Let’s Celebrate Cultural Appropriation in Dance

In the 1960s and 1970s, Israeli and American choreographers borrowed steps from Arab dances to incorporate into what they called Israeli Folk Dancing. This history is examined in a new work by an Israeli choreographer of Modern Dance, Hadar Ahuvia. I have not seen her show, but this interview in the New York Times suggests that Ms. Ahuvia raises the issue of “cultural appropriation.”

Since the 1970s, I have done Israeli Dancing. Somewhere along the line, the word “folk” was dropped, because the music is contemporary and all of the dances are choreographed. They did not emerge gradually out of folk traditions.

Hippies go for Balkan Dancing

The period of the 1960s and 1970s was one in which the hippie generation was eager to adopt music and dance from other cultures. The “British Invasion” of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and others brought African-American music to white youth. Black musicians, from older blues greats like B.B. King to younger gospel and blues artists like Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding who recorded at Muscle Shoals studios, achieved fame and fortune with this new audience.

Liberal-minded people thought this was a good thing. International Folk Dancing became a minor fad, with Balkan dancing particularly popular. Dance instructors would travel to that region in order to study native dances and to bring them back to aficionados in the United States. Doing the dances of Serbia, Macedonia, Croatia, Albania, and Greece was thought of as a way of honoring those cultures. We never thought of it as stealing from them.

Similarly, it was the most liberal-minded Jews who enjoyed Israeli dances that incorporated steps modeled on Arab debkas. Some of the choreographers had come from Arab countries and were proud of their heritage. Others wanted to promote their idealistic vision, which was for an ethnically and culturally integrated state, with Arabs blended seamlessly into the economy and life of Israel. In hindsight, this vision may seem naive , but it was well intended.

Borrowing from everyone

Israeli dance now borrows music and styles from around the world. In the 1970s, Israeli Dancing included Veshuv Itchem. But to the International Folk Dance crowd, the same music was the basis for Turkish Hora (and note where this video comes from — Israelis and Americans are not the only ones who like to do dances from other cultures).

More recently, Israeli Dances have borrowed styles from Russia (the performance is in Germany), Latin America, Hip-hop, and reggae (If you knew me and looked very carefully, you could find me in the background of this video for a few seconds.)

Israeli Dancing has become more difficult and more esoteric. Like other pastimes, it is now narrower, deeper, and older. That is, it attracts a following that is smaller, more committed, and of advanced age. It seems that in thirty years or so, Israeli Dance is destined to have a following that is limited to dance historians.

Speaking of a generation gap, my age affects my attitude about “cultural appropriation.” As I pointed out earlier, liberal-minded people of my generation thought that mixing cultures was a good thing. We thought that cultural exchange was a way to bring people closer together.

I continue to hold on to those older ideals. I wish that younger people could still celebrate cultural exchange, rather than feel the urge to condemn it.