Aaron Alpert, in blue, leading an Israeli dance session at Palo Alto's Mitchell Park earlier this month. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)
Aaron Alpert, in blue, leading an Israeli dance session at Palo Alto's Mitchell Park earlier this month. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

Outdoor Israeli dancing attracts young and old, Jewish and non-Jewish

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On a recent sunny Sunday afternoon in Palo Alto, about 20 people of various ages, complexions and body shapes gathered in the concrete bowl at Mitchell Park. Most were women, but there were a few men, too. All were wearing masks. As Israeli pop music began to play, an instructor called out steps — slide, grapevine, “Temani” — and the dancers followed along, circumnavigating the tree-lined bowl while being careful to leave lots of space in between each other. Curious park visitors stopped to take in the scene and snap photos.

Since October, Aaron Alpert and Latishya Steele have led these outdoor, socially distanced “Nirkoda Ba’Gan” Israeli dance sessions. The duo, who have been holding popular rikudei am (“folk dance”) sessions around the Bay Area for years, pivoted online when the pandemic hit, but they quickly found they couldn’t replicate the dynamics of an in-person experience. So they decided to take it outside.

“Israeli dancing is a very tactile activity,” Alpert explained in an interview. “It’s also very visual. You see the teacher in front of you, you follow their steps. When it’s you alone in your living room, you don’t have those cues. So you miss the cues and you miss the community.”

After approaching more than 20 synagogues and other venues about hosting Covid-safe dance sessions, Alpert got the green light from the City of Palo Alto to use the Mitchell Park bowl area, and the “Nirkoda Ba’Gan” (“dancing in the park”) program was born.

Alpert, an American Jew from Los Angeles, and Steele, an African American non-Jew from Brooklyn, make a perhaps unlikely Israeli folk dance teaching duo. Neither is Israeli or speaks Hebrew. But both are extremely passionate about Israeli dance.

So is Dorit Hoffman of Novato, who regularly makes the three-hour round-trip drive to participate in the outdoor sessions. Hoffman, 52, did folk dancing during her youth in Haifa. After a long hiatus and a move to the United States, she quickly got back into it. She said she appreciates the welcoming atmosphere that Alpert and Steele foster. “You can be you and no one judges you,” she told J. at the recent Sunday session. “It’s OK to make mistakes.”

For Hoffman, the sessions provide both physical and psychological benefits. “When you are dancing, all your troubles vanish,” she said during a break. “When the choreography really fits the melody, and when you are dancing, that’s all that exists at that moment. Nothing else exists, only the joy.” At that moment, one of her favorite songs came on, and she quickly excused herself to rejoin the circle.

Another dancer, Gilli Yahalom of Cupertino, was attending for the first time. She learned about the sessions in a WhatsApp group for Israei women in Silicon Valley. Like Hoffman, Yahalom learned Israeli dance in school in Nazareth Illit (now called Nof HaGalil), but after that she did it only sparingly, for instance when visiting family members on their kibbutz.

A business development manager for a tech startup who lives in Cupertino, Yahalom said just hearing the music helped her feel more connected to her roots. The playlist included classic songs by Shlomo Artzi and Avi Toledano, as well as more modern pop songs by A-WA, Eyal Golan, Sarit Hadad, Idan Raichel and Netta Barzilai.

“I’m really surprised that they are very up-to-date with the songs,” she said. “I thought that they would be playing more oldies. Rikudei am used to be done only by the Ashkenazim, the generation that built Israel. But they are bringing more Mizrahi music and creating a more inclusive experience for everyone.”

One of the misconceptions about Israeli dance is that it’s stuck in time, said Steele. “There is this perception by some people that Israeli dancing is the thing that their grandparents did 3,000 years ago, or they did it when they were 5 and it hasn’t changed since then,” she said. “That cannot be any more false.”

Instructor Latishya Steele, who is not Jewish, was introduced to Israeli dance during college at Brandeis University. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)
Instructor Latishya Steele, who is not Jewish, was introduced to Israeli dance during college at Brandeis University. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

Steele, who works in curriculum development at the Stanford School of Medicine, realizes that as a non-Jew she does not fit the typical profile of an Israeli dancer. She was first exposed to the form in college, at Brandeis University, when a friend encouraged her to audition for the Israeli dance troupe. “I barely knew that Israel was a country, let alone that Israeli dancing was a thing,” she recalled. She said she found the structure of the dances, which are built on patterns of steps, to be exciting and different from the freestyle party dancing she was used to.

Since college, she has attended a variety of camps in the U.S. and internationally — including in Israel and, most recently, in Budapest in 2018 — to learn new choreography and hone her teaching skills. “It’s been a great way for me to learn about Israeli culture and the Jewish diaspora,” she said. (She is now trying to learn Hebrew so she can understand the lyrics of the songs.)

Alpert, an engineer at a green energy company, has a deeper connection to Israeli dance. His parents met at a dance session at UCLA Hillel, and they took him to a camp when he was just 2 months old. As a student at UC Berkeley, he taught his own credit-bearing class on Israeli dance. From there he went on to host his own camps, including one in Fresno in 2019.

These are the dances that were done 80 years ago, by parents and grandparents, and it’s dancing that I hope and believe our children and grandchildren will do as well.

Asked what he likes about the dance style, he replied, “I know that what we’re doing here in the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s the same steps that are being done in Boston, that are being done in Santiago, Chile, that are being done in Budapest, that are being done in Hong Kong — I’ve gone dancing in Hong Kong before, so I’ve verified that personally. It’s like how a lot of Jews say the same prayers every week [on Shabbat]. That is a powerful connection.”

Alpert, 33, and Steele, 41, met at a dance camp in Los Angeles around 2002, and while they had done some co-teaching over the years, “Nirkoda Ba’Gan” is their first partnership. They do not choreograph dances but rather teach the steps of other choreographers, most of whom are Israeli. (There are also a handful of Americans.)

Back at Mitchell Park, Shir Cohen struggled a bit to keep up with the steps. “It’s challenging because a lot of it is very, very fast,” she said. The 26-year-old Sunnyvale resident did jazz and hip-hop in high school but is new to Israeli dance. She said her Israeli mother, Einav, dragged her to the first session. “She told me there’s other young people, you should come,” she said with a laugh. “I actually really like that it’s outside.”

There is also a small contingent of non-Jewish Asians who have been participating in the sessions. Hung Cheung, an engineer from Hong Kong who lives in Fremont, enjoys international folk dancing. When he couldn’t find such a group in the Bay Area, he started doing Israeli dance. He has attended many of the outdoor sessions with his wife, Grace. “It’s simple and energetic,” he said. “I missed doing it for a year because of Covid.”

With the pandemic subsiding, Alpert and Steele will be moving back indoors next month. Their “Nirkoda Le’Chayim” sessions will take place every Thursday night from 7:30 to 11 p.m. at Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto. They are planning to offer a short class for beginners before each session. Details can be found at nirkoda.com/LeChayim.

Alpert said he hopes more people, especially young people, discover a passion for Israeli folk dance. “These are the dances that were done 80 years ago, by parents and grandparents,” he said, “and it’s dancing that I hope and believe our children and grandchildren will do as well.”

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.