Celebrating a dancer’s short life with hope

Kesem, a local Israeli dance group for middle school students, will present a work in memory of a young Israeli girl who loved to dance.
Photo courtesy of Marnina Cowan

A gaggle of middle schoolers, clutching cell phones and chattering, enters the sunny gym at B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville. Clad in T-shirts sporting names of favorite summer camps, sports teams and community service projects, they share the latest news about friends and homework, Wizards wins and nail polish colors.

Soon music rises from portable speakers and they easily filter into a circle as a Hebrew pop song plays, and they begin to dance.

This is Kesem, a local Israeli dance group for seventh- and eighth-graders. Its founder and director, Marnina Cowan, has taken these rambunctious teens, tamed them and taught them the fundamentals of Israeli folk.

On Sunday, they will premiere “Tikvah L’atid” — Hope for the Future — at the Israeli Dance Festival DC at the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville. The dance commemorates the short life of a 13-year-old Israeli girl who loved to dance, and who was killed in a terrorist attack less than a year ago.
But the dance isn’t mournful, said Cowan, a Rockville native who began Israeli dancing at age 5.

“What I want them to take away [is that] regardless of what happens [in life], we carry on with the belief that we have hope for the future.”

Hallel Yaffa Ariel was stabbed to death last June in her bedroom in Kiryat Arba, an Israeli settlement overlooking the West Bank city of Hebron. A 17-year-old Palestinian boy from a nearby village reportedly climbed in the girl’s open bedroom window as she slept. He was shot to death by security guards.

Cowan said she read about the murder the day after it happened. “As I read, I realized this girl was a dancer and she was the same age as my dancers,” Cowan said. “I thought how special it would be to teach my dancers about her so they could feel she was one of them and they could have been her friend.”

Cowan said Hallel studied dance four days a week after school and didn’t stop dancing when home. She became an inspiration for the Kesem dancers.

Hallel’s life and death occurred at the nexus of Palestinian terrorism and the Israeli occupation and settlement of the West Bank. To begin the project, Cowan steered away from conversations with the girls about politics or death.

“Because we have parents from across the political spectrum, I tell people this is a dancer who was killed and we’re remembering her because she was Jewish. The politics don’t matter,” Cowan said.

The project, which began in the fall, hasn’t always been easy. “It’s a sad reality for middle schoolers” to learn, Cowan said. “But I tried to balance the sadness with the idea that this is a celebration, and when you see the piece and hear the music, it ends on an upbeat note with hope for the future.”

But sometimes, she has to rein in the kids to help them focus. Each week at rehearsal, she asks one dancer to light a memorial candle for Hallel. And she reminds them of the points in the choreography where they are using the same steps that Hallel danced for a bat mitzvah dance she choreographed.

That’s Segev Berner-Kadish’s favorite part. The Takoma Park Middle School eighth grader loves the dramatic lift at the end, when two dancers are raised up soaring above the heads of the rest. “It’s very powerful and I’m glad we know her story,” said the teen who sports a Bryce Harper baseball shirt.

Ponytailed seventh-grader Naomi Meyer created a short ceremony for the dancers that will occur just before they take their places on stage. “In the first part of the dance we’re remembering [Hallel] and in the second part we’re looking to the future. … Even though terrible things can happen, we have to go on with life,” she said during a rehearsal break.

Eighth-grader Miriam Gardsbane said, “We’re remembering Hallel by dancing, which is what she loved to do. … It makes me feel lucky because I don’t have to [worry] about all the things she did. She was my age [when she died] and so it puts into perspective for me to do something you love.” n

“Tikvah L’atid” will be performed at the 8th Annual Israeli Dance Festival DC, May 14 at 3 p.m., Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy.  The program also features local youth troupes from the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital and University of Maryland’s Avirah, and local community troupes Mavrik and Hora DC, plus Shiluv, visiting from Boston.

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