Ethiopian Jewry’s Journey, in Dance
On October 14 at the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael, California, at a performance for 400 middle school students from six different Bay Area Jewish day schools, the members of the Beta Dance Troupe seemed to defy the laws of human kinetics. Their shoulders pulsed, their heads bobbed and their elbows flapped, while their lower extremities jumped, glided and leaped in fluid motion.
Coinciding with the recent 25th anniversary of Operation Moses and the upcoming holiday of Sigd, which Ethiopian Jews observe 50 days after Yom Kippur to celebrate the acceptance of the Torah, the performance was part of a current U.S. tour with stops in New York, Connecticut, San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles. The seven dancers’ seemingly impossible combination of movements, melding traditional Ethiopian shoulder dancing (Eskesta) and contemporary, innovative choreography, expressed the unique identity of young Ethiopian immigrants in Israel, illustrating the sense of both displacement and possibility that Ethiopian Jews experienced as they were absorbed into Israeli society.
The Beta Dance Troupe, based at the Neve Yosef Community Center in an underprivileged, immigrant neighborhood in Haifa, grew out of Eskesta, a dance program at the University of Haifa. The troupe’s seven semi-professional dancers come from all over the country to the community center at least twice a week for rehearsals, which take place at times when local youth can come in and watch. One of the central mandates of the troupe is to foster young Ethiopian Israeli talent.
Dr. Ruth Eshel has been the force behind the group since before its official inception in 1995. A former professional dancer with the Batsheva Dance Company and a noted postmodern choreographer, Eshel was working as an academic researcher in 1991 when 15,000 new Ethiopian immigrants arrived with Operation Solomon. Curious to learn more about these new arrivals, Eshel spent three years in the field, visiting immigrant camps and “videotaping everything that moved,” as she put it.
After studying thousands of hours of footage, Eshel began to choreograph contemporary dances that used only the movements of traditional shoulder dancing. “Everything had to come out of the DNA of Eskesta,” she explained. “The movements had to be natural and grow out of the shoulder dancing. I was determined not to impose modern dance on it.” Some purists would say that what Beta does is not Ethiopian dance, Eshel Added, but she believes that change is inevitable. “The question is how you change tradition, how to do it carefully and with a lot of respect.”
In the Beta troupe’s performance in San Rafael, which was organized by BASIS, an Israel education initiative, the Ethiopian Israeli journey was conveyed through dances that portrayed traditional prayer gatherings and weddings, as well as in pieces that reflected a more secular sensibility. The shift was noticeable in the choreography and in the music, which went from traditional chanting and drumming to pop songs, electric sounds and spoken word, and in costumes that ranged from traditional African garb to Tel Aviv street fashions.
Eshel and Beta’s associate director, Meeka Ya’ari, inspire and are inspired by the four male and three female dancers, aged 23 to 29. All but one of the dancers were born in Ethiopia, and one young woman arrived in Israel only two years ago. They have all served in the military and are now either university students or working in professional fields. Zvika Izikias, who has a lanky, lithe dancer’s body and long dreadlocks, joined Beta eight months ago after a career with Batsheva Ensemble. When asked why he wanted to dance with Beta, he answered, “Because this is my family.”
Watch a performance by the Beta Dance Troupe: