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Nathan Vizonsky Folk Dance Federation of California, South, Inc.

Evolution of Jewish Folk Dance
By Nathan Vizonsky, 1954


Jews The Jewish folk dances of Eastern and Western Europ are native to that continent only in the geographic sense of the term. Choreographically they belong to a unique art form and possess characteristics that are essentially Jewish.

For centuries, the nations of Europe treated the Jew as an alien ferment in the population and denied him not only citizenship, but even elementary human rights. Living under such restrictions, the Jews naturally tried to show themselves outwardly as little as possible. They limited their social life to the Jewish quarter and manifested great restraint in all their activities. Their dances, too, were thus relegated to the narrow confines of their synagogues and houses of study, and to their dingy dwellings. Their folk dances abandoned the open spaces and adapted themselves to an indoor character.

These conditions, in the course of time, determined the choreographic structure of their dances and created a characteristic form of the art. The physical limitations of the indoor dance involved considerations of space, movements, of mass or weight accentuation and distribution, of adaptation to the ground surface, and in general demanded a radical transformation of the whole choreographic pattern.

Space constitutes no problem ordinarily in the outdoor type of dance. The movement in the open can be free in fullest measure. The hands can be extended; the paces can be taken in width; the body can move over a large area, and the dancer can make any running and skipping steps to suit his purposes. In the indoor type of dance, on the other hand, space is definitely restricted. The dance movements are measured and are unavoidably confined to small arreas. The hands must be held closer to the body and are bent within an inner circle. The steps, likewise, remain short and close to one another. Whereas in outdoor dances, weight can be exercised with greater momentum in stamping, leaping, skipping, and in aerial movements, these movements can scarcely be executed in outdoor dancing. When twenty or thirty persons stamp their feet to a single rhythm, the resultant vibrations, indoors, might well be destructive and frightening rather than pleasurable.

Outdoor dancing is usually performed upon an open plane, on a field of grass or on a surface of stone or sand. Movements upon such planes have to be of a skipping nature because the surfaces are not sooth or yielding. Steps that call for gliding, shuffling, spinning, revolving, or pirouetting are difficult to make and cannot gracefully be performed. In indoor dancing, on the contrary, where the surface is smooth, such movements are very effective and actually introduce an ornamental element that adds appreciably to its esthetic appeal. While the outdoor dances must emphasize the lively character of broad movement and even give way to hilarity in a rough display of body and gesture, the indoor dances must of necessity make more subtle use of bodily movement. Dances that would seem to be subdued outdoors would, indoors, appear quite boisterous while delicate movements of special finesse indoors would seem wholly lifeless and without interest out of doors.

Nathan Vizonsky In actual fact, the Jewish folk dances are the only indoor folk dances existing in Europe. There is a great deal of indoor dancing in Europe, of course, among all the peoples dwelling there. It should be observed, however, that choreographically speaking, there dances are of typical outdoor character. The genesis of their art can be traced to their free life in the field, to the rites of ploughing of spring and autumn. On the contrary, the Jews forced for centuries to dwell in urban areas, away from nature, were able to develop only the manifestation of their inner life. Their indoor dances, therefore, speak more of the spiritual life thay knew than of the broad open face of nature, of the cycles of the seasons, or of human physical strength contending with the elements. The Jewish folk dances are unique in showing a minimal display of this physical strength. Emphasis is placed by them on intellectual expression rather than on physical prowess.

Jews showed a fear of display of mere muscular strength. They thought of it something alien to themselves, characteristic of their neighbors who employed it in acts of violence upon them. Many of us are familiar with the Jewish expression, "He is as strong as a goy [non-Jew]." The esthetic ideal of the Jewish people was the pale, anemic, narrow-chested Talmudic student and not the broad-shouldered physical type of man. The dances that emphasized physical power, therefore, received no encouragement among the Jews. They created no dances that demanded agility or swiftness, such as the Russian Gopak or even the Polish Mazurka, where there is virile ascendancy, the man performing all the intricate stepsand persuasive movements while the woman plays only a subordinate role throughout with a final yielding. The sword dance [Shashka] of the Cossacks is a good illustration of the physical endurance and skill of the male. Essentially, it is the display of the warrior and was, therefore, alien to the psychology of the Jew to whom it was wholly unacceptable.

All folk dances of necessity have an inner content. They relate an inner experience, an image of the mind's reflections or an event. They are a communal art form that originates with the people and not with an individual. All other art forms, such as music, painting, sculpture and literature, are the products of individual minds. These can isolate themselves and create what their fancies please. They are not always stimulated by outside events. An experience of a purely personal nature, a slight event, may stimulate them to a fine creativeness. The dance is radically different in its original impulse. The ordinary man is not stimulated to create a dance form as a result of an event in his personal experience or because of an individual fancy in thought. The folk dance is always a group creation and there must be a common denominator among many minds in the genesis of its idea. Some national or social event or a natural phenomenon that can capture the general imagination must be present to create the common expression that can be crystallized in the folk dance.

In past generations, there was a greater manifestation of the religious spirit in every day life than in our time. Among Jews, the celebration of a religious holiday such as Simchat Torah or the observance of a festival such as Purim called forth forms of group dancing. Social events of an intimate character, such as engagements or weddings or the birth of a male child, would elicit, likewise, a display of folk dancing. These not only expressed a general joy but also a social function, a popular, semi-religious sanctification, as it were, of the event. The hardships of Jewish life would not then permit the creation of an art form for the sake of mere enjoyment. The Jewish adage, "A yid vet sich nit aweklosen tanzen glat azoi" (A Jew will not let himself go a-dancing without reason), well illustrates this point.

The life of the Jews in the Diaspora exacted their greatest effort in self-preservation and the countenancing of joy as an end in itself could make no appeal to them. They, therefore, sustained those dance forms that best reflected their lives and served their purposes of survival. Such a dance was the Broygaz Tanz, a consolation dance that attempts to resolve the problems of the newly wedded couple in its love relationships, quarrels, estrangements, and ultimate reconciliation. In this dance the man holds various trinkets in his hand and offers them to the woman one by one. She refuses them, one by one, until she accepts reconciliation in the end and indicates it by acquiescing to a final offer from him.

Of similar content is the Patch Tanz, that represents the initiation of the bride into the circle of married women. Here the women make a ring around the bride and dance about her. The interests of the bride, it is now made evident, are no longer with the carefree existence of the unmarried maidens but with the restricted and more sober life of the wedded woman.

The Mitzvah Tanz belongs to the same category. It represents a farewell dance participated in by the bride's nearest of kin. The bride is placed in the center of the room. She holds a handkerchief in one hand while the "batchen" (master of ceremonies) calls various kinsmen of the bride by name to dance with her. Her partner picks up the other end of the handkerchief and dances in a circle around her, thus taking leave of the bride. In this, there is recognition of her parting from her own family and her acceptance of a new role in the family of her husband.

The Koilitch Tanz is a development of the same idea. The Koilitch is a braided "Chaleh" [bread loaf], circular rather than oblong in shape. In the dance, the oldest woman in the community holds it high over her head and dances with it in confrontation of the bride and groom as they emerge from the house of worship after the wedding ceremony. The Jews of the community thereby express their wish that Providence may supply the couple all their days with their need of daily bread – the staff of life.

Alone among the nations, the Jewish people during the period of their sojourn among other peoples, have been without dances based upon the changes of the seasons, such as those celebrated during the spring, summer, and autumn festivals. The reason is simple enough: the Jews have had practically no peasant class and have been divorced from the soil. They were not permitted to own land and were forced to become urban dwellers. The Jewish artisan could not, therefore, experience the physical exhilaration of spring, like the peasants who worked ploughing or seeding under the open sky and could feel the warmth of the sun, the caressing touch of the rain, and the burgeoning of plants and flowers. The Jew could have an esthetic or intellectual attitude to nature but not a physical one, because his life was not bound up directly with the soil. Nature dances, therefore, could have no sustenance in Jewish life. Nature festivals that may have been the origin of Passover, the Pentecost, or the Feast of the Tabernacles, were thus transformed into religious holidays and were made to represent events of the national history. If they had remained fixed as nature festivals they would have become stagnant symbols and could scarcely have survived once their economic basis and "raison d'êtere" [reason for being] was lost.

The most exuberant of Jewish folk dances, undoubtedly, have been the Chassidic, the products of the last two hundred years. The Jewish messianic movements of the past, such as those of Sabbathai Zvi, David Reubeni, and the Frankists in Poland, create temporary forms of the dance but these were dissipated in the course of time. The Chassidic influence alone has proved to be of a more permanent character. Their legends, tales, melodies, and dances are still in vogue and an inspiration to the Jewish people.

The Chassidim, basing their faith on the human senses and emotions rather than on intellect, on the spirit of the individual rather than on his scholarship, emphasizing his instincts rather than his mind, gave great impetus to joy and sanctified it by such sayings as, "Joy is man's aspiration to divinity." One, therefore, by this criterion serves God through joy. The specific teaching of the Chassidim involves the notion of the spiritual equality potential of all individuals. The scholar and the sage, according to this dispensation, are no more precious to the Divine Being than the Jew who can hardly utter more than a few phrases from the Hebrew prayer book. In the eyes of deity, the worth of man depends upon his inner mood, the parity of his feeling and thinking, and not upon the lore he may have acquired. It is a principle that elevates the common man and frees his pent-up creative power. It draws the divine manifestation down from Heaven to the Earth and makes the heart of man the source of all that is good in nature and divinity. The famous Chassidic sage, Rab Levi Yitchok of Berdichever, summed it up in his famous "Du-du-le" where the "Thou-Thou" addressed to God end with the diminutive "le," an expression of personal endearment that comes close to the heart. It runs as follows:

"God is everywhere,
In the East and in the West,
In the North and in the South,
God is in Heaven and upon the Earth;
God is above and below . . . ."

If joy is thus the supreme principle in life, and can unite man with the power of God so that man actually becomes a part of deity, it naturally follows that joy must find full expression in man. Spontaneously, the dance will follow. In the Chassidic movement, the dance thus becomes an organic part of the ritual.

The Chassidic dances are all folk dances in essence. Nevertheless, there is a variant in them that distinguishes them from the general Jewish folk dances. They do not have a distinctive choreographic form. The general folk dance does have a definite choreographic pattern that with slight variations has prevailed from one generation to another. The Chassidic dance, on the contrary, is always a new creation. Its character of exuberant improvisation overflows any limitation that may be set for it by a more regular dispensation of creativeness. One must not, however, consider it anarchic in form. The basic pattern remains substantially the same. It is the bodily gestures that vary. The dance always begins with a slow and quiet movement. Each dancer at first pursues an individual line. Gradually, the singing grows louder, the tempo becomes faster, and somehow the hand of one dancer touches the shoulder of another and a group is formed. The singing soars higher still, the tempo grows more rapidly until finally the separate groups are merged into a single ring that moves as with one will around the circle in a frenzy that would seem to carry it away from the earth off to the spheres above to be united there with divinity itself. At best, this is but a technical description of this dance. Words cannot give the full impact of the mood that transforms the participants from mere mortal beings into spirits that exult in joy at the very gates of Heaven.

Jewish folk dances differ from European folk dancing not only in respect of their thematic material but also in their lineal forms. Dancing, in general, defines itself in a variety of lines. There are round or curved, horizontal, upward or downward, and angular lines. These all have a reaction on the human mind. Curved lines give men a feeling of continuity and fulfillment. Horizontal lines support a feeling of stability, of firmness and power, and also create an illusion of substantiality. The angular line, on the contrary, suggests unease, stubbornness, and an unyielding disposition. Each dancer creates different patterns and those of his body as a whole, and by his lineal imagery creates the language of the dance. All folk dancing must also have its lineal forms. Consciously or unconsciously, each people creates its peculiar patterns. Thus, Spanish folk dancing in its dominant form follows the curved line. Hungarian folk dances move in horizontal and curved lines. Slavic dancing is round and horizontal. Jewish folk dancing is the only occidental form in which the predominant line is angular and horizontal. It thus shows stubbornness and unease in its prevailing mood.

The dances that have been created by the Chalutzim [a person who moves to Israel to help establish modern agricultural settlements] in Israel have now crossed the boundaries of that country and have spread among the Jews of many lands. In their origin, they were the expression of the Zionist ideology. They have since spread to Jews living elsewhere than in the ancient land and have become a genuine phase of the Jewish folk dance there. These dances constitute a new chapter in the folk dancing of the Jewish people. They do not derive from the dancing that was developed in Europe but are a new phenomenon altogether. The Jewish folk dance of the past was delicate in nature and represented the foreshadowing of a mood felt inwardly, of thoughts hidden and given external expression, an emergence of the inner soul to life and to the events of the outer world. They were built on angular and horizontal lines with very simple steps. These steps were usually of paramount importance in representation. It was the body, as a whole, that gave the significant meaning.

The Israeli dances, however, are a definite break with this Jewish past. They are, first of all, outdoor dancing, created to be performed in the open plane or the street. They express the fullest momentum of vital strength and endurance. Their lineal forms are built on curved as well as on horizontal lines. Their base is in their steps. The body as a whole in them plays a subordinate role. In Jewish folk dancing of the past, the feet followed the body. In the new Chalutzim dance, the feet seem actually to carry the body off the ground.

The Jewish folk dances of the past were modeled primarily on a life based economically on small trade and on artisanship in individual craft industry. There was no Jewish peasant class nor any substantial form of outdoor labor. The Chalutzim dance, on the other hand, was created by people who were engaged in hard physical toil, like farming, stonecutting, road building, in short by pioneers who were devoted to the creation of a new and different life for their people. They could not transplant dance from a different milieu to the new soil. The niceties and subtleties of the old life, the nuances of the old dance forms had no appeal for the pioneers. The pale student ideal, the body with delicate hands and timid movements, could not be a model for the sun-tanned, broad-shouldered, and muscular Chalutzim. Physical power here was a necessity if the art form was to have life and permanence of expression.

Since the Chalutzim could not find what they needed in the Jewish folk dances of Europe, patterns unsuited to their pioneer life, they borrowed the dance forms they knew in the countries of their nativity, the dances of Russia, the Ukraine, Romania, and Poland. These they adapted to suit their own national mood and in the course of a generation or two developed these into an art that has become a definite expression of their own moods and life.

The Israeli dances are nationally actually only in name. Basically, they are Chalutzim dances whose roots are in Europe and of non-Jewish origin. The new land and the specific coloring that it could lend the art will take time to seep in. They are now, however, in their second phase and are assuming more and more an indigenous form. They are shedding their alien shapes and patterns and rapidly taking on a semblance that belongs more definitely to the Jewish people, a nation dwelling in a specific geographical center and having an individual topography and climate of its own as well as a spiritual collective personality. Its center is the Near East and the Yemenite and Arabic influences are both strong in the emerging pattern of the new Jewish folk dances that are being born in Israel today.

Originally appeared in The Chicago Jewish Forum, Vol 13, No. 1, Fall 1954, pp 45-50.
Their magazine ceased operation in 1969.