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Dancing Together, Across the Globe

The pandemic put a halt to in-person Israeli folk dance sessions. But now that the teachers and choreographers have gone online, dancers can learn and participate with others from thousands of miles away, in their own living rooms.

Paula Jacobs
November 02, 2020
Original photo courtesy of Ilai Szpiezak
Original photo courtesy of Ilai Szpiezak
Original photo courtesy of Ilai Szpiezak
Original photo courtesy of Ilai Szpiezak

For Orly Star, Israeli folk dancing is about connecting culturally with Israel. These days, though, it’s also about connecting with the global Jewish community, says Star. Born in Israel, she teaches Israeli dance in Los Angeles, where she immigrated with her family at the age of 7.

In April, when the COVID-19 lockdown seemed likely to continue indefinitely, Star recognized the need to pivot to a virtual platform. She contacted veteran markid (dance leader) Aaron Alpert, founder of the San Francisco Bay Area Israeli dance group Nirkoda (Let’s Dance), whom she had known for years. Together, they decided to launch Zoom-Cali, a virtual Israeli dance session. “I wanted to run a virtual class on my regular dance night and asked Aaron if he wanted to host it with me because I thought it would be fun having all of California dancing together,” said Star, who never imagined that dancers from all over the world would join Zoom-Cali.

Each Wednesday, beginning at 6 p.m. Pacific time, Israeli folk dancers from the U.S., Israel, Mexico, and many other countries participate in a three-hour virtual harkada, or dance session. Sometimes there’s a theme, such as Mary Poppins or a Sukkot mashup. Zoom-Cali sessions typically attract approximately 80 dancers weekly, with more than 300 participants during its Rosh Hashanah marathon in September.

“We are dancing the same steps all over the world, which connects us. The distance is wider, but the embrace is closer. Our session is a party but it feels like a warm hug,” said Star, who has developed worldwide friendships during Zoom sessions. For example, one new close friend, who belongs to the Mexican dance group Majol Mex, is the daughter of a choreography teacher with whom Star had once studied.

For Bay Area dancer Beth Dayen, virtual Israeli folk dancing has reconnected her with old friends and acquaintances, as well as the international dance community. “The thing that I like the most is that it has made the Israeli dance community seem smaller.”

Since the early days of the global pandemic and COVID-19 restrictions on in-person gatherings, virtual Israeli dance sessions have sprouted across the globe, with over 65 weekly virtual harkadot and more than 30 special, one-time events across four continents and countries such as the U.S., Israel, Australia, Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, France, England, Germany, Hungary, and Italy. These virtual groups have enabled Israeli folk dancers to maintain their dance routines, learn new steps, and make friends with dance enthusiasts from across the globe.

Photos: Jason Goldman

While Israeli dancing has always provided camaraderie, virtual groups are playing a vital role in reducing social isolation during the global pandemic when people remain sheltered at home. “It has been a lifeline for me during the coronavirus. I have a standard Friday night schmooze and Saturday night ‘game night’ on Zoom. These are my friends,” said Alpert, who began teaching Israeli dance as an 18-year-old undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley in 2007.

Today a dancer from Toronto can participate in a virtual dance session in Boston, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Minneapolis, or Portland, Oregon, led by a markid from Chicago or D.C. with a guest choreographer from London, Paris, or Israel. And at any given Zoom dance session, fellow dancers may hail from Argentina, Australia, Hong Kong, France, Israel, or elsewhere. Virtual sessions are generally free. But voluntary donations are appreciated to help support the dance teachers and choreographers who lost their only source of income due to coronavirus, unlike markidim who also have other professional careers.

In the pre-COVID era, Israeli dancers—including both Jews and non-Jews—attended in-person sessions close to home or traveled to dance camps and festivals worldwide for special programs and sessions with renowned choreographers. Israeli dancing is especially popular with Israelis living abroad, for the opportunity to speak Hebrew and socialize with each another while reconnecting to Israeli culture.

One unique feature of Israeli folk dancing is that each dance is associated with a specific song. Today thousands of Israeli dances are performed to an extensive song playlist, reflecting different decades, musical styles, and cultural influences. Dancers across the globe perform the exact, same sequence of steps (registered by choreographers in a central database and posted on YouTube) to the same music. That means dancers can practice a new dance by downloading a YouTube dance video such as “Matanot Ktanot (Small Gifts) by composer Gadi Biton sung to the lyrics of Israeli pop artist Rami Kleinstein or “Shirim Eshorer” (I Shall Sing a Song) by choreographer Yoram Rachmani sung to the lyrics of Aharon Amram, an Israeli singer of Yemenite-Jewish origin.

Israeli folk dancing transcends time and space, says Alpert. He sees it as a way to connect with the local and global communities, as well with generations past. It means that dancers can connect to their parents, grandparents, and even to the early generations who came to Israel during the first half of the 20th century. For example, still performed today is the first Israeli folk dance, “Hora Agadati,” created by Baruch Agadati in 1924. Some North American dancers are continuing an activity they learned as children or continuing a family tradition cultivated in such venues as Jewish summer camps, JCCs, youth groups, college Hillel groups, and synagogues.

Stacey Hoffman learned Israeli dancing as a child at Jewish summer camp, subsequently performing with troupes when she was in high school and college. In recent years, the Denver-area resident has participated in Israeli dance sessions in Boulder and Denver, where she has enjoyed learning new dances, expressing herself musically, and connecting with others. These days, although she misses socializing in person, Hoffman is grateful for the virtual connections that Zoom enables—such as dancing with Paris-based dance teacher and choreographer Ariane Butel. “I feel like I know her and her dances have meaning,” said Hoffman. “Now you feel connected to a larger community.”

Before the pandemic, Butel, creator of the popular dance “Chelek Mehazman,” traveled to dance camps and festivals in Europe, Israel, and the U.S. Today she stays connected via Zoom with dance groups around the world, teaching weekly dance sessions, as well as a special four-hour session in June on women choreographers, highlighting their pioneering role in creating rikudei am (Israeli folk dancing) in pre-state Israel. “Now because of the screen, we think we are friends because for the past seven months, we see each other like we have never seen each other.

In April, Ilai Szpiezak, a London-based dancer, choreographer, and teacher, realized that he could no longer teach and hold the special events that were his livelihood, given the COVID-19 trajectory. Instead, he quickly migrated to a virtual platform on Facebook Live. HARKALIVE has since attracted more than 500,000 views from across the globe, mainly from Argentina, Israel, the U.K. and the U.S., says Szpiezak, whose dance, “Bereshit,” won the top prize in the 2019 Karmiel Dance Festival in Israel. He also teaches Zoom classes and works with the Israeli Dance Institute, a U.K.-based Jewish charity. “People are desperate to dance,” he said. “It is lovely to see faces that I don’t see regularly and I am able to connect with my family in Argentina.”

Szpiezak led programs during the “24-Hour Worldwide Israeli Dance Marathon 2,” part of the “Nirkoda Bamercaz,” a virtual dance camp, during the weekend of Oct. 23-25, 2020. The event drew more than 1,000 global attendees, said Chicago-based markid and marathon coordinator Phil Moss, who also initiated the first 24-hour Zoom marathon in April, which created a global sense of interconnection that has since mushroomed: “The whole weekend, including the marathon, was successful beyond all expectations. Sixty Israeli dance leaders from 15 countries connected Israeli dancers from all over the world. This remarkable team brought joy and dancing to so many people, created a sense of connection, and raised money for local charities chosen by the leaders,” said Moss.

“The silver lining of Zoom is connecting with people from around the world,” said Rina Wagman, who co-leads MonDance, the longtime Boston dance group that now meets Monday evenings on Zoom. After class, she often continues to talk on Zoom until late in the night with the virtual dance friends whom she has made from across the world. “It’s amazing how Israeli dance can be such a language in and of itself,” she said. “We may not all speak the same language but we can always connect. It is especially evident when we are all on the same Zoom window and speaking the language of dance that we all love.”

Despite the benefits of virtual dancing, there are still drawbacks. “Before COVID, you had to go to a harkada near you,” explained Ken Avner, a dance teacher in suburban Maryland and D.C., who typically participates in five or more sessions a week, such as dancing in Boston on Mondays and teaching in Dallas on Tuesdays. “The downside is that I am here in my dining room and no other people are around so you lose that huge aspect, the energy of being with people in real space.”

Indeed, dancers miss dancing and listening to music in the same physical space, as well as schmoozing during dancing breaks; it can also be difficult to follow new dance steps over a computer screen. For teachers, teaching a new dance often requires repeating the steps several times, unlike in-person where it’s easier to provide individual assistance; Zoom also presents logistical challenges because of the numerous activities required, such as precise equipment and camera setup, spotlighting dancers, monitoring the chat room, and admitting participants—all while teaching. Additionally, technology issues such as network bandwidth connection or internet lag may cause singing and dancing to be out of sync.

Nevertheless, virtual Israeli folk dancing has proved a valuable solution during COVID-19, allowing a popular pastime to continue safely, while creating a global dance community. So even when in-person sessions resume, it’s likely that virtual dancing is also here to stay.

Paula Jacobs is a writer in the Boston area.

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