About Israeli Folk Dance

About Israeli Folk Dance

Dr. Phillip M. Feldman

Notes for Nov. 4, 2006 Program at the
Music and Arts Conservatory of Santa Barbara

Updated 8 March, 2013

1. Introduction

I'd like to tell you a bit about Israeli folk dance, and then teach you several dances. By the way--I have eight Israeli folk dance CDs here. A CD will be awarded to anyone who gives a good answer to a question, or who dances with unusual grace, style, or energy.

Why do people dance?

1. For most types of dance, including folk dance, ballroom dance, disco, and other popular dance, the main objective is to have a good time.

2. Of course, dancing is also good exercise.

3. Anthropologists tell us that dancing has an important role in mate selection. In the United States, dancing is a great way to meet people of the opposite sex, but even if you can’t dance, you still have a good chance of getting married. Imagine now that you are a young person growing up in Macedonia or in the mountains of Greece. If you are a terrible dancer, you will have a hard time finding a husband or wife.

4. Creating something aesthetic is also an important part of dancing. Ballet and performance modern dance are entirely about creating an aesthetic experience. In this sense, a ballet dancer is like a painter (or like the painter’s brush if one takes the view that the choreographer is the real artist).

5. Ceremonial dance has little or nothing to do with having a good time. Traditionally, the main purpose of an American Indian rain dance is to bring rain, the main purpose of an American Indian war dance is to bring victory in war, and the main purpose of an African shaman’s dance is to heal a sick person by driving out the evil spirits that are causing the illness. [It could be argued that in modern society, belief in the efficacy of ceremonial dances is waning, and that most such dances now function to preserve social and communal cohesion.]

By the way—Jews don’t have any ceremonial dances. Some Israeli dances and almost all Hassidic dances have religious themes, and some Hassidim regard dance as a form of prayer, but we don’t have any ceremonial dances as such.

What does it mean to choreograph a dance? (Wait for answers). A. To choreograph a dance means to create or work out the movements of the dance; choreography can be communicated via written instructions, by pictures, by verbal instructions, or simply by showing someone the dance. Despite the etymology, choreography does not have to be written.

Secondly, "What is folk dance?" (Wait for answers). Is any dance done to folk music accompaniment a folk dance? Suppose that I choreographed a dance for the song "This land is my land, this land is your land". Would my dance be an American folk dance? I don’t think so.

If you read the Wikipedia article on folk dance, it says that a choreographed dance can't be an authentic folk dance. Why is that a foolish statement? (A. Even if no one remembers who created a dance, every dance must have been choreographed by someone).

There is no universally-accepted answer to the question "What is a folk dance?", and it may be easier to explain what a folk dance is by contrasting folk dance with ballet, ballroom dance, disco and other pop forms of dance, and ceremonial dance. There are four things that tend to make a dance a folk dance:

1.     The form and style of a folk dance should conform to tradition, at least in part.

2.     Folk dances are usually done to music of traditional style, but they can also be done to more modern, popular music.

3.     Folk dances are done primarily by non-professionals (as opposed to ballet).

4.     While a ballroom dance form such as the waltz can be done to many different pieces of music, most folk dances are done to only a single piece of music.[1]  This is not a hard-and-fast rule.  A Polish or Czech polka might be danced to many different pieces of music having the same basic rhythm and similar tempos.  Polka is usually classified as a folk dance form, while tango is generally classified as a ballroom dance form, but both of these are cases where the boundary between folk dance and ballroom dance is unclear.

2. Influences on Israeli Folk Dance

Israeli folk dance has been influenced by many folk dance traditions, and especially since 1970, by such non-folk-dance styles as ballet and jazz dance.

Some Israeli dances—this is more common in the newer dances—have few if any folk elements. Prime examples are Yo Ya and Zodiak, which are done in disco format (i.e., with all dancers facing in the same direction) and have movements almost entirely from jazz dance; purists might consider such dances stylistically outside the limits of folk dance.

Most of the early folk influences in Israeli dance came from relatively old dance traditions. These fall into four groups which I will list in order of decreasing importance:

#1: Yemenite Jewish dance,

#2: Eastern European dance,

#3: Hassidic Jewish dance, and

#4: Dances of ethnic minority groups in Israel—in particular, the Bedouin Arabs and the Circassians.

(You will see examples of these influences in the dances that I will be teaching you today).

The dances of the Halutzim (Jewish pioneers who came to what was then Palestine, beginning in the late 1800's) were adaptations of such Eastern European folk dances as the Hora (Romanian), Krakoviak and Polka (Polish), and Korobushka (Russian). Some of these were introduced by the Socialist Zionists during the Second Aliyah period (approximately 1905-1914), when the first Kibbutzim (communal farms) were established. (Ref 1)

The earliest true Israeli folk dances predate the state, dating back to the 1920's and 1930's. Hora Aggadati, choreographed in 1924, is probably the first true Israeli folk dance. Mayim Mayim was created in 1938 to commemorate the discovery of water at Kibbutz Na'an after a 10-year search. (The Hebrew word "Mayim" means "water").

Shortly after the state of Israel was established in 1948, Israel began an amazing operation called Magic Carpet. From June 1949 through August 1950, nearly 50,000 Yemenite Jews were airlifted to Israel by the Israeli government. Where is Yemen? (A. Yemen is at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula, and shares borders with Saudi Arabia and Oman). Jews were a persecuted and impoverished minority in Yemen, but after arriving in Israel, the Yemenite Jews soon began to have an important influence in all aspects of the arts, music, and dance. At least 400 years old, the Yemenite Jewish dance tradition is one of the oldest and certainly the most important of the various strands that have contributed to Israeli dance. (25 years ago, I learned several dances from Moshiko Halevy, one of the greatest choreographers and teachers of Yemenite dance. One of the dances that he taught me was a Yemenite belly dance; I'm not going to perform it today).

The most distinctively Yemenite element in Israeli folk dances is the so-called Yemenite step: To do a Yemenite right, step to the right, lean to the left, cross over with the right and hold for one count. The Yemenite left is the mirror image. If one combines these together, one gets a “double Yemenite”. As Moshiko explained it, the reason why the Yemenite Jews developed this step is because they lived in extremely cramped quarters, so dance steps that required a minimum of space were essential. Distinctive head and hand motions are also features of some Yemenite dances.

In the 1950s, Israeli choreographers began introducing elements of Hassidic dance into Israeli folk dance. Hassidism is a mystical Jewish movement that began in Eastern Europe about 1740. For the Hassidim, dance is not only an expression of joy and celebration, but also a form of prayer. Like other Orthodox Jews, Hassidic men and women never dance together. Some elements of Hassidic dance are suggestive of prayer; these include rocking or swaying, heel touches, and raising one or both hands with the palm inwards, as though appealing to God. At times, the styling of a Hassidic dance suggests intoxication, whether the source of the intoxication is religious fervor, alcohol, or a combination of the two is unclear.

Some Israeli dances, especially in the early days before Israel became a state (1948), were influenced by dances of local non-Jewish ethnic groups, including the Bedouin and very likely also the Circassians.

Who are the Bedouin? (A. The Bedouin are Arabs who were originally nomadic. Unlike the Palestinian Arabs, many Bedouin Arabs serve in the Israeli army. Some of the Israeli Army's best trackers are Bedouin). The Bedouin dance form known as the Debka is a macho dance that the men do to impress the women; it typically includes stamps and unusual leaps (e.g., sideways leaps or crossover leaps). Look for these movements when we do an Israeli Debka. Bear in mind that stamping and unusual leaps are also common in Russian and other Eastern European dances, and that the Eastern European influence on Israeli dance is generally much more important than the Bedouin influence.

The Circassians, a tiny minority group in Israel, are Muslim, but not Arab. They originally lived in the area between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. After they were conquered by the Russians in 1864, many of the Circassians fled to various parts of the Turkish (Ottoman) Empire, including Palestine. The Circassia step almost certainly came to Israeli folk dance via Israel's Circassian minority. [The double Circassia version of this step can be seen in this Circassian dance video at just past 3 minutes into the video. The most distinctive element of Circassian dance is the ballet-like dancing on the tips of the toes; for the most part, only professional dancers can do this.]

3. Four Things that Make Israeli Folk Dance Special

#1: Although Israeli folk dance is relatively new (roughly 70 years old), it is founded on much older Jewish and non-Jewish folk dance traditions.

#2: Unlike many folk dance traditions that have tried to remain “pure”, shunning outside influences or denying the existence of these influences, Israeli folk dance is continually absorbing influences from other folk and non-folk dance forms, and no one is the least bit ashamed of this.

#3: Unlike many folk dance traditions, Israeli folk dance is highly egalitarian.  (Who knows what that word means?)  There are two aspects to this equality:

- The Bedouin Arabs have men’s dances and women’s dances.  It would be unthinkable for a Bedouin man to dance a women’s dance and even worse for a Bedouin woman to dance a men’s dance.  Romanians have men’s dances, women’s dances, couples dances, and mixed dances, but again there are certain dances that are only done by men and certain dances that are only done by women. In Israeli folk dance, there is no such thing as men's dances and women's dances. Anyone is free to do any dance.

- In a Greek line dance, the dance leader (almost always a man) has a special role; he may direct the rest of the line to follow whatever he is doing, or he may choose to do special steps that are different from what everyone else is doing.  In Israeli folk dance, the leader of a line dance can choose where the line goes, but otherwise he or she has no special steps and no special prerogatives.

The egalitarian nature of Israeli folk dance is a reflection of the early Zionist-socialist ideals, which taught that men and women are equal, and that no one should have any special status.

#4: Israeli folk dance is growing and evolving more rapidly than any other folk dance tradition in the world.

Some folk dance traditions are small and relatively static. Q. Does anyone know how many Greek folk dances there are?  A. There are only about 30 Greek folk dances.  Someone cannot just choreograph a new Greek folk dance and have it accepted into the canon.

Some folk dance traditions are larger and more dynamic. For example, there are roughly 4,000 Romanian folk dances; some of these are believed to be more than 1,000 years old, but several Romanian folk dances were introduced in just the last decade (almost one new dance per year).

Q. How many Israeli folk dances are there? A. Over 4,000. Q. How many new Israeli folk dances are introduced each year? A. 50-100. To be fair about this, there are at least 200-300 Israeli folk dances that are "dead". Q. What is a dead dance? A. A dead dance is one that no one dances.  Some Israeli dances have had brief flashes of popularity and then faded from the scene.  But, many Israeli dances have endured and remain popular half a century after their introduction.

4. Review

- What is a folk dance?

- Israeli folk dance started about 70 years ago, but it incorporates elements of older folk dance traditions.

- Two of the folk dance traditions that contributed to Israeli folk dance in a major way were Jewish, and two were non-Jewish. What were these four dance traditions?

- Of the four dance traditions that contributed to Israeli folk dance, one of these was far and away the most important. Which one? (Answer: The Yemenite Jewish). The so-called Yemenite step has found its way into roughly half of all Israeli folk dances). Roughly how old is the Yemenite dance tradition? (A. About 400 years).

Appendix: The First Israeli Folk Dances

Hora Aggadati is possibly the first true Israeli folk dance, whose origins date back to 1924 based on movements created by Baruch Aggadati, a noted Israeli dancer of that period. The dance as we know it today was adapted by Gurit Kadman (considered the "mother" of Israeli folk dance) back in the 1940's. Another well known Israeli dance, Mayim (water), was created in 1938 to commemorate the discovery of water at Kibbutz Na'an after a 10 year search. (Ref 1)

The first folk dance festival was held at Kibbutz Dalia in 1944, where dances of the Halutzim were performed as well as other Eastern European Jewish dances such as the Sherele and the more recently emerging folk dances of local origin, such as Mayim and Kol Dodi. More folk dances of local origin were performed at the second Kibbutz Dalia dance festival in 1947 (e.g., Debka Rafiach, Harmonika, Hava Nitze b'machol, Ken Yovdu, Mechol Ovadia). By the third Dalia festival in 1951, Israeli folk dance was well established with many other classic dances (e.g., Bat Yiftach, Be'er Basadeh, Debka Gilboa) already part of the repertoire. Typically, the classic Israeli folk dances were connected with various celebrations festivals and historical events. (Ref 1)


1. Archived e-mail from Haim Kaufman concerning the history and origins of Israeli dancing

[1] But, one might have more than one folk dance for the same piece of music.