Folk dance group connects St. Louis residents to Israel

Every Monday evening, the Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School hosts a dance party in the gymnasium. Participants, who range from teenagers to octogenarians, learn and practice the art of Israeli folk dance.

The Israeli Folk Dance Group of St. Louis (IFD) has been around for 50 years. It started as a program hosted by the Jewish Community Center run by Shlomit Eisner. In 1978, Bob Olshan took over the group.

Olshan learned to dance at the age of 8 growing up in Skokie, Illinois. Now 69, he leads the late-night couples dance session. He shares his love for dance with his mother who, at 95, still leads a Chicago-area group. Israeli folk dancing is good exercise and learning the routines is good for the mind, he said.

“It helps your body physically and cognitively, and it’s also fun,” said Olshan, who belongs to Kol Rinah. “You learn the dances, and some are quite complicated. I probably know a thousand different dances.

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Israeli folk dance has a complex choreography. It has some similarities to line dancing in country music, except that the dancers form a circle. They take inspiration from the chef, who also selects the music, which includes Turkish, Asian and Kurdish influences. Add Israeli pop music and you’ll find a mashup of many styles. The songs and dance steps are directly linked to Israeli culture and its arid desert climate.

Israeli folk dancing became a movement in the years leading up to the establishment of the state in 1948. Previously, dancing was common in the kibbutz, but eventually it took on patriotic themes.

“As Israel created a state, dancing became an important part of the culture,” Olshan said. “The songs were about farming and living in the desert, a land without water, and all of those themes came into the songs and the dances, so that was the spirit of the country.”

Another cultural aspect of folk dancing in Israel is that everyone participates. While living in Israel as vice president of McDonnell-Douglas, Olshan frequently found time to dance in the evenings. Back in Saint Louis, he reconnected with the dance group here, like other Israeli-Americans who moved here. Among them, the leader of the group, Rachel Persellin Armoza.

“In Jerusalem, I danced four times a week,” Persellin Armoza said. “When I moved from Israel in 2000, I only moved to a place where there was Israeli dancing.”

The strength and longevity of the St. Louis group is due in part to its governance philosophy, she said.

“We run this like a co-op,” she said. “We get everyone’s buy-in and input when making decisions. No one gets paid, and that’s unique. Our dance leaders Wayne Brown, Bob Olshan, Lynnsie Balk Kantor and I have bonded and want to make this a success.

Kantor teaches the group of beginners who start the Monday evening session. In early May, she started each dance by explaining the choreography, then started the music.

Shelly Azar, head of research and grants at the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, has been there for two months.

“Someone told me about the course, and I went the next night and loved it,” said Azar, 58. “I like music, being with people, exercising. My goal is to improve and move to the advanced class. In fact, I stay for advanced dancers and stand in the outer circle to follow people. It’s the only way to really learn.

Persellin Armoza and Brown lead the advanced class following the beginner group. Brown first learned Israeli folk dancing as a counselor at a Young Israel camp in New Hampshire. At 67, her dance moves are fluid and effortless. This was not always the case.

“Everyone is a newbie at some point,” Brown said. “It took me a long time to learn the steps. While on average it took people two to four weeks to learn, it took me a year!

Ilanit Michelson, an Israeli expat who has danced in the group for 27 years, said Monday nights reminded her of home.

“I love music,” she said. “It brings me closer to home and we have formed a very close group even outside of dancing. It makes me happy, and it’s good exercise. Growing up in Israel, we danced every Friday at school during a big recess. The whole school would gather in a large circle.

Another longtime member of the group is Galit Lev-Harir, who echoed michaelsonit is feelings.

“I love dancing, I love excitement,” Lev-Harir said. “I danced when I was in Israel, and when we moved here, I asked people if there was dancing here, and they told me about this group. I like the feeling you get when you’re in a bigger group, especially with 100 dancers. There is a particular energy.

The St. Louis Israeli Dance Group is open to anyone interested in learning. The group meets every Monday from 8:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. in the back gymnasium of the Mirowitz School, 348 S. Mason Rd. Beginners are welcome for the introductory class at 7:30 p.m., followed by the advanced group and the dance of the late-night couples.