A Brief History of Israeli Folk Dancing

Written by Aaron Alpert

     Israeli Folk Dancing, or IFD, is unlike most other forms of dancing which are referred to as "folk dances." Those dances formed within their local communities over many years and generations.4 IFD, in great contrast, is only about 60 years old, with new dances constantly being choreographed by yotzrim. Also, the style of IFD varies greatly; whereas other folk dances usually follow the regional culture in terms of music and steps, IFD has embraced and incorporated Hebrew, biblical, Yemenite, Romanian, Latin, and many other influences, both in terms of the content and form of the dances.

     Since ancient times, the Jewish people have been spread across the world in the Diaspora. However, beginning in the late 1800's, an Israeli nationalistic movement called Zionism began under the leadership of Theodor Herzl. However, the land continued to be a British protectorate for many years.4

     After World War II, the British decided to leave Palestine. The Jews who had been immigrating to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) for many years and cultivating her land, pushed for the creation of an independent Jewish state. On May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion declared the independence of the State of Israel. Partly due to the Israelis' tenacity, partly due to the Arab League's refusal of a compromise that would have created both an Israel and a Palestine, and partly due to sympathy for the Jews at the end of World War II, the United Nations voted to recognize Medinat Yisrael just one year later.4

     The early chalutzim, or pioneers, who settled the land of Israel did more than just farm. Many of them realized that if they were to one day create, as they hoped, an independent nation, they would need some sort of unifying culture. However, the people who would constitute the new country—the immigrants—were going to come from all different parts of the Diaspora and therefore bring vastly different cultures. In order to integrate these peoples, the national culture would have to be created from scratch. For the national language, Hebrew, which was a dying language at the time, was revived. New music was composed. And, of course, Israeli Folk Dancing was created.

     IFD is often referred to as "hothouse culture,"5 because its creators very carefully constructed everything about it, right down to its very name—they chose to call it "folk dancing" because "folk" sounded more inclusive and accessible, and they hoped that Israel would appeal to all Jews worldwide. Of course, the themes they chose for their dances were of the utmost importance. Many early dances revolve around biblical stories (all Jews share the Torah as their common religious text), around Eretz Yisrael (the land was communal; a homeland for all Jews), or around the solidarity of the community. In terms of the styles and forms for their dances, the early choreographers borrowed from other cultures. Yemenite dancing was very popular in the early days. The debka, an energetic dance done in short lines, is originally Arabic. Although many people think of "the Hora" when they think of "Jewish dancing," the Hora comes from Romania. Some other Eastern European styles also found their way into IFD, especially the dance styles preserved by the Hassidim, a sect of ultra-orthodox Jews. Because these dances were designed to encourage community and equality, most had relatively simple structures and a circular formation.
     With these principles in mind, the early choreographers began to forge their dances. However, after they'd created a dance, there was not always a forum in which to present it. For this reason, Gurit Kadman organized the first Dalia Festival at Kibbutz Dalia in 1944.5 The attendance at the event far exceeded estimates; Dalia was a huge success. It also rooted IFD as an art and a cultural form, and it provided a way for dances to disseminate across Israel.
     With the advent of the Israeli dance festival, IFD had the means to incorporate itself into the nation-wide culture. However, IFD also managed to arrive in the United States. Certain American Jews, especially of the Conservative movement, saw IFD as a beneficial method for Jews in the U.S. to connect to the Holy Land. Fred Berk, an Austrian Jewish modern dancer, was sent to Israel by New York City's 92nd Street YMHA, then under the direction of William Kolodney.3 Berk returned with many new Israeli Folk Dances, which he taught in a number of organizations and venues, including the 92nd St. Y, the "Merry-Go-Rounders," and Camp Blue Star—the first American IFD dance camp. Also, some Israeli choreographers moved to the United States and brought IFD with them. Among the first and most influential of these Israelis were Danny Uziel, Moshe Eskayo, Dani Dassa, Shlomo Bachar, Ya'achov Eden, and David Edrey.2

     It has been almost 66 years since the first Dalia Festival, and IFD is still booming. Of course, it has changed quite a bit. In addition to the traditional circle formulation, there are now many line and couple dances. The music and style have expanded to include Latin, Turkish, Moroccan, Hip Hop, Jazz, and a host of other genres. With the advent of technology, it is no longer necessary to attend dance camps and festivals to increase one's repertoire; now, DVD and VHS tapes of dances are readily available over the internet. But, some things have remained constant... Israeli Folk Dancing continues to be a fun recreational activity, a connection for all Jews to the State of Israel, and most importantly, a unifier of community.

       This brief history was compiled by Aaron Alpert in 2007 (updated 2010). Aside from his personal knowledge and experience, he acknowledges the following sources:

  1. Friedhaber, Zvi. "Jewish Dance Traditions." International Encyclopedia of Dance.
  2. Ingber, Judith Brin. "Dance." Jewish-American History and Culture: An Encyclopedia. Garland Pub.: New York, 1992.
  3. -----. Victory Dances: The Story of Fred Berk, a Modern Day Jewish Dancing Master. Israel Dance Library: Tel Aviv, 1985.
  4. "Israeli folk dancing." Wikipedia. . 26 Jan. 2007.
  5. Oates, Dick, et al. "Gurit Kadman." Phantom Ranch. . 26 Jan. 2007.
  6. Of course, I would be remiss to not mention the many people who have taught me about IFD. Academically, I learned about this unique art form from Jenefer Johnson, a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. Also, I have had the opportunity to dance with some of the best Israeli choreographers and American teachers of IFD. If I tried to mention them all, I'm afraid I'd leave someone out, so I will offer a general "thank-you" to all of those people. However, one stands out preeminently in my mind—my first IFD teacher and my dad, Dale Alpert.