Folk-dance teacher looks back on 17 years of popular parties

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Every Thursday night, the First United Methodist Church in Palo Alto turns into an unusual dance club, under the auspices of Stanford Hillel. In place of alcohol, coffee, tea and bagels are served. Most of the pop songs are about how wonderful love is, or how difficult love is, but there's also a tune about the 50th anniversary of Israel.

The Bay Area is a center for Israeli folk-dancing, with one of the largest followings outside of Israel. Around 200 to 300 people here participate in this form of dance, with regular groups in San Francisco and Sunnyvale as well as Palo Alto.

After nearly two decades, the Palo Alto Israeli folk-dancing group is getting a new leader. Mark Tischler of Sunnyvale, who started the group 17 years ago, is turning over the tradition to someone else.

For Tischler, the folk-dancing group has been a labor of love. Week in and week out, he's been a combination of dance teacher, DJ and cheerleader.

"I wanted to create a celebration every week — it's my way of being attached to the community in a positive, non-political way," he says. "But after hosting a party every week for 17 years, I wanted to be an attendee."

Those who hear "Israeli folk-dancing" and visualize the simple hora at Jewish weddings will be surprised. These days, you'll see everything from a line dance to the popular Spanish hit "Asereje" (aka "The Ketchup Song") to salsa-inspired partner dances. Created in the 1940s, Israeli folk-dancing began as an effort to create a common Israeli culture from the varied ethnic backgrounds of Jewish immigrants, who came from the Balkans, Arab countries and Africa. The mix has just continued, and choreographers create numerous new dances to the latest pop tunes on the radio each year.

Even those who are not Jewish have discovered Israeli folk-dancing through Tischler's efforts. Lisa Whitmore of Menlo Park, who attends regularly on Thursday nights, saw Tischler leading a dance on the Stanford campus for Israeli Independence Day a few years back and decided to join in. "I like the music and the group spirit," says Whitmore.

However, introducing newcomers to Israeli folk-dancing has become harder, as the dances — and the political situation — have become more complex. In the United States, Israeli culture is not as hip as it once was, according to Tischler.

"In the '60s and '70s, [Israeli dance] was tied to a desire to be involved in Zionism," he says. "There were a lot of Americans who wanted to do something authentic but not religious." Since the 1980s, when there was a migration of Israeli professionals to the Bay Area, a majority of the dancers are Israelis, who grew up with the tradition and come to socialize as well as dance.

"In these times where everything is so emotionally and politically charged, Israeli folk-dancing is one of the few things that are purely cultural," says Tischler. "People come from all ends of the political spectrum, but here they come to dance. And that's what they do in Israel — they refuse to let politics stop daily life."

Tischler himself learned Israeli folk-dancing in Baltimore, shortly after the Six-Day War in 1967. He was 12, and the teacher played an accordion. In college, he performed in an Israeli dance troupe at the Maryland Hillel. When he's not dancing, Tischler leads a group working on flight technology for unmanned helicopters and other aircraft at NASA.

Taking over for Tischler as of this month is Shirley Burr of Campbell. A longtime teacher of kids' sessions at folk-dancing camps, Burr is known for her patience with beginners. She plans to add more line dances, which are popular with teens, to the repertoire.

"The junior-high and high-school age kids have a bad stereotype of it. They think it's stupid and beneath them, they think it's the hora and klezmer music," says Burr, whose 5-year-old son is learning to dance. "But if they see it they'll know it's really cool. For me, it's all about great music, making new friends, and great exercise — it's a healthy addiction, the best addiction you can possibly get."