The hour is late, but the group is excited and energized. Almost 20 people, mostly young and female, have been dancing, emoting, and embracing each other for almost two hours. They have writhed sensually through a Latin Rumba, marched purposefully across the room to a military tune, strutted smartly back and forth to the accompaniment of Dixieland jazz, and gracefully mimicked the gentle movements of flowers in a soft summer breeze to the breathy notes of a Japanese flute. They have hugged and caressed, gently held each other's faces in their hands and gazed into each other's eyes. They have smiled ecstatically and laughed blissfully through tears. Now, as the session concludes, each person is slowly passing through a gauntlet formed by the others, in which faces are kissed, hair is stroked, and arms and legs are gently massaged. Everyone appears to be exhilarated. One must complete 27 12-hour modules to become a certified "teacher" of this activity. This group, meeting at the Maccabi World Union building at Kfar Maccabia in Ramat Gan, has just completed Module One. There is a good chance that a couple of years from now, you will vaguely recall reading this article and remember it as your first introduction to this curious and colorful phenomenon. Or, you may have encountered it before, if you come from South America or Spain. You may have stumbled upon it in Europe or the UK. If your home is the United States or Canada, however, you've probably never heard of it. One thing is certain, though: you will be hearing a lot more about it in the next few weeks and months. This odd but strangely appealing mixture of music, dance, theater, therapy, healing, humor, hugging, group bonding, intense emotion, whimsy, role playing, gentle psychodrama, meditation, touching, stroking, embracing and caressing is slowly but surely spreading throughout the world. And now, it's here in Israel. This extraordinary form of personal development through music and movement is called Biodanza - the "Dance of Life." Its stated aims, according to one of the various Web sites devoted to the activity, include "the release of our 'bodily arguments,' resulting from the harshness of modern life and stress; a deeper understanding and developing of the self; the expression of our full potential; a dimension of love and affection in our daily life; a capacity to relate and bond with other people; the awakening of a consciousness of universal solidarity and the development of an ecology based on love." Biodanza is being brought to Israel not - as one might expect - by young, New Age cultists from California, but rather through the good, if unlikely, offices of two soft-spoken, ever-smiling, grandmotherly Jewish ladies from Santiago, Chile. Both life-long teachers, Sima Nisis de Rezepka and Francine Nudel Tempel have come to Israel as missionaries as well as educators, to begin a school, train teachers, and spread the healthful and healing benefits of Biodanza throughout the country. Sima, who insists she and Francine be addressed and referred to by their first names, describes Biodanza as "a very strong and deep approach that enables us to develop our full genetic potential as human beings. Working with the entire body and all of the emotions - not only the mind - Biodanza makes life become more harmonic. Unlike other forms of healing and medicine that focus on the body's unhealthy parts, Biodanza focuses upon a person's healthy aspects, developing them, strengthening them, until the unhealthy parts just dissolve and fade away." Francine agrees. "Biodanza is a therapy in which the instrument is music and dance," she says. "It makes a person happy, empowered, with a heightened awareness of his own worth, and that of others." Sima is a career academic who has taught at several universities in Chile, as well as teaching Hebrew at Instituo Hebreo de Chile. Born in Chile, she has two sons, two daughters, and nine grandchildren. Francine describes herself as being "from all over the world." Born in Belgium, she has lived in Brazil, is married to a Frenchman and now makes her home in Santiago. Mother of three grown children, of whom two daughters along with five grandsons now live in Israel, Francine teaches French as well as Tai Chi and Chigong - two Chinese meditative activities which, like Biodanza, emphasize a holistic unity of mind and body. Both Francine and Sima are now completely enamored of Biodanza, to which they devote most of their time. Both strongly believe in its power to promote health and heal illness, and both are careful to stress that Biodanza is complementary - not alternative - medicine. It should be used, they say, in addition to regular medicine, not instead of it. But they both point out that in any lifestyle in which Biodanza plays a significant part, the body becomes stronger and healthier as it reaches better harmony. Sima says, "I had studied and worked for more than forty years in psychology and different forms of therapy. But Biodanza offers the most complete approach that I know of." Francine adds, "I have taken upon myself the core mission of Biodanza, and that is to bring Paradise to the world." Although avant-garde, Biodanza is not new. It was developed more than 40 years ago by Chilean psychologist and anthropologist Rolando Toro. In 1965, Toro was teaching at the University of Chile Medical School's Center for Medical Anthropological Studies. The Center's major focus at the time was to evaluate various techniques of psychotherapy with the goal of "humanizing" medicine. These included such practices as Carl Roger's person-centered approach, art therapy, psychodrama, Gestalt and music therapy. Toro began investigating the effect of music and dance on psychiatric patients. His approach focused on physical activity and stimulating emotions through music, dance and human encounters. Word soon spread of the success of these techniques, and in 1970 the Catholic University of Chile invited Toro to create a class in what he was now calling "Psychodance." With the subsequent creation of new contact and communication exercises, new dance activities, and the careful documentation of the neuropsychological effects of the exercises on different clinical conditions, Toro's techniques and approaches soon flowed outward from clinical venues to reach the general public. Biodanza, the Dance of Life, was born. Today, there are over 300 Biodanza schools dispersed around the world, mostly in South America and Europe. And while Biodanza has spread as far afield as South Africa and Japan, it is virtually unknown in the United States - aside from a small presence, predictably enough, in San Francisco. And now, Biodanza has arrived in Israel, with the creation of a local school and the commencement of teacher training. Classroom space is being provided to the school free of charge by Kfar Maccabia. A typical Biodanza workshop is directed by a certified Biodanza teacher, practiced in mixed groups, and consists of varying proportions of theory and activity. The theoretical instruction - consisting of surprisingly straightforward, standard academic-style lectures with audio-visual aids - is fairly extensive. Francine explains, "Participants need to understand what Biodanza is about, its purpose, and what it is capable of doing. Without the theory, the rest is just movement." When the theoretical instruction is over, however, the dancing begins. This part, called the "Vivencia" and described as "the present living moment experienced in full," is designed to teach the five basic elements of Biodanza: vitality, sexuality, creativity, affectivity and, finally, transcendence - "to go beyond our own ego in order to reach higher levels of integration within Humanity, Nature and Universe." The accompanying music, says Francine, is carefully selected - "like a doctor's prescription" - to provide the specific harmonics necessary to teach each of these five elements. Participants quickly become true believers. Ariel Zutel, 30, one of two of this group's male participants, first became aware of Biodanza while traveling in Brazil. After taking one class, he recalls, "The exercises were very opening and amazing, but I wasn't very excited. When we finished the class, I said, 'Okay, that was nice.' But my friend said, 'Wait.' Two hours later, I was saying, 'Oh my God! We did this, and we did that!' It was so powerful, it took time for what we had done to settle into my body. My body was joyously shouting, 'Whoa!' and then that went directly to my mind. That was my first experience." Zutel later studied Biodanza in Barcelona and is now among the most enthusiastic participants in this first group of Israel's future Biodanza teachers. Both Sima and Francine say they are thrilled to be directing the new Biodanza program in Israel and training its first teachers. "I have taught Biodanza in many places, but to teach it here in Israel is special," Sima says. Francine concurs, declaring, "To be the headmistresses of the Biodanza school in Israel is probably the greatest thing to happen in our lives." But will Israelis be receptive to this unusual form of therapy? "I hope so," says Sima. "With all of the problems and tensions here in Israel, people need something that can help them to relax, to get in touch with themselves, to open up to others, to be happy, and to be hopeful. But it's not enough just to talk, to use a lot of empty words. People need to be shown this and taught this scientifically. Biodanza is the way to do this. So, yes, I think Biodanza will be very popular here in Israel." If Sima is right, please remember that you read it here first. To learn more about Biodanza in Israel, visit www.biodanzaisrael.org, or contact the school's coordinator, Sylvie Guendelman, at (03)731-1864, 054-746-6004; e-mail: Sylvie15@zahav.net.il.