Where the ̶D̶r̶e̶a̶m̶ Popularization Can Lead.
(By Nata Holava, Part 2)
The first part of this longread began with a recent example of “traditional small-town dances of Belarusian Jews”, which, as noted in the article, “were obsessively danced for several hours” by about fifty Gomel dwellers.
I have already found fault with the “Jewishness” of those dances and, to be honest, the whole first quote is nonsense. But the number of people interested in the topic is honorable. They are not afraid to dance it.
I remember very well how two years ago at the end of the party in the Upper Town in Minsk the same musicians, when almost all the dancers left, modestly striked up the Hora Jewish dance (at that time, the only one that succeeded to be promoted into the traditional dance community after the Barysaw party “On a Jewish note”). My partner and I began to dance, and some other dancers joined us in a chain. And then madam Minsk musician, who has learned this very Hora herself, suddenly roared: “Barysaw Jews, take your Jewish dances back to Barysaw and dance them there! Guys, play your own dances! Why are you playing these!” Then she said something about the fact that not all the Jews have been burned in furnaces. And no one was able to say anything. We finished the dance, I thanked this lady for the enchanting demonstration of mind and talent, and we “dumped” Minsk and got back to Barysaw.
We dance the Bulgar in the Upper Town during one of the Belarusian dances, nobody shouts at us, 2019. Photo by N. Batilova.
I wouldn’t remember this incident, since a long time ago we discussed everything with that lady, and everyone forgave everyone. If that situation did not concern our topic directly.
I already recalled the pantomime that happens when someone tries to dance “like a Jew”. I believe you know these movements, and your elbows have already bent, fingers reached out for your waistcoat, and the knees began to spring a little bit. You can also go all together to the center of the circle and lift your hands with your palms up, and then go back and lower them. We know, we have danced it too. And even if, at that moment, the accordionist tears the bellows, playing not the done to death “Seven-forty” freilakhs, but an interesting, incendiary freilakhs (in Belarus it was called a redl). Even if it is not an accordionist, but a violinist, and, according to your and his passports, you are both the “genuine” Jews, it will still not be a Yiddish dance. (Yiddish Dance is probably the most accurate name that I picked up in Weimar.)
Two chic ladies from our Club dance the Couple Bulgar we brought from Weimar. 2019, party near Barysaw, photo by V. Tsvirko.
The Yiddish dance is associated with the speech gesture, and this makes it very different from the Slavic dance. The first thing I heard at the Khosidl workshops in Weimar is that you have to dance your perception of the world and speak up with your body.
You can recognize a Jew by expressive gestures. And dance is a continuation of the conversation. It is impossible to peep and repeat the unique gesture, which is the most important element of this dance, for twenty minutes at the “fair” master class in the crowd, as Madam Popularization offers us. Like any other language, it needs to be learnt from childhood. Or you should look for a community and explore yourself and your gesture there. Words, seemingly, are accessible to everyone equally. But not the accent, the vocabulary, your own thoughts, your temperament and personal experience of interacting with the World. Now I am specifically talking about the mystical Khosidl, in which, as I feel it, the essence of the Yiddish dance tradition is revealed. The Khosidl is a dance of mature people. Not every musician will be able to play it now, and not every dancer will order it from a musician. Because there is a sheerly fair question: what are we going to dance about?
I will add that the Khosidl had different functions and forms, and it was a wedding dance, a “dance of dignity”. It was danced in honor of the bride and a sa matchmakers’ dance. There are references to the Khosidl as the rabbi dance at the end of the Sabbath. More details can be found in the book of my esteemed Dance Master, ethnomusicologist and researcher of the Klezmer tradition Zev Feldman (Walter Zev Feldman, “Klezmer: Music, History, and Memory”).
Alexey Rozov (Moscow), who plays superbly both from the stage and for dancers. Party near Barysaw, 2019, photo by V. Tsvirko.
Of course, Yiddish Dance comprises chains like a Hora, Zhock, or Bulgar, and funny circular dances where such a deep statement and such an elegant body language are not required. But you cannot hide the manner of movement, facial expressions. And this is what betrays you and your Jewish nature.
Now imagine what it was like to dance “like a Jew” during the twentieth century, when because of this you could say goodbye to your life. Zev Feldman talked about situations where, many years after the Second World War, young people’s hands were beaten by the elderly because they gestured “in a Jewish way”. Well, so in which underground did they have to hide their identity in order to stay alive? And is it possible now to extract all this into the light of God?
And one thing is the Holocaust, the other is our Soviet reality. I felt this when I started explaining to other people about the Yiddish Dance and saw how hard it is to “let one’s body go free”. In what relationship are we with our bodies?
I was born, like most of us here, in Soviet society. In a provincial town environment, where everything was complicated with the body. Mine was forced to be dressed in a school uniform and to walk in a marching column on Soviet holidays. To watch how the bodies like mine perform something in identical costumes on the stage and call it a dance. This dance was somewhere between aerobics of various forms and a military parade. The only place where you could see a free gesture was when fellow adults danced at family feasts after having several drinks. Their movements were free and most real. But this marginal dance has never been explored, and anything like it was associatively ignored. (I do not compare the Khosidl and “drunken” dances, however, both of these phenomena mean for me going beyond the boundaries of the usual existence.) And I still haven’t touched the gender aspects of the cultural background, where a man generally prohibits himself from dancing, as an “unmanly” manifestation. (Here it should be noted that, according to Zev Feldman, male Yiddish Dance never had obvious markers of masculinity, unlike the Slavic ones – “Barynya”, “Kozachok”, “Shamil’s dance …”)
We are in our bodies like in prison. The key that opened its door for me was the Yiddish Dance. Now I’m sure that all my life I have intuitively searched in a dance for exactly this plastic existence for my body – a feeling of unconstrained freedom and dignity. And now, finally, I can afford it. It doesn’t matter whether I lead the chain of Freilekhs, Zhock or Bulgar, will it be a quadrille, or I decide to order a Khosidl (when, finally, Belarusian musicians will be able to play it).
When Aleksey Rozov played a Skochne at a party near Barysaw and invited people to dance, only three ladies dared to go out – maybe that’s what they call the “bold Jews”, 2019.
The skills gained through communicating with the coolest Weimar dance masters and musicians are not related to the “professionalism” of my choreography. On the other hand, the task of “making friends with one’s body” requires a long and thoughtful “homework”. Often associated with reflection, very gloomy thoughts and finding one’s own path. Therefore, it’s impossible to sell in a “quick-and-savory” manner such a trip to another dimension of the soul and body.
But sometimes it’s also impossible to do it slowly.
“Give me the steps and figures, I will learn them! Then I will be able to improvise and weave together my figures to your Khosidl!” – says a dancer in weekly dance classes. Unfortunately, the dance master will not give out ready-made puzzles from which you will put the picture together, they do not exist. There is only your desire to communicate something along with the music. “But I do not want to communicate anything, I want to move and look beautiful at the same time. I do not know what I should do alone!” Because we, with our Slavic identity, interpret functional dance as a priori couple dance. And there is a lot of sex in it. Besides the fact that we are afraid to express ourselves through movement and to be open, we are scared by the possibility of looking unattractive for those who can assess our body… I can’t say that there is no flirting at all in Yiddish dance (even in such a mystical and philosophical one as the Khosidl). But above all, it is the dignity.
Weimar Ball 2019, Jewish wedding. Not sure if it is a mitzvah dance (ritual dance in honor of the bride), but everyone is dancing! And this is the very Khosidl that finally returns to the Jewish community.
Further about klezmers. There can be no dancing without them. And they, too, have now become a fashionable topic. I propose to google, at least in order to begin to distinguish what is klezmer music and who is a klezmer. So far, here in Belarus, no one is. The same question again: when you call a festival (the one that was held in Minsk in the fall) a klezmer festival, do you want to say that there will be klezmers? Or is it still a concert where musicians will professionally and glamorously-perform the music that klezmers once played?
The first function of the Jewish musician was to accompany holidays and ritual moments, which often included dance. Yes, time passed, holidays and customs changed, the role of musicians also changed. The dances disappeared, festive concerts took their place, where the space is divided into a stage and a spectators seating. The visitor is no longer fully involved in the common act, and the musicians have become stage artists and “perform” in front of the public. They must not develop their ability to be in dialogue with the dancers, but performance qualities and technicality, so that the audience would be interested to sit and listen.
A certain local klezmer recently invited me to a party. “No, I said, I won’t dance to your playing.” – “Oh, what a whim. We will learn all that you will tell us to!” It will not work, I said. For years, you have played by note, for the audience, from the stage. But to understand the dancers, it would be useful to dance it yourself, delve into the meaning of these dances. Otherwise, how can you understand how to play it? No, replies our respected klezmer (who has never danced and hardly hung out at weddings next to klezmers from childhood), I do not agree.
Well what shall we do! What, what… Dance with those who can play for dancers. And communicate with musicians who are ready to get off the stage and join us.
Freilekhs. Alexey Rozov plays for dancers at a party near Barysaw after his concert solo program. Together with Zhydovachka. December 2019.
So many difficulties. There are no musicians, and the dancers are rebelling, and popularization is storming, bringing ashore nothing but “seven-forties” instead of amber… And when someone asks: “So, why do you need Yiddish dances? Are there no others?” The fact of the matter is that there are others. But I want these to be as well.
And now the promised fairy tale.
A guy came to a small town to sell plums. He stood at the market square and shouted: “I change plums for garbage! More of your garbage, more plums!”What a fool, said the housewives, and dragged to him garbage in bags, swept it out of the huts and sheds, and even borrowed it from each other. One modest girl brought a tiny bundle, because she couldn’t pick up more in her house. “Sorry,” she said, “I have no more. Can I have at least two plums?” And the guy looked at her, fell in love, put her on his cart and drove to his tower house. This is a so-so metaphor, of course, promoting patriarchal female thriftiness. But my message here is: free plums are just plums, and in order to find something valuable, it happens that you need to sort heaps of garbage.
I hope that the time of aggressive popularization will pass, because any hype seems to be from the evil one. And the eternal Khosidl in its purest form will remain with us.
Lake Sevan, along with the Khosidl, became my second value found last year. 2019, photo by Julia B.
For those who are interested in joining our small, so far, community of Yiddish Dance fans, I summarize my main observations:
1. Jewish and Slavic dances are very different in their essence, manner and performance, despite the similarity of forms, rhythms and melodies. Although, Jewish dances can be finely danced to some Belarusian melodies, and vice versa.
2. Traditionally, Jews did not dance couple dances like polkas and waltzes, this type does not exist in their dance practice and appears in the Jewish environment somewhere during the twentieth century, at different times – depending on the region of Eastern Europe.
3. “Together or solo, Freilekhs or Khosidl” is the main principle of performance of the Yiddish dance. Now we see three main types: collective fun dance (Freilekhs, or Redlin the Belarusian version), set dance or country-dance (Sher, Patch Tanz and others), and solo dance (Khosidl). The Freilekhs is for all people of different ages. The Sher is mainly for young people. And Khosidl can be decently danced at the age past forty or fifty… if you have something to dance about. It may seem that the Jews dance the Khosidl in couples, but no, everyone dances their own dance.
4. I do not know what is more difficult here – to maintain asynchronous movements with total harmony and expressiveness of the dance (which is the specific character of the Yiddish Dance) or to fill each gesture with meaning. I believe these are sides of the same moon and they are being improved in parallel.
5. In short, if you are dancing in a Jewish manner, this is obvious at once, and the gesture that makes it the Yiddish dance is impossible to learn by adopting (copying) the movements of the dance masters. It will turn out to be only a pantomime. Jewish body language comes with personal experience and the study of one’s own body, preferably, in a native environment.
6. To play klezmer tunes for dancers, you need to dance them yourself. Otherwise, how will you play if you don’t understand what “this song” is about? By the way, klezmer is never a song. This is a non-verbal speech, a combination of rhythm, melody and movement. And this is always improvisation.
7. You can support the workshops with Zev Feldman, which we planned with our Barysaw Historical Dance Club for the fall of 2020, here.
8. For those who are attracted by energetic circular dances with typical “Jewish movements” to the fun Jewish songs, there are Israeli dance events. This lot is learned in half an hour and brings joy to masses. And, in principle, as said in a Hasidic parable, whoever danced together, will never kill each other.
Nata Holava, Barysaw
The idea of the text arose thanks to workshops in Weimar, where we were able to get with the support of the MOST Program, research & materials by Zev Feldman © and personal conversations with him.
Translated from the original by Igor Shustin
Corrected by Tanya Karneika
From the site’s founder and administrator:
Published May 06/2020 15:09