February 22, 2019

Jewish Bucket List Item #1: Israeli Folk Dancing

As promised in my previous column, I am trying to undertake a new Jewish experience for every month of 2019.  

My first bucket list item, for January, was Israeli folk dancing with Orly Star at the Westside Jewish Community Center. Even though I love dancing — I took ballet, modern dance and tap classes as a child; and ballroom and line dancing classes in college — it had never occurred to me to learn Israeli folk dancing.  

These days, dance fitness (mostly hip-hop) is my exercise of choice, but thanks to committing to this column I’ve finally discovered something aligned with my heritage and something I love. 

To fulfill my Jewish dancing destiny, I drove from my home in West L.A. to the Westside JCC in the Mid-Wilshire District during rush hour in the pouring rain. As an Angeleno who works at home, I tend to hide when the weather is bad. But as a former Midwesterner, I wasn’t going to let a little rain stop me. Although the drive took an hour, I wasn’t in a bad mood. I was going dancing!  

Earlier in the week, Star suggested I might want to come on a different night, since turnout is sometimes low during the rain. It wasn’t. A great group of 85 people showed up, the adults ranging in age from 22 to 75+, along with one child: 10-year-old Lily. We came from all sorts of different backgrounds and levels of experience, but we were all there to join hands, celebrate life and, to paraphrase Star, “pray with our feet.” 

“Israeli dance was created to bring together the people of Israel from their different cultures. That sensation of coming together, of being in a community, was palpable in the Westside JCC gym that night. “

Israeli-born Star has been teaching adults and kids for 20 years. 

“Israeli dance is an activity that conveys love, peace, patriotism and a strong connection to a universal community,” she said, “because it’s a melting pot of different steps and cultures.”  

We started off with a beginner’s lesson. It was a little challenging, but I mostly got it right. Star explained how there are 10 basic Israeli dance steps, including the  Yemenite, Cherkassiya (from the Balkans), Cha-cha-cha (from Cuba) and the grapevine “mayim” step. 

When the intermediate lesson began, I was placed between two experienced dancers. The room was full of helpful, encouraging people who didn’t seem to mind when I occasionally bumped into them.

As Star played a variety of old and new Israeli dance tunes, we grapevined, box-stepped and hip-hopped. (I love how Israeli dance takes on characteristics of modern dances to keep it alive and interesting for future generations.)  

The experience filled me with so much joy, it didn’t matter that I didn’t get everything right. When I got lost, I just kept dancing; and that was OK. 

Israeli dance was created to bring together the people of Israel from their different cultures. That sensation of coming together, of being in a community, was palpable in the Westside JCC gym that night. People of all ages and backgrounds had come together to speak a common language of dance and enjoy each other’s company.  

My 2019 Jewish bucket list is just getting started. Have an idea? Send it to deckerling@gmail.com.


Debra Eckerling is a contributing writer to the Jewish Journal and a goal coach.