Uniting worlds through dance

“I had this very verbal, talkative boyfriend for eight years and then married a man who communicates without sound.”

Jill and Amnon Damti (photo credit: UDI HILMAN)
Jill and Amnon Damti
(photo credit: UDI HILMAN)
Jill and Amnon Damti have performed their signature Two Worlds dance at the White House and in Russia, Germany, Sweden, Paris, England, Wales, Paraguay and Panama – in addition to their homeland, Israel, of course.
Each audience, each viewer, makes its own assumptions about which two worlds the married dancers are portraying.
Most assume it is about the world of the hearing (Jill) and the world of the deaf (Amnon). In 1990, Amnon was named “best international deaf dancer” when he was artist in residence at Gallaudet College in Washington, DC, and has won many honors in Israel and abroad.
And maybe the show has indeed become about those two worlds. But when they developed Two Worlds in 1988, says Jill, it was really about bridging their backgrounds in movement on his side and water ballet on hers.
Like the fluid dancer she is, Jill Feingold- Damti’s aliya story is difficult to pin to a particular place or time. Born in 1960, she is the sixth of seven children, the youngest of whom was born during a two-year stay on Kibbutz Beit Ha’Emek.
The Feingolds returned to San Francisco, then came back to Israel in 1968 and settled on Kibbutz Givat Brenner.
“I became a kibbutznik totally within three months,” says Jill. Her maternal grandparents moved to Rehovot to be near their only daughter and her children.
But after two years the family moved to Ramat Gan, and when she was 14 they packed up once again for San Francisco.
Jill started high school there and was involved in cheerleading, jazz dancing and gymnastics. However, she felt out of place and returned to the Holy Land to live with her widowed grandfather when she was in 10th grade. “I felt very strongly about being Israeli,” she says.
By 1977, her parents followed, this time putting roots down in Karmiel.
This is where Jill finished high school and went on to serve in the army as a training officer for girls from difficult home situations. She found the experience so meaningful that by the end of her service in 1982 she sought a way to combine her interests in social work, dance and art. She took courses at Wingate Institute for Physical Education and Sports, which qualified her to teach water ballet and other classes in Karmiel.
Jill was hired as a synchronized swimmer at the Dolphinarium in Tel Aviv – which functioned as a marine amusement park from 1980 to 1985 – and studied television and film at Tel Aviv University.
In 1986, she and a fellow student founded an international student film festival that has grown to become one of the largest of its kind in the world.
In 1983, she met Amnon Damti, when a mutual friend brought him over to her Tel Aviv apartment. The son of immigrants from Yemen living in Moshav Givat Koah, he had attended a boarding school for the deaf since the age of five and later became the star of Moshe Efrati’s Kol Demama (Sound of Silence) dance troupe, comprised of deaf and hearing dancers.
“We really connected,” says Jill.
“Though we didn’t fall in love right away, we had a sort of chemistry. Over the next three months we kept meeting each other by chance, again and again.
It was the first time I’d met someone deaf, and I learned sign language from him.” They began dancing together, first in a troupe they named Sixth Sense and then as a duo.
Jill finds it ironic that before meeting Amnon, she had been involved with TV and radio personality Didi Harari. “I had this very verbal, talkative boyfriend for eight years and then married a man who communicates without sound.”
The couple celebrated their silver wedding anniversary on September 12, two days after appearing at the Center for Jewish Culture in La Jolla, California. Following that, they were the special guests at a deaf film festival in India and then came back to perform in Israel.
Speaking from a Bay Area deaf dance festival in August, Jill says that she and Amnon would like to “get to know more of the deaf dance communities in the States and try building a bridge between American and Israeli deaf cultures.
We’ve found quite a few deaf dancers here who are really good. We would also like to bring a deaf dance festival to Suzanne Dellal [Center for Dance and Theater] in Tel Aviv.”
The twosome often takes its long-running show to Israeli schools, educational programs in Jewish and Arab villages, and to prisons.
“One of our first performances was at a high-security jail down south, and one of the inmates, an Arab, asked afterward why they deserved for us to come,” Jill relates. “I said, ‘Truth is, I wasn’t sure I wanted to come, but Amnon said every person deserves a chance for change.’ And they all got up and started shouting ‘Amnon, Amnon!’ Because of what I did in the army, and working in depressed neighborhoods in south Tel Aviv afterward, the performances in jails are a combination of my art and social-work worlds.”
However, international appearances keep Jill and Amnon on the road quite a bit; on the way back to their home in Tel Aviv from the Bay Area, they performed at Jewish festivals in Vienna and Munich.
“I want audiences to learn that anything is possible, and that everybody is different. With Amnon it’s the deafness, but everyone has something inside them that makes him a little bit different,” says Jill.
She confides that four of her good friends warned her against marrying Amnon, yet ironically theirs is the only marriage among those friends that is still intact. “l think we have a successful marriage because we give each other a lot of freedom – he has his friends and I have mine. We each have a whole world without each other and I think that’s healthy. Another thing is that we let each other be unexpected and have room to change.”
The Damtis have two children, both hearing. Their son is studying brain science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and their daughter is serving as a military observer on the Gaza border.
During the summer of Operation Protective Edge, Jill and Amnon performed in bomb shelters in the South, and then took their kids touring in Italy.
Jill admits that over the years she has experienced moments of confusion as to her national identity. “One time we were visiting my uncle on his vineyard in Napa Valley, and I asked Amnon, ‘Am I Israeli or American?’ He said, ‘Both of our children were born in Israel and Israel is our home.’ I do feel that Israel is my home and I feel so connected to Israel,” she says. “When we represented Israel at the White House of the first president Bush, I spoke with a little bit of an Israeli accent on purpose. I felt proud to be Israeli.”
“Two worlds” are indeed two words that describe Jill Damti well on so many levels. ■