I had always wanted to do Israeli folk dancing. I connected it in my mind with the Zionist experience and I wanted to be a part of it. Then I saw my chance: “Learn Israeli folk dancing from the very first step with Kobi Michaeli” said a flyer in my mailbox. If I ever was going to learn, now was the time, and so, overcoming years of my wife telling me that I had two left feet, I gathered up my courage, and with my 22-shekel ($6) admission money in hand, took the plunge.
I felt good right from the first class. Kobi Michaeli is simply a marvelous teacher, and indeed, on that first night, nothing was presumed. Kobi even taught us the basic “mayim” (“water”) step, which I had thought everyone already knew. It turns out that while most Israelis are exposed to folk dancing at a very early age, folk dancing is not ingrained in the blood, but like anything else, takes persistence and dedication.
As the weeks went on a pattern began to develop. Unlike when I taught religious studies, where it was often difficult to ascertain what my students were actually learning, with Kobi there is a definite learning curve. Kobi teaches the dance (using a strap-on face mike and without music) by surgically breaking it up into digestible parts. Gradually we put the parts together and run through the whole thing. Kobi then puts on the music and we go through the entire dance, clapping with glee as we finish, then doing it again for good measure. One week later I have forgotten everything about the dance except for the dry fact that it was a dance taught to me the week before—almost all of the individual steps have been magically erased from my brain. Except that I guess that somewhere my body has stored parts of the dance, because when Kobi reviews it I seem to learn it quicker than I did the first time. Each subsequent week I forget a little less until I arrive at the point (and this can take several months) when my body knows exactly what to do as soon as I hear the opening chords of the music.
My experience with Israeli folk dancing has been everything I had dreamt it to be and much more. Folk dancing was a popular expression of the Zionist pioneers’ love for this land, and for those who dance today it continues to be this loving expression—albeit with the noticeable additions of new movements, and of Middle Eastern beats and rhythms.
But there’s more, and this is the “more” that surprised me. It has to do with the words of the songs. Dancers usually sing the song’s words as they dance. There are plenty of songs about love and relationships, and also about the beauty of the land. There are also more religious songs. I love it that the dancers, who are mostly secular, sing these songs passionately as well. A huge crowd pleaser is a remake of “Today is the Day” by Israeli pop star Sarit Hadad. And when the crowd sings along with Sarit, “Today, on this very day, I ask G-d . . . Give us life today from the start, Give us from the start to the finish,” I am powerfully lifted up, up, up out of my little narrow self and immersed in that larger collective known as Israel. It’s an ex statis (ecstatic), transcendent, out-of-body experience that has eluded me in my praying life, even though I pray three times.
TEDDY WEINBERGER is director of development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from miami, where he was an assistant professor of religous studies. Teddy and his wife, sarah jane ross, have five children.