Mike Fox has been an Israeli dancer since his youth group days in Potomac. Today he leads a popular Tuesday evening Israeli folk dance session – known in Hebrew as harkada – at Ohr Kodesh Congregation.
When he travels for his job as a project manager, he stops in at other folk dance sessions around the country. The father of a pre-teen and an elementary schooler, he said, “Wherever I go the dancers are getting so old. I’m the youngest person there.”
But thanks to Fox, a Gaithersburg resident, and his colleague Pepe Strauss, who lives in Rockville, the Israeli folk dance demographics in the Washington area skew quite a bit younger.
Fox and Strauss founded two youth Israeli folk dance troupes, Yesodot, for high schoolers, and Kesem, for middle schoolers, which over two decades, by Fox’s estimate, introduced more than 75 area teens to not merely the fundamentals of Israeli folk dance – mayim steps and cherkessias — but to the complexities of Israeli society – its immigrant waves, its religious and secular streams, its military service, its Zionist history — through its popular and historic songs and dances.
This weekend (March 21-22), Strauss and Fox are being honored by the greater Washington area folk dance community during the sixth annual Israeli Dance Festival DC. The Sunday afternoon performance, at the Bullis School in Potomac, will feature both Yesodot and Kesem, as well as a group of returning alumni who will be reviving a piece from Yesodot’s early years. The festival opens Saturday with an evening harkada – dance party – where young and old will dance classics and new choreography until midnight.
Fox discovered Israeli dance as a teenager at a summer leadership camp session. He later sought out dance – both Israeli dancing at Hillel and modern dance classes – as a student at University of Michigan. Returning to this area, he found his way to some of the local dance sessions and eventually met Strauss. Strauss’ dance beginnings took place in his hometown of Mexico City where in the Jewish community folk dance troupes are far more popular than communal folk dance sessions.
“When I was in high school and college,” Strauss said, “I joined a professional Israeli dance troupe and during my youth was in HaNoar HaTzioni [a Zionist youth group].” That group toured internationally dancing in Argentina, Brazil and big cities and small towns throughout Mexico.
“The goal was to show the world what Israeli culture is,” he said. In 1981, he made aliyah, moving to Israel to study at the Technion, where rigorous coursework didn’t give him much time for dancing. After moving to the Washington area, Strauss returned to the folk dance circle and ultimately met his bride, Rena Strauss, at a Thursday night Israeli dance session.
Fox, too, spent some time living in Israel between 2000 and 2001, where he assimilated the authentic dance culture of the nation. This is what he and Strauss try to give to their energetic teen charges during weekly rehearsals at B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville.
Barefoot and in jeans or leggings, t-shirts or hoodies, the 16 teens (just one male dancer was at rehearsal last month) are urged to fly in their leaps, tighten up their spacing, remember complex combinations with aplomb … and smile. Strauss videotapes, his requisite baseball cap on his head, while Fox observes intently, before they tell the teens what needs work and remind them with the sternness of parents that they have just two more rehearsals before show time.
“We had two goals in creating Yesodot: One was harkada; the other was the performance,” Fox said. Unlike most youth dance troupes, which only focus on performance, “Every rehearsal we start with 30 to 45 minutes of harkada because we wanted to teach them to dance so that they can continue to dance,” Fox added.
And from reports of alumni and annual post-high school visits back to rehearsal by recent grads, the Yesodot system has worked, creating a vibrant network of young dancers, many of whom have gone on to found or join Israeli dance troupes at their colleges. Among them are the founders and many participants in University of Maryland’s Avirah, another participant in Sunday’s program.
Other Yesodot alums dance at Brandeis University, University of Delaware, Towson University, Oberlin College and other college troupes and groups around the country. There’s even a newly formed troupe for young adults in the D.C. area, Mavrik, primarily made up of Yesodot alumnae, which will also be dancing Sunday.
Hannah Weisman of Gaithersburg, a Quince Orchard High School junior who is in her third year in the teen group, relishes her Wednesday night rehearsals and the dozen or so performances the Yesodot dancers present at local holiday events and cultural programs around the Beltway.
Annually they travel to either New York or Boston Israeli dance festivals to perform. “It’s a chance to be active while being culturally tied with Israel,” Weisman said. “Especially, though, the dances are very cool [because] you can really listen to the music and learn about Israel. You can’t experience the country without experiencing Israeli dancing.”
Fox and Strauss emphasize this when they introduce new dances and songs — and this year they have 12 dances in the repertory. They ensure that the dancers know what each dance is about – harvest, Jewish Shabbat and wedding practices, kibbutz work, military songs and steps, or the varied beauty of the Israeli landscapes are a few of the subjects that have been made into dance suites over the years. “The repertoire we have carries a piece of the culture in it,” Strauss explained. “Every single dance has a key … from all the immigrants who came to Israel, to the beginning of modern dance in Israel in 1948 and even before that.”
Hannah Smith of Rockville, a Richard Montgomery High School junior also in her third year dancing with Yesodot, appreciates the way the dances and music connect her to Israel and the Jewish people. “For me, sometimes Israeli politics are very complex and can be confusing, but having the opportunity to learn about Israel through its music and dances, we can bond with the culture and people in a different way.”
Both Hannahs, Weisman and Smith, noted how open and friendly their teachers are. “Mike and Pepe bring an enthusiasm to dance that I’ve never seen before,” Smith said. And both mentioned that they’re like big brothers and can joke easily with their teen charges.
Sunday at the Bullis School, Yesodot performs a new piece, the first collaborative choreography Strauss and Fox have done, that they call “Ma Lamala.” They’re also reviving the group’s desert suite featuring Yemenite and Hebrew music from the late Israeli singer Ofra Haza.
Yesodot is the Hebrew word for “foundations,” Strauss noted. “The name we chose,” he said, “happens to be perfect: we really give the kids the foundation [to dance] and you can see the results.”
Israeli Dance Festival DC, Saturday community Israeli Dance Party (Harkada), 8:30 p.m. to midnight, B’nai Israel Congregation, 6301 Montrose Rd., Rockville. Sunday performance, 3:00 p.m., Bullis School, 10601 Falls R.d, Potomac. For tickets and information, visit israelidancefestivaldc.com.