Israel Matters! – June 2024

How Can We Keep Dancing?

This is an article about Israeli folkdance. Except it’s not.

For over half a century, Israeli folkdance has been an important part of my life. I chose where to go to college and where I would live based on areas that had active Israeli dance groups. I met my husband at an Israeli dancing session at MIT, and I used nearly all of my 40 years of vacation days to attend Israeli dance events. Israeli dancing is my oxygen – it helps me relieve stress and clear my mind and cope better with those difficult things that go on in our lives.

Worldwide, there are an estimated 30,000 Israeli dancers, learning and loving Israeli dancing in big and small communities across the globe. In some cities, there are multiple sessions each night of the week. There are organized Israeli dance trips and camps and workshops and cruises that allow dancers to learn and dance together as a community in fun places and for extended periods of time. I have over 1000 friends on Facebook who I know from Israeli folkdancing adventures and sessions, including dancers in almost every state, as well as from places you might not associate with Israeli dancing like Australia, Canada, Germany, France, Belgium, England, Taiwan, Singapore, Switzerland, Uruguay, Spain, The Netherlands, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, New Zealand, Ukraine, Hungary, Poland, Italy, and of course, Israel. For me (and most of those 1000+ friends), Israeli dance is a wonderful and essential part of our lives that keeps us involved and in love with Israel and Israeli culture. And although not everyone in dancing is Jewish (especially in Eastern Europe and Far East sessions), for many of us, it is a big part of our Jewish identity.

Maybe you are someone who danced a few horas at a wedding or during a Simchat Torah celebration, or perhaps you learned some dances at camp when you were a kid. Today’s Israeli dancing includes those dances plus over 7000 more! Different than folk dances from most countries, Israeli dance incorporates many different types of dance, including dance styles from Eastern Europe, South America, Russia, Yemen as well as some inspired by Arabic music and rhythms. Ballroom dancing has even made its way into Israeli dancing. Fun Fact: Eli Mizrachi, a celebrity judge on Israel’s version of “Dancing with the Stars” (Kochav Nolad), used to do Israeli dancing with us at TBS!

Almost every song you hear on Israeli radio will be grabbed and registered by one of the 100+ dance choreographers, and then he/she will make a dance to it, teach it and try to spread it to sessions everywhere. There are structures in place that organize the registration of songs for use by dance choreographers, and multiple websites and magazines that provide links to view the dances, download the music, and read articles related to historical and other dance-related information. A year-long program allows you to learn to become a certified “markid” (like a DJ), and then open your own session where you teach dances and play different dance songs for your dancers. There are even 10 or 15 markidim who make their livings in Israeli dance, teaching and creating Israeli dances and running sessions. These markidim enjoy somewhat of a ‘celebrity status’ in the dancing community, and are invited to “star” in dance events throughout the world.

When COVID forced all dancing sessions to close, it felt extra-devastating for most in the active Israeli dance community. Yet because dancing is so central to our lives, Zoom dance sessions began to pop up everywhere within months of the start of the Pandemic. We could dance in our living rooms with Ariana on her balcony in Paris, with Gadi in his living room in Tel Aviv, and with Jorge in his yard in Montevideo. It wasn’t the same as holding hands in the circle together, but it was something. As the vaccine became more prevalent, in-

person sessions began again, initially outdoors or with required vaccination cards and masks. As with the rest of the world, these restrictions gradually lifted and life in dancing returned to relatively normal.

That is, until October 7th.

As some know, I was in Israel at that time, near the beginning of my self-created itinerary to meet up with friends and dance every day and every night in different places throughout the country, including attending a 3000+ person outdoor dance festival in Southern Israel. When I went to bed on Friday, Oct 6th, I was excited about dancing at Gordon Beach in Tel Aviv the next day, because that session always includes not only locals, but “extra” dancers from around the world who are visiting. Plus, at Gordon Beach you get to do a lot of “people watching” of folks walking up and down the Tayelet (boardwalk), see and hear people playing matkot (a game like ping-pong but without the table and net, bigger paddles and a ball that hurts more if it hits you), as well as get a beautiful view of the Mediterranean Sea while you dance. So! Much! Fun!

But of course, I never made it to Gordon Beach that day, and of course there was no Israeli dancing there – or anywhere in Israel or abroad. 

October 7th hit Israel and Israelis harder than anything that I can recall in my lifetime. I’ve written before about how I experienced those first days after our world changed last October, but it wasn’t until I got home that I truly felt what had happened and its contining impact. The anti-Israel rallies had begun here and the true horrors of what happened on October 7th were being revealed. Going dancing seemed impossible.

Dancing was cancelled by dance leaders in Israel, the USA and elsewhere. No one wanted to dance. How could we dance when Israel and Israelis (and we) were suffering so deeply? Dancing is such a joyful activity, one that temporarily takes away your troubles, one that reminds us of Israel, that connects us to Israelis – and at that time, their collective agony.

Months before, I had registered to attend a November dance camp in Toronto. But after October 7th, I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to dance at all (a REALLY unusual feeling for me). I called the organizer, my friend Ronit, and asked if she was going to cancel or run the camp, and that I didn’t want to go anymore. She told me it was happening and that although it would be different, it was important for all of us to be together. Ronit said she was bringing an Israeli social media influencer to talk to us about what we could do to help. Choreographers were creating dances to honor and remember those lost or injured or kidnapped – and we would learn those dances. There would be other special activities integrated into the camp. Later that same day, I got a call from one of the dance teachers coming from Israel to the camp, Yaron, who told me, “YOU MUST COME BECAUSE WE MUST DANCE. WE MUST CONTINUE TO ENJOY THE LIFE THEY TRY TO TAKE FROM US. IF WE DON’T, THEY WIN.”

And so I went, and it was indeed different. Sometimes I cried, but sometimes I danced. I spent more time than usual with other dancers talking and hugging. I learned the dances made in tribute to victims of the October 7th attacks, and danced dances with strong nationalistic feelings in their words, music and movements (like “Am Yisroel Chai”). The camp was different and difficult, but it was good that I went. I was with my community during a very hard time, and that is where I needed to be.

In the months since that camp last November, regular dance sessions have resumed, but there is always some acknowledgment of October 7th in the sessions. In one session I attend in Long Island, they pause dancing at 9:00PM for about 15 minutes, and honor one victim (a soldier who has fallen, a hostage still in captivity, a grandfather killed on his kibbutz on October 7th) by sharing pictures, lighting a candle, telling stories of the person’s life, and then singing some prayers and songs together. Dancing resumes slowly, usually with tribute dances that have been created since October 7th.

Beyond the dance floor, the slogan, “We will dance again” has become a popular way of expressing that out of the ashes of the worst terrorist atrocity in Israel’s history, its people will rise up and find joy in life once more.

So we keep dancing. We must keep dancing – or do whatever it is that helps us to enjoy life. But that doesn’t mean we have forgotten what happened on October 7th or what is going on in Israel and the USA now. It is critical that we stay informed on “all things Israel” and be involved in fighting the antisemitic and anti-Israel tsunami that is threatening our very existence. But we must also recognize that it’s important to celebrate the good things in life; attending bar mitzvahs and weddings, spending time with family and friends, playing, singing, dancing. These things are our oxygen, we need them in our lives. Like my friend Yaron said, “We must continue to enjoy the life they try to take from us. If we don’t, they win.”