‘Gangnam Style’ meets Israeli style

The Misgav Dance Troupe is a hit at the World Folkloriada in Korea, which showcases “traditional heritage," fosters cultural diversity.

‘Gangnam Style’ meets Israeli style (photo credit: Lotem Erez)
‘Gangnam Style’ meets Israeli style
(photo credit: Lotem Erez)
As 17-year-old folk dancer Lotem Erez describes it, the World Folkloriada that took place in Anseong, South Korea, in October did exactly what it was supposed to do: showcase “traditional heritage” and foster the sharing of human creativity and cultural diversity. And the sharing was really a two-way street.
“It was like seeing the whole world without having to travel far. I met people from places I will probably never go, like Jordan, Gabon and Malaysia,” she says. In turn, “they were surprised to see that Israelis have a normal life, that we’re happy. They clapped for us and wanted to be photographed with us.”
Like the the Olympics, the Folkloriada takes place every four years. It is organized by the International Council of Organizations of Folklore Festivals and Folk Arts. With 93 member countries, CIOFF’s main objective is to preserve “intangible cultural heritage” and, along the way, to promote peace and friendship. Erez is a member of the dance troupe chosen to represent Israel this year.
Dr. Dan Ronen, president of CIOFF Israel and a member of the International Council, says that the Misgav Dance Troupe was one of eight troupes asked to submit a video audition.
“We wanted a group that would project a joy of life, one that had the ability to excite, one that had an Israeli face,” he says.
With about 300 dancers of all ages, the Misgav Dance Troupe is a true community endeavor. The troupe receives an annual budget from the Misgav Regional Council, which is composed of 35 villages, kibbutzim and moshavim in the Galilee, spread out over a 200-square-kilometer area. Most of the money goes toward transporting the students to and from the local community center.
“Without the busing, we wouldn’t have a program,” says Einat Goren, who has been the troupe’s administrative director for the last 12 years. But the dancers and their parents cover the bulk of expenses.
Although the troupe occasionally performs outside Israel, none of the administrators was particularly excited about the request to audition for the Folkloriada.
“Our groups are divided by age, and each group is relatively large,” says Goren. “Traveling is expensive.”
“One of the specified requirements was that each group had to bring an orchestra,” adds artistic director Dganit Rom, who founded the troupe when she moved to the area 25 years ago. “We dance to taped music, and pairing up with an orchestra would be prohibitive. But we decided to check it out anyway.”
Goren and Rom, together with choreographer Moshik Sardinas, chose to audition the 12th-grade group, mainly because it is one of the smallest groups.The video was shown before a panel of 11 judges.
“We heard we were chosen unanimously,” says Rom, smiling, “and they waived the orchestra requirement.” With a year to prepare, the students added practice days to their regular classes and practiced throughout the summer vacation. “Basically, there was no summer,” says Goren, smiling. Rom nods her head in agreement.
When asked about her first impressions of Korea, Goren says, “Everything is different there. For instance, the hotel rooms don’t have beds. By chance, we adults got a room with beds. But the students slept on the floor, which was heated. They had thin blankets they had to unroll every night. Our guide told us Koreans don’t have beds in their homes.”
The 21 dancers were divided among four hotel rooms.
All 3,000-plus festival participants stayed in one hotel. “There were 10 stories.Every time the elevator stopped on a different floor, you would hear music from a different country,” remembers Rom.
“The event in Korea was extraordinary,” says Ronen, an authority on dance whose book, Folk-Dance in Israel (in Hebrew), was published in 2011 by Carmel Publishing. “First of all, the whole thing was located within a single complex. The architecture, the greenery, the trees, the stages… it was all fantastic.And there was more than just dancing: Each country was asked to bring a sampling of traditional food and to teach a game. There was art and a display of costumes. Two million people visited the festival.”
“We had information about Korea that some of the parents compiled but we still didn’t know what to expect,” says Erez. “We were among the youngest of the groups, if not the youngest.”
Along with scheduled performances that took place on five or six stages, there was a daily parade in which the groups would march through the streets of Anseong, dressed in full costume.
“At first we were anonymous,” Goren says, “just one small group out of about 50. Until one day on the parade, Lotem started to sing the words ‘sexy lady.’” “I had no idea what she was doing,” Rom says, remembering that she had been taken aback. “I was afraid the Koreans would think we were being disrespectful.”
The words were from the Korean pop hit “Gangnam Style.”
“They play it on Galgalatz [Army Radio],” Erez says. “Everyone knows it.
There are movements that go along with the chorus.”
The rest of the troupe joined in and Rom saw people along the parade route begin to laugh, clap their hands and point cameras in their direction.
That night at the hotel, they spent several hours choreographing the rest of the song. It became the most popular dance in their repertoire; the mayor of Anseong would come to the stage and request it. The Misgav Dance Troupe was filmed by Korean television and countless video cameras and cell phones.
“‘Gangnam Style’ became the finale of each of our performances,” Erez says, laughing. “Even at the expense of other dances we spent months practicing.”
MISGAV’S STYLE of Israeli folk dance reflects the country’s youth and wealth of cultural influences, such as Yemenite, Kurdish, Ladino and hassidic dance.
“The dilemma is always how to preserve the old while building the new,” says Ronen. “It’s about the survival of cultures; building on the past something that is modern enough to be carried into the future. Some people say it’s false to create new folk dances. But in Israel we say it is folk dance because the folk dance.”
“Dganit chooses a subject and puts everything in,” Goren says. “She has intelligence and a knowledge of history. Her dances show humor and depth.”
At the festival, Rom was struck by the differences between cultures. She noted that only Gabon, Malaysia and Israel danced barefoot. “The others all wore shoes – you name it: clogs, heels, boots, ballet slippers. Also, our costumes are more muted in color – and more varied. Each dance has its own costume. The dancers have to change costumes between every dance. That was a problem.”
“Sometimes we have less than a minute to change. Normally we do it right off-stage,” explains Erez. “But in Korea the stages were all round. The audience encircled the stage. We were given a changing tent but it was pretty far away. That was a bit stressful, but it was fun too. Everybody helped everybody else.”
Because their dances are designed for an audience seated in front of the stage, choreographers Rom and Sardinas had to make last-minute revisions. They had to re-figure the dancers’ entrances and exits, and the direction they should face while dancing.
“In Korea, everything is so different. The people are very reserved, but they are also very generous. They want to know that they made you happy and they like to be acknowledged,” says Rom. She goes on to explain, “Every group was given both a guide and an interpreter. We asked our interpreter to teach one of our students to say a few words in Korean, which is a really hard language. In between dances, still huffing and puffing, he would take the mike and say, ‘We are from Israel. We are happy to be here. Thank you for having us.’ The audience absolutely loved it. They would laugh at us and clap.”
Both Rom and Goren are extremely proud of the students.
“In Korea they did the real hasbara [public diplomacy] work. At first, most of the people we met thought that Israel is only war and desert. But they saw we have spirit. Our students were outgoing and showed a real zest for life. They were magnetic. We think it’s the Israeli personality.”
“The Misgav Dance Troupe succeeded in projecting a positive Israeli identity along with professional choreography, the simplicity of folk dance, the inclusiveness of an interwoven heritage and their own warm personalities. That’s the beauty of Misgav’s presentation,” says Ronen. “And it was all done out of love.”
Each fall, the troupe holds a performance to benefit Nitzanim, an afterschool program for children with special needs, founded by Dalit and the late Eliezer Turgeman of Turag Engineering. The whole troupe performs on two stages over a three-day period each spring in the Misgav Sports Hall. This will next take place March 7- 9, 2013.
It’s possible they’ll break into a spontaneous rendition of “Gangnam Style.”