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Israeli Folk Dancing Lives … But How Long And For Whom?

06/29/2018 01:24:46 AM

Jun29

Linda Topping Streitfeld

It’s a school night in the social hall of this suburban synagogue, but teenage toes are tapping, middle-aged middles are moving and seniors are stepping to the syncopated rhythm of Eshebo.

The ringmaster is Mike Fox, 46, who has led this recreational Israeli dance group since 2009, shepherding its growth from 15 to 20 dancers a week to an average of 70 every Tuesday night at Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Fox’s mixed-age social dance group may be an outlier — and perhaps a sign of hope — in modern Israeli dance circles, where the average age is climbing and the number of participants falling. Though hard data is lacking, dance leaders generally perceive a numerical decline and view it as a threat to a Jewish cultural tradition that is less than 75 years old.

The demographic shift has multiple explanations: A torrent of new, more complex dances shoots around the world at the speed of YouTube, keeping interest high, or killing it, depending on the dancer. Performance groups in several cities are drawing hundreds of new young dancers, but the gap between stage show and social dance is widening, observers say.

Arnold Kling, 64, an American economist and Israeli folk dancer since his student days at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has another theory. Kling, of Silver Spring, Maryland, contends that the nature of engagement in general has changed in 50 years, becoming both narrower and deeper. Increasingly complex new dances discourage beginners from trying Israeli folk dancing. Veteran dancers come for the “oldies,” those choreographed before 1990. That leaves a large generation gap of people who can’t relate to either end of the Israeli dance spectrum — thus the decline.

Kling and his wife Jackie — whom he met Israeli dancing at MIT— are  still able to find three local weeknight sessions, as well as a Saturday night “classics” session and other sessions on Sunday mornings and evenings.  Yet, he says, “Compared with 40 years ago, Israeli dancing feels much less social,” discouraging the casual new dancers, while performance dancing continues to grow.

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