Klezmer Dance Weekend with Zev Feldman
Neskaya, New Hampshire, October 2003
On Columbus Day Weekend (or, First Nations Day, depending on your perspective), a couple dozen of us gathered in Franconia, in northern New Hampshire, at a new age-ish dance place called Neskaya for two days of dance instruction by Zev Feldman. The band consisted of a few New Hampshire-ites (including Jewish-music mailing list regulars Beverly Woods and Seth Austen), with Boston import, Dena Ressler on clarinet. Here are items that we sent to the Jewish-music list, shortly afterwards. Pictures are by Ari, Judy, Helen, and Jacob Bloom. All items reprinted with permission of their authors.
I'm still not fully coherent, so forgive me if this writeup isn't fully coherent. I wanted to enthuse about the amazing Jewish Dance workshop given by Zev Feldman this past weekend before too many memories fade.
First, Zev is an amazing teacher when it comes to breaking the dances and steps down, and continuing until the group has the pieces and is comfortable putting them together. Then, there was a wealth of information about context and style that make it all make sense. Finally, it was great fun watching the band learn to play klezmer for teaching.
We covered basic Eastern European Jewish dances concentrating on the Honga and Sirba and Freilachs and Bulgars, including several variations on each. There was also some focus on ways in which men and women improvise during some of the dances, and ways in which each dance can be varied in a line. None of us will think "Bessarabian" vs. "Moldavian" quite the same, again. I think because few of us knew Jewish dance well, Zev stayed away from Shers and the considerable improvisation that make a Sher fun. In one discussion, he did note that Shers are like contradancing with one notable exception: in a Sher, the couples not in the center didn't stand still and clap--they were also busy improvising in place. Jews do not stand and quietly wait their turns!
I think that for the first time I have an actual Jewish dance vocabulary, which, given how new this is to me, feels like an important and comfortable achievement.
In the many conversations, Zev talked about growing up in a landsmenshaft community where dancing was still common into the Sixties. He also talked at one point about the differences in how, say, he and Andy Statman learned the music growing up, and then playing at simchas for many years, vs. groups like Kapelye where people came from more of a socialist background where Yiddish song, not Yiddish dance, had been the stronger community activity. He attributes on reason for the success of the klezmer revival to the fact that the antipathy between the landsmenshaft communities--organizations of people who emigrated from specific communities in Eastern Europe, and the socialists who tended to be more universalists, but also anti-traditional--had largely worn away, so that their children, searching for Jewish roots, searching for "Jewish" in many ways, could pull from both cultures. (He also noted that the dearth of scholarly work on klezmer is nothing compared to the lack of informati on about Jewish folksong.)
Having the workshop at Neskaya was another bonus. Being in the beauty of a northern New Hampshire fall during the peak of the leaf-turning season is magnificent. And the place turned out to be a very comfortable place to dance and then talk, dance and then walk. There was also an interesting fusion between those of us who came from farther away specifically because of our interest in Jewish dancing, and those who are part of the local international dance scene, for whom this was an interesting variant.
I am also struck by the original inspiration for the event, which grew out of a conversation between Zev and Beverly during one of the Klezmer events (KlezKanada? KlezKamp?) in which Zev began teaching some dance steps to musicians so that they would better understand how the music had to fit together and be played. Struck by how important that sense was to the musicians, Beverly was the instigator behind last weekend's event. In that sense, this weekend highlighted something that I hear in an awful lot of recordings--music that has been changed to fit American modes and which doesn't sound like the music to which one would do Jewish dance as it was once done. In that sense, I wish even more klezmer musicians had been there.
Hanging out with the band and list members was another very special part of the weekend. In particular, it was a delight to finally meet Helen Winkler who came in from Calgary, thereby winning the "traveled most distance" award. I also note that during the late night conversation and jams, one list member discovered an affinity for tsimbl, aided and abetted by a prototype inexpensive student tsimbl that Beverly Woods brought and demonstrated.
In short, it was a bit like KlezKamp light, over the course of just a weekend, and mostly for dance. I look forward to us doing it again.
If there is a mystery, it is why Jewish dance has been so slow to revive compared to the music. Given that everyone who can walk can dance (and a few who can't walk can still dance), but not everyone feels comfortable playing music, it feels as though the tail has long been wagging the dog.
Dena "Dobe" Ressler is a member of di bostoner klezmer, as well as an active member of the Boston-area Yiddish community. She also plays a mean clarinet.
In a comfortable, pretty, and soothing roundish room with a custom built dance floor, transpired 2+ days of about 20 people learning and/or improving their Yiddish dance skills. Zev Feldman was unanimously deemed a fantastic teacher. We learned the various zhok (Romanian hora), honga, and bulgar steps and variations - and the historical context (and definition!) of each dance. Zev, in addition to his talents in the dancing and teaching departments shared his ethnomusicological expertise as it related to the dance of the region he was teaching us - Southern Bessarabia. His father grew up there and Zev, in the 1960s saw the Yiddish dance at events sponsored by landsmenshaftn in New York City and at simkhes.)
The instruction was accompanied by live music from a kapelye ably led by list member Seth Austen comprised of tsimbl (Beverly Woods), mandolin/mandocello (Jim Dalton) mandolin/mandola/guitar/fidl (Austen) and clarinet. The band also was provided pointers by Zev, and if you stayed late enough, you heard Zev playing Beverly's 2 tsimblim and a santori - an added bonus!
Dancers included makhers the Yiddish dance and Jewish music worlds (list members Helen Winkler (all the way from Calgary!) Jacob Bloom - both of whom teach Yiddish dance in their neck of the woods, as well as recently married Ari Davidow and Judy Pinnolis. It was a treat to be with so many lovers of the music and dance in such an intimate setting.
The hostess of the event, Jenny Deupree, was most generous, gracious, and receptive. Neskaya, the dance center which Jenny runs and at whose building the event was held, is nestled in the White Mountains and, this being the peak of the leaf-peeking season, we were treated to a breathtaking view of mountains aflame in fall colors as we circled around the room. I even got my first ever view of a black bear (a yearling) scampering across a nearby road during a morning walk.
After the event was over, Beverly (who invited Zev in the first place!), Jenny, and Zev talked about the possibility of another weekend at Neskaya, perhaps in September - so keep your eyes on this list for details and another extraordinary opportunity to learn more about Yiddish culture.
Judith Pinnolis hosts the Jewish Music Web Center, www.jmwc.org, and is a regular attendant at KlezKamp and KlezKanada.
Ditto to everything Dena said, except I didn't see a bear...and I'm not such a 'makher' ... but I did learn a lot of Yiddish dancing.
We also took a long hike in the mountains with the most gorgeous Fall foliage -- another gift from Mother Nature-- but no bear and no moose.
Dena did not mention, although most people probably guessed, that it was she who was the wonderful clarinet player who so ably played. Having a live band who could slow down or speed up as the group learned the music (or tired), or needed more instruction on a particular step, was an incredible luxury. Many of the people who were there were veteran folk dancers, but others, such as myself, were not.
Zev, in addition to being a scholar and marvelous performer, is indeed a wonderful, remarkable instructor. He soon sized up the group, and was able to miraculously adapt his teaching-- allowing the slower learners to get the dance, and the quick learners to avoid being bored. No small feat.
The weekend really constituted a crash course, probably the equivalent of about 6-8 weeks of dance instruction, I estimate, if you were attending learning sessions of about an hour and half (or so) each, a week. There were generally two morning sessions, each followed by a break, a longer afternoon session and an evening session. And of course, the late night music jam and dancing!
In addition to Zev's instruction and background explanations, there was general chatter with some interesting people, wonderful long discussions about various instruments, about the modes and music arranging, about dancing and books and Jewish music.
The live music from Seth, Beverly, Jim and Dena was delightful, and is still running through my head. An incredibly fun and relaxing way to spend Columbus Day weekend (or Canadian Thanksgiving).
Helen is currently a resident of Calgary, Alberta, Canada (soon moving to Toronto). Among her many activities, she teaches Israeli and Klezmer dance, and maintains "Helen's Yiddish Dance Page," www.angelfire.com/ns/helenwinkler
I just got off the plane and stepped in the door after that wonderful dance weekend in Neskaya. It was a workshop in every sense of the word. I especially enjoyed the way Zev presented the styling of the dances--something that one can't learn from written dance descriptions. We spent several hours just learning about typical hand movements and gestures, and lots about improvisation. It was a joy to dance beside people who I've known online for years now, but had never met before, and an honour and privilege to be taught by Zev. And of course, I have never before had the opportunity to dance for two whole days and evenings to live music (although out of habit, I kept waiting for the CD to skip every time we stomped in unison--Seth and Beverly are working on recreating this, just so next time I won't be homesick:) ). Kudos to Jenny and the sacred circle dancers at Neskaya for arranging all of this, feeding us all and arranging transportation. All in all a great dance event. I plan to notate what was taught for future reference. Here is my listing of what went on:
- Slow Hora (Jewish and Moldavian Variants)
- Country Hora (uses 2/4 music)
- Bucovina Hora
- Freylekhs with improvisations
- Bulgar and variations
- Honga (group version and individual version)
- Jewish Sirba (different than Romanian sirba)
(all taught in the dance style of Jews from Moldova)
Looking forward to attending more events like this one!