The Balkan two-step

Interest in Balkan culture and dancing has grown over the years, but the younger generations just don't seem to want to join the circle.

Balkan dance 88 248 (photo credit: Mya Guarnieri)
Balkan dance 88 248
(photo credit: Mya Guarnieri)
Another shot of ouzo? Why not? I wince as I down the alcohol. I get back out on the floor and study the footsteps of the ring of dancers. I nod my head and mutter to myself - right, left, right, return - and when I think I've got the sequence, I break into the semi-circle. I clasp hands with one of the instructors, Mika Yehezkeli, and the friend I've brought along, Josh Krug. As my hips clumsily bump Krug's and Yehezkeli's hips and my boot-clad feet threaten to tangle with their legs, it's clear to me that I don't have the sequence at all. "You remind me of Borat," Krug shouts over the blaring music, which I vaguely recognize as something gypsy. The music speeds up and the circle picks up pace, too. "That's right, left, right, return?" I ask Yehezkeli. Yehezkeli laughs and reminds me to not be so cerebral about it. "It looks like an easy dance," she says, "but it took me a month to learn. Just relax and have fun." The strings and drums build to a frenzied climax. I'm sure to be trampled. I step back and Krug and Yehezkeli close the circle. The dancers, many of whom are twice my age, whisk by, sweat beading their faces. The music stops - a sudden, triumphant end - and everyone cheers and claps. It's break time and we head toward the ouzo, whiskey, pastis and non-alcoholic drinks. Some of the participants have brought home-baked sweets and they pass them around, along with shots. Latecomers pay the NIS 25 fee and join the growing crowd, chatting until the music starts back up and the next dance begins. This is an ordinary Thursday night for the Balkan dancing group run by Dunav, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting Balkan culture founded nine years ago. The group meets weekly at the Adam School in Jerusalem's German Colony. "Even if there are wars, suicide bombings, we never stop," Giora Barkai, one of the group's instructors, says. Yehezkeli remarks that the location itself is pertinent. "It's a special school with a special philosophy that stresses the human," she says. This is similar to Dunav's approach. "Dunav is less about the technicalities of dancing and more about the folk aspect." "It's not just that people come and dance and enjoy the music," Barkai says. "The people are happy. Every Thursday it's a party." "We attract a lot of single older people," Yehezkeli says. "But we're very structured," Barkai adds as an afterthought. YEHUDA BEN-HARUSH, another instructor and one of Dunav's founders, hands out cloth belts - thick swaths of color - which the dancers tie onto their waists. Ben-Harush says that about 50 people come to the weekly group in Jerusalem and approximately 70 dancers join the sister class he leads in Haifa. When Dunav was started, only a dozen or so people attended each week. "If you'd asked nine years ago where we'd be today, we wouldn't have known it was this," he remarks. As Dunav's numbers have increased, so have its services. Dunav's Web site, which receives 60,000 to 70,000 hits a month, offers Balkan song lyrics, video tutorials, dance notes and an extensive catalogue of Balkan music. In addition to heavy traffic, the Dunav site has seen a bit of controversy - a map of Macedonia, a region of the Balkans that has seen war and turmoil, drew hate mail. Yehezkeli comments, "Living in Israel, we're so consumed with our own conflicts that we sometimes forget that the Balkans are also conflicted. The borders there are political borders." In the weekly classes, Dunav sometimes includes music and dancing from countries that lie north of the traditionally-defined Balkan region. "We took Hungary and moved it into the Balkans," Ben-Harush jokes. "And we sometimes include dances from Poland and Eastern Europe." But most of the time, the music and dances hail from countries such as Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia, Croatia, Romania, Turkey and the Republic of Macedonia (not to be confused with the region of Macedonia). In addition to the classes and the site, Dunav also organizes weekend retreats in Israel and group tours to the Balkans. Ben-Harush has been to the Balkans himself over a dozen times, picking up new music and dances on each trip. "The important thing is that you don't go to Bucharest or the big cities because there's nothing to see there [of interest to Balkan dancing]. You have to go to the villages." Although he doesn't speak any of the Balkan languages, he has no problem getting by in the countryside. "One beer and you don't need [language]," he says. Barkai echoes his sentiment, "The music gets into you. It's not just something you do with the legs - it's the whole body, the whole soul." Though this could be said about many forms of dance, Barkai feels that Balkan dancing offers something special. "The steps repeat many times. Repeating and repeating - like some kind of meditation." RAMI SHEMTOV, one of the dancers, enjoys the communal aspect of Balkan dancing. "It captures the essence of Israel," he explains. "It's like singing in a chorus. That's why you don't see anyone under 40 here - the ego is upfront when you're young. But the older people like the unity." Despite his youth, Krug seems to be getting into it. He takes a belt from Ben-Harush, slaps it on, knots the ends, and stomps his feet a bit, a la a boxer getting ready to step into the ring. The music starts back up. "A gypsy tune from Serbia," Yehezkeli says. She takes my elbow and steers me toward the circle. Ben-Harush is in the middle, tapping a tambourine with the heel of his palm. "The important question isn't why you dance, but why you stay [with the group]," Yehezkeli says. "It's the spirit of folk dancing - it's an expression of joy." The same spirit that keeps the participants coming back week after week encourages the Dunav founders and instructors to continue donating their time. "From the beginning we knew we were going to do something that no one was going to make any money from," Ben-Harush says during the next break. "We knew it was only going to [create] happiness and fun and give the people love." AFTER SPENDING a Thursday night with Dunav, I see familiar faces at the Friday dance class at Beit Bikurei Ha'itim in Tel Aviv. This class, however, is hosted not by Dunav, but by Noa'am, a group that began in 1960 with eight dancers. Its members now number 130. "We're loosely connected," Ben-Harush explains, "but this isn't a beginners group. This is more like a club." The dances are different, too. I watch the dancers' feet sweeping the pine-colored wood floor. I puzzle over the new rhythms and steps, trying to decide whether I want to join in. "The dances in circles are Balkan," Ben-Harush says. "The couples' dances are international, from all over the world… With [Noa'am], the couple dances are a big draw." The music changes and everyone pairs off. "This is an Austrian step waltz. It's a mixing dance. You change partners every time you move ahead," he says. I watch the couples gracefully loop about each other, each pair moving in the larger concentric circle of the group, which numbers over 100. "Tel Avivians love to do something on Friday afternoons," Ben-Harush comments. Because it does feel so worldly and "Tel Avivian" - it's something I could imagine hipsters in Florentin doing, if only they could be pried from their coffee and cigarettes - I wonder aloud where the young people are. Noa'am head Miriam Lerner answers, "We want very much to bring young people, but they're not coming in a group. One comes and they see the age of these people and they run away. We're dying to get some people involved because we are thinking of the future. What will happen to the organization?" Lerner has been involved with the group since a few months after it was organized. "I heard about the group in Tel Aviv. I liked to dance, so I went," she recalls. What started as a small dance group became a large close-knit community. "There is a very strong bond between members," Lerner says. In addition to the international dance class, Noa'am hosts the occasional social event, such as a recent weekend trip to the Dead Sea. And it's the community that keeps the group dancing on the first Friday of every month. MAZAL BISMUTH, a petite woman with jet-black hair, has been dancing with Noa'am for over 20 years. Bizmuth says, "Everyone who can contribute does." Experienced teachers donate their time and members of the group take turns creating the line-up of songs and dances. "This month a guy named Shlomo made the program," Bizmuth chirps as she rolls up the sleeves of her t-shirt and heads toward the crowd. I'm sans partner this time, standing near the door. A sidelined dancer sits at a folding table collecting the small entrance fee that Noa'am, a registered non-profit organization, charges to recoup the expense of renting the hall. Ben-Harush buzzes by, simultaneously asking how I'm doing and excusing himself. There's no time for talk - he's teaching the next dance, a couple's dance. I watch the men and women moving about each other. A man kneels and holds his right hand up over his head. His partner wears a long black dress and has short, clipped auburn hair. She demurely places her hand in his waiting palm and then orbits around him. The man rises and they continue to swirl away from me. Though the dancers are middle-aged and beyond, the room crackles with a vibrancy that any Tel Aviv club would envy. Lerner says, "When I'm very tired, I begin to dance and I'm a new person. I can't sleep after I've been dancing."