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Israeli Dance Festival attracts diverse performers and audiences

Ilana Preuss and children in 2016 Israeli Dance Festival DC. COURTESY PHOTOIlana Preuss and children in 2016 Israeli Dance Festival DC. COURTESY PHOTO  You don’t have to be Israeli – or even Jewish – to love Israeli dancing.

Margaret “Peggy” Antonisse, 66, is neither, but she attends Israeli dance sessions open to the public a few times a week. She also serves on the planning committee for the annual Israeli Dance Festival DC, which showcases Israeli dance performing groups of all ages in the area.

“It also cultivates an appreciation of the rich culture of Israeli dance and encourages participation of people from all backgrounds, ages and skill levels,” said Abby Kerbel, one of the co-chairs.

Israeli dance is diverse in and of itself – drawing on Arabic, Yemenite, Latino and Eastern European roots. It incorporates line and circle dances, and sometimes couples’ dances.

“I first developed an interest in Israeli dance as part of international dance in college,” Antonisse said. “It was great aerobic exercise and had a wonderful sense of community – when you hold hands in a circle and the group is moving as one in the same direction.”

For a while, Antonisse even guest-taught Israeli dancing at a camp.

Among other locations, the open Israeli dance sessions take place at Temple Emanuel in Kensington. You can find one virtually every weeknight.

“It didn’t matter at all that I’m not Jewish,” she said. “I’m not the only one. It’s a very welcoming community. There are people of all ages, starting in high school and even middle school, into the 60s and beyond.”

“Each group has its own flavor,” she added. “A typical night may be three hours long; the fee may vary from $8 to $10, with reductions for students. Teaching is usually included.”

Initial attempts to start an Israeli dance festival fizzled, but gained momentum again some nine years ago. There has been a festival every year since.

“Since then, participation has grown, even exploded,” said Kerbel.

Some Jewish day schools offer Israeli folk dance as an elective.

Nine groups encompass this year’s festival, starting from age nine to people in their 70s and even 80s, she said. Each group has its own choreographer, or brings in a guest choreographer.

Maybe it’s the beat, the energy or the music itself – or all three, but response to the dance festivals seems to be “addictive,” said Kerbel. “It’s very powerful.”

For a time, she said, folk dance was considered a “lower art form,” but professional troupes like the Batsheva Dance Company in Israel have helped to change that perception.

In addition to the different ages and backgrounds of Israeli folk dancers, there are also, in contrast, multiple generations in one family who participate.

For Ilana Preuss and her children Yoav, 15, and Ana, 12, Israeli dancing is a form of cultural identity with Judaism and Israel.

They are regulars at dance sessions around the County and will be participating in the festival in three different performing groups. That means weekly rehearsals in addition to any recreational dancing they take part in.

In the audience will be Preuss’s father, whose love of the dance inspired the same in Ilana, her brother and his grandchildren. “He used to teach Israeli dance at a camp,” Preuss said.

“Over the past seven years, the D.C. area has become an incredibly vibrant dance community,” said Preuss.

Israeli Dance Festival DC takes place Thursday, March 18, at 3 p.m., at Bullis, Blair Family Center for the Arts, 10601 Falls Road, in Potomac.

The pre-festival “Harkada” – a recreational communal dance party – will be at 8:30 p.m. at B’nai Israel Congregation, 6301 Montrose Road, in Rockville.

The Israeli Dance Festival DC office is at 7067 Wolftree Lane, in Rockville. For more information and to order tickets online, visit: www.israelidancefestivalDC.com.

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