Israeli or Arab?

“Dabke” explores the quintessential Israeli folk dance’s Arab origins in performances at Dance Place in Washington.
Photo by Darial Sneed

Zvi Gotheiner fondly recalled Friday nights on Kibbutz Mesilot in northern Israel when he was growing up. Members would gather to socialize and dance after dinner. The sounds of an accordion and stomping feet filled the recreation hall.

That foot-stomping dance, with its enticing syncopated rhythms, was the best part of the evening. Israelis call it a debka — and over the decades countless variations have been choreographed.

Gotheiner’s own artistic take on the Arabic root form of the dance, “Dabke,” will be on stage Saturday and Sunday at Dance Place in Northeast Washington.

“I loved it. I was good at it and we would dance for hours,” Gotheiner said of those youthful evenings.

Thinking back now, he said that he knew the debka was borrowed from Israel’s Arab neighbors. Yet, for most Israelis, debka epitomizes a quintessential Israeli folk dance.

“It was one of the highlights of Israeli folk dancing,” he said in a telephone interview. “It was masculine and the dancers were very self-assured and emphatic in their footwork. There was also a camaraderie in the way they held their arms, their bodies were so close together, as if they were creating a human wall.”

The memory returned to him decades later when he saw the dance again, this time danced by a Lebanese waiter in a restaurant in Sweden. That off-the-cuff debka inspired the one-time Batsheva Dance Company dancer-turned-choreographer to return to the dance of his youth. In the process he discovered a deeper and, perhaps, more controversial history of the addictive stomping dance.

His 2012 evening-length “Dabke” was inspired by his own youthful dance memories and by his mostly online research into the dance’s Arab roots in Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestinian territories.

Dabke, he learned, means “stomping of the feet” in Arabic. It is most often performed in short lines, traditionally by men who tightly clasp hands or put theirs arms around each other’s shoulders. The line leader might twirl a handkerchief, napkin, cane or a string of beads called masbha. The best dabke dancers incorporate complex rhythmic footwork with a bouncy sense of rebound. Some may leap or drop to their knees displaying their daring and athleticism.

Gotheiner watched what he described as thousands of hours of dabke dances — mostly from Arab weddings — on YouTube. Then he asked each of his dancers to select a clip to learn. Interestingly, these trained contemporary dancers had a hard time replicating the deeply rooted folk form with its distinctive foot stomps, weight shifts and syncopated rhythmic variations. And that was OK because “Dabke” is not meant as a staged folk dance. It’s an artistic response to the dance.

And in the process, Gotheiner acknowledges his debt to the dance form’s Arab roots. “The dances [I found on YouTube] were stunning. I felt that as an Israeli I had to give respect and acknowledge how wonderful the Arabs are in this dance, which is not something we Israelis think about.”

As “Dabke” evolved, equally inspired by the short-lived Arab Spring of 2011, Gotheiner worked with his dancers to fuse elemental Arab rhythms and earthy stomps with Israeli cultural and political ideals of the state’s founders.

“Israeli culture was not grown from the bottom up,” Gotheiner explained. “Its culture was manufactured for the hundreds of thousands of people who came [in and after 1948]. They needed a culture that wasn’t European and they wanted to reclaim the land. Did they appropriate Arabic dances? Yes.

“But this is a natural process that happens in cultures and has been around for eons. It’s only in the Middle East, where everything symbolizes the Arab-Israeli conflict, that it’s an issue. You know, nobody complains when, for example, Japanese kids do hip hop.” Yet, when the work premiered in 2012, it was decried by some who claimed that an Israeli culturally appropriated an Arab dance.

In fact, Gotheiner said, the popularity of Israeli debkes “is a testament of the attractiveness of Arab culture to Israelis. My parents’ generation accessed Arab culture in one way” as transplants from Europe. “For me, Arab culture is far more meaningful and it’s part of my identity as an Israeli. It’s an interesting exercise in identity and I’m a product of that experiment. I call it hybridity.”

And since its premiere seven years ago, “Dabke” has evolved. “When I started the choreography, there was the excitement and hope of the Arab Spring. By the time I finished the dance, that moment ended in misery,” Gotheiner said.

That feeling becomes evident in the piece, which moves from a celebratory to disenchantment with allusions to dissociation and, even despair.

“I hope,” Gotheiner concludes, “that people will see what’s universal in ‘Dabke’ from one conflict to another. I purposely designed the work not to identify with any one group” letting the steps speak — and dance — for themselves.

“Dabke,” by Zvi Gotheiner, performed by ZviDance, Feb. 9 at 8 p.m. and Feb 10 at 4 p.m., Dance Place, 3225 Eighth St. NE, Washington; tickets $15-$30; call 202-269-1600 or visit

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  1. Gotheiner view point of ‘Israelis’ and ‘Israeli culture’ is quite narrow. The Israeli cultural experience has always been so much more complex than the Euro-centric perspective of an Ashkenazi Israeli Kibbutznik He peddles here.


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