Known for such classic dances as “Joshua,” “Lach Yerushalayim,” “ Ashrei Ha ish,” “Rachel,” and more than 70 others, master teacher and choreographer Dani Dassa shares memories and anecdotes from his creative inspirations.
DOTA: The Israeli folk dance community enjoys so many of your classic dances. One of these is “Joshua.” Describe the development of your creative process of this dance?
DD: “Joshua” was inspired by: the six-day war when we got a lot of territory including Jerusalem and Jericho; Joshua who was the leader chosen by God after Moses to take this nation to the promised land; and the whole story of the collapsing of the walls of Jericho not by weapons, just by sound. All this came back to me from the past. From that inspiration I did two dances on a little 45 rpm record. On one side was “Joshua” and on the other side was “Lach Yerushalayim,” which was a tribute to Jerusalem.
The expression of the dance actually is attack and retreat. The whole dance is based on it. It’s not a war dance; I would say it’s coming back to peaceful times of inheriting the land again. I don’t want to sound like an extreme right wing, which I am not; it’s the love of the land and to the people; the expression of the joy of dance. I did this dance at Brandeis-Bardin with college students. It was a way for me to tell them a Biblical story of what was happening.
I was born in the old city of Jerusalem , Misgav Ladach. Jerusalem was settled by the Jordanians in 1948 and I was involved in all of that, of losing the Jewish section of Jerusalem . I had nightmares about the streets of the old city for twenty years. So I did “Lach Yerushalayim” as a tribute to Jerusalem , as if I am bursting into those streets of Jerusalem . When facing the Western Wall it’s as if I am touching those stones of the wall with my hands (the words say: Lach Yerushalayim, bein yarden vayam, Dassa demonstrates a part of the dance with his hands). I shared that with the college kids at Brandeis.
DOTA: When you told them the story how did they respond?
DD: I think they really got into the feeling that they belonged to something that has been going on for thousands of years, and that they are really part of the Jewish nation of Israel.
DOTA: Had they ever experienced anything like that before?
DD: No. I made the connection with them in my first session; I had a workshop at Brandeis-Bardin Institute ( California ). Before I started teaching dancing, the first question I asked them was their name. I would ask for their Jewish name. Most of them had Biblical names. I would ask them if they knew anything about them (their names). Some of them didn’t know what their names meant. So, once I got their identity, they made the connection. Once they made the connection, then the stories made sense. I shared with them something I lived. Once I shared with them something I lived, we had good communication with passion and love. To me, it was all through dance.
DOTA: When did you choreograph “Joshua” and “Lach Yerushalayim?”
DD: It had to be 1967-68, which was after the six-day war.
Dani Dassa produced a record album of his dances entitled “RIKUD –Dances By Dani Dassa” that contained 13 dance songs (arranged by Toby A. David.) They included some of his dances choreographed from the years 1957 L’Moladati, and 1962 Hanaava Babanot through 1979 Chofshi Uneushar and Shiru Shir Chadash.
DOTA: What other dances have a special expression or connection?
DD: The first dance, “Adama Admati” (Al Givot Sheikh Abrek), the land that is my land, was the first time I tried to express, dared to choreograph, or to share something that was in me with others. It was a couple dance in which I tried to connect basically with (my) motherland and my love to the land. I did “Adama Admati” in 1955. Later, I did another one that was called “Ima Adama” (1989), which is motherland, the land gave birth to a nation. The first one I choreographed in Israel . The second one was done at camp Rikud ( California ). I wanted to share that the land is for all people in the world, not just for one nation.
DOTA: Describe the meaning of the movements of “Adama Admati” (Al Givot Sheikh Abrek).
DD: I put some motions of the harvest in it, (motions like a sheave cutting the wheat grain, harvesting), always connected to the land. In 1956, I came to the United States. Most of the creative work was done here. In Israel I just enjoyed dancing.
DOTA: In 1989 you created Ima Adama. In what way is the mood of this dance different?
DD: It’s sharing with people, they could be Jews, non-Jews, anybody. It was a sharing of the passion to dance and this wonderful world that we live in. It’s about Mother Earth. The other was specifically, my land and my connection to the land.
DOTA: Where did the inspiration come from for your dance “Ashrei Ha ish” (1982)?
DD: “Ashrei Ha ish” is another dance that I did at Brandeis-Bardin, to connect the college kids to a Biblical theme – Moses facing the burning bush, and connecting the kids through more emotion and to the Torah.
I put in a hand motion as if I am covering my eyes from that great light. That burning bush was more than just a burning bush. So to be humble, fear of the unknown, I cover my face as I go inside of the circle. And then I took a verse from Psalms of King David. The whole song of Ashrei Ha Ish, is that man goes on the right path, of the Torah, and mingles with good people and not evil. Blessed is the person, who mingles with the good people, and goes the right way. The verse, when I cover with my hand, is “ U’v’torato,” and his Torah, he should have it day and night in his mind.
DOTA: How did your experience of sharing the Biblical connection of “Ashrei Ha Ish” with the students in 1982 compare with the experience presenting of “Joshua” in 1968?
DD: I brought something that was much different. The one before it Jericho with the collapsing of the walls, I made some basic steps (he indicates strong steps and movements). This time I wanted to share with them: how to be humble under something bigger than them; to be humble, even to other people and not take anything for granted. This is how I connected the Torah through dance, and an understanding about those great events that the stories tell about Moses facing the burning bush. Some people would do it through art, painting a burning bush with fire, or whatever. This was a dance that succeeded and they did it all over Israel even though I didn’t teach it in Israel , other people did. It spread in Europe , China , all over the world. If you say the name Ashrei Ha ish, they’re familiar with this dance.
Dani Dassa dancing and teaching at Brandeis-Bardin
DOTA: What sets your creative process in motion? Is it the music, or the rhythm, or the words?
DD: It’s all of those things. It’s an expression that’s in me, that comes out of me to the music, to the words. I have a dance called “Esh Eli” (circle dance, 1967). It was about the rejoicing of soldiers around the campfire in 1948. It’s about praising that light of the fire that is in our hearts. It is again, an expression. It’s not like the music telling me, but mostly it has to do with the music and the melody dragging me into it. For more than sixty-five years I am dancing dances of my culture. Simple as that, it just comes out. It’s not like making steps to a piece of music. Actually, I dance the music first, and then I put it down into some structure. The structure does not come first, or, I fit the structure to the music. It has to fit. But, I just naturally dance to it.
DOTA: How does dance make kids become can be passionate about themselves and their Jewishness?
DD: It’s very simple. I have passion to dance, Israeli dance, Jewish dance, and I can probably talk about it for hours. Basically, it is just sharing with love, and passion. It just works. The connection is immediately made. Because of my experience as a physical education teacher, it enhanced my professional ability to share (dance) in a much better way with the kids.
DOTA: In what ways were you able to get students involved if they had no previous dance experience?
DD: I am always 100% positive. It is always about sharing the experience and letting them know that they can. There is not such a thing, as they cannot; they always can, with a lot of patience. I had experience with a lecturer. In his head he could take the world apart. He couldn’t take one step forward or back when it came to his feet. I’m talking about lecturers who used to come to Brandeis. I made them all dance, no matter who. Maybe it was a slow process. The problem was the connection between the head and the feet. Once I made the connection it was quite easy. I simplified things; I did not change a dance ever, but I found ways to bring it up to achievement. In small steps I’d get to it. The dance always remains that dance as it is. If it’s “Kuma Echa,” it will be “Kuma Echa,” I’m not going to do “Kuma Echa” in different way for little children or a different way for 8 year- olds. I have respect for whomever did whatever they did. If I teach somebody else’s dances, it’s going to be exactly the way they did it. I’m not going to change it. Don’t take the liberty of changing somebody else’s creation. Let’s say I take the so-called national Jewish dance “Hora,” six steps, simple. It stays exactly the way it is. If there are some variations to it, then I will teach the variations. It’s going to be those six steps, with the variations, but it’s going to be “Hora.” I’m not going to teach them something different. If it’s “Mayim, Mayim,” it’s not going to be something else. “Mayim, Mayim” there is one way of doing it, the way it was choreographed and presented, it’s pretty much a national dance. I get to it in different ways. When he (the student) is ready, he will get to it. I had amazing achievements with children. They did the most complicated dances. The ages I would say were 8 years and up to 16. The beauty in that experience, in that camp, was they danced together on Friday night. Eight year olds through sixteen year olds were all holding hands. It was the greatest experience I had. They connected. They didn’t even think twice about it. Dance is a celebration of love. It’s a celebration, that’s the expression of dance. They do celebrate; it’s not that they are going to do something mechanically, a dance for the sake of steps, knowing how to move. It is about rejoicing. You feel it, you see it. I had a great time.
DANI DASSA WILL BE A GUEST PRESENTER AT A ONE-DAY WORKSHOP entitled “Moving out of the Box” Sunday, November 6, 2005 , 10 am to 6 pm , Skirball Cultural Center , Los Angeles , California (see description in Daughter Of The Arts’s Featured Section.)
Dani Dassa is a graduate of Israel’s Wingate Academy in addition to studying and dancing at Juilliard. At Hunter College he worked with folk dance teacher Fred Berk, a pioneer in developing the concept of Israeli dance workshops in the United States . Mr. Dassa founded “Cafe Danssa,” which was an Israeli folk dance meeting and dancing locale in West Los Angeles, California . He is a past director of the dance department at the University of Judaism and at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in California .
Dani Dassa dancing “Joshua” – link to Les Posen’s site http://homepage.mac.com/israeli_folk_dances/iMovieTheater426.html
Dances of Dani Dassa may be found at: http://www.israelidances.com/search.asp?S=A&intPageNo=1&ChoreographerName=Dani%20Dassa
Ashrei Ha’ Ish
Music and singer: Uri Shevach
Moving Out of the Box Workshop