Among Mona Atkinson’s early childhood memories, those at the JCC of Greater Washington, now Bender JCC in Rockville, attending Israeli folk dance sessions with her mother, Minka Goldstein, stand out. “I just had fun moving and dancing to the beats in the music,” she said as she recalled accompanying her mother to weekly sessions. These days Atkinson, a mom of four who works in biotechnology executive management at the Federal Drug Administration, founded and oversees a production company that brings together master Israeli folk dance teachers from Israel and the U.S. and avid folk dancers.
When did Israeli dancing become an important part of your life?
My strongest memories are from my high school years. I was in school at JDS [Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School] and joined Yesodot – the local teen Israeli dance troupe – in eighth grade. My older sister was in a dance group, and I thought it sounded fun. Plus, I liked that I could hang out with older people and feel mature for my age. Those older kids, especially the girls, were so cool.
You choreographed your first Israeli dance at 20. How did that come about?
That just kind of fell into my lap. I went to University of Texas in Austin in 2001 – there was no dancing there. When I came home, I helped [dance leader] Moshany Shemesh with his session. He gave me a piece of Israeli music and said, ‘Maybe you can make a dance to this.’ I took the music home, and I made a dance in 15 minutes or so – “Ohevet Ozevet,” which means “Love and Leave.” The next week I showed it, then I began teaching it at local sessions, in Philadelphia, and then it was videotaped and people around the world learned it from the video.
What happened after “Ohevet Ozevet”?
After “Ohevet Ozevet,” I dabbled with some other choreographies, but didn’t find it quite as natural as my first time doing it. Much later on, it became the name of my production company because many people associate me with that dance. It’s a 501(c)3 nonprofit and the goal is to produce workshops, dance parties and other events [Israeli] dancers would benefit from. Because I have four kids and a busy lifestyle, I can’t teach a weekly session, which I did in the past for a couple of years, but I still wanted to give back to my community.
You grew up in a Modern Orthodox family attending Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, where you now belong with your husband and children. Do you find connections between your Judaism and Israeli dancing?
Israeli dancing for me has always been spiritual. There’s a real connection between spirituality and physicality – you’re praying through your body and you’re hoping with the community. I’ve always been connected to Israeli dancing because I felt like it was a common language I could speak to every Jew around the world. I can travel around the world and immediately be part of a community, very similar to knowing Hebrew prayers and being able to travel around the world and go to any synagogue and feel part of a community. Israeli dancing is a bit smaller of a community, so it feels more like a family, more connected than just going to any synagogue.
Do you bring your kids dancing now?
Yes, my oldest loves it! My other kids want to come, but they aren’t old enough yet.
What’s next for Ohevet Ozevet Productions?
We’re hosting Machol Maryland [Dance Maryland], a multi-day workshop January 18 to 21 at the Rockville Hilton with two choreographers from Israel and one Israeli choreographer who now lives in Seattle. Just 35 percent of the dancers are local. It’s a workshop to learn new dances and special sessions that focus on partner dances, line dances, dabkes [Arab-influenced line dances] and other groupings.
Any advice for people who did Israeli dancing years ago, but are nervous about trying it again?
If you want to get back into it, just keep going to evening dance sessions. The more the merrier, and don’t stress – you will become familiar with the dances in no time … Some people go to dance, some to socialize. I go to be spiritual.
For information on Ohevet Ozevet, visit ohevetozevetproductions.com.
Lisa Traiger is the arts correspondent for Washington Jewish Week.