By Felix Grudsky
Passionate sounds of the eight-beat salsa rhythm fill a large basement room. Several couples hold hands and practice the variants of the "basic step," the familiar series of forward and backward movements that characterize this sensual dance, originated in Cuba and Puerto Rico and perfected in New York in the 1970s. No, this is not an audition for the next "Dancing with the Stars" installment, but "From Rio to Tel Aviv," a Russian Hillel/Hillels Around Chicago: Multi-Campus Center program. The event, sponsored by the JCRC's Initiative for Israel on Illinois Campuses, took place recently at Northwestern Hillel.
"We wanted to have a fun program. Everybody enjoys Latin dancing and we decided to have a salsa lesson with a twist: to talk about the influences of Spanish and Latin music on the Israeli culture and dance," said Mark Furman, a student at the College of Lake County and a former member of the dancing ensemble Yom Tov in Kiev, Ukraine.
During the first half of the two-hour program, instructors Rita Nisman and Arthur Bolotny taught about a dozen participants the basics of salsa. Nisman, a Northwestern University junior, is a member of the performance group and ballroom competition team "Blast," while Bolotny won the 2005 Latin Street Bailes Tropicales Dance Contest and the Buzz Seventh Annual Salsa Contest.
"Dancing is one of the few activities that offers social interaction, physical activity and spiritual enlightenment, all in one," Bolotny said. "You enjoy the company of your partner, move your body to the beat and let the music lift your spirit!"
"Not only is dancing a good way to meet other people, there is no better form of communication or of expression of your personality," Nisman added. "Dancing is amazing; it's the best way to entertain yourself and people around you."
"My girlfriend and I go dancing occasionally and I wanted to surprise her with some new salsa skills," said Ilya Bunimovich, a junior at Northwestern and one of the program participants. "I was also interested in learning some Israeli dances and curious how they would tie in with the salsa lesson."
After a short break in the middle of the program, Furman asked everyone to sit in a circle on the floor and led a short meditation session to the Spanish-influenced songs of the Israeli singer David Broza. Broza studied in Spain and has released three Spanish-language albums. The album we listened to was recorded at a live concert on top of Masada. We all closed our eyes and imagined ourselves among the ruins of Herod's temple.
"Israeli music was heavily influenced by Latin American countries. Immigrants from Brazil and Argentina established many kibbutzim. They brought their music, dance and cultural flavor with them," Furman explained.
After 10 minutes of this relaxing exercise we resumed our standing dance positions, and Furman, together with Ilana Demantas, a University of Illinois at Chicago student and a former member of another dancing ensemble in Vilnius, Lithuania, taught us two Israeli dances.
To emphasize the contrast with the modern Israeli dance, Furman and Demantas first taught us "Haroa Haktana," an example of a traditional Israeli folk dance from the renaissance days of the modern state of Israel. Then they taught us a second dance to the song "Al Tihiey Gibor" by Liel, a major hit in Israel in 2003. In addition to elements of salsa, its choreography incorporated elements of samba, Cuban-originated cha-cha and Dominican Republic's merengue.
"In the 1970s and 1980s such Brazil-originated dances as samba and lambada became particularly popular in Israel," Furman noted.
"Most Israelis love dancing," Nisman added. "Israel is the melting pot of Jews from all over the world, and dance has always brought them together."
Felix Grudsky is a graduate student at University of Illinois at Chicago and a JCRC/Hillel Russian Israel Intern for Hillels Around Chicago: Multi-Campus Center.