 at Camp Emmanuel in Copake, N.Y. On the West Coast, veteran leader Dani Dassa and his son David, along with Israeli dance creator Gadi Biton, will be the inspiration May 28-31 at Camp Rikud in the Los Angeles area. Danny Maseng will run the Bezalel Arts Festival with dancing April 23-25 at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Brandeis, Calif.

But the epicenter of festivals, of course, will be in Israel, with the fullest experience in the Galilee town of Karmiel on July 13-15. The festival, directed by Shlomo Maman (created by choreographer Yonatan Karmon 16 years ago), is modeled on the festivals that took place at Kibbutz Dalia from the 1940s through the 1960s. There is an energetic takeover of the entire northern town for three days of performances, competitions and open public dancing. Dancing can be found in every available space, from the amphitheater filled with some 50,000 people seated up and down the grassy mountainside for evening performances by hundreds of dancers, to the public dancing at the municipal tennis courts (minus its nets), and shows in the outdoor sports stadium or on the charming stage in the city’s cultural center.

The vitality of Israel can still be felt through its dancing, but it’s much more than folk dance –– and all styles will be in evidence at Karmiel. As Israel has grown, dancing has become much more a part of its everyday life, moving beyond the folk-dancing-filled streets of Independence Days past. Though the country still dances, she moves a bit differently in middle age.

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