Folk Dancing Comes Full Circle

In the old days, we danced to patriotic songs like 'Our granaries are filled with wheat.' Today, any new pop tune can be harnessed to feed the dance craze.

Neri Livneh
Neri Livneh
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Neri Livneh
Neri Livneh

Following the conclusion of Shabbat (for them it's just Saturday evening), about 20 players of wind instruments gathered in front of the cathedral in Barcelona. They sat on the folding chairs that had been prepared for them, took out their scores and began to play. At which point, dozens, perhaps hundreds, of the people who were in the square and organized in circles of varying sizes (in the center of which their coats were piled up) and wearing white espadrilles (shoes with rope soles) began to dance in unison, at first with slow steps. Then, as the music grew more intense, the dancing became faster and shifted into highly complicated steps punctuated with leaps. In the circles of older people, dancers of 60 and 70 performed moderate jumps; the youngsters did high kangaroo hops. The melody repeated itself three times and the dance reached its peak. The orchestra began a new melody, which also reached a crescendo after three successive repetitions, and so on, into the night.

This is the sardana, an ancient Catalonian dance the people of Barcelona have been doing for hundreds of years, always according to the same melodies and always with exactly the same steps. The dance was banned during the Franco period, but since the dictator's death the residents of Barcelona, who in any case are seeking cultural autonomy, have returned even more intensively to their tradition, to which has now been added a touch of nationalist pride.

Dancing is sometimes a lot more than just dancing.

L., a third cousin of mine, is convinced to this day that she was not accepted as a group leader in the youth movement almost 30 years ago because she never succeeded in mastering the steps of the popular folkdance called "The little shepherd from the valley." That failure left her with no choice but to consolidate an alternative career as an adolescent of the type once known as "ballroomers" or "greaser" and start to learn the relatively simple steps of the ballroom dances that were all the rage in semi-clandestine parties, such as the Twist, the Shake, rock-and-roll and above all the "clinging slow."

In those days, youth movement activists considered ballroom dances to be just one small step from total banishment to the margins of society. There, on the margins, the adolescents, most of them working kids who were no longer in school, or students in vocational schools, conducted a licentious lifestyle that included sexual relations, wearing black pants made of synthetic materials, going around in pointed shoes and cultivating a forelock anointed with Brillantine - an outfit that would get you an entry ticket to the iron banisters across from the local Armon Cinema as part of the "Armon commandos."

The girls, some of them attending the secretarial schools popular at the time, could get away with puffed hairdos held in place with spray - "challah" and "beehive" styles were favored - with wearing a skirt that had fewer than four pleats and, the height of fashion, with walking around in boat shoes without also wearing white cotton socks, with the result that they seemed to be wearing nylons (!). There were even some who started to put on makeup, and this in a period when our teacher, Sarah, forbade us to bring for our mid-morning snack any fruit that was not among the citrus varieties with which our land is blessed (not apples or bananas). Where such behavior would lead was clear: a clerical job in the army and afterward a capitalist existence featuring card games and the consumption of alcohol and sometimes even leaving the country or, alternatively, joining the Communist Party.

It was said that in Tel Aviv, even those who came from "good homes" went to discotheques and listened to rhythm groups. But our Haifa was awash in folk dances. Everyone knew how to do these dances, which were then still based on a steady repertoire of the harvesting, shepherding and water-drawing songs of the pioneers, which even then were already badly outdated, and an array of other dances like the debka and the double cirkassia.

On one occasion - it was a Friday night - I found myself, together with my fourth-grade classmate, peeping through the back windows of the Amami Cinema in the Haifa neighborhood of Neveh Sha'anan. The sounds of electric guitars came twanging through the windows. Wide-eyed, I saw Tzviya D., who just two years earlier had been my mother's beloved eighth-grade student, a group leader in the Mahanot Ha'olim youth movement and the star of a play based on a work by the Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz, dancing the Twist in a Charleston skirt and shoes without socks together with Rafi the Greaser, who everyone knew sat with the Armon Commandos on his army leaves. To this day I find it hard to understand how in the end and despite everything, Tzviya became a doctor.

It was enough just to listen to the music, even without moving a leg, to be suspected of "ballroomism." Supposedly the music itself, even without the lyrics (as in the records of the Shadows) - the unIsraeli melodies and harmonies - was enough to corrupt the soul of our youth. Not to mention the dances themselves, which explicitly included movements bearing sexual connotations and improvisation that was totally at odds with the spirit of the folk dances, whose entire charm lay in the law-and-order of their steps and movements.

In Haifa, then known as "Red Haifa," folk dances were part of the routine, and in the elementary schools extracurricular folk dance groups were taken for granted even more than the recorder or mandolin groups. Our gym teacher was also the folk dance teacher in the afternoon group and was herself a choreographer, dancer and soloist in a folk troupe for adults. Under her instruction we were sent annually to the dance paradecelebrated in the streets of the Hadar Carmel neighborhood every Independence Day. I was told that before I arrived in elementary school and got to the dance parade, the singer Shulamit Livnat, mother of Education Minister Limor Livnat, was the mistress of ceremonies of the parade. Recently we all learned that from there she indeed made her way up and today is occupied in implanting heritage studies. Livnat was later replaced in the parade by the lovely mother of the fashion designer Yuval Caspin and of his brother, Gonen, a classmate of mine and my partner in the folk dances. The day on which Gonen Caspin decided to abandon folk dancing also marked the beginning of the end of my career.

That was in fifth grade. Gonen, you should know, was the only boy in the class who was taller than me that year. From the moment he dropped out of the dance group, I had to play the part of a boy in the couples dances, of which nothing is more boring. For two years I stomped the floor in the debka and clapped hands in "Bat Yiftah," lowering my head in shame, while the girls of my class whirled around me in stylized gyrations wearing pleated skirts. Then I also dropped out of the group, ahead of a ballroom career by default, and since then and to this day I have always worn flat shoes and had dance partners years older than me. But there, too, the height advantage worked against me and it took me months to understand how, while doing the clinging slow, my partner, who was exactly my height or (if I was lucky) a centimeter or two taller, managed to stick what felt like a knee into the center of my stomach. When I finally figured it out, I also dropped out.

I have a friend who occasionally updates me about what he calls "the things you have to do before dying." What is special about this list is the fact that it keeps getting longer as the time gets shorter. Even before dance programs flooded the TV screen (the one on BBC Prime is especially delightful) and what the newspapers call "dance madness" was officially launched, he added ballroom dances to his list; inspired by the Australian film "Strictly Ballroom," he would like to learn the foxtrot, tango, cha-cha-cha, pasadoble, rumba and samba.

The same friend, just like me, can hum the tune of "Our granaries are filled with wheat" (with or without syncopation) in his sleep. It is quite clear to me why the dance madness seized those who grew up with folk dances. The Israeli folk dances resemble army drills more than they do ballroom dances, whether by the latter are meant stylized dances or disco stuff. Instead of passion, improvisation and getting carried away, there are charmless repetitive steps.

Occasionally on a Shabbat morning it happens that I stand to watch the circles of people who come to Gordon Beach in Tel Aviv to do folk dancing. No one dances "Hora Nahalal" or "Bat Yiftah" anymore, and "The little shepherd from the valley" has also disappeared. Once, I was told, the invention of a new dance was a rare and momentous occasion, worthy only of noble figures like Gurit Kadman. There are dances which to this day are the subject of bitter arguments about who introduced the double hop into them. Nowadays, new dances are created at exactly the same rate at which singles are sent to the radio stations. Every song deserves to become a folk dance immediately - that is, a dance that expresses the ancient tradition of our nation. The day is not far off when someone will come up with a few Greek and Yemenite steps as a dance to the words of "Kol Nidrei" (unless that has already been done).

There is something surrealistic and even grotesque about the sight of dozens of people who have come from all kinds of places around the country to dance on the seashore to the sounds of "Yallah, Motti" and to feel like the salt of the earth as a result.

On the other hand, a very similar event (though not regarding the form), when it takes place in front of a church in Barcelona, can actually make the heart tremble. Maybe because it really is a folk dance there, or maybe only because it's chutz la'aretz - out of the country.

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