Rikud DC returns Israeli folk dance to the District

by Lisa Traiger
Arts Correspondent

Washington Jewish Week, November 9, 2006

The room swirled as men and women, knees pumping, feet skipping, bounced to the beat of energetic Israeli pop tunes at the inaugural party for Rikud DC, a freshly minted program that returns Israeli folk dance to the Washington DC Jewish Community Center on the 10th anniversary year celebrating the center's historic 16th and Q Street building.

There's been an unmet need for an Israeli folk dance program in the district, according to Sarah Beller, 25, director of literature, music and dance at the DCJCC. And, judging from turnout the last Sunday evening in October, interest in Israeli folk dancing outside of Montgomery County and Northern Virginia, where the bulk of Israeli folk dance sessions take place, is strong. Strong enough to attract 60 dancers, novices and pros alike.

Meet Mona Goldstein and Roee Ruttenberg, both clad in black shape-defining dance wear and jazz sneakers.

"We will be your markidim for the evening," Goldstein, a 24-year-old folk dancer from Kensington, told the gathering group. In Hebrew, a markid, plural markidim, is a combination folk dance instructor, cheerleader and DJ, responsible for programming the evening, teaching the dances and promoting the spirit of community, all while trying to learn names of newcomers and hit the play button for the right song at the right time.

The pair, who met earlier this year at the popular Thursday night Tikvat Israel folk dance sessions in Rockville, began by reassuring the group that Israeli folk dance is fun and none too difficult. With that, Ruttenberg invited the crowd to form a large circle, and he began: "Step together, step. Step together, step." "Head to the right. Head to the left." "And repeat."

Within 20 minutes, Goldstein and Ruttenberg had a roomful of dancers moving in unison, on the counts, to "Amalel Shir," a 1981 circle dance comprised of simple side steps, a swaying Yemenite step and head rolls. Long-time area folk dance instructor Ken Avner ran the computerized sound system at the front of the room.

"The nice thing about the history of Israeli dance," explained Ruttenberg, 28, who moved to the District earlier this year and by day works as a news producer, "is that it is also the history of the state of Israel. You're actually dancing to the narrative of the state and you'll learn [Israeli] dances [that resemble] dances from Eastern Europe, Russia, Morocco … and today we're seeing dances from Ethiopia and even hip-hop."

Ruttenberg learned folk dancing as a Camp Ramah staffer and has been teaching for a dozen years.

Leslie Melman, 58, hadn't much opportunity to Israeli folk dance in years. But the Chevy Chase, D.C., lawyer is now an empty nester with her children off at college.

"I've been waiting for this class to begin," she said. "I think I'll come back, even though the room is crowded and I'm having a hard time seeing [the instructors]."

"It's a good problem to have, that we need a bigger room," Beller, the DCJCC staffer, noted. "It shows that we're filling a need and filling a niche in the community."

Friends Leslie Plotkin, 26, of the District, and Tiana McEvoy, 26, who drove in from Columbia, watched the first dance with trepidation. But soon, they finessed the grapevine or mayim step, and the step-hop and gallop combinations of "Erev Tov," a real heartbeat-riser punctuated by shouts of "hey" and syncopated claps.

"I have no experience with Israeli dance," McEvoy, who works for a nonprofit, admitted, while her friend, a human resource staffer, was pleased to see Israeli folk dance in her neighborhood, after trying the trek to the Rockville group a few times.

Goldstein began folk dancing as a child at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville under the tutelage of Shirley Waxman, who for 13 years in the 1970s and 1980s directed the now-defunct Israeli folklore and folk dance department there. Waxman, 73, pointed out that the Israeli folk dance program at the original DCJCC, which likely grew out of the Zionist youth groups of the 1930s, was among the first of its kind in the country.

"These full-blown folk dance programs," Waxman explained, "with teaching, festivals and community dancing, really started with the birth of Israel."

In its heyday, Waxman's Rockville program, which evolved from the original DCJCC folk dance sessions, was comparable to New York's legendary 92nd Street Y folk dance department, featuring workshops, classes for all ages and an annual Israeli dance festival.

Goldstein, who has taught and choreographed Israeli dance for four years, is excited about introducing Israeli dancing to a new generation.

"This session is geared toward young Jews in the D.C. area who want to enjoy Israeli culture through dance and to listen to Israeli music," she said. "It's an opportunity for young Jews in D.C. to meet each other and gather to form unforgettable bonds with one another. [We'll] offer the energetic, young side of Israeli dance and demonstrate how powerful it is."

Since the era of Israel's pioneers, when most Israeli dances featured agricultural themes, rikuday am, or folk dancing, has grown into a big business in Israel and abroad, with weekly sessions combining teaching and open dancing in major cities and small towns around the world. Today, Israeli folk dances include circle, couple and line dances and are choreographed and disseminated through regular sessions, workshops, summer camps and the Internet.

"The great thing about Israeli dancing," Waxman, now a Potomac-based artist affiliated with ArtSites, said, "is that it brings people together. You don't have to dance exclusively with one partner … it's going to be a social experience."

A newcomer, Marco Hernandez had no idea what to expect from an evening of Israeli folk dancing. The 37-year-old grants manager lives in the nearby U Street neighborhood. He stood back and watched the burgeoning circle.

"A friend told me about it and I will definitely come back," he said. "What I wanted was a community setting where everyone can come in and join the circle."

Rikud DC takes place weekly, Sundays, 7-10 p.m., at the DCJCC in the District, and features instruction and open dancing. Drop-ins are welcome. Tickets are $9, $6 JCC members and students. Contact.


Tips for Israeli dancing

If you take part in the Rikud DC program, remember to:

• Wear comfortable shoes. Ladies, that means leaving the stiletto boots for another time. Men, the same goes for flip flops. Sneakers or jazz shoes are ideal.

• Is the only Israeli folk dance you know a rusty hora? Don't worry. You'll learn about five to eight circle, couple and line dances during the evening, and markidim Roee and Mona will repeat them throughout the night and the following weeks to reinforce hard-won skills.

• If you're an experienced folk dancer, expect a slower pace as beginners build up their repertory of steps and dances.

• Don't have a partner? Don't worry. In Israeli folk dancing, you can invite a stranger to dance without committing yourself to a whole evening.

• Have no idea how to start? Ruttenberg notes that 90 percent of Israeli dances start on the right foot, so, go ahead, take that first step - Lisa Traiger

What is Rikud?

Rikud means dance in Hebrew. Learn more about Israeli folk dancing on Wikipedia.

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