Swinging in the Holy Land

Enthusiasts generate a swing dancing revival in Israel.

Swing dancing in Israel (photo credit: COURTESY HOLY LINDY LAND)
Swing dancing in Israel
It’s Thursday night in the center of the city that never sleeps. Tel Aviv is buzzing as the end of the working week sees hordes of people enjoying the restaurants, bars and cafés of the all-action Mediterranean coastal city.
The 50-story Azrieli Towers dominate the night sky. In the foreground, masses descend on the new “in spot,” the impressive, recently restored Sarona quarter. I struggle to find a parking spot. I’m in a hurry, eventually squeezing my car ‒ in classic Tel Aviv fashion ‒ into an impossibly cramped space, thanks to the help of two bystanders respectively tapping the hood, then the trunk, as I move within a whisker of the vehicles both in front and behind.
Racing into the lobby of a building on Heftman Street, there’s absolutely no doubt I’ve arrived at the right place.
From two floors above, I hear the opening bars of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” Irving Berlin’s classic 1911 number that led the way into a new age of American music and dancing – the Jazz Age, which spanned the pre-World War I to the post- World War II period.
This is Holy Lindy Land, the center of the swing dancing revival in Israel, where the Lindy Hop, the Black Bottom and, of course, the Charleston itself, are part and parcel of the scene.
It’s not just in Tel Aviv that swing dancing is attracting classes full of young and not-quite-so-young people buzzing with enthusiasm, embracing dancing inextricably linked to the only major art form that is originally American – jazz itself.
They’re struttin’ their stuff at classes in Haifa and Jerusalem, too, and rumor has it that they could also be about to start shimmying in classes in the Palestinian Authority capital Ramallah.
But why are young Israelis ‒ for whom being “cool” is often a prerequisite – flocking to swing dancing? They could let their hair down at hip-hop gigs, breakdancing, discos, salsa, grunge, you name it. Why turn back the clock to the era of the classic big bands of Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and of speakeasies, flappers and tap dancing? “It’s more vibrant and energetic than many other dances,” Ron Dobrovinsky, CEO of Holy Lindy Land, tells The Jerusalem Report. “There is more movement, and it’s a little more physical than some other dances. Some people get fit through the dancing, but you don’t have to be fit to enjoy it.
“Swing dancing is a family of dances and there are many dances inside that family. The Lindy Hop is more energetic, the Balboa can be faster but more relaxed, blues dancing can be even more relaxed because the music is slower, but not always. I would say swing dancing in general tends to be more rhythmical and rhythmically develops the dancer as well.”
DOBROVINSKY AND his colleagues have seen the popularity of swing dancing surge in recent years. And it’s not just in Israel, but around the globe. The popular “I Charleston the World” videos vividly demonstrate the international resurgence of swing dancing. Clubs in more than 100 locations have compiled videos promoting the dance while at the same time providing breathtaking backdrops of their hometowns: London, Paris, New York, Berlin, Beijing, as well as unconventional places as varied as Georgia, Ecuador, Siberia, Vietnam, Mongolia, and Burundi.
The “I Charleston Tel Aviv” video, produced by Holy Lindy Land, is among the most viewed of all ‒ teachers and students from the school seen dancing in Habima Square, outside city hall, in the converted Old Railway Station at Neve Tzedek, on surf boards at the Tel Aviv beach, and even on the very top of the Azrieli Tower itself.
Already filmed and about to be released is an “I Charleston Jerusalem” video, where iconic images of the capital will provide a breathtaking background to witty, energetic and entertaining swing dancers from across the country. “It really was fun,” Dobrovinsky smiles recalling filming in Jerusalem. “We filmed in August and whoever wanted to join, it was open to them.”
We’re chatting outside one of three dance classes taking place for beginners, intermediates and advanced students.
Quietly spoken, he is an accomplished allround dancer who discovered swing dancing having previously been a hip-hop, salsa, and breakdance exponent. Together with dance partner Sharon Guzman, he has represented Israel many times in international competitions. He tells me the swing dance school began back in 2007 and original founder Shirley Osher is still an integral part of its success.
Like others I met at the dance classes, Dobrovinsky cited all-time great dancers such as the Nicholas Brothers and Sammy Davis Jr. as idols for those learning the new technique. Swing dancing, I’m repeatedly told, is about learning from the past while at the same time being creative and adding moves of your own, moves that help the dance maintain an original flavor.
The beginners’ class was made up of men and women generally ranging in age from 20-35, but there were others there up to and beyond the 50 mark. Some have danced before, but for others this is their first time tackling such a challenge. The format, whereby the class works in rotation, means that during the lesson everyone gets to dance with each other at some point. It’s tailor-made for meeting new people and, undoubtedly, losing your inhibitions.
Watching from the sidelines it’s clear that some people click very quickly, catching the steps without batting an eyelid.
Others are going to have to work a lot harder. Ilya Grigoriev and his partner were teaching the class I attended, showing the students how to perform an “underpass.”
They make it look really simple as the girl moves under the arm of the guy and around. The class tried it; some succeeded, others tied themselves in knots.
One petite young woman with blond dreadlocks topped by a “pork pie” hat catches the eye as a particularly good mover. On the rotation, she teams up for a few minutes with a towering middle-aged man and they try the new moves to a song called “Cincinnati Lou.” To a strutting beat the lyrics begin, “I’ve got a gal called Cincinnati Lou, I don’t know nuttin’ that she won’t do, she can drink more beer than a two-ton truck can haul, she’s the belle of the ball, Cincinatti Lou.”
“Miss Dreadlocks” floats like a butterfly; he moves stiffly. Ilya moves in to show him again how the steps go. It’s going to take a lot of work, but this mature student seems up for the challenge. There are smiles and concentration in equal doses from all concerned.
“You can tell from the very first lesson if someone has a natural dance talent,” Grigoriev tells The Report. “Not everyone who can move can be a good dancer, and the other way around, you don’t have to know how to move to be a good dancer.
One of our staff members started out finding the moves very hard, but because of his love for the music and the era, he really worked at it and is now one of our best teachers.
“In my experience, it’s not about the ability to dance ‒ it’s about the passion for the music. If you have the passion, you will put in enough hours. There’s no doubt that the more people are exposed to the music the better dancers they become.
When anyone asks for the first time ‘How do I practice?’ I tell them to listen to a lot of music, clap along with it, then walk along with it. That’s the main thing. Essentially, you can tell if someone is going to become a good dancer if you see them really enjoying themselves in class.”
Once the lessons end at 11 p.m., the weekly swing dance party begins. The bright lights of the main dance studio are dimmed, the volume of the music moves up a notch, and away they go.
“We were looking for something that we can dance together and it is great music, a great rhythm, just great fun,” Gili, from Petah Tikva, tells me. “We had never danced before.” Her husband, David, a gym teacher, adds, “We wanted to find dancing that we could do as a couple. We want to go as far as we can with this dancing.
There are some great moves.”
I wondered why Israeli folk dancing or hip-hop, for example, hadn’t attracted them. “They’re not for couples. There’s something in this ‒ the music, the groove.
You get a real buzz after you’ve been dancing. We even practice at home in our living room. We have two children – five years old and a year and a half – and we’re already teaching them. The little one has just learned how to walk so he’s ready to dance now!” Robert, from Netanya, says he came from a different dance class. “I’d been going there for six months before I realized I wanted to try something more challenging. The basic steps are not too difficult, but the physical challenge of going through a whole party session for two hours is something else.”
I stepped outside into the corridor to chat to people. Some are soldiers home for the weekend, wanting to let their hair down. Others work in hi-tech, law, you name it. There are lots of students.
All of a sudden, there’s a rush back into the party room. I hear people shouting “Shim Sham, Shim Sham!” What on earth is going on? What’s happening is one of the classic swing dances that people learn early on at the classes. Dancing side by side to the classic 1939 Jimmy Lunceford recording of “T’ain’t What You Do – It’s the Way That You Do It”, about 60 people in rows of seven or eight all face the mirrored wall and are moving in sync through the various phases of the Shim Sham dance.
It’s thrilling to watch and I’d love to join in, but reckon I’d probably move the wrong way and cause a chaotic domino effect. When the music ends, a cheer goes up from both the dancers and those watching open-mouthed or nodding their approval from the sidelines.
“YOU KNOW, these days many people either don’t know or have forgotten how to interact with each other,” Aluma, an experienced dancer tells me. “They are so into their iPhones and computers and don’t know how to really relate to others.
Here it’s intelligent and all about communicating with other people. You can go anywhere in the world and find a swing dance community who feel like family.”
I get the feeling, though, that in Israel there is a tad more to it than that. People want to escape the pressure-cooker lifestyle, the constant bad news and the fear of war and violence. The day I attended the class, three apparently random stabbing attacks had taken place around the country as the latest wave of terror continued unabated into a sixth week.
“During the 2014 Gaza War, people wanted to escape the shitty situation and kept dancing even as Tel Aviv was so tense with all the air-raid sirens going off,” Dobrovinsky recalls.
With the BDS movement grabbing headlines and Israeli goods produced in the West Bank and Golan now being labelled by the EU, what sort of reaction do Israeli swing dancers get when they travel abroad? “We are very well received when we go abroad,” Dobrovinsky assures me.
“The culture is a very friendly one. Jazz dancing was one of the very first things to bring black and white people together.
They broke the barriers in the US before the color barrier was officially broken. In this world, we have a culture of openness and friendship.”
“We have a lot of friends who come here to dance in Israel and we go visit them – UK, France, Norway, Germany; the biggest swing dancing festival takes place in Sweden and is very popular. I met one of my best friends through swing dancing.
He grew up in Sweden but is Iranian. He has a school there and we have a school here and we’ve helped each other grow.
They’ve visited Israel a lot of times and I lived with them for four months and trained with them, so there are a lot of real friendships made.”
The pace of the party music has changed. A jazz fan for as long as I can remember, I recognize the opening bars as old “Satchmo” (Louis Armstrong) starts to growl the lyrics. It couldn’t have been more appropriate.
I exit Tel Aviv’s vibrant swing dancing club to the refrain of “C’est Si Bon.” And you know what? It really is. ■
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter @paul_alster and visit his website: www.paulalster.com