I heard this same song played last night at a bar. A bunch of twenty and thirty-somethings, balancing beers and cocktails in their hands, swayed back and forth and nodded their heads to the beat (a generic Middle-Eastern sound layered over electronic rhythms) while carrying on conversations and sending text messages to those elsewhere.
But I’m not at a bar now and there are few twenty-somethings to be found and no alcohol nearby, as far as I can tell. I’m on the beach, actually. Well, not the sand, but a large strip of concrete that runs up to the sand. The water is a mere hundred yards away, reflecting the lights of the city that stretches along its shore. Tall speakers are placed around this makeshift dance floor upon which hundreds of people, spanning quite a wide age range, are executing some rather complex choreography, accompanied by this generic Middle-Eastern song – the same one from last night – blasting through the surrounding speakers.
I’m at the weekly Rikudei Am session, four hours of Israeli folk dancing, a marathon of at least a hundred individual dances, each three to four minutes in length, continuing non-stop one after the other.
Rikudei Am literally translates to “dance of the people” and, looking around, one can see that it certainly lives up to its name. There’s the old, overweight man with high shorts and high socks moving slowly and awkwardly but still managing to hit the right steps. There’s the bouncy, enthusiastic young man, in tight white pants and tight white shirt, attacking the turns like a ballet dancer, kicking his legs higher than anyone else, clearly performing for the crowd that stands around watching this peculiar and impressive scene. There’s also the woman, I think she’s Russian, tanned to a crisp with straight black hair, huge breasts that have clearly joined her body artificially at some point, covered in some faux leather tube-top, dripping in fringes that match the ones on her tall cowboy boots.
And these three strange bedfellows join a ragtag community of like-minded souls who, on a Saturday night, come week after week to participate in, of all things, folk dance.
Mention “folk dance” and the first images likely to come to mind are traditional costumes, colorful and embroidered. Full skirts for the girls, funny hats for the guys, or some variation on a uniform that is clearly not the fashion of the day. It’s nearly a universal phenomenon – think Swedish or Mexican or Thai. In every part of the world, folk dance conjures images of the earlier times, honoring the traditions of the ancestors, bringing back the music and wardrobes of the past for the sake of not forgetting. We maintain our folk traditions to protect a link to our beginnings and keep our histories close by. But in most places, folk dance is merely on display. It’s a physical museum to visit once in a while and then forget about at all other times in between.
But this is not so in Israel. In Israel, folk dancing is still very much alive and very much living in the modern world. It is a folk dance tradition whose repertoire continues to expand and whose popularity is rapidly growing around the world, as evidenced by the Israeli Folk Dance camps that draw thousands of enthusiasts in Los Angeles, Melbourne, and even Morocco. New dances are created nearly every day and it’s no longer the classic folk tunes that provide inspiration. Like the song I recognize on this particular night, the Top 40 hits are the new folk dance inspirations.
Obviously not all Israelis participate in the phenomenon. When I mention that I attend the weekly sessions to my friends of the same generation, I often get a perplexed look and a raised eyebrow, maybe a chuckle, and then the inevitable, “Why?” But that has more to do with that fact that it’s maybe not the coolest thing in the world to be doing with your weekend as a guy in his late-20s. Nevertheless, they all know what I’m talking about and all have a sense of what it means to participate in the folk dance of Israel.
And even if most of the other kids my age are next door at the bar sponsored by Durex, knocking back vodka-cranberries, or grinding up against each other to Euro-trash music at one of the large clubs on Tel Aviv Port, there are still enough youngsters interspersed in this motley-crue to suggest that the torch might still be passed to the next generation of Israelis.
But regardless of who these people are who have mastered the “grape-vine” step and the “Yemenite” step, and the “turn-to-the-right” then “turn-to-the-left”, there is something really unique about a people who have so insistently yanked their folk dance into the 21st Century and insist that it belongs there. And something equally peculiar – but remarkable and rather charming at the same time – about a people who have put dance front and center of their cultural tradition, on equal footing with the music and literature that helped this ancient people cultivate a modern identity.