Israeli Folk Dance: Shir Al Etz

Link to Video: Shir Al Etz

My informant currently teaches Israeli folk dancing on a volunteer basis at Congregation B’nai B’rith, a synagogue in Santa Barbara, California. Every Friday night, after services, some of the congregants will participate in Israeli folk dancing.

“Shir Al Etz” is Hebrew for “On the Road.”

Informant’s description of the dance: “The first three parts of this four-part dance utilize the Chircassia step, but cannot be clearly linked to any particular dance tradition.  The fourth part has some distinctively Hassidic motions (the so-called “rita” step and side-to-side rocking).”

This is a later dance (choreographed in 1983), and is much more sophisticated than most of the earlier ones; it has more parts and is more musically-complex. The melody reflects Russian influences, particularly reminiscent of Russian romances, which are very poetic songs.

The lyrics perhaps make a statement about Jewish mothers, who are stereotypically overprotective. The lyrics can be found here:

Interview: General Background on Israeli Folk Dancing

Q. How long have you done Israeli folk dancing, and where did you learn?

A. I learned some dances as a child at my synagogue and at Jewish summercamp, but became serious about folk dancing only as an undergraduate in college.

Q. Where and when is Israeli folk dancing traditionally performed?

A. In both Israel and in the United States, some Israeli folk dancing is done at almost every major celebration, including Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and at weddings.  In both countries, some avid Israeli folk dancers are avowedly secular, and rarely if ever set foot inside a synagogue, while others are fairly observant.  Many synagogues have Israeli folk dancing on a regular basis.

Q. What is a folk dance?

A. 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 (although more than one folk dance may exist for the same piece of music). 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.

Q.  Folklorist Alan Dundes defines folklore as “multiplicity and variation.” Do you believe that this definition applies to Israeli folk dance?

A. For many Israeli folk dances, variants have developed over time.  In some cases, no one follows the original steps.  Some dances are done one way in Israel, a second way in the New York area, and a third way in California.  When people who have learned different variants dance together, this may create some mild friction, because the group as a whole is collectively producing a work of art when dancing, and the effect may be spoiled or at least marred if movements are discordant.

Q. How old is Israeli folk dance, and what cultures and traditions have influenced Israeli folk dance?

A. 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 (e.g., Yo Ya) have no folk elements at all, and are strictly speaking outside the stylistic limits of what can be considered folk dance. Most of the folk elements in Israeli dance come from older dance traditions.  Conveniently, these fall into four groups which I will list in order of decreasing importance: Yemenite Jewish dance, Eastern European dance, Hassidic Jewish dance, and the dances of two non-Jewish ethnic minority groups in Israel—Bedouin Arabs and Circassians.

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.

The earliest true Israeli folk dances date 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.   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.  Over 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.

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 two local non-Jewish ethnic groups, the Bedouin and the Circassians.  (The Bedouin are Arabs who were originally nomadic.).  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). The Circassians are a tiny minority group in Israel; they are Moslem, 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.

Q. What makes Israeli folk dancing special?

A. Firstly, although Israeli folk dance is relatively new (roughly 80 years old), it is founded on much older Jewish and non-Jewish folk dance traditions. Also, 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.

Meanwhile, unlike many folk dance traditions, Israeli folk dance is highly egalitarian. In Israeli folk dance, there are no men’s dances or women’s dances. Anyone is free to do any dance. Also, 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.

Q. Are new Israeli folk dances still written?

A. 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. For instance, 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).

There are over 4,000 Israeli folk dances, and 50-100 new Israeli folk dances are introduced each year. To be fair about this, there are at least 200-300 Israeli folk dances that are “dead,” meaning that they are no longer danced.  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.