The do-si-dos and the do-si-donts of folk dancing

In high school, I once had a P.E. teacher who was an avid folk dancer (rumor had it she even sent her poor children to a square dancing camp each summer). One day in gym class, this teacher taught — and later tested us on — the choreography to a song called “God Bless Texas.”

My association with the words “folk dance” suffered greatly as a consequence to this (as if high school gym class wasn’t torturous enough without having to do-si-do to twangy music in front of your peers).

But recently, I tried a different kind of folk dance — one devoid of country-western line dancing or anything remotely related to the great, big state of Texas.

I’ll give you a clue: The dance I tried may have originated with the hora.

Yes, I went to an Israeli folk dance class, and it wasn’t my first time either; I’d tried it before, both in Israel and here in the Bay Area. But I’d really never given it a serious chance, mostly dismissing it as a fad of my parents’ Zionist, socialist generation. I was also more preoccupied with my own dance ambitions — ballet, modern and, later, flamenco.

But this time, I was finally ready for a serious attempt at Israeli folk dancing, the dance of my ancestors — or whatever it really is.

Unsure, I looked up the definition online. Here’s the short version of what I found:

Like Israeli cuisine, Israeli dance is a hard-to-define, multifaceted term. Though it has European roots, Israeli folk dance has been influenced by the traditional dances of many different ethnic groups in Israel. It is most often danced in a large circle and choreographed to modern Israeli music — an amalgamation of Western and Middle Eastern music.

And so, definition in hand and comfortable shoes on my feet, I drove down to Sunnyvale with my mother — an avid dancer herself — to take part in an Israeli folk dance class on a recent Wednesday evening.

First off, Ayelet, our dance teacher, asked us — along with the other Israelis and Americans in the room — to form a large circle. She talked us through the choreography of the first dance, which involved mostly basic grapevine and Yemeni steps. It all seemed a bit stifled and stiff to me, until she turned the music on. As we danced to the familiar songs, turning, shifting, stepping in and out but always (more or less) staying in our original circle, I began to appreciate the elements of this dance that were absent in other types of dance I had tried.

Unlike ballet, success in Israeli folk dance doesn’t have anything to do with the degree of your turnout or the height of your arabesques. What matters in Israeli folk dance is your ability to dance with the group and to enjoy your connection to the music and the community through the dance.

Israeli folk dancing is not concerned with the individual, soloist dancer. It cares about the group. It’s all-inclusive, and, though our teacher, Ayelet, was clearly the guide, there was no clear hierarchy in this group.

As the hour passed, we learned more and more choreographies, all danced to familiar songs. My thoughts wandered to memories of one summer evening in Israel when I watched a folk dance class in Jerusalem’s Gan Ha’Pa’amon (Bell Park). It had been an exceptionally dark Saturday night, but the park lights illuminated the dancing figures, and the light Jerusalem breeze blowing by was a perfect accompaniment to the music and the hundred or so Israelis dancing their hearts out in a large circle in the park.

The pleasant memory — coupled with the class I was currently participating in — was almost enough to wipe away the trauma of my prior experience with folk dance.

But even a folk dance can get technically difficult, and soon enough, as the dances became more and more advanced, and the second hour passed, my mother and I decided that that was enough for a first night.

We picked up some information on future classes and Israeli folk dance events on our way out. And, as long as they don’t come up with a “God Bless Israel” choreography, I’m sure we’ll be back.

Michal Lev-Ram, born in Israel, is a journalism major at SFSU who can be reached at [email protected].