February 25, 2020

Dassa Connects a Step-Kick at a Time

By the age of 4, Dani Dassa knew what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

“I remember going to the synagogue on Simchat Torah and watching the adults jumping up and down with the Torah,” he says. “Even then, I knew there was something to that kind of dancing.”

Some 73 years later, Dassa’s priorities have not changed. He remains singularly devoted to the practice and transmission of Israeli folk dance. In Israeli folk dance circles both locally and internationally, his name is synonymous with words like legend and pioneer.

“Dani has a magical way of bringing you into his own spiritual high,” says Ruth Goodman, a popular New York-based Israeli folk dance teacher, director of the Israeli Dance Institute and Dassa’s longtime colleague. “He absolutely deserves the status of a legend because he has influenced so many people’s lives. When he dances and teaches, he makes Israel and the Bible come to life.”

Yet, for someone who’s choreographed around 70 dances, taught all over the world and made Los Angeles a vital center for Israeli folk dance, Dassa maintains a relatively low profile. He has never carried a business card, for example, and tends to steer clear of press interviews. “I don’t have the ego for self-promotion,” he says.

Seated at his kitchen table with Judy Dassa, his wife and business manager of 49 years, Dassa tries to pinpoint the secret to his success. “I’ve always shared all that I have, physically and spiritually,” he says.

Dassa has also possessed an unwavering faith in his abilities. Arriving in Los Angeles in the late 1950s with $800 in his pocket, he persisted in trying to do the only work he loved. He managed to secure an interview with Shlomo Bardin, founder of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute.

“He asked me, ‘Can you really make better Jews out of dancing?’ I said, ‘That’s exactly what I do,’ and I got the job,” recalls Dassa. “That was my lucky break.”

Born in Jerusalem to traditional Jewish parents, Dassa grew up dancing in youth groups. Early on, he mastered the art of moving in a circle and how to dance with a girl not by holding hands but by interlocking elbows.

“Of all body-motion activities, dance was my first love,” he says. “Also, the Israeli landscape, the Bible stories … these were not fiction to me. They were my reality, and the only way for me to express that reality was through dance.”

After graduating from Israel’s Wingate Institute with a degree in physical education, Dassa studied modern dance, first in Israel and then in New York, where he learned from famous choreographers like Martha Graham and Louis Horst. Though sought after as a dancer in New York, Dassa knew his calling lay elsewhere.

“I studied modern dance only for the technique,” he says. “The music and ideas of this kind of dance never touched me.”

As a choreographer, Dassa always sought a direct connection among the stories of the Bible, the land of Israel and the movements he generates.

“The words dictate the movement; the music enhances the words,” he says. “If I’m making a dance about praying for rain, we are really going to do that. The dance is not about the steps, it’s about reliving an experience.”

“My father doesn’t just teach dance, he connects people to Judaism through dance,” says Dassa’s son, David, a highly sought-after Israeli folk dance teacher in Los Angeles, who “literally” followed in his father’s footsteps. “I am definitely carrying on his legacy, because when I teach, the actual physical learning of the dance is secondary. It’s about connecting people Jewishly.”

Genie Benson feels the same way. Now the executive director of the Keshet Chaim Dance Ensemble, Benson had been a ballet dancer until she started to study with Dassa at Camp Alonim and later at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute.

“He changed my life,” she says. “He would sit on the grass with us and tell us Bible stories or about the pioneers in Israel. He encouraged us to choreograph our own dances. He went far beyond being an ordinary dance teacher.”

“I started out by teaching 10 basic dances everywhere,” he says. “The idea was that people from all over the world could communicate with each other through these dances.”

In 1966, Dassa launched his crowning entrepreneurial achievement: Café Danssa, the folk dance club that still operates in its original West Los Angeles location. The Dassas only owned the club for about seven years, but maintained a presence there for decades.

In the 1970s, “you’d find hundreds of people in that room, there would be a line out the door,” Dani Dassa says. “People from Israel would get off the plane and head straight to Café Danssa.”

“So many people met, married and divorced at Café Danssa,” Judy Dassa recalls. “You knew about everyone’s life because for those people, Café Danssa was their life.”

Though he no longer choreographs, Dani Dassa still teaches workshops all over the world, including every year at the Rikud Dance Camp that he founded at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute.

“Get me dancing in a workshop, and I feel like I’m 21 years old again,” he says. “There’s no question I will be dancing until my grave.”