Like the adage on the classic Levy’s rye bread advertisement, you don’t have to be Jewish to love Israeli folk dancing. And Israeli dance these days is not just a classic hora. There’s far more to Israeli folkdance than a hora, the grape-vining circle dance most commonly done at Jewish weddings and bar mitzvah parties. The hora’s roots likely reach back to Europe, Romania, and some even say ancient Greece.
But these days, a plethora of Israeli dances continue to be choreographed and creators of new Israeli dances draw inspiration from around the world. You can find Israeli folk dances that resemble tangos, salsas, Irish step dances and swingy jitterbugs. And forget the accordion; now they’re mostly choreographed to Israeli pop music.
The first folk dance consciously created on Israeli soil was choreographed in 1924 by Baruch Agadati, a dancer, choreographer and film director. The energetic bouncy dance set the tone for generations of dances. And Israeli folk dance was so popular in the early days of Israel’s founding in the late 1940s that the government’s Labor Party government instituted a department of Israeli folk dance. Now there are thousands of Israeli dances and choreographers continue to create new ones almost every week.
This weekend, at the annual Israeli Dance Festival DC, you can get your hora on and discover the rich cultural diversity of Israeli folk dance, which draws inspiration from throughout Europe, the Far East, South America, North Africa and the United States. On Sunday afternoon on the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy stage, nearly 200 Israeli dancers – primarily under age 30 — will perform lively horas, bouncy Arab-influenced debkas and graceful sways of the rocking Yemenite step.
The 10th annual Israeli Dance Festival honors 11 stalwart Israeli folk dancers, mostly from Montgomery County, who have contributed to the festival and the burgeoning Israeli folkdance community during the past decade. “I think it’s a great representation of our community,” said festival codirector Abby Kerbel, who added that she was introduced to Israeli folk dancing as a child by her mother Judy Kerbel, one of the festival founders and a longtime avid Israeli dancer.
This year’s performing troupes represent Jewish schools and synagogue and community youth groups. The festival dancers skew surprisingly young – boding well for the future of Israeli dance. In fact, Abby Kerbel noted, “We have about 100 dancers under the age of 12,” including those from the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville; the independent middle school and high school troupes Kesem and Yesodot, which rehearse in and draw their members primarily from Montgomery County; and Zohar, a youth troupe based at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase.
Courtesy of Washington Talent
Hora-im Yeladim, composed of seven families — parents and children, made their debut at the 2018 festival.
“Because it’s our tenth anniversary,” Kerbel added, “we wanted to do something special. We’re bringing a group from Porto Alegre, Brazil, and they will perform three suites of dances.” Twenty-seven of Lehakat Kadima’s 40 dancers are traveling to Rockville to perform, said Lucas Schwetz, the group’s director. The troupe performs regularly in large venues in Porto Alegre, a city of 1.2 million in southern Brazil. The group is also in demand outside Brazil. In fact, last year, its members danced at the premiere Israeli folk dance festival in northern Israel as well as at a dance festival in England. Lehakat Kadima is celebrating its 40th year as the Israeli Dance Festival DC celebrates its 10th.
Lehakat Kadima will perform three pieces this Sunday: a traditional hora called “Hora Argashá,” “Ietziat Sh’tika” (“The Silent Exodus,” a debka based on Arabic dancing elements) and the troupe’s newest choreography, “Chaim Bamidbar” (“Life in the Desert”), which Schwetz choreographed with Amanda Chmelnitsky de Mattos Schwetz, his wife and company co-director.
Of “Ietziat Sh’tika,” Amanda Schwetz noted, “We never do a dance without a story for the public. This dance actually talks about the Arabic Jews, who used to have great lives in Arab countries until the 1950s and ’60s. Then the Jews there had two options: leave or die.” The piece moves through the difficulties Jews faced leaving their homes in Arab countries and building a new life in Israel.
The dance feels relevant in light of current surges of forced and voluntary immigration occurring around the world as people leave troubled homelands to build a new life, yet they continue to grasp on to traditions from the old country. “The whole dance is about home, about having a home where you can follow your traditions,” Lucas Schwetz noted.
Beyond the stage performance are two opportunities to join the circle and try Israeli dance this weekend. On Saturday night, a harkada – or dance party – begins with basic dances and “oldies” at 8:30 p.m. before seasoned dancers take the floor at B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville with more complicated partner, line and circle dances. Then, on Sunday, after the performance, the community is invited to dance along with the performers – the perfect time to try out a hora or debka.
And, like the rye bread, you don’t need to be Jewish to enjoy the Israel Dance Festival DC. “[The festival] is a nice introduction to Israeli dancing,” said Kerbel. “Plus, it’s also just a good show. You get to see dancers of varying genders and ages, families and parents dance together with their children … And while we’re celebrating a particular culture, there’s diversity within that culture. Finally, it’s just a great celebration of dance.”
Kerbel’s colleague from Porto Alegre, Brazil, concurs. Lucas Schwetz said, “Yes, Israeli folk dance is for everyone. In terms of Jews or non-Jews, it doesn’t matter. Anyone can dance. We just want to spread the word about Israeli dancing. It has something for everyone.”
The 10th Annual Israeli Dance Festival DC 2019 will begin at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 17 at the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy, 13300 Arctic Ave., Rockville. Tickets are $10 to $15 in advance, $15 to $20 at the door. The pre-festival Harkada (dance party) will begin at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 16 at B’nai Israel Congregation, 6301 Montrose Road., Rockville. A $5 contribution is suggested. Visit www.israelidancefestivaldc.com/tickets.