Israeli Folk Dance (ריקודי עם)

By Gideon

This article is dedicate to Steve  Weissman the Israeli folk dance instructor of Boca Raton, Florida, who has so much patience and talent that even I, a person with almost no talent for dancing, learned  to dance Israeli folk dances.

“If you haven’t thought about Israeli dance since the last time you stumbled through a hora at a Jewish wedding, it’s time to take another look. In many American cities you can find Israeli folk dance – which Israelis call rikudei am, or ‘dance of the people’ – almost any day of the week. These are lively affairs where young, old, novice and expert dancers join hands in an ever-expanding repertory of circle, line and couple dances, all performed with Israeli flair. The hora? That’s just the beginning when it comes to Israeli dance, – and like Levy’s rye bread, you don’t have to be Jewish to love it…

…Each year professional folk dance leaders and choreographers based in Israel and other countries create about 250 to 300 new Israeli dances, says Honey Goldfein, a New York-based folk dance teacher. Most new dances accompany Israeli pop music, the kind heard on the nation’s Top-40 radio stations. So don’t be surprised if you hear a Middle Eastern rap or a hip-quivering salsa sung in Hebrew…

…’Israeli dancing is a great way to feel a part of a community,’ says folk dance instructor Ethan Halpern of College Park. ‘There’s nothing better than a circle of friends dancing together — it’s good music, good exercise and good fun.'”

Israeli folk dancing was born out the Zionist youth groups and early pioneers just before the creation of the nation and continued as Israel won its statehood as a means to create a cultural form that was uniquely Israeli. It combined and incorporated music and steps from Yemen to Poland that reflected the pluralism and diversity that is Israel. The music usually reflected biblical stories or stories about the land of Israel. The classic Israeli dance “Mayim,” or water, refers to one of the key foundations to establishing the state, specifically, developing agriculture — a focus of early Zionist pioneers. Today, in addition to traditional and not-so-traditional circle dances, it also incorporates couples dances and line dances. The music is modern pop, both Israeli and from around the globe, particularly worldwide trends like Latin music.

In 1924 there was just one Israeli folk dance, “Hora Agadati,” created in Tel Aviv. Within a year of gaining statehood, Israel could boast 75 folk dances. And by 2005 there were 4,678, according to Dina Roginsky, an anthropologist and lecturer at Yale University who has studied the growth of Israeli folk dance. However, some of these dances are no longer danced. It is hard to specify which of the dances aren’t practiced but the Hora is still practiced. Many more modern dances incorporate folk inspired dance moves into their dances.Today there are groups in Israel whose jobs are to conserve the heritage of Israeli folk dance. 

Israeli folk dance emerged as an amalgam of Jewish and non-Jewish folk dance forms from many parts of the world. While in other countries folk dance is fostered to preserve old rural traditions, in Israel it is a constantly developing art form which has evolved since the 1940s, based on historic and modern sources as well as on biblical associations and contemporary dance styles. The early pioneers brought with them native dances which were adapted to their new milieu. Among them, a Romanian dance, the hora, typified the new life being built in the Land of Israel: its closed circle form gave equal status to all participants, simple movements enabled everyone to take part and the linked arms symbolized the new ideology.

Widespread enthusiasm for dance followed, bringing with it the creation of a multifaceted folk dance genre set to popular Israeli songs, incorporating motifs such as the Arab debka, as well as dance elements ranging from North American jazz and Latin American rhythms to the cadences typical of Mediterranean countries. Folk dance manifests itself both through individual participation and stage performances. Public enthusiasm for folk dancing has led to the emergence of the professional dance leader and to thousands of people participating regularly in dance activities as a recreational outlet. Since 1988, a three-day international folk-dance festival has been held annually at Karmiel, a town in central Galilee, with the participation of troupes from Israel and around the world.

In Israel, about one hundred thousand people dance Israeli folk dances on a regular basis at least once a week and an additional one hundred thousand dance several times a year. Israeli folk dancing is a form of dance usually performed to songs in Hebrew, or to other songs which have been popular in Israel, with dances choreographed for specific songs. Israeli dances include circle, partner, line, and individual dances.

For many Israelis in America, folk dancing is a place where they can feel at home, meet with friends and hear music in their language. For many Americans, it’s one way to connect to Judaism.

In America, thousands of people, young and old, Jews and gentiles, attend Israeli folk dancing sessions regularly. Its popularity seems to stem from a combination of appealing qualities: from the benefits of exercise to the ability to socialize in a low-pressure environment and for many, a way of connecting to their Jewish or Israeli roots.

Walking into an Israeli folk dance session can seem intimidating at first. Some dancers look like they have been doing it for years. Even at the beginners’ sessions, the onlookers can make anyone feel self-conscious. But one soon realizes that just like everything else in Judaism, people learn by doing. Once a person grasps the basic steps, it is easy to follow.

The videos below are examples of Israeli folk dances in different settings, age groups, and proficiency levels.

Israeli folk dances are for all people: If I can do it, everyone can.