With its community focus, traditional Israeli dance is for everyone
By Jennifer Kaplan
Rikudei am, it’s called in Hebrew. “Dance of the people” is its literal translation; more commonly, in Jewish and Israeli circles, it’s known as Israeli folk dance. Since this communal dance form was born in pre-state Israel, more than 75 years ago, Israeli folk dance has become a worldwide phenomenon. Its expanding circle of enthusiasts includes teenagers and senior adults, young professionals and aging Zionists, Jews, non-Jews, and just plain folks of all ethnicities and religions.
Created from a vibrant immigrant culture in the 1920s and 1930s, Israeli folk dance has exploded in recent years. Up-and-coming choreographers feed off the novelty of the Israeli melting pot, a savory blend of Near, Middle, and Far Eastern émigrés; East and West European Jews; North and South Americans; Ethiopians and South Africans. As Israeli folk dance coalesced, its dances served to cement a disparate community while celebrating ideals of planting and building on the land.
Today, dance sessions in Israel have become huge social gatherings. Most open sessions begin with simple older dances, played by a dj/instructor who teaches a handful of the newest dances, and can run for three to six hours of nonstop dances—circles, lines, partners (but no freestyle dancing). Many regular folk dancers know a vast repertoire of dances, many done to Hebrew pop music heard on Israeli radio stations.
Israeli vs Jewish
“I separate out the Israeli from the Jewish,” explains Minneapolis dance scholar and choreographer Judith Brin Ingber, who literally has written a book on the subject: Seeing Israeli and Jewish Dance is slated for publication in June by Wayne State University Press. Jewish religious dancing occurs at weddings, in synagogues on specific holidays when dancing is prescribed by religious law, and during other celebratory occasions, like b’nai mitzvot and certain Jewish festivals, Brin Ingber says. In some religious communities, men and women dance separately, in others not so much. “It says in the Talmud that you must dance at a wedding to make the bride happy,” she says. “Every community, no matter where Jews have been, dances at a wedding: we have Kurdish dances, Yemenite dances, Ethiopian dances, and all kinds of versions in Eastern Europe, from the very Orthodox to the more secular.”
But once Jews began moving to pre-state Israel in earnest beginning in the early 20th century, a new style of dance took root, with a new purpose. “You have this phenomenon of the new Jew developing as the new country is developing, and the question arises: how do you define it?” says Brin Ingber.
The idea of a new Jewish body, freed of the shackles of European anti-Semitism, evolved to demonstrate strength, muscularity, freedom, and pride, as well as hope in realizing the creation of a Zionist state, the nation of Israel, which can determine its own destiny. Dances were created to demonstrate these ideals, many drawn from ancient biblical agricultural festivals or celebrating the tilling of the soil and its bountiful harvest. Others celebrated the communal labor of working the land to make the desert bloom. In 1937 Else Dublon, a German-trained dancer familiar with the large-scale movement choirs of Rudolf von Laban, choreographed one of the oldest and still most popular Israeli dances: Mayim, Mayim (Water, Water) was created when the kibbutz she was on discovered water. Its basic step, the grapevine, remains the foundation for the majority of Israeli folk dances even today.
An explosion of dances
According to researcher Dina Roginsky of Yale University, fewer than 10 Israeli folk dances existed in 1944. Today more than 6,000 fill the canon, and they’re being created apace—30 to 60 a month, both in Israel and abroad. These dances are taught at weekly sessions that attract anywhere from a dozen to hundreds of dancers. Although it’s nearly impossible to learn all the dances, and many fade from popularity quickly, a good markid or markida (instructor) should be able to teach across a range, from the very basic circle dances to complex partner dances.
Epicenter of Israeli folk dance
The 92nd Street YMHA in New York has been and remains at the epicenter of the Israeli folk dance movement outside of Israel. This year the Y’s Jewish Dance Division celebrates 60 years with a series of special events, including an April concert featuring Israeli folk dance performing groups from around the country.
Founded by one-time modern dancer Fred Berk, the Y’s program became a model emulated in Jewish community centers, synagogues, and Jewish schools around the country, according to Ruth Goodman, director of Israeli dance there since 1973 and a former student of Berk’s. Open adult folk dance sessions each Wednesday can attract up to 300 people, especially during secular holidays like Thanksgiving eve. The program can include instruction by Goodman and her colleague, Israeli-born Danny Uziel, followed by open dancing until 12:45 a.m. Circle dances, the foundation of Israeli folk dance, remain the most popular, but couple dances that move around the perimeter of the circle are also prevalent. The younger generation, especially teens and college students, often favors fast-paced line dances with a more contemporary flavor.
While the Y’s session now attracts many Israelis who have settled abroad, initially it was a meeting place for American Jews. Dancing to Hebrew music with Jewish and Zionist themes allowed them to feel a visceral link to the then-young Israeli state. By the mid- to late 1960s, says Brin Ingber, “many folk dances began to have this signature that you didn’t need to be part of Israel physically to feel identified.” For many, one aspect of that identity came from folk dancing. “You could be an Israeli who left, for various reasons, and dances to keep up connections at home,” she says. “Israeli folk dance started to function beyond the nation, just like Irish dance or Indian dance.”
From California . . .
Within the Jewish community, Israeli folk dance remains an important nonverbal means of cultural transmission of historical, religious, and spiritual values. But folk dancing isn’t just for Jews, as Yoni Carr discovered. A longtime soloist with the once preeminent Israeli folkloric troupe Inbal Dance Theater, Israeli-born Carr now offers weekly dance sessions at Avant Garde Ballroom in Newport Beach, California, and at the San Diego Jewish Academy.
“Not only Jewish people come to my sessions,” Carr says. “I’ve got Chinese, blacks, all religions, all ethnicities. That’s what’s nice about it. Even in Japan Israeli dancing is very big.” Carr is one of many Israeli folk dance instructors (markidim) in the United States who run regular workshop programs that introduce new dances and train teachers.
Carr rents a ballroom on Sunday nights, where she teaches beginner through advanced dancers, starting off with the easiest dances and finishing with an open session that includes a selection of the most popular dances from the past year as well as older favorites. But having the support of a Jewish organization “is much easier,” she says, “because you have built-in publicity.” Carr offered a session at the JCC of Orange County for 24 years before she had to move on. “I had 120 people coming weekly and it was one of the most popular activities there. I hardly had to do any advertising. Now, at the private studio, it’s harder. I have to do my own marketing and publicity and Sunday is not a good day for Israelis, who are still the core group.” (Sundays are when most social events like weddings and bar/bat mitzvah parties take place, as well as Hebrew school.) But she notes that those who dance at the ballroom session sometimes join a salsa or ballroom class and vice versa.
. . . to Florida
At the Michael-Ann Russell Jewish Community Center in North Miami Beach, cultural arts director Roger Weiger oversees a program for 600 dancers from age 3 through adult. Weiger, a native of Rio de Janeiro, modeled his Bamachol Dance Program on popular Israeli dance groups in South American Jewish communities, where performing is emphasized over weekly drop-in dance sessions.
The program features a set curriculum of age/grade-level–based classes beginning in preschool and progressing up to semi-professional touring troupes that travel to international festivals throughout the United States and South America. The adult dance troupe includes many of Weiger’s teacher/choreographers and performs in Israel at the Karmiel Dance Festival, which attracts 5,000 dancers from Israel and abroad and 250,000 spectators.
Although the focus at Bamachol remains on teaching Israeli folk dances both old and new, Weiger also works on general dance skills. “We don’t go into much ballet technique, but we do practice running, leaping, turns, to develop a little bit more each dancer so that when they are onstage they can perform accordingly. We focus more on what they need to learn for their choreography and prepare them for performance: posture, arms, body awareness. But we don’t spend 35 minutes doing pliés and tendus. We don’t have that time.”
“Not only Jewish people come to my sessions. I’ve got Chinese, blacks, all religions, all ethnicities. That’s what’s nice about it. Even in Japan Israeli dancing is very big.” —Yoni Carr
More important than the steps or choreography, Weiger says, is inculcating his students (many of them children or grandchildren of Latin American Jewish immigrants) with a knowledge and love of Israel and Jewish customs. “We use rikudei am as a tool,” he explains, “and we don’t want to forget that, even though we are focused on performance, because in the end that is considered the basis for everything.”
Each year Weiger programs two festivals, one at Chanukah, the second in the late spring, that focus on Jewish holidays, Israeli and Jewish customs, and cultural practices. He also ensures that through the years his dancers learn at least a dozen of the most popular Israeli folk dances, most of them classics. Once his dancers graduate, he wants them to be able to walk into any folk dance session anywhere in the world and readily join the circle.
Setting up a program
While most Israeli folk dancing programs are part of the Jewish community, they need not remain there. “Israeli folk dancing has been an important means of connecting with Israeli culture, but it has nothing to do with being in a synagogue or feeling a part of a religious community,” says Brin Ingber.
According to Carr, most U.S. and Israeli programs work on a weekly drop-in basis, charging participants between $4 and $15. Instructors serve as both teacher and dj, supplying their own music, programming dances, and shaping the evening to ensure that 80 to 90 percent of attendees are on the dance floor.
“If a studio or community center wants to develop a folk dance program, it’s very hard to come in new,” says Goodman, who in her role at the 92nd Street Y often serves as a sounding board and support system for instructors around the country. For a new program, she recommends starting with a weekly hour-long basics class for six to eight weeks. Students will learn a repertory of popular, easy dances and the most commonly used steps: mayim, or grapevine; tcherkessia, a rock or cross forward, then back; and a variety of hops, skips, runs, and turns. It could take months or even a year or more to develop these classes into full-fledged rikudei am open sessions. Most sessions are drop-ins, so for a program to succeed you need steady attendance by a good number of regular dancers who know at least half the dances. It takes time and effort on both the leader’s part and on the participants’ parts to learn enough dances.
Goodman also cautions studio owners to ensure that their studio is big enough to support a large circle of dancers. Most sessions don’t require any particular footwear, and many dancers use their street or gym shoes for dancing (though in recent years jazz sneakers have become popular in Israeli dance circles). A few old-timers still dance barefoot.
Aside from providing a workout to a varied selection of Israeli music, Israeli folk dancing offers a solid sense of community. “[It] remains essentially about connecting with the country,” Brin Ingber says. “Dancers emphasize that their reasons for coming are many. Some appreciate the social aspect. But at the Y the most important reason for participating is connecting to Israeli culture.”
How to Learn More
The 92nd Street Y offers folk dance teacher-training seminars three times a year, primarily geared to Jewish educators and camp directors and counselors. They learn how to integrate folk dance into a traditional Jewish educational or camp curriculum. In Israel, an official folk dance institute offers an instructors’ training course, and other workshops around the country and internationally feature both dance training and advice on teaching. Choreographer-taught workshops in which folk dancers and instructors exchange the latest dances take place throughout the world. Check out these resources:
Israeli Dance Institute: www.israelidanceinstitute.org Includes a bilingual magazine on Israeli folk dance, a bimonthly listing of where to dance, an index of dances, material for teaching, a costume bank, and workshops for teachers
www.IsraeliDances.com : www.israelidances.com/search.asp
Features a large datab ase of dances taught at workshops all over the world.
Rokdim.co.il An Israeli site listing sessions and courses (in Hebrew; click to choose a language).
www.Markid.co.il Association of Folk Dance Instructors and Choreographers in Israel and Abroad (in Hebrew)
A Folk Dance Canon
Ruth Goodman of the 92nd Street Y in New York offers a handful of classic folk dances that span different decades and styles and are frequently performed in sessions the world over. These choices include dances with the basic Israeli folk dance steps: mayim, or grapevine; tcherkessia, a single or double-crossing step; Yemenite, a ball-change–like weight-shifting step; and debka, a bouncy walking step.
Mayim, Mayim (Water, Water): a classic, done at many Jewish events
Tzadik K’tamar (Righteous as the Palm Tree)
Yedid Nefesh (Beloved Soul)
Od Lo Ahavti Dai (I Have Not Loved Enough Yet)
Hora Medura (Campfire Hora)
Hora Nirkoda (Hora Dance)
Haro’a Hak’tana (The Little Shepherd)
Eretz Eretz (Country, Country)
Eretz Yisrael Yaffa (Beautiful Land of Israel)
Badarom (Here in the South)
Ahava P’shuta (Simple Love)
Stav Lavan (White Fall)