Choreographed culture

Every Tuesday, Israeli culture emerges in a Scottsdale strip mall.

Dancers spin and kick in sync, twirl and clasp hands in circles. Each piece of music has its own choreographed dance.

About 50 people gather at a dance studio here each week for an evening of Israeli dancing and music. Beginning dancers learn the steps from 8-9 p.m., and the rest of the evening, a core of regulars dance new and previously learned dances.

“They immerse themselves in Israeli culture when they come here,” says Shlomit Sholem, who has led the group since 1992 with Itzik Aviram. They hope to hold classes at the Valley of the Sun Jewish Community Center when the Ina Levine Jewish Community Campus is completed later this year.

Because Israeli dancing incorporates both Israeli music and dance, it’s “a wonderful way of participating in Israeli culture,” Sholem says. The dancers, who range from age 17-70, also benefit aerobically and socially.

Kazzie Talmadge, who attends the class at Dance Time studio each week, calls her seven years of Israeli dancing “inexpensive therapy.” She enjoys the aerobic aspect and the challenge of learning new choreographed dances each week.

“I’m addicted to it,” she says. “It’s so much fun.”

David Paletz, who dances with the group each week as well, says he is also addicted. “It’s fun, it’s health,” he says. “It’s love of Israel (and) Judaism – everything engulfed in the dancing.”

Paletz, who leads Israeli dancing at Raw Kaballah – a Shabbat service held the first Friday of each month at Beth El Congregation – will also lead dancing at the Jewish Feder- ation of Greater Phoenix’s Israeli Independence Day celebration on April 17 (see Details box).

Although he grew up in Israel, Paletz never learned Israeli dancing there. It wasn’t until 1969, while attending the University of Cali-fornia-Los Angeles (UCLA), that a friend encouraged him to take a break from studying for finals and go to Caf‚ Danssa for an Israeli dancing session.

“I fell in love,” Paletz says. “I guess it’s also the fact that (I was) away from Israel and trying to hang on to whatever to keep in contact and in touch.”

After a year, Paletz began teaching Israeli dancing at the caf‚ and in 1984, co-founded Camp Galil in San Luis Obispo. Choreographers from Israel and dancers from around the world attended the three-day camp to learn new dances.

“Before the video age, people had a chance to learn the dances firsthand from the creators of the dance,” Paletz says.

Eventually, he left the caf‚ and started teaching classes in San Fernando Valley, near Los Angeles. The class started with four students, and within two years, grew to more than 200.

In 1993, Paletz moved to Tucson and taught at the Jewish Community Center. In 1995, he moved to Phoenix, but each week drove to Tucson to teach his class. Now he leads Israeli dancing across the Valley, from community events to Hadassah and temple functions.

He emphasizes that people should not be intimidated by the choreography.

“Everybody can learn it,” he says. “Nobody is born a dancer – you learn, you practice.”

When Israeli dancing began, every song represented something, Paletz says. Dance steps described what the song was about, whether it be a song about war, a harvest, a holiday or love. Now, “sometimes there’s a dance connected to words (and) sometimes it’s just a combination of steps.”

According to a January 1999 article by Matti Goldschmidt in Rokdim Yechefim, Israeli folk dance is “a synthesis of Jewish and non-Jewish folk dance elements” and originated in the kibbutz movement as the newly immigrated settlers tried to develop their new culture.

The culture is represented in the dance, Paletz says. Some songs show the Ashkenazic culture in their music and steps, and others show Sephardic or Yemenite influences.

According to the Kesher LeMachol Web site, the first Israeli folk dance was “Hora Agadati,” choreographed in 1920 by modern dancer Baruch Agadati. The next was “Mayim, Mayim,” choreographed for a 1944 festival.

Many of the original dances have movements reflecting the work of settling the land of Israel, such as digging, building and irrigation, according to the Web site.

“The dancing represents Israel in many ways so people want to identify with that, they connect,” Paletz says. He estimates there are about 2,500-3,000 different songs with dances.

Israeli dancing is taught in cities throughout the United States, as well as at festivals and camps.

In Israel, Israeli dancing is one of the country’s most popular pastimes, Paletz says. Schools teach it as part of the curriculum. “I guess they figured out that it’s also cultural education rather than just fun time or to pass the time,” he says.

This article first appeared in the April 12, 2002 issue of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.

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