Folk dance group connects St. Louisans with Israel

BILL MOTCHAN, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Every Monday night the Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School hosts a dance party in the gym. The participants, who range from teenagers to octogenarians, learn and practice the art of Israeli folk dancing.

The St. Louis Israeli Folk Dance (IFD) group has been going strong for 50 years. It began as a Jewish Community Center-hosted program run by Shlomit Eisner. In 1978, Bob Olshan took over the group.

Olshan learned to dance at age 8 growing up in Skokie, Ill. Now 69, he leads the late-night couples dance session. He shares his love for dance with his mother who, at age 95, still leads a Chicago-area group. Israeli folk dance is good exercise, and learning the routines is good for the mind, he said.

“It helps your body physically and cognitively, and it’s fun, too,” said Olshan, who belongs to Kol Rinah. “You learn the dances, and some are quite complicated. I know probably a thousand different dances.”

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Israeli folk dancing has an intricate choreography. It bears some similarities to country music line dancing, except that dancers form a circle. They take their cues from the leader, who also selects the music, which includes Turkish, Asian and Kurdish influences. Add in Israeli pop music, and you’ll find a mashup of many styles. The songs and dance moves are directly related to Israeli culture and its arid desert climate.

Israeli folk dancing came into its own as a movement in the several years before statehood in 1948. Previously, dancing was common on the kibbutz, but it eventually took on patriotic themes.

“While Israel was creating a state, dancing became an important part of the culture,” Olshan said. “The songs were about agriculture and living in the desert, a land without water, and all those themes got into the songs and the dances, so it was the spirit of the country.”

Another cultural aspect of folk dancing in Israel is that everybody participates. While living in Israel as a McDonnell-Douglas vice president, Olshan frequently found time to dance in the evenings. After returning to St. Louis, he reconnected with the dance group here, as have other Israeli-Americans who moved here. They include the group’s leader, Rachel Persellin Armoza.

“In Jerusalem, I was dancing four times a week,” Persellin Armoza said. “When I moved here from Israel in 2000, I would only move to a place that had Israeli dancing.”

The strength and longevity of the St. Louis group are due in part to its governing philosophy, she said.

“We run it like a co-op,” she said. “We get buy-in and input from everyone when we make decisions. Nobody gets paid, and that’s unique. Our dance leaders, Wayne Brown, Bob Olshan, Lynnsie Balk Kantor and me, we have bonded, and we want to make it successful.”

Kantor teaches the beginner’s group that leads off the Monday night session. In early May, she started each dance by explaining the choreography, then started the music.

Shelly Azar, manager of research and grants at Jewish Federation of St. Louis, has been attending for two months.

“Somebody told me about the class, and I went the next night and loved it,” said Azar, 58. “I love the music, being with people, the exercise. My goal is to improve and move up to the advanced class. I actually stay for the advanced dancers and stand in the outer circle to follow people. That’s the only way to really learn.”

Persellin Armoza and Brown lead the advanced class that follows the beginner’s group. Brown first learned Israeli folk dance as a counselor at a Young Israel camp in New Hampshire. At 67, his dance moves are fluid and effortless. That wasn’t always the case.

“Everybody’s a beginner at one point,” Brown said. “It took me a very long time to learn the steps. When it took people on average two to four weeks to learn, it took me a year!”

Ilanit Michelson, an Israeli expat who’s been dancing in the group for 27 years, said Monday nights remind her of home.

“I love the music,” she said. “It brings me close to home, and we’ve formed a really close group even outside of dancing. It makes me happy, and it’s good exercise. Growing up in Israel, we danced every Friday at school during a big recess. The whole school would get together in a big circle.”

Another longtime member of the group is Galit Lev-Harir, who echoed Michelson’s feelings.

“I love the dancing, I love the excitement,” Lev-Harir said. “I danced when I was in Israel and, when we moved here, I asked some people if there was dancing here, and they told me about this group. I love the feeling you get when you’re in a larger group especially, with 100 dancers. There’s a special energy.”

The St. Louis Israeli Dance Group is open to anyone interested in learning. The group meets every Monday from 8:30 to 11 p.m. in the rear gym at Mirowitz School, 348 S. Mason Rd. Beginners are welcome during the introductory class at 7:30 p.m., followed by the advanced group and the late night couples dance.