Tradition Meets Recreation, Passover and Israeli Dancing - Gainesville Sun 060413

Tonight, as Jewish families enjoy the Passover seder, dance floors at Congregation B'nai Israel and the University of Florida's Reitz Union are empty. But on any other given Thursday evening, Israeli dancing sweeps across those spaces.

Dances at B'Nai also are held on Tuesday evenings, and additional dances are Wednesdays at Hillel Student Center and Sundays at the Gainesville Dance and Music Association building. Area Israeli dance teachers include Jackie Ginzburg, Tony Royal and Andrew Weitzen.

Weitzen, who has studied Israeli dance for 15 years, leads the Sunday dances as well as the Thursday B'Nai Israel group. Little kids, college kids and the young-at-heart participate.

"What is recognized as the first Israeli folk dance was created in the 1920s," Weitzen says. "People have danced in festivals for decades, but it was about 25 years ago that Israeli dancing became extremely popular. There was an explosion that brought the traditional folk dances to a new generation, and that process now continues."

One need not be Jewish to appreciate the energetic and contemporary feel of these circle, line and couple dances. Israeli folk dance is a rather secular, modern and extremely popular recreational pastime in Israel, where participants at a dance sometimes exceed 1,000.

Israeli dance's popularity is second highest in Australia, followed by the United States. Israeli dance is enjoyed throughout Europe and the South and Central Americas. At a recent GDMA dance, I met a woman who, in preparation for an upcoming vacation, researched the Israeli dance scene in Vienna.

Each dance is set to one respective song.

"You could go anywhere in the world, and if you went out and heard a certain song, the dance would be the same," says local therapist and avid dancer Arlene Bargad.

The music can be traditional or current and is from all over the world. Lyrics may be from ancient scripture; much of the music draws from pioneering songs from the state of Israel's seminal days. Most are sung in Hebrew, but many have been translated from Arabic, French, Spanish or Turkish originals. The musical forms, from so many cultures, thus include (American) western swing, mazurkas, polkas and Latin rhythms such as salsa.

"Like the U.S., Israel is a melting pot," explains Bargad, who once lived in Israel. "Israeli dancing has followed the cultural development of the country."

This is evident in the steps themselves. "The steps draw from Greek, Arabic, Russian and Turkish dance influences," explains Santa Fe Community College student Tim Jahn, who has been Israeli dancing for four years.

As Jahn demonstrates a dance to an Iranian song, it is clear the dances draw from American pop culture as well. While his feet follow a pattern common in Greek and Turkish dance, Jahn's upper body, clad in a T-shirt with a Coca-Cola logo in Hebrew, pops and locks like a seasoned street breaker.

Today in Israel, before a pop song is even released, the singer will request a choreographer to create its dance piece. Choreographers must be certified in Israel, and new dances must be officially registered in their names. Hundreds of dances come out each year, but only a few make it into the popular canon. There are more than 5,000 dances and some 350 choreographers registered.

Steps range from the "grapevine," Broadway's old faithful, to "balance," which derived from French social dances. There is a step called "Yemenite" and another called "debka" (Arabic for dance).

"Israeli dancing provides a cultural connection," says Bargad. "It is great exercise; the Tuesday night group has collectively lost a lot of weight. But it is also a wonderful way to develop a sense of community."

E-mail Sarah Ingley at

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