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Tripping the light (Israeli) fantastic
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Tripping the light (Israeli) fantastic

Dancing offers a good time, and it’s good for you!

Learning a circle dance in a class led by Miriam Handler at Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in Cranford.
Learning a circle dance in a class led by Miriam Handler at Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in Cranford.

What’s more fun than working out at the gym? More social than yoga? More spiritual than Zumba? And cheaper than a night at the movies?

It’s Israeli dancing — and it’s available locally.

To encourage people to join in the spirit and start the year 5771 off on the right foot, a host of opportunities for learning the art of Israeli dancing is offered at a number of area synagogues. Experienced instructors go way beyond the hora, teaching both novice and seasoned students such basic steps as yemenites, mayims, and cherkessias and more advanced forms of Israeli terpsichorean skills.

“It’s an exciting way to connect,” said instructor Elyse Litt of Clark, who specializes in teaching beginners. “Connecting with the music, the land, the language, and spirit of Israel, and also with your fellow dancers. Like Israel, it’s full of international influences. So no matter what kind of music you love, there’s some of it there. There’s something for everybody.”

She calls her class “Exercise with Ruach!”

Fellow instructor Rachel Eisenberg of Staten Island noted that learners can choose from a variety of styles, and, she added, the dances can go almost anywhere.

“Because the dances are international, they travel with you,” said Eisenberg. “You will see the same dances in Israel and Brazil. You’re connected to other people. There’s a worldwide network of dancing people on Facebook. And when you go traveling, you can actually meet these people and dance in their sessions.”

For those planning on staying closer to home, taking part in Israeli dancing offers a more practical advantage. “It’s an inexpensive night out,” said Litt. “It’s cheaper than going to the movies.”

For around $10 a session, prospective dancers can often learn from several instructors. Added bonuses: snacks are usually provided and there’s the shared camaraderie.

“You meet nice people,” said Litt, adding that, for men, “it’s a great way to meet women. Women love a guy who can dance.”

‘Laughter therapy’

Beyond the social aspect, Litt and Eisenberg offer reasons why Israeli dancing can be a real lifesaver. Now a healthy high school senior, Litt’s son, Jake, had high cholesterol as a youngster. Doctors advised that the family find a fun exercise program.

“We had to come up with something,” said Litt, explaining that she enrolled her son — and herself — in instructor Miriam Handler’s beginners’ class in Cranford. “Fortunately, it took, and we were hooked,” she said, “and it’s been six years now.”

Eisenberg said she recently suffered the loss of a close friend and found Israeli dancing to be the ideal distraction. “I love the way it would draw me out of my head,” she said. “I found that dancing was the only time I would not be thinking about her because I would be memorizing the steps and being transported by the music.” As a mother of small children, dancing also got her out of the house and gave her break. “It’s stress management,” she said.

Both instructors agree the physicality of Israeli dancing is great exercise and offers such benefits as weight loss and even the enhancement of balance and coordination for sports. But unlike aerobics or going to the gym, Israeli dancing offers variety and change. If you don’t like one of the dances, it’s only a few minutes until another one you like better comes on.

“When I did aerobics, if I didn’t feel like going one day, I wouldn’t go,” said Eisenberg. “But if I missed a dance session, I would miss learning the dances. So it kept me coming back.

“In aerobics you can miss a week and you don’t miss anything. Dancing makes you want to go because it’s something you look forward to. It pushes you and makes you feel like you’re going to be missing something if you don’t go.”

“It’s the only exercise program I’ve ever really stuck with,” says Litt. “It’s social and the music is great. It’s a natural high.”

Handler of Edison, who has taught Israeli dancing for over three decades, goes one step further.

“I enjoy seeing the sense of accomplishment a new dancer exhibits after learning a dance,” she said. “They are so overjoyed. The success they experience usually overflows to other challenging activities that they are now going to attempt as a result of succeeding at Israeli dancing.” Plus, she added, “it’s laughter therapy.”

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