Meir Shem-Tov is celebrating 30 years as an Israeli Folk Dance choreographer and teacher. Although he favors “old-fashioned” style music, his versatility allows him to adapt to many musical genres from Chasidic (“Habaal Shem Tov” 2003) to Moroccan (“Marhaba Bikum” 2003) to Turkish (“Neshikat Turkit” – Turkish Kiss 1997) to Latino (“ Mueve, Mueve” 1977)
DOTA: What was your first experience with dancing?
MST: It was Israeli dancing when I was 14 in our local Hadera community center. Nisim Vazana was my first teacher. I danced until I was about 18 years old, then I went into the army. When I finished the army, I started folk dancing in Tel Aviv for two years for the Hishtalmut. At the same time, in 1976, I started teaching. I was teaching folk dance and I was performing in the Hadera performing group. The year after, 1977, I was teaching and I was doing the choreography for the performing group. That’s how I started. I started in 1976, that makes it thirty years now.
Meir leading dance at Ramah Rikkudiah
DOTA: When did you begin choreographing for Israeli folk dancing?
MST: I think it was around 1979 or 1980. My first dances were “Ahavati Harishona,” “Shuvi Harmonika,” “Derech Eretz Hashaked,” and “Tavorchi Artzi.” The first dance that people were doing was “Shuvi Harmonika.”
DOTA: How is it different choreographing for performing groups than it is for Israeli folk dancers?
MST: When you do choreography for performance you have to change the whole time. When you do it in Israeli folk dance, you have to put it in parts and then repeat. So it will be the first part, the second part, etc. You have to put it in an order. You cannot do a folk dance with twelve parts. For performing you can do it.
Meir at Ramah Rikkudiah
DOTA: What inspires you to create a dance?
MST: It’s only the music.
DOTA: Do you have a favorite type of music?
MST: Actually, I like the old fashioned music, the old Israeli music, songs like Tavorchi Artzi and Derech Eretz Hashaked. Even some of my newest dances, that I made only last year and that I am going to teach at Ramah, are to old music. I don’t like all the hip hop style. I like the old fashioned.
DOTA: You have dances to many styles of music such as “Habaal Shem Tov. ”
NOTE: In medieval Judaism a rabbi who appeared to have supernatural powers was called a Ba’al Shem. Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer, also known as the Baal Shem Tov (1698 – 1760) was considered the “founder” of Hassidism . Hence, Baal Shem Tov is ‘Good Master of the Name’
MST: Yes, the Chasidic dance. If you have Chasidic music you have to do Chasidic style. That was my first Chasidic dance. A year or two ago, I did a Moroccan dance, “Marhaba Bikum” (2003). Sometimes I do things a little differently. I have the Turkish dance,
“Neshikat Turkit (Turkish Kiss)” (1997); I had the Latino dance “Mueve Mueve (Lazus Lazus)” (1997), so sometimes I play a little with the music. Basically, I follow my heart and go for the old fashioned music.
Meir at Nirkoda workshop Melbourne April 2005
DOTA: Do you have a dance that has an interesting story behind creating it?
MST: My best story is “ Shir Le’achoti.” It’s also one of my favorites.
This is a dance that took me 7 years to finish. Usually, when I make a dance it can take me two hours, or two days, or a week, etc. With “Shir Le’achoti” I was not happy. I kept doing it over and over again, and I was never happy about the outcome. So I waited for 7 years, until I said to myself, ‘This is what I want.’
DOTA: Do you have a favorite composer or singer?
MST: I try not to be too closed about it; I’m open about it. If there is a new singer, and I like the music, I will go for it. Naturally, if I hear something where the sound feels like old music, I will like it better!
DOTA: What do you feel is different in the folk dance community from when you first started creating dances for Israeli folk dancing?
MST: I think the dancers here in Israel used to be very good dancers; they did very difficult debkas, and very difficult dances. Today they want something easy: cha, cha, cha and close – cha, cha, cha and close. They don’t want to deal with difficult or special dances any more. Now, when you make a dance, you make it simpler.
DOTA: Why do think that is?
MST: It changed because some of the choreographers and the teachers started to teach maybe eight or ten years ago, and they have a lot of power in Israel; this is their style. So for the people that only started to dance five years ago, this is all they know. They don’t know the debkas from Moshiko; they don’t know the dances from Shmuel (Vicki) Cohen; they don’t know the old style dances. They got used to it, to easy dances, the same steps over and over again. There is not a lot of special style in the new dances. There are so many dances that look the same now. It’s also because the teachers want to teach the new stuff. They get the new material from Israel ; they want to teach these dances right away, so they will not get behind. But at the same time they are losing old dances; there is not enough time to play the old dances. It’s a big problem.
Meir at Ramah Rikiudiah
In the States (U.S.A.), when you go to a camp, you will always find people who will dance these older dances and keep them. When I am in New York , when I am doing the camps for Moshe Eskayo, especially Sababa, I enjoy dancing there so much because I am doing dances that I don’t do in Israel any more.
DOTA: Are there some groups in Israel doing old dances?
MST: Yes, there are some groups that are doing only oldies. There are a few places in Israel where they are doing some special nights they are doing nostalgia (dances choreographed up to 1985), they don’t do newest dances. There is a group of people keeping these dances, not on a regular basis but on special evenings.
DOTA: Who has been an influence on you?
MST: Yossi Abuhav is the best teacher ever for me. He is really one of the persons in Israeli folk dance that I look up to. In the reserve in the army, I used to teach the soldiers from all the units how to become folk dance teachers in their units. Yossi Abuhav did that before me and I followed him. We became good friends. I just saw him three weeks ago, at my daughter’s wedding.
Also, I would say, Dani Dassa, and Yo’av Ashriel . They have a real Israeli style of dancing.
Meir Shem-Tov and Richelle Arber at
Nirkoda workshop Melbourne April 2005
DOTA: When do your Israeli folk dance groups meet in Israel ?
MST: Now I have two groups, two nights – every Tuesday and Thursday night.
My groups are not very big, I have 80 one night and one night I have 150. I am very proud of the fact that my groups are like a big family. They are all friends. They all know each other. I feel good about my groups.
Meir Shem-Tov will again be a guest choreographer at the 24th annual Ramah Rikkudiah Israeli Folk Dance camp to be held January 13-15, 2006, in Ojai, California Camp directors are Natalie and Reuven Sternhttp://www.ramah.org/pr_rikkudiah.shtml Telephone at Ramah office: (310) 476-8571.
Some links for videos of Meir Shem-Tov leading some of his dances are:
Meir Shem-Tov leading his dance “Tavorchi Artzi.” http://homepage.mac.com/israeli_folk_dances/iMovieTheater304.html
Meir Shem-Tov leading his dance “Habaal Shem Tov” http://homepage.mac.com/israeli_folk_dances/iMovieTheater371.html
Meir Shem-Tov leading his dance “ Shir Le’achoti” http://homepage.mac.com/israeli_folk_dances/iMovieTheater404.html
For a list of dances by Meir Shem-Tov go to the following link: