MISGAV, Galilee — At eight o’clock on a Sunday night, 15 teenage boys thundered across the parquet dance floor at the Misgav community center. Dressed in tall, furry red hats and long black vests, they strutted, jumped and spread their arms wide for a traditional Georgian dance, one of more than a dozen pieces they were rehearsing for the annual Misgav dance event.
It was late February, just weeks before the annual March dance recital, when this group of some 60 dancers, all 11th and 12th graders, as well as six other age groups, would perform in the eagerly awaited annual event in Misgav, a regional council of 35 small towns and communities in the Galilee.
All told, Misgav has some 340 dancers, from age 10 to adults aged 40-plus.
“The personal peak for us is in March,” said Einat Goren, who runs the dance troupe program, “but the countrywide peak is in Carmiel,” at the annual dance festival held in the northern town. “They give us the best stages. We’ve already won so much there.”
The Misgav troupes are one of the best out there, said Shlomo Maman, the artistic director of the three-day Carmiel Festival, taking place this week, July 19-21.
“Misgav is a small community,” he said. “They’re in it together, it’s not like Tel Aviv. They use dance as a way to connect people, as a framework for being together. And they do amazing work, hard work, from a young age until they’re in the army. It’s a huge accomplishment.”
There was the year the Misgav troupe tried their hand at jazz, and won first prize at Carmiel. This year, the festival invited the Misgav dancers to put on a performance in Carmiel’s main stage, at Heichal HaTarbut.
“They gave it to us and said, ‘Create a dance,” said Goren. “We’ve never had something like that. It means everything to us.”
For the Carmiel Festival, said Maman, the aim is to gather the country’s dance troupes, and offer them a stage. There are international troupes who are invited to perform as well, dancing jazz, hip-hop and ballet — the St. Petersburg State Ballet on ice will be attendance this year, performing “Swan Lake” and “Cinderella,” as well as a Hungarian troupe performing from “Hair” and a troupe called the Flying Georgians.
“We make room for every style, but we try to make Israeli dance the main attraction,” said Maman. “We create a platform for Israeli dance, for the older troupes to show off what they’ve been working on all year. We have competitions, we have troupes with special needs, troupes with ethnic niches, we’re one of the biggest dance festivals out there.”
The peak, the very essence of this Sabra event, is to showcase Israeli dance. It’s not what was once called Israeli folk dancing, the hora hallmark of the Israeli pioneers who gathered in the cool evenings in the kibbutz dining hall to let off steam.
This is a more contemporary version of the national pastime, now simply called Israeli dance, with choreography based on many of the original circle and line dances, merged with jazz, modern and ballet, and set to mostly contemporary Israeli music, whether Shlomo Artzi or Infected Mushroom.
“The songs we use are those that are from the radio, the ones you hear now,” he said. “You’re tied to the past and present, and something comes out of that.”
That’s also at the core of what takes place in nearby Misgav.
“Dganit will always say if something isn’t Israeli enough,” said Noam Goldstein, 17, one of the starring male members of Misgav’s famed high school troupe. “We’re always emphasizing that. We use old songs, and words of old songs.”
Dganit is Dganit Rom, the longtime choreographer and cheerleader in Misgav, an energetic dancer who grew up dancing in Tel Aviv’s folk dance troupes and then studied modern dance before moving to Misgav in 1984, as a young newlywed.
“When I first got here, there was nothing,” said Rom. “We used to dance on the court outside, we’d work in bomb shelters.”
What she wanted was to create a troupe like the one she’d grown up dancing in, a group that was “super Israeli,” and along with the youth group she had belonged to, offered a community she loved and wanted to recreate for kids in Misgav.
“I do it with love, I bring what I love to the kids, what I grew up with,” said Rom, who works with several other dance teachers in the program. “The dance program becomes a second home for everyone. We all bring a lot of commitment and professionalism and that brought success. We aren’t braggarts, our egos are in check. We never see our successes as something we expected. We’re always surprised.”
Misgav’s troupes are amateur, and most of the dancers don’t end up dancing professionally. Instead, said Goren, it’s about something else.
She, like many residents of Misgav, came to the Galilee region in the 1980s, shortly after Israelis began moving north to village settlements on the Galilean hilltops, away from the cities, but looking for a different kind of community that would meld with the Druze and Bedouin residents of the area.
Unlike moshavim and kibbutzim, residents of each hilltop community didn’t rely on one another for work and income, but did work together to create childcare centers, youth activities and communal activities.
There was no main city or town unifying the different communities, and even now, the community center functions as a gathering place for the residents of the area. There’s a population of some 15,000 spread out over an area of 50,000 acres, and which includes around 4,500 Bedouin.
The Hand in Hand bilingual Hebrew-Arab school had one of its first branches in the region.
“It wasn’t so easy in the beginning,” said Goren, who moved to the region from Haifa with her family. “We were close to the Arab villages and that was complicated. But there was a vision to settle the Galilee and the people here wanted something different than living near shopping centers. People here want the life of a community and it means being far from the center and its issues and restaurants and malls.”
The idea of the dance troupes started out as an afternoon activity for kids, said Goren.
Even now, with all the renown that Misgav brings to its dance troupes, the youngest kids, ages 9 and 10, first participate in it as an after-school activity, said Goren.
“They don’t understand the commitment, they don’t get that yet,” she said.
That comes later.
“We call it, and think of ourselves, as the team of experts,” said Goren. “This isn’t macrame. The kids move up in the troupes and if you don’t come, you will lose out. You dance until the Carmiel Festival on July 21. The kids quickly understand that it’s a commitment. It’s coming on time and with the right outfit.”
What creates the commitment is the experience, added Goren. There are the rehearsals, with periods of the year when the older kids may dance for up to six hours a day, but there are also parties and activities and games. There are different generations of the same families dancing, sometimes fathers and daughters or mothers and sons, as well as the occasional grandparent.
For Goldstein, the 17-year-old star of the Georgian dance — he’s the good-looking kid with a shock of black hair who lip-syncs the Russian words of the song — the lead-up to Carmiel has become the peak of his year, of his childhood of dance in this small northern enclave.
“It’s this combination of perfectionism and friends and fun,” said Goldstein. “We just had an end-of-year party at the Kinneret. If we didn’t have the atmosphere of work and bonding, it wouldn’t be professional. But they critique us and that’s why it works. There’s an emphasis on both.”
Goldstein is one of about 30 young male dancers his age, all friends from elementary school, who dance in Misgav’s rigorous dance program. He started dancing in fifth grade, and has spent seven years in the troupe.
“I found myself there,” he said. “My best friends are from the troupe.”
The dance program draws a lot of boys, more than the average dance troupe, but there are still never quite enough male dancers, said Goren.
“It’s not nice to say, but usually all the boys get in,” said Goren. “Even with our successes, there are still never enough boys and the girls all want to be in the main group.”
Not everyone gets in.
It’s competitive, said Goren, but it’s the only way when “you want to be the best.”
She’s fought with parents over the tryouts, but has become more accepting of the process.
“We’re the best, we’re among the best troupes in the country and what sets us apart, besides our hard work, is Dganit’s work,” she said. “It’s so Israeli and modern and humorous and her ability to work on it all.”
They demand a lot of the older teens as well. The program recently added a classical ballet class for the boys, and “they don’t argue,” said Goren. “They understand the importance of it, but I’m still surprised that they do it. They feel like partners in it, they get it. It’s not for everyone, but most of them love it.”
And while many of the young dancers come back during the army to rehearse on Fridays, it’s not the same as those peak years in eleventh and twelfth grades.
“They’ve learned values that are different, values of volunteerism, of giving back to their community,” said Goren. “Many are counselors in youth groups and in our programs, and then they go and meet the rest of Israel and they’re in shock.”
Goldstein said he plans on continuing to dance after high school, when he’s in the army and when he’s an adult.
“Dance and Misgav will always be a part of me,” he said. “I don’t know what it’s like anywhere else, because this is the only place I’ve ever really known. And when you’re here, you dance. That’s just what you do.”
More than 150 Misgav dancers will present their best works in a collective piece called “Heartbeats” at the Carmiel Festival onThursday, July 21, 11:30 am, Heichal HaTarbut, Carmiel. For tickets, call 04-990-2052/2389.