Sure, Fred Solomon likes Israeli folk dancing, but even he has to admit that things have gotten out of hand. "There are thousands of Israeli folk dances," he says of the routines that are all the rage at American Jewish gatherings like the one where he's sitting.
"It keeps growing and growing. If a song has a beat at all, they make a dance out of it."
"They" are an elite cadre of Israeli choreographers. As soon as a song hits Israeli radio, there's a mad rush to create a unique folk dance to accompany it. The dances quickly reach the United States, often via the Internet.
Those in the know about Israeli folk dancing--such as the 20 people gathered in the rented ballroom of Mount Jezreel Baptist Church just outside Langley Park--spend hours each week struggling to keep up.
At times, it can be a bit much for folks like Solomon, a Chevy Chase psychiatrist. He looks decades younger than his 63 years, with just a few gray strands streaming through his dark hair. He's taking a breather while the rest of the folks jam to a Hebrew tune about a man who dies of a drug overdose.
"It keeps you young," he says as he rejoins his wife, Dorothy, on the bouncy wooden dance floor.
Israeli folk dance is one of the world's most prolific folk genres and one of the few that are still evolving. Before the genre was formalized in 1944 on the kibbutz of Eretz Yisrael, Jewish dances were a hodgepodge of steps dating from Biblical times and influenced by Eastern and Central European culture.
Before a permanent Jewish homeland was a reality, Jewish leaders had decided that they must create a defined folk culture, according to Gurit Kadman, one of the genre's founders. But consciously creating such a thing defied conventional wisdom about the development of folk culture.
"How can one create purposely, that is, artificially, folk dances which usually grow slowly like trees out of deep roots," Kadman wrote in a history of Jewish dance. "How is it possible to accelerate a process of hundreds of years into a few years?"
Judging from the people prancing around this Maryland ballroom half a century later, it is clear that they found a way.
Just ask Mil Romanow. The 50-year-old Rockville resident has committed to memory 2,000 Israeli folk dances. She's been hooked since she was first introduced to it 27 years ago when she visited a kibbutz in Israel. "It was so beautiful, I was mesmerized," she says.
The folk dances appear simple enough. They usually are done in pairs or in a circle holding hands. The Hebrew songs that accompany them have a variety of sounds. Some bring to mind John Mellencamp, others a techno-house blend, and others sound like traditional European folk music. The routines could be compared to line dancing or waltzing with a combination of steps, twirls and low kicks. But it looks deceptively easy. Judy White, a speech therapist from Rockville, says she's been studying ballet, modern and jazz dance for most of her 50-plus years. Eight years ago, when she found an Israeli dance class at her local Jewish Community Center, she thought she could pick it up pretty easily. "I thought with my dance training it would be a piece of cake," she says. "Ha!"
Most novices get help from classes in Jewish Community Centers and synagogues in the area. Often the famous Israeli choreographers travel to the United States to run workshops and dance camps. Most also offer the latest dances on videotape.
Danielle Livnat, an Israeli who has been living in the United States for more than two decades, agrees that staying hip to the latest in Israeli dance is getting more difficult. "[The dances] have become a moving target," she says. "It's hard to keep up with it." Nonetheless, Chagit West, a Silver Spring resident, says that the nature of folk dancing has changed greatly since her childhood in Israel--mostly for the better. "It's faster, livelier, more complicated, and there's more to remember," West says. "And, I think, a little more fun."
All ages are welcome at an Israeli folk dance party Saturday from 8 to 11:30 p.m. at the Greenbelt Community Center, 15 Crescent Rd., Greenbelt. Adults $5, 18 and younger free. For more information, call 301-441-8213.