Explore the rich tradition of Israeli dance and discover its traditional and modern directions 🌴
The Vibrant Dance Traditions of Israel
Dance is an integral part of Israeli culture and identity. With its rich mosaic of influences from Jewish diaspora communities, combined with diverse Middle Eastern, Arabic and European dance forms, Israeli dance has evolved into a unique artistic expression.
From the folk dances choreographed by early Zionist pioneers through many changes to the groundbreaking innovations of contemporary dance companies, dance plays a vital role in Israeli cultural life. It binds together the nation’s past and future, preserving ancient traditions while constantly creating anew.
The Origins of Israeli Folk Dance
Israeli folk dance emerged through the efforts of Jewish settlers in Ottoman and British Palestine during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These Zionist pioneers sought to forge a new national identity through culture, crafting songs, dances, and ceremonies aimed at unifying Jewish immigrants from diverse backgrounds.
During the Second and Third Aliyah between 1904 and 1923, early Jewish settlers brought folk dances like the Horah, Polka, Krakowiak, Czerkassiya and Rondo from the diaspora communities they had left behind. Of these, the Horah, an Eastern European circle dance, gained popularity as a quintessential Israeli folk dance.
In the 1920s and 30s, dance teachers began choreographing original folk dances for Zionist holiday celebrations and festivals. Dances like Ma Navu (1956) drew on traditional Yemenite dance steps, while Mayim Mayim (1937) was created for a pageant to celebrate the discovery of water near Kibbutz Na’an.
Dances of the 1940s
The “Israeli folk dance movement” coalesced between 1944-1948, corresponding with the first national dance festivals held at Kibbutz Dalia. These galvanizing events allowed new folk dances to spread nationwide. Choreographers like Gurit Kadman, Rivka Sturman and Sara Levi-Tanai created iconic dances celebrating agriculture, landscape and community of the land of Israel.
Despite major societal changes, these lively dances from Israel’s founding era continue to be performed today. There are now an estimated 3000 Israeli folk dances, though some have fallen out of fashion. About 200,000 Israelis dance regularly in circles and lines to traditional songs in Hebrew and from the diaspora.
As the Israeli folk dance movement gained momentum in the 1940s and 50s, dances were created to reflect the experiences of the young state. Kibbutz life, agriculture, and the Israeli landscape were common themes.
Choreographers like Gurit Kadman and Rivka Sturman crafted iconic dances like Mayim Mayim (Water, Water) celebrating water and fertility, or Eretz, Eretz (Land, Land) extolling the Biblical Holy Land. Circle and line formations prevailed, symbolizing community and shared destiny. Dances were designed to be inclusive, with simple steps accessible to all ages.
While early Israeli folk dances had overt ideological aims, today they are mainly valued for preserving cultural heritage and bringing joy through movement. Younger generations may feel less connection to their nation-building symbolism, but many still enjoy dancing to classic Israeli songs.
New Dance Creations
Folk dance festivals remain hubs for debuting new choreography alongside old favorites. Choreographers adapt traditional forms to reflect changing tastes.
For example, Jerusalem-based Vertigo Dance Company fuses Israeli folk dance with diverse contemporary techniques. Their energetic pieces incorporate athletic lifts, leaps and turns into traditional circle and line formations.
Other pioneering Israeli choreographers are updating folk dance by blending electronic music and dance club formats. Expect to see more folk-inspired dances departing from staid circles to initiate creative conversations between tradition and innovation.
Old Dances, New Directions
While treasured Israeli folk dances endure, contemporary choreographers continue building on this heritage to drive innovation.
Ohad Naharin’s sensually athletic choreography with Batsheva Dance Company has attracted global acclaim through its sheer physicality and imagination. His inventive movement language expands artistic possibilities for dancers.
Choreographers are also exploring new subjects relevant to the complex experiences of present-day Israelis. For example, Yasmeen Godder’s dances address feminism and life in Jerusalem, while Arkadi Zaides grapples with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israeli dance today honors legacy dances that crystallize the spirit of earlier times, while intrepid choreographers guide it organically into the future. By upholding collective memory yet cultivating new expressions, this evolving dance culture remains a vital force of Israeli identity.
The Burgeoning of Modern Dance
In the 1950s and 60s, young Israeli choreographers began pushing folk dance in more artistic directions by incorporating techniques from ballet and modern dance. Groups like Inbal Dance Theater and Bat-Dor Dance Company blended Yemenite and Hasidic folk styles with increasingly abstract interpretations.
Choreographer Rina Schenfeld studied with Martha Graham and brought her modem dance training back to Israel, founding the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company in 1970. Her strikingly imaginative works cleared new ground for experimentation.
Ohad Naharin, who studied and performed with Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey in New York, returned to Israel in 1990 to assume artistic direction of the Batsheva Dance Company. His stunningly athletic and sensual choreography has made Batsheva an internationally renowned powerhouse of contemporary dance.
The Suzanne Dellal Centre opened in 1989 as a hub for dance creation, education and performance. Today, Tel Aviv has become a magnet for aspiring dancers from around the world. Innovative Israeli choreographers like Sharon Eyal, Barak Marshall and Hofesh Shechter have attracted global followings by fusing contemporary dance with diverse cultural influences.
Major Dance Festivals
Dance festivals have long served as settings for debuting new choreography and bringing communities together through movement. Gurit Kadman organized the first national folk dance festival at Kibbutz Dalia in 1944, launching a beloved tradition.
The annual Karmiel Dance Festival beautifully represents the scope of Israeli dance today. Attracting over 200,000 spectators, the 3-4 day summer festival features dance troupes from across Israel and overseas.
First held in 1988, the Karmiel Dance Festival is now the largest celebration of dance in Israel. Hosting over 200,000 spectators, the 3-4 day summer festival began as an Israeli folk dance gathering but now features troupes performing diverse international styles. Israeli companies like Vertigo Dance, Inbal Pinto, the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company and others regularly unveil new works at Karmiel.
The event showcases the spectrum from classic Israeli folk dances to cutting-edge contemporary choreography. Companies like Batsheva Dance and Inbal Pinto premiere exciting new works, while inclusive folk dance sessions keep old traditions thriving.
For many Israelis, Karmiel offers a beloved opportunity to dance together and celebrate the role of movement in their cultural life. Visiting international troupes also discover Israel’s vibrant dance scene by participating. The festival expresses the continuity between preserving treasured customs and boldly evolving Israeli culture.
The Jerusalem International Dance Week Festival also draws crowds to experience performances by Israeli groups alongside international companies. Smaller niche festivals, like the Tel Aviv International LGBTQ Dance Festival, the Yokne’am Illit Multicultural Dance Festival and the Herzliya Israeli-Persian Dance Festival, spotlight diverse genres.
Dance in Daily Life
While festivals represent special occasions, dance plays a consistent role in daily life across Israel. Community dance sessions and instruction are ubiquitous, with an estimated 100,000 regular participants nationwide.
Folk dancing is a favorite weekly social activity, especially among older Israelis. It continues a decades-old tradition of dancing together in lines or circles to classic Israeli songs. Meanwhile, younger generations in cities like Tel Aviv frequent eclectic dance clubs fusing electronic music with Middle Eastern influences.
Within Israel’s arts scene, dance is appreciated alongside theater, music, and visual arts. Both Israeli folk dance and contemporary choreography are sources of national pride, sustaining cultural dialogue between tradition and innovation.
From its early days, dance has been vital to developing Israeli identity and ways of life – gathering diverse diaspora traditions, forging a spirit of communal solidarity, and unleashing artistic creativity. Through its ever-evolving dance culture, Israel continues elaborating a distinctive national spirit while engaging with global currents. The rhythms of Israeli folk dance and the daring innovations of its choreographers will keep propelling this cultural dynamism into the future.