Hip-hop in the Holy Land

Solidarity over segregation – an all female street-dance competition provides an outlet for girls with a passion for the sport.

Dancers  (photo credit: LIDOR DAVID)
(photo credit: LIDOR DAVID)
In a Ra'anana high school gym this week, 400 girls from 27 dance “crews” – groups with sassy names like Hodipop, Lady Boom and G7 Crew – performed hip-hop routines before a panel of judges for a prize of some serious money. What sets the “Battle of the Crews” apart from several other hip-hop competitions in Israel is that it’s strictly female-only, providing an outlet for religious girls to strut their stuff within the boundaries of modesty. Yet not all the participants consider themselves religious; some simply feel uncomfortable competing in the presence of male audience members and judges, while others prefer not to compete on Shabbat. A few of the dancers were not even Jewish.
The organizer of Battle of the Crews was 27-year-old Raquella Siegel Raiz of Efrat, who began a competition of the same name in Bergen County, New Jersey, when she was in high school. In fact, Battle of the Crews still takes place annually at the JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. When she met Israeli hip-hop teacher Shaked Avisar three summers ago at a New York dance class, she knew she’d found her partner for launching a similar concept in Israel.
“We wanted to make something big available to all girls in Israel, whether Jewish, Christian or Arab,” says Raiz, who has just begun maternity leave from teaching hip-hop at Mevaseret Zion’s Orot Habama dance school and at the Efrat community center.
“We made it happen last year for the first time, with 15 crews and 200 participants. We created it for our own girls and opened it to others, mostly through Facebook. This year, we doubled the number of participants.”
The dancers came from as far north as Hadera and as far south as Mazkeret Batya. A crew including Korean and Arab girls came from the Walworth Barbour American International School in Even Yehuda.
Hip-hop – a street-dance style incorporating moves called breaking, locking and popping – was created in the 1970s and popularized by dance crews in the United States. Breakdancing, a subspecialty of hip-hop, is dominated by male dancers, but hip-hop remains primarily a female style.
Avisar runs the hip-hop Studio Loud in Ra’anana with Lidor David, a veteran Israeli hip-hop instructor who limited his role to behind-the-scenes logistics for the Battle of the Crews due to his gender.
Nearly all their students are girls, and about half are Orthodox.
“I’m not religious, but somehow they all came to me and I found my purpose,” Avisar says.
She recalls that when she looked into entering her students in shows or competitions, she found no all-girls options. “So we started a hip-hop day where we invited 100 girls to take workshops with us. More schools heard about it and wanted to participate, and we thought, why not make it bigger? And then came Raquella and Battle of the Crews.”
Each participant paid a fee that was funneled into prize money. The first-place team on the elementary school level won NIS 1,000; on the junior-high level, NIS 2,000; and on the high-school level, NIS 3,000. The high stakes added to the excitement in the gym.
“The people in the audience felt like they were in a movie. It was like one big, fun party,” says Raiz, who made aliya in the summer of 2007.
Hosting the evening was Jessica Katz, a niece of filmmaker Steven Spielberg who was in the original Battle of the Crews in New Jersey and is now a singer based in Tel Aviv. Judges included Israeli choreographer/dance instructor/model Marin Teremets, recent Australian immigrant Ariella Neumann, and Los Angeles choreographer Nika Kljun, who has worked with Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez and the English boy-band One Direction.
“This year we wanted to bring an international female icon of dance,” says Avisar. “It’s hard to find inspirational women in the industry, since most of the choreographers are male. I emailed lots of people, and Nika was so nice to reply.”
Kljun, dancing professionally since the age of three in her native Slovenia, explains that she loves to teach dance around the world and welcomed Avisar’s inquiry because she had never visited the Middle East before.
“I was looking forward to getting to know the culture and the country,” she says, sampling waffles at an outdoor café in Jerusalem with Raiz, Avisar and David the day after the competition.
Before taking part in the judging panel, Kljun gave two classes at Studio Loud, a workshop for teachers and a workshop for Battle of the Crews competitors.
“It surprised me that it was only for girls, because I’ve never heard of this before and I’m not sure it exists anywhere else,” she says. “Some of the girls who came to my workshop were extremely good dancers and definitely have a future if they want to. Hip-hop here in Israel is going higher and higher, and Israel obviously has good teachers.”
All three gold-medal teams turned out to be from Studio Loud. A proud if slightly embarrassed Avisar explains that her studio trains students three or four times a week, much more intensely than most others.
She and Raiz hope to double the number of participants again next year, and perhaps expand Battle of the Crews into a two-day hip-hop event. While this year Ocean Events and Dance Point provided sponsorships, the two women are seeking American sponsors for next year to help them put on a real extravaganza.
“We want to see if we can get our winners a free trip to New Jersey to be in the original Battle of the Crews,” says Avisar.
“Or vice versa,” adds Raiz with a smile. “We want to bridge the gap between Israel and America through hip-hop.”