By Chidinma Onuoha
The Israeli dance troupe at this university, Avirah, brought students together to learn and perform traditional Israeli folk dance with a twist.
On Oct. 25 at Maryland Hillel, Avirah members in lavender T-shirts eagerly welcomed newcomers for a dance session. Everyone formed into a circle and introduced themselves, waiting for the Israeli folk music which welcomed both a dance number and a cardio workout.
Every year, the troupe creates and rehearses new choreographies. Members perform at the D.C. Israeli Dance Festival, the Boston Israeli Dance Festival, and cultural events on campus or at community synagogues.
Avirah went on hiatus at this university in 2006, due to low enrollment, but the group reestablished itself in 2013, with the help of Racheli Katz. Co-president(s) Jessica Morris joined the troupe as a freshman in 2015, and Adina Schwartz joined in the fall of 2016, during her freshman year.
Israeli folk dances fall into two categories: traditional and choreographed routines. Morris and Schwartz said that the dance style was influenced by a number of cultures, largely from Eastern European and Middle Eastern countries, in particular, the Romanian Hora and the Arabic Dabke. Israeli dance was created as part of the movement to create Israeli culture by the pioneers moving to Israel in the 1940-50s.
Since then, varying cultures have brought their own influences to Israel and Israeli dance, including Spanish, Ethiopian, and even ballet elements. Morris and Schwartz said Israeli dance is performed all over the world, with each song having its own distinct choreography. A person can learn the steps to a song here in Maryland, and if they go to Israel and they play the song, it will start the same dance.
“I started doing Israeli dance through my elementary school, the Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital,” Schwartz said.
When Schwartz was in sixth grade, her Israeli dance group performed in the D.C. Israeli dance festival, which was the first Israeli Dance festival held in D.C. after a “very long” hiatus. She later danced in her high school group, Yesodot.
“When I started at Maryland I wanted to continue doing Israeli dance,” Schwartz said. “A lot of the alumni of the high school group were in Avirah, so I also had friends in the group when I started.”
For Schwartz, Avirah incorporated more modern and ballet than the traditional choreographies she learned in high school. This means she learned new techniques to add to what she already knew.
“I used to be an Avirah but didn’t have time to continue; that was freshman year,” said Hannah Warshawsky, a senior animal science major. “But I remember some of the dances and it’s a great way to be active. This connection to Israel is a little community that I’m generally a part of mostly because it is fun. [The dancing] was really tough; there was a lot of steps in quick succession, but some of the slower ones were easier to keep up.”
Hannah Weisman, a sophomore neurobiology and physiology major, has been dancing since she was “very little” at her Jewish day school, where Israeli dance ran from kindergarten to sixth grade.
“This session is a really welcoming environment for you be able to improve your skills,” Weisman said. “We have people who have never danced ever, and we have people here like myself or like Adina who hasn’t danced since kindergarten. We have a warm welcoming environment where we’re understanding, and we want to work with youth so that they can experience the same love that we have.”
Members agreed that Avirah was a place to form “incredible friendships” within a supportive community – a place for anyone, regardless of experience, to come and join.
“I’ve met my best friends here,” Morris said. “This is such a supportive community. I’m motivated to be my best dancer and my best self here. I would definitely recommend this to anyone looking to learn a new skill in a positive environment. I’d tell someone who is interested to come to our open dance sessions and talk with us about what they’re looking for!”