I’m new at this. Well, not new at Israeli folk dancing but, after 40 years, I’m rusty. What is new for me is dancing at this stage of life; a widow attending a social activity. Alone.
Stepping out of the parked car, I zip up my fleece jacket against the autumn chill and blend into the dark, quiet night. The large community center in the Nayot neighborhood of Jerusalem looms before me, its windows illuminated. People hurry up and down the steps, and light falls onto the entranceway each time the doors open. Here goes nothing, I think, trudging onward.
I have been thinking about returning to folk dancing for months, figuring it would be good to get out, get exercise and mix with people, even if they were strangers. Though I remembered the dances learned in my youth, now there would be new, unfamiliar dances. I would be a beginner again. What I didn’t expect was the mix of emotions that would engulf me as my past and present converged on the dance floor.
“Where is the Israeli folk dancing?” I ask someone, then make my way in the direction he points; to the source of music and bright light that spills out into the foyer. Hesitating in the doorway of the gym, I see a crowd of people dancing. Without removing my jacket, I walk to a bench on the side and take a seat.
I started israeli folk dancing at age 14 in Herzl, a Zionist summer camp in Wisconsin. Eleven other girls and I met every morning, each time adding a few dances to our repertoire. At the end of the season, we performed a jubilant dance about plowing the fields on the outdoor stage by the lake. My hair was in a ponytail, and I wore white shorts, blue T-shirt, socks and sneakers, with a green sash tied around my waist. Having spent a year in Jerusalem as a child, I not only understood the Hebrew songs that spoke of the valleys, mountains, Lake Kinneret, the Golan and Arava; I could also picture these places, and felt connected to them.
Later, in the summer of 1968, I was in a program for teens at the Ben Shemen Youth Village in Israel. My American friends and I waited for the evening activity to begin: a mixer with locals from the youth village and the nearby town of Ramle. Back home, my peers were still dancing the Twist, the Mashed Potato, the Monkey and the Jerk. Here in Ben Shemen, it was a little tamer: We did the hora, debka and an East European mazurka.
Outside on the brightly lit, paved square next to the dormitories and not far from the cotton fields in which we worked each morning, Israeli and American teenagers eyed one another. The air was humid and heavy with the fragrance of citrus orchards. Music blared and couples formed; boys on the inside of the circle, girls to their right.
A boy of about 17 asked me to dance. His eyes were shy, his nose freckled and his English terrible. When I acquiesced in Hebrew, he smiled with surprise and took my hand. Right-two-three, left-two-three, he turned me around two-three, counterclockwise in the circle. After four of those, he put his arm around my waist, and with my hand on his shoulder, we followed along: stamp-two-HOP, stamp-two-HOP, four times altogether. The nicest part was the backing away from your partner, then step-hopping toward each other and being swung around, one hand on the other’s waist, the opposite arm raised high. Strands of hair clung to my damp cheeks. Flushed and out of breath, my partner and I smiled at each other.
Back home in suburban new Jersey for my senior year of high school, I lay on my pink- and-white bedspread doing homework to the music of Simon & Garfunkel. Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and other folksingers, their vinyl albums lined up, waited to drop onto the turntable. From the den, where my parents sat watching television, the muffled sound of the evening news filtered into my room—a press conference by Richard Nixon on the Vietnam War, student protests, demonstrations, the feminist movement and space shuttles. Coming of age in the late 1960s, these dramas filled the stage on which my life played out, but in the wings waited the people, music and Land of Israel.
The next record to drop was Dance Along With the Sabras, produced by Tikva Records. The lively “Haroa Haktana” came on. Abandoning my homework, I jumped up, closed the door and danced around, watching myself in the mirror.
Two friends and I formed a trio that year performing Hebrew songs. We called ourselves Hakolot, The Voices. Invited to participate in a pro-Israel rally at the War Memorial Building in Trenton, we sat on high stools, holding our guitars and singing a spirited “Am Yisrael Chai” into microphones. With our long hair, short skirts and embroidered blouses, we smiled as the local newspaper took our picture. Looking out at the Israeli flags and banners, I wondered if perhaps I was a mutation of American life—my feet in one country, my heart in another.
The following summer, I was the Israeli dance instructor at The Union Camp Institute in Zionsville, Indiana, where I taught small groups of campers and led a dance group of counselors. I became friendly with the staff, including a tall, bearded rabbinical student named David, the drama specialist and unit head.
On the first day of camp, the two of us were assigned to the Rec Hall, where parents and children could pop in as they walked around the camp. David told me that he was leaving for Israel after the summer, perhaps never to return. I told him about the year I spent in Jerusalem as a child and the summer in Ben Shemen. He played the guitar and we sang Hebrew songs. I taught him a new one—“Hatishma Koli,” sung by the pop group The High Windows. David sang the melody in his deep, warm voice, and I harmonized.
“So if you’re the folk dance teacher, how about a private lesson?” David suggested, smiling. “What’s that slow one called, ‘Erev Ba’? I need help with it.”
“Sure,” I answered with a smirk. “If you think you can get it straight.”
The night before, I had been teaching a dance to the staff when I noticed David clowning around, making the camp director laugh.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Could you step in the middle and demonstrate for everyone how to do that last step?”
“No problem,” he responded with confidence, moving to the middle of the circle and dancing with exaggerated flair.
“Thanks for showing us,” I said when he finished. “That is exactly what you’re not supposed to do.”
We went over the dance, humming the song. It began to drizzle, and rain tapped on the roof of the building where we stayed, uninterrupted, for most of the afternoon.
A little more than a year later, I sat on David’s lap after our wedding ceremony in the garden of my family home. Surrounded by friends, greenery and white flowers, we sang English and Hebrew songs with our guests. A few weeks earlier, we had completed our second summer in Zionsville, and as a wedding present, the campers and staff had surprised us by dedicating a new dance circle in our honor. Wooden poles held white and blue strips of material that fluttered in the breeze, and a plaque immortalized our names.
That was a long time ago. Between then and now, I moved to Israel, studied, worked, bought an apartment, planted a garden, raised a family and lost David.
In the gymnasium of the community center, I see more than 100 people join hands and form a giant circle, their eyes on the instructor in the middle. Short and muscular, Avi wears a tight yellow T-shirt from a dance festival in Madrid tucked into jeans. Music flows and bodies move in unison, like waves in the sea. Many sing along with the Hebrew words, others hum the melody.
There are all types here, woven into a giant tapestry: young and old, male and female, secular and religious, athletic and frail, svelte and paunchy, single and married, hip and nerdy. Like most of them, I dress casually and wear sneakers. I’m neither the oldest nor the youngest. I manage to follow along and fit in, but feel the years that have passed.
When they put on a dance from the old days, I am flying around the circle, head up, eyes bright. But when introduced to new dances, I have trouble remembering the steps. I wonder if I have a learning disability, undiagnosed till now, or if I’m just slow. I ask Avi if he can demonstrate each new dance with the music—just for two minutes—to give us a taste of it. It is easier for me to remember the steps once I have a tune in my head. Somehow this is against the Covenant of Folk Dance Teachers, for he smiles and acknowledges my request with “No problem,” yet ignores it, again and again.
Ready to teach a new dance now, he stands in the middle of the circle. “We face the middle and begin on our right foot,” he says.
My face is tight in concentration.
“We move toward the center with three step-hops, make a half-turn to the right at the end, so that our backs are now to the center. Left, right, cha-cha-cha, Yemenite right, Yemenite left. Now begin again, turning toward the center. Are you with me?”
I pray that someone will say “no,” but no such luck.
“Part two,” he continues. “Run, run, twist and hop onto your left foot, raising your right like this. Repeat. Then one and a half turns, step left, stamp right.”
After that, there is a third part, in which we again move toward the center, turn around and do some step with lean to the right, lean to the left, shuffle. I wonder how the hell we’re supposed to see what he’s doing when our backs are to him, and notice that everyone else is facing in, while I face out.
Now Avi puts on the music, and I can’t remember how it starts. I’m resigned to tripping over my feet and following the woman next to me, who seems to know what she’s doing, when suddenly I recognize the melody.
“Oh, that dance?” I practically gasp. I know that one. I just didn’t recognize it without the music!
In the hour and a half that I stay (until weariness sets in), two new dances are taught, several from the previous week are reviewed and at least 20 others are performed, one after the other. Many are similar, which makes them confusing. Frustrated, I approach a man who knows all the steps, though he is no Fred Astaire. Short, bald and pudgy, he wears shorts, in spite of the cold.
“Excuse me, how long have you been coming here?”
“Fifteen years,” he answers.
Hey, I am not doing so badly. Another decade and a half, and I’ll be in good shape. And nowadays, you can Google the name of a dance and watch it on YouTube, practicing in front of the computer.
If dancing brings my kinetic memory back to life, listening to the Hebrew songs opens the window to my heart. These are poetic songs about the Land of Israel and its beauty. Some are love songs from or inspired by the Song of Songs. Some are from the early days of the state, while others are based on prayers from the liturgy. The beautiful lilting melodies of “Eretz Yisrael Yaffa,” “B’Har HaGilboa,” “Eretz Eretz Eretz” and other songs press an emotional button and bring to mind the history of this country that is so complicated, beleaguered, belligerent and beloved—loved in the way one loves a troubled child. They speak to me of my own history, too.
My feet may stumble along in the dance “Shiri Li Kinneret,” but I know the song by heart, and remember my children’s cheers on the hilly road up to Tiberias, when it came on the radio just as the blue water came into sight.
While dancing, there are moments I feel alone, lost in memories, fighting tears. When I hear the opening chords of “Hatishma Koli,” the first song David and I sang together, I’m caught off guard. There’s a dance for it? I miss him painfully then.
There are other times when I feel at one with the crowd, and know that I am part of the mosaic. I love the dance and song “Mi Yiten,” and when it begins, my voice blends in with those of my fellow dancers as we sway from side to side, arms raised, singing in Hebrew:
May days of tranquillity
descend upon us,
May blessing be upon the world, May love be shielded
and faith strengthened,
May our prayers be answered.