Israeli Dance Festival DC taps local roots

The men of Hora DC perform
The men of Hora DC perform

This weekend when the Washington metropolitan-area folk dance community gathers for its fifth annual Israeli Dance Festival DC, the family-oriented atmosphere will be underscored by actual family members who dance together. Israeli folk dance has deep roots in the region, dating back to at least the early years of Israel’s formation, and today avid dancers include generations of parents and children, brothers and sisters who dance together.

As in the recent past, this year’s Israeli dance festival opens Saturday night with an all-ages dance party. If you haven’t danced a hora since you attended your second cousin’s wedding, Israeli folk dance is far, far more than that repetitive circle dance. In fact, the original hora doesn’t even have a made-in-Israel pedigree; the hora has Eastern European roots, likely in Romania.

Israeli folk dance is a consciously invented form that dates back to the early 20th century, when the founders of the then-young nation-state of Israel realized that with the ingathering of Jews from Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and beyond, they needed a new cultural heritage to bond and become one with their new country. The creation of a repertoire of specifically Israeli dances that reflected the early Zionist leanings of returning to and rebuilding the land was born.

So if your mayim or Yemenite steps are a bit rusty, come early to the party, which begins at 8:30 p.m. at Rockville’s B’nai Israel Congregation, when the older and simpler dances will be played. As the evening harkada – or folk dance session – proceeds, more complex circle and line dances as well as couple dances will be played and danced. These dances represent the Israeli melting pot with old-style horas and shers, the Arabic-influenced short lines of percussive debkas and newer dances that draw from international influences like the Bollywood craze, the popularity of “Riverdance,” the rise of salsa and the globalization of hip hop.

Sunday the festival continues with a 3 p.m. showcase at the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville featuring the region’s dance performance troupes. Avirah is a new college-age group from the University of Maryland, and Mavrik, a group of young adults in the region, marks its D.C. festival debut this year.

Sharon Gelboin-Katz of Silver Spring began dancing as a teenager with a troupe affiliated with the then local Midrasha Hebrew High School. After a stint living in Israel, Gelboin-Katz returned to Silver Spring and wanted to introduce her four children to her love of dancing. “But,” she said, “there was really no one teaching easy dances for kids.”

She saw a need and stepped forward, hoping her own children would join the circle. Today Gelboin-Katz teaches occasional children’s Israeli dance sessions and a weekly session on Friday mornings for older adults.

One of her own children, her daughter, Racheli, followed in her footsteps. A 21-year-old junior psychology major at University of Maryland College Park, Racheli Katz danced four years with the area high school troupe, Yesodot, directed by Mike Fox and Pepe Strauss. Then she reconstituted a defunct folk dance session at University of Maryland’s Hillel in her freshman year. These days she’s a leader of Avirah, which will perform two dances on the program, including “Chagagiyah,” showcasing the fun, party-like atmosphere that young people enjoy about Israeli dancing.

Asked why she dedicates her spare time to Israeli folk dance, Katz replied: “That’s not a simple question. I’ve been doing it for so long it’s just become a part of who I am. I also like that over the years, I get to see children and adults doing the same activity. Finally, I’ve made many friends in the folk dance community.”

If you think you’re seeing double when the local adult company Hora DC and the new young adult dancers of Mavrik perform, look again. Mother-daughter folk dancers Judy Kerbel and Abby Kerbel are members, respectively, of Hora DC and Mavrik. A Potomac native, Judy Kerbel started dancing as a youth and kept it up over the decades. These days she’s a project manager by day and manages Hora DC by night. With weekly Monday night rehearsals and a Thursday night harkada in Olney, Judy Kerbel puts in half a dozen hours or more into Israeli dancing each week.

She has seen her own love of Israeli dance grow in her 25-year-old daughter, Abby, youth director at Congregation Beth Emeth in Herndon. Judy Kerbel remarked that she and her daughter recently observed the growing number of parents and children, from elementary schoolers to college-age dancers, who participate together in local Israeli dance sessions.

“It’s really wonderful,” she said, “to see mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, who enjoy the same activity.”

Daughter Abby has grown to understand the attraction of folk dancing, and it’s more than just good exercise. “Part of it is just the joy of moving. It’s something that I always did and enjoyed,” she said.

“I did ballet and gymnastics as a child, but Israeli dance really interested me and it was a little different from what other average kids did. I love the music, and, especially now that I’m older, I love and appreciate the community it creates.”

Israeli Folk Dance Festival DC, Harkada dance party will take place March 29, 8:30 p.m.-midnight at B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville. Tickets are $10-$25. Performance featuring youth and adult folk dance troupes from the region including Kesem, JPDS-NC, Kinor and special guest Bustan Boston will be March 30 at 3 p.m. at the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville. Tickets are $10-$20. Visit to purchase tickets or for more information.
Lisa Traiger began Israeli dancing at Camp Kaufmann in Huntingtown, Md., and today her daughter is an avid Israeli folk dancer.

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