The Yiddish dance scene, however, has maintained a curiously conservative approach, mostly seeking to reconstruct dimly remembered dances, and teach today’s dancers to dance like their great-grandparents. Where the musicians have embarked on an age of exploration, maintaining a conscientious link to the past, but exploring and incorporating material from other cultures or developing the music along the lines of contemporary pop, jazz, and art forms, the dance scene has been wary of any such similar exploration, preferring to delve ever deeper into fine points of “traditional” style. But just as the music, when it was a lively form, frequently borrowed from and incorporated local or pan-European influences, or in America, jazz and popular music influences, the dance too historically incorporated what were deemed appropriate dance forms and styles from surrounding cultures. (In the US, the quasi folk dances Miserlou and Korobushka became favorites of Jews of the immigrant and post- immigrant generations). So it is curious that while contemporary Klezmer musicians have continued this practice of borrowing and developing, the dance scene has not followed suit.
Perhaps this is because it is a bit optimistic to speak of a dance “scene”. It is mostly an artificial environment that exists only at festivals or family and community events, usually under the tutelage of a dance leader. And it so far has been the choice of the dance leaders to adhere to an implicit orthodoxy of dance practice. But that has started to change.
In an absolutely unprecedented move, the long running cultural program Yiddish Summer Weimar, directed by Alan Bern, which has for many years offered week long courses in instrumental music, song and Yiddish language, and dance, this year seized upon the idea of offering, in a year dedicated to New Yiddish Music, a course in New Yiddish Dance. Whatever that might be.
That was left to the instructors of the course: myself, an American Yiddish dance specialist, and Vivien Zeller, a German violinist and avid dancer with experience in many folk forms, especially from the Bal Folk movement (itself a contemporary revival of folk couple dances that had faded from common practice) with the assistance of Sayumi Yoshida, a Japanese-German student of Italian pizzica tarantella, Andreas Schmittges, German musician and experienced Yiddish dance teacher, and Asya Schulman, American Yiddish scholar and dance teacher. We were the captains of a vessel about to sail strange and unchartered waters, with a crew of some 2 dozen intrepid students of varying ages and backgrounds, who had no clear idea of our course or destination. I’m happy to report that, together, we appear to have discovered a rich and strange new shore.
I’d already made a few tentative excursions into new dance territory: incorporating a dance sequence from the movie The Dybbuk into a choreographed folk dance to the tune Khotinskaya, which is now taught by others beside myself, enlivening the traditional set dance Couple’s Bulgar by adding the non-traditional element of a chaos mixer (a way of reforming sets by wandering, rather after a dancer in a class I was teaching spontaneously changed dance sets that way, and creating a few Yiddish inspired flash mobs(in Paris and Krakow) to make Yiddish dance more public and well known. With this course, however, our goals were much more ambitious.
We decided to focus our attention on exploring three existing types of Yiddish dance: the couple freylekhs which is mostly done without any touching, couple dances that are led or involve hand contact, and set dances, like the Jewish square dance, the sher. Our approach was to be to explore world dances that had similar structures. We would explore other non –touching couple dances like the pizzica from Italy, bourree from France, and the chacarera from Argentina. We would learn wickler, the general term for a number of north European couple folk dances that involve elegant and complex arm positions, something shared with a number of world dances, including meringue and western two step. We would look to longways and ancient set dances for ways of updating the Yiddish set dance tradition, in an effort to make it as lively and inventive as the Contra, English and Scottish dance scenes. And finally, we would explore Schottische and Pizzica as sources of more energetic ways of moving, involving skipping, springing and leg lifting. This proved to be a fruitful but obscure plan; it yielded wonderful results but the final outcome was not entirely clear, especially to the students. They each, to their surprise and perhaps dismay, found themselves to be the crucibles of transformation. Each day they were schooled in mostly orthodox Yiddish styling (if not the orthodox roster of dances in the Yiddish repertoire) as well as these new, alien styles. In previous years at YSW, there had been courses in other, related, dance styles. I’d been present for courses with teachers of Moldovan, North German and Bavarian dances, but while these dance styles were looked at as parallels or possible sources, they were kept discrete from the Yiddish dances, and were never consciously mixed together. Here we were trying to consciously hybridize the dances.
What was the difference between this experiment and the creation of Israeli dances? Perhaps that we tried to maintain a sense of connection with previous Yiddish dances, as opposed to the Israeli goal of creating a clean break with the past, particularly the Ashkenazy past. The early Israeli folk dance choreographers did consciously enfold elements of Arabic and Yemenite dance, however, as they seemed more Middle Eastern and thus Israeli. We strove to maintain Yiddish qualities of elegance, seemliness, and simplicity while incorporating European dance influences.
Our most successful experiment may prove to be what we called the Tzepl Tants (little braid dance). This was our development of the Wickler, which works beautifully with music in a terkish rhythm especially. It also worked to newer Klezmer music in a slow tempo. We used a combination of slow and quick steps, ad lib, to keep with the rhythm of the music, and with Alan Bern’s suggestion, made it a repeated 3 part form: an open position promenade, then one handed led figures, and finally two handed led figures. We encouraged dancers to not overpopulate their dancing with too many figures in quick succession, and also added a unique element of advancing and retreating (like going in and out of a circle) with a slight lift and pause on the change of direction. A floor full of people dancing Tzepl Tants looks both stately and sexy- a bit like a Yiddish dance tango!
Our development of non touching couple dance we called the Kompot- a sweet mixture of several influences. Like bourree and chacarera, it allows freedom of improvisation within a clear structure: a section of partners opposite each other describing a small circle, followed by a section of crossing over and changing sides. The crossing over section had a meeting of partners, leaning and facing each other then retiring, before changing places (a bit like the sher). The circling could be varied with one or the other partner in the center of the small circle, with the other partner dancing around them, or even each partner alternately shining in the center. We leavened the dancing style with some step and gesture vocabulary adapted from pizzica. The result is a Jewish looking dance that can be danced equally to traditional or fusion Klezmer music.
We tried setting schottische skipping steps to music with a skotchne feel, and used it when dancing with a tikhl (handkerchief) creating a fun and frisky dance game.
Vivien brought a method for constructing longways set dances using a modular system of interchangeable figures. For groups familiar with the method and vocabulary, it is possible for each foursome in a longways to improvise their own dance. But I advocated for more inclusive dances- ones that someone could perhaps join in progress. By using the formula for improvised dances, we created 2 new Yiddish style longways dances- Little Star (Shterndl) and Road to Minsk (Forn Kayn Minsk). We even, as an experiment, let the group create a dance by committee; there are endless possibilities for new dances. What made these dances Yiddish was the choice of figures and the style of execution. Also, I took the popular gallop/Galopede style long dance and created the very simple and easy to join Ferdl Galop (Little Horse Gallop). All these longways dances worked to a variety of bulgars from the standard Klezmer rep.
Andreas stitched some Playford figures together to make a quadrille dance that suited a Klezmer tune with an early music feel, and created a patsh tants (clapping dance) to a tune collected by Beregovski.
And finally, I cobbled together a little couple changing dance called The International, because it begins with the internationally distributed forwards and backwards figure seen in Gay Gordons and Le Chappeloise, to name just a few. It also incorporated some Lithuanian figures I had learned from two Jewish Lithuanian women I met in Atlanta. Adding to the international flavor, we danced it to the Yiddish theater gem In Odess, although any square tune would work.
At the dance ball on the final night of the workshop it was amazing to see how these dances had been absorbed by the participants. Even when the music was not played in an old-time Klezmer style, the dances and dancers were flexible enough to adapt. There was space for individual expression, and opportunities for shared group experience, like in the set dances. Whether any of these dances becomes incorporated into the Yiddish dance repertoire remains to be seen- I’ll certainly be teaching them for a while and see how they are received and how they adapt outside of the hothouse environment in which they were created. And there are certainly more interesting dance forms that can be mined for their possible contribution to Yiddish dance.
Anyone care to join me in a Tzepl Tants?