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In the Slippers Corner with Yoav Ashriel Atara & Adi 4.7.11 

A Special Interview with Yo’av Ashriel

Yo’av, a caring and sensitive man, one who is full of love, has a vision. Tens and even thousands of dancers and dance instructors have grown up with him and learned from him. Here in a special interview is Yo’av Ashriel, the dance instructor, creator, and choreographer, who believed in his ability to create something out of nothing.

Yo’av was born in 1930 at Kibbutz Ramat David; he was one of the first children to be born on the kibbutz. The folk dancing craze began while he was still a young lad. "When I was young, I helped my father, the coordinator of the cultural committee at the kibbutz, to organize parties, and presentations during festivals. Subsequently, I began to be active in several different areas of creating and coaching dance troupes and spreading the folk dances." Yo’av continued his artistic path in the army. During the years 1950-1951 he sang in the Nachal entertainment troupe and coached thousands of soldiers. It was there he met Mira z"l who was the troupe's soloist at that time and who was to become his wife. Ashriel says, "She stood by me and encouraged me all the way." Over the years, he prepared several dance shows, created dances for the stage, and coached several dance troupes; among the better known companies were the Tel Aviv HaPoel Dance Troupe, Petach Tikva, Pa’amei Aviv of Tel Aviv, and the Ramat Gan Workers' Council Troupe.

How did your love affair with folk dancing begin?

As I said before, my first acquaintance was on the kibbutz. But what started my great love affair with folk dancing was the folk dancing experience I had in 1947 which was organized by Gurit Kadmon at Kibbutz Gevat. This event was a folk dancing “refresher course” to which one couple from each kibbutz was invited. I went by foot with Nira, my partner at that time, from the kibbutz. Every day we learned one or two dances. All in all, we learned about 6-7 dances. As Gurit said, “We learned to dance in Hebrew;” and all the time she emphasized, “Just like there are songs in Hebrew, so should we create dances in Hebrew.” Until that time, we had mainly danced the hora to the sounds of Hebrew songs. In fact, Gurit was the motivator behind mine and other folk dances.

Who were the first people who choreographed folk dances? How were these first dances created?

The first choreographers were Rivka Sturman, Ze'ev Havatzelet, Shalom Hermon, Sara Levy Tanai, and Gurit Kadmon. Gurit was the motivator who pushed for the creation of dances and together with Rivka Sturman, “they made something out of nothing.” Everything was in the initial stages; there were no “Israeli steps” so Rivka created the cross step and the step and step from side to side. Subsequently, Sara Levy Tanai introduced the Yemenite Step. I was very enthusiastic with what I saw, and I said to myself, “This is nice and this is ours.”

When do you think a breakthrough occurred?

There was a period of several years where we simply danced the same dances over and over. From a professional aspect, I felt that we were staying in the same place. So together with my wife Mira zl", I decided to promote the matter which was burning in me. The truth was I did not want to change the style, but to only make progress by creating new dances. In 1967, we organized the first training course where we distributed pamphlets containing explanations for the terms in dances, the steps to the dances, as well as a reel tape with the songs and music. We taught the instructors to work with a tape, because until then they had only danced to the sounds of the accordion.

How did people react to the revolution?

The passage was not easy. Gurit opposed it. Her argument was that in the villages in Europe they dance to the sounds of the village band, and that is the way it should be here as well. I said to her, “Gurit, we are not in Europe, we are in the East, and certainly not in the 19th century, but in the 20th century and we should move on.” I remember the instructional courses were greeted with enthusiasm.

Was there anyone to teach or direct your choreographing of dances?

Unfortunately, no, there wasn’t. When I started to create dances, there was no guiding hand to teach me or to give me advice. I said to myself that I would help young creators and I regard this as a great part of my enterprise. I have guided young choreographers and I have helped them to build their dances.

What is the most important thing in a dance?

A dance should flow with the melody without having to think what the next step will be. Dancers come to dance and enjoy and not to think. The main thing should be that a folk dance is not a troupe and a troupe is not a folk dance.

What distinguishes you as a creator/instructor; what is especially important to you?

Much of the influence on my creation as an instructor comes from living on a kibbutz in the Emek Valley, as for example, Erev Ba. I am influenced a lot by the words and the melody. When I create a dance, I suffer. I am not saying that every movement in a dance expresses some word, but the influence is general, for example, in the song, "With you and Without You," by Alterman, words say such a lot. I think that everyone who creates a dance should feel something. It is important to relate with respect and not with contempt and to be professional.

You have accompanied folk dancing from its inception; can you divide it into periods?

It is possible to say that there has been a process over the years, such as with Israel's history, which began with enormous enthusiasm. Values and culture were integrated into the works; there was a feeling was that here we are creating a new folklore, a new culture for the Israeli nation. At the Dalia convention, they danced in Hebrew and created an Israeli style. This continued for several years, but to my regret it stopped. What began with great enthusiasm, fizzled out. My ambition was to elevate and promote folk dancing; then people wanted to learn new dances. So, I decided to open my own teaching courses for folk dancing. That was a difficult process, accompanied by several trials and tribulations and lack of sympathy from quite a few parties; but here a breakthrough was marked.

Looking back, what were the beautiful and positive processes which have occurred in folk dancing? And which would you have preferred not happened?

To my regret, and in my opinion, the Dance Instructors Association does not do a lot, if anything at all, and I certainly have things to criticize it about. There are no conventions, dance sessions, shows, newspaper articles and instructional courses. The Dance Instructors Association should demand that the dance instructors give good materials; there should be some kind of filter for the quality of the dances. A situation has arisen, for example, due to the large number of new songs, resulting in the enormous quantity of new dances choreographed to the Mediterranean / Arab-like melodies aka oriental music. In my day, there was no argument about this - we also danced dances to oriental songs, and quite a bit, but everything was in good taste and of a high quality. At my dance instruction courses, I carefully chose the dances. When Eliahu Gamliel presented the dance, Dror Yikra, at the dance seminar, I introduced it, the same with regard to Shmulik Gov Ari and his dance Shebachi Yerushalayim, and others. Everything was of quality and in good taste.

Is it possible to return to the positive/negative processes and learn from them with regard to the present and future?

Again, I repeat, with regard to the oriental dances, the problem is that the majority of them are of a low standard. Yehoram Gaon has said that the texts are poor in a considerable part of the songs. In my opinion, he was right, and this absolutely has implications on the dances. I, for example, created an Arabic dance titled, Debka Daluna. Gurit once asked me, “'Yo’av, what is this dance?” My reply was that it is a song which they sing here in the land of Israel.

What is desirable and appropriate for a dance instructor to do today?

In my opinion a dance instructor should teach on average 2-3 new dances a month and no more than that. He must filter them and not introduce every dance. The dance instructor should be a professional who attends professional courses and not just on the subject of folk dancing, but in all matters associated with movement, dance, style, folklore and more. The dance instructor should be his own filter. He should know how to respect the dancing public. To my sorrow, today there are no rules, not even a basis for the question of what a folk dance should contain. When a dance instructor, one who has not attended such courses as I described, choreographs a dance, comes to the dance session and teaches his dance (and this is good because it is new), to my regret, after a month, the dance disappears.

Looking back, if you could, what would you change?

Even then, and now, I once again say, I have never been crowned. It is important to arrange for orderly review and instructional courses to serve as a good example, to screen instructors by a board or committee. Naturally, it is impossible to do the whole process in one day, but in stages. However, apparently today it is not practical as there is nobody who will do it. It is possible to quote from the scriptures, “And in those days there was no King in Israel and every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” Today, there is no law and no judge and no leadership to lead the way. In the past, Gurit Kadmon was the leader who pushed and who led. Today, every man will do what is right in his own eyes. Many dances are introduced without any filtering, or good taste, and that is a pity. There is no professional today who can and is able to lead the way. To my regret I also mourn the contempt in the field which my friends and I fought hard to establish.

Can you point to who is guilty or who caused the folk dancing field to appear as it does today?

In one word, in my opinion, it is money-grabbing.

What are the 5 most beautiful dances you have created?

There aren't any 5; it is hard for me, because in my opinion, they are all good. That is like asking a parent whom of his children he loves most, but I will try: B'Kerem Teimanim, Erev Ba, Laila Laila, Tchol Hamitpahat, B'Aviv Tashuvi Chazara, Bo Beshalom, Korim Lanu Lalechet, Kleizmer, Itach Biladaich, and El Borot Hamayim. By the way, recently I created a dance to the song, Yatzanu At. I created it after the death of my late wife, Mira, because she loved the song very much. It is true that I have mentioned more than 5 dances, but I love all of them and I have more than 100 dances.

What do you do these days?

I run classes/sessions in classic dances and visit dance sessions.

Is there something special from your days in folk dancing?

I do not know whether this is really something special, but I will tell you anyway. At one of the dance sessions we organized in Malchei Israel Square, I was told that Gurit Kadmon had arrived at the session. I went down to get her, brought her onto the stage, and I introduced her as the person who was the “Mother of Israeli Folk Dancing.” I awarded her the respect she deserved.

From your years of experience, what message would you like to send to the dance instructors and dancers?

Again, I am not looking for honor; I only wish that the dance instructors and dancers would respect the discipline of dance and the creation of dances. I wish that the dance instructors/choreographers would be professional and treat dance with respect. Once again, I would hope that the dance instructors introduce a friendly and pleasant atmosphere into their dance sessions.

Yo’av, it was very pleasant talking with you. You have put your hands in ours and led us in the dance steps, as only you know how, through the time tunnel to the beginnings of this wonderful culture of folk dancing. You have succeeded in enlightening us by illustrating the obstacles and pitfalls on the way. We hope that we will know how to keep and preserve the treasure of Israeli Folk Dance, so that we as well may instill it in future generations. We would like to bless you and wish you good health and many more years of activity in general and in particular in folk dancing. We hope that we can impart your world concept and love of Israel into the dancers and dance instructors in Israel and abroad.

Interviewed and Submitted by: Atara Goldring-Tsur and Adi Habad
Translated by Maxin Cohen

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