Do-si-do it yourself

A monthly hoedown in Baka keeps old traditions alive - and kicking.

On a chilly night in Baka, the wails of Middle Eastern music and trance rhythms emit from passing cars and the kiosks lining Derech Beit Lehem. Light jazz floats outside cafes and coffee houses, and Israeli pop is heard from a radio inside a pizza shop. But with a quick turn off the main street and through a set of double doors, a new kind of sound greets the ears. The twang of a fiddle, the strum of a guitar and the plucking of an old Irish harp fill the room as clapping hands and a lone voice pierce the air. "One, two, three and four," the voice counts down. "Now swing your partner round and round! Get ready now, do-si-do!" No, it's not South Carolina, Virginia or Tennessee. It's still Jerusalem, and this is still the Middle East. Yet what is considered to be a dying genre in the Appalachian hillsides and American barnyards where it was born, "old-timey" country music and square dancing are alive and well in Baka. The Hazel Hill String Band, a group of serious interpreters of American folk music, along with Cyrelle Forman-Sofer, a noted folk music personality and featured dance caller, come together once a month for Square and Contra Dance Night in the neighborhood's Kehilat Yedidya Community Center. Square and contra dancing, both distinctive styles of folk dancing from different regions of the United States, combine partnered dance with the caller's often-drawled instructions. Do-si-dos and count-offs in dialectic French are staples, but other dance commands abound. And while both styles hail from Irish roots, square dancing, which is commonly associated with the American Southwest, features couples dancing in a square formation, moving around the room with a sequence of dance moves announced by the caller. Contra dancing, native to New England, sets the dancers across from each other in two facing lines as each set of dancers scampers down through the middle when it's their turn. In that vein, it's the band that is required to dish out a soulful portion of old-timey tunes, while participants - both the skilled and the novice - click their heels in step with the caller's directions, turning this Jerusalem community center and synagogue into an old-timey boot-scootin' boogie. There's no straw on the floor nor is there talk of succession, but if you close your eyes and move with Forman-Sofer's calls, it's hard not to get lost in an atmosphere of old America and the traditional folk dances that once swept the nation. "I heard about it a couple months after they started and said to myself, 'Why am I not doing this?'" says Baka resident Jody Blum, who made aliya from California. "I used to do this in fifth and sixth grade and just loved it." And even though there have been a few years in between, getting back into the various folk dance moves, Blum says, has been nothing but a good ol' time. "When it really gets moving, I tend to put a little jump in my step," she says smiling. "One night we had this amazing dance - we were swinging each other in the air, just having a really good time - it was a total high." And according to the band, having fun is what it's all about. "What we sell is a good time," says Josh Goodman, guitar player and founding member of the Hazel Hill String Band. "We all love playing these songs, and we've been surprised by the reaction we've gotten from people that come out to hear us. People just seem to love it." A mix of Israelis and American olim come out to hear the string band - both on dance nights and at their performance gigs, which take place on various dates and times at a myriad of venues. Goodman says he's been surprised by the positive feedback the band has received. "I know we're not going to shoot lightning bolts through the entertainment business," he says, "but people are genuinely interested in the kind of music we're playing, and we've played shows all over the country - except in the South, interestingly enough." Goodman explains that dance nights differ from the band's full-on shows. "When we play as a full band, we're able to do a lot of quiet and pretty stuff that we don't during the dances," says Goodman, who's just finished work on the band's first album. "The dances are for standard, old country and folk songs, and we love playing those songs. But during a performance, we can veer off a little and do some other stuff that you might not necessarily dance to." The band's formation is a combination of diverse backgrounds. While Goodman admits he can't read music, Hazel Hill fiddler Judy Montel is a classically trained violinist who fell in love with the bluegrass/folk sound she heard when Goodman's previous duo, The Bean Blossom Boys, played a show in Beit Shemesh. "I heard them playing and was overcome with this desire to play that style of music," she says. After that show, Montel introduced herself to Goodman, who put her in touch with Ruti Yonah, who had experience with contra dance tunes. Not long after that, Yonah joined up with Goodman in the early stages of the string band, while Montel kept up with her efforts on the fiddle. Around the same time, an inquiry went up on Janglo for a live band for a contra dance. Calling together diverse musicians from the string band and elsewhere, Goodman responded that he'd like to play. "All of a sudden, I got a phone call saying, 'The dance is on and we need a fiddler. Can you play?'" says Montel. "Could I play? I jumped at the opportunity and have been on a steep learning curve ever since." The Hazel Hill String Band numbers six musicians, including the Appalachian Dulcimers, an acoustic bass guitar and recorders, along with the harps, guitar and fiddle. Although the band was missing a few members at the recent dance night in Baka, the atmosphere did not suffer. Friends laughed, partners danced, and an old American tradition made inroads thousands of miles away from home. "This is so much fun!" one woman remarked as she twirled and clapped her hands. "Do they really only do this once a month?" For more information about the Hazel Hill String Band or Square and Contra Dance Night, call Judy Montel at 054-566-5293, e-mail or visit