Can any of us forget the famous scene of Israelis spontaneously streaming out to the streets of Tel Aviv to dance the hora as Ben Gurion reads the Proclamation of the new State of Israel from the halls of the Tel Aviv Museum? Since that very night, folk dancing has become a staple of the Israeli lifestyle. I have yet to meet an Israeli, religious or secular, from North Tel Aviv or Bnei Brak, new immigrant or veteran who doesn't know even the most basic steps of this liberal dance genre.
My husband loves to dance, and unfortunately for me (whose alias should be Clem Clodhopper) he is also quite a natural. That's what brought us to our weekly class in Ballroom Dancing. Now, I can't say that I totally enjoy the class, taught by Yuri, a talented and patient instructor, but I can say that in spite of all my efforts to the contrary, Yuri has succeeded in instilling some improvements in my dance steps.
We are not the only ones in the beginner's class. There are 7 other couples (naturally every one is extraordinarily better than me) and Yuri even has a class for advanced dancers (can there be such a thing? I wonder). He also teaches numerous other classes all over the region and has competed internationally. While ballroom dancing is relatively new to Israel, it has certainly gained in popularity quite rapidly, thanks to the Russian Aliyah. Today Israeli Russians are held in good stead in international competitions.
But, with all due respect to our Russian cousins who have undoubtedly infused our society with a disciplined and exciting dance form, I think itšs time we pay our respects to our pioneering fathers and mothers who introduced Israeli folk dancing into our every day lives.
So, what exactly is Israeli folk dancing? Is it, in fact, as popular today as it appears to have been in the early days of the State? And, what is in store for its future?
Israeli folk dancing is a melange of Jewish and non-Jewish folk dance forms from around the world. The hora, the centerpiece of Israeli folk dancing, is actually a Rumanian dance. But, the idea of everyone of equal status, dancing around in a circle, with no soloist or pas de deux seemed to have fit in well with the pioneer 'we're all equal-oriented' society, which is why it caught on like wildfire.
Folk dancing, as a national art form and popular dance activity in Israel can probably date its turning point to the first folk dance festival held at Kibbutz Dalia in 1944. Widespread enthusiasm led many amateur enthusiasts to compose both music and movements for this dance style. The movements, which brought together Chassidic dance steps, the Arab debka, Yemenite swings and even North American jazz and Latin American rhythms, found great popularity in the early days of the State in both public and private events. While in other countries, folk dance is fostered to preserve old rural traditions, in Israel, rural is too close to metropolitan, the country itself is too new and there is no homogeneity among the populace, so that Israeli folk dancing is a constantly developing art form that has created a dynamic of its own.
Today, there are more than 300,000 Israelis - a microcosm of our society-- that attend Israeli folk dancing classes on a regular basis in community centers, halls and dance schools throughout the country. There are probably tens of thousands of more who attend classes irregularly but nevertheless share the same enthusiasm.
What characterizes Israeli folk dancing is a lively, unbridled spirit, seemingly complete freedom of movement and animated optimism that seems to embrace the dancers as much as the audience.
Israelis are not the only ones doing Israeli folk dancing, by the way. Our art form seems to have captured some global hearts -- from Japan to South America, across Europe, Canada and throughout the United States, from Hawaii to Alaska and from South Carolina to Louisiana. Sure, there are Jews living in many of those places, but non-Jews seem to admire the fire and rhythm of the dance form as much as the Jews do.
Some of the great promoters of Israeli folk dance began their careers both as amateur dancers and devotees who yearned to share their enthusiasm and love with others. The late Shalom Herman was one such individual. Employed for many years by the Ministry of Education as a teacher of physical education and later as the national supervisor of physical education, he began teaching Israeli folk dancing in London while doing his military service in the British Army on behalf of the nascent state. Then, as he continued his education in New York and later on in Illinois, Mr. Herman shared his love of Israel and folk dancing with the many dance fans who attended his weekly dance gatherings.
Upon his return to Israel, he taught folk dancing throughout the country and was as talented in composing dances as performing them. Today, fully 12 of his dance compositions, accompanied by the music of Amitai Ne'eman, long-time friend and music partner, are performed on a regular basis by Israel's leading folk dance troupes. Moreover, he ensured the dance form's continuity by engaging the interest of dozens of schools throughout Israel to offer dance as part of their curriculum, with the option to take matriculation exams in the art form.
Israeli folk dancing also enjoys international prestige. Israel boasts several professional dance troupes, most notable among them from the Jerusalem-based Mechola Center. With more than 1,500 students, a dance faculty of 60 teachers and branches throughout the country, Mechola is Israel's largest dance center. Their dance troupe recently returned from 14 performances in London, which followed on the heels of an exciting performance schedule in Amsterdam.
Local dance troupes appear alongside international dance troupes right here in Israel during the international summer folk dance festival which is held in Karmiel. Since 1988, the Galilee has become home to dancers, choreographers, local fans and folk dance aficionados for three packed days.
And, Israeli folk dancing has even become part of the sports' competition for the quadrennial Maccabiah Games. The South American contingents are relatively strong in the arena and even boast a special dance shaliach whose primary and often sole job is to teach Israeli folk dancing within the communities.
There is no doubt: Israeli folk dancing is as prevalent now as it was back in the pre-State days. Perhaps it's the lively beat, the engaging music, or the wide variety of steps that differentiates Israeli folk dancing from other national dance forms. While some places may advertise Israeli dance as a healthy aerobic exercise which does not require a partner its popularity may very well be attributed to what Shlomi Hoffman, Director of Mechola describes as the true uniqueness of Israeli folk dancing: "No matter how much you learn, therešs still more to learn. You are never bored."
See you on the dance floor.