The first time Dr. Ruth Eshel witnessed esketa (which means shoulder dance, in Amharic), she was astounded. “I knew immediately that this was something new and different, something I had never seen before,” Eshel said with enthusiasm over a cup of steaming coffee at Tel Aviv’s renowned Performing Arts Center. “For someone like me, who has been dancing and choreographing for many years, to see something entirely new was very refreshing,” she continued, smiling wider at the memory. Eshel’s dream of one day forming an Ethiopian dance troupe was rooted in that first experience as an awestruck spectator.
Several years prior to that, her career as a dancer had been tragically curtailed by a serious car accident. Undeterred, she continued to choreograph, research and write about her great passion. Author of “Dancing With the Dream: The Development of Artistic Dance in Israel From 1920 to 1964” and a dance critic for the daily newspaper Haaretz, she flourished as a field researcher after 20 years of performing on stage.
In the early 1990s, as Ethiopian immigrants arrived in Israel by the thousands, her curiosity about their culture was piqued. “I’m not ethnic, and my background is in modern dance and experimental, avant-garde work, but I was attracted to their movement. My interest was both artistic and general,” she said.
So when a friend at the Israel Dance Library in Tel Aviv informed her that money slated for research on ethnic dance remained in the budget, Eshel thought immediately of Ethiopian shoulder dancing. After some initial research, she found that very little had been done before with traditional Ethiopian dance — even in Ethiopia. It was a field with enormous potential.
Four years later, in one of her lectures on “movement theater” at the University of Haifa, Eshel had the opportunity to meet some young Ethiopians who were also dancers. Working in close collaboration with students, she spent many months recording specific body movements, memories from Ethiopia, traditional synagogue prayers and even childhood games before starting to choreograph new dances. It was of critical importance to her that this dance troupe not perform a Westernized version of folk dancing or be a kitschy tourist attraction. She was determined to bridge the gap between distinct Ethiopian movement and modern interpretation. Using Sara Levi-Tanai’s successful creation of the Inbal Dance Theater, which is based on Yemenite culture and traditions, as a model, Eshel began to transform her dream into a reality. In 1995, the Esketa dance troupe was formed.
After 10 years as a student dance troupe under the auspices of the University of Haifa, Esketa moved to the Neve Yoseph community and became the Beta Dance Troupe. Like Arthur Mitchell, the African American ballet dancer who opened a dance school in Harlem to help the community, Eshel chose an impoverished location with a large immigrant population to enrich opportunities for both local residents and the Ethiopian dancers.
For the dancers and spectators, the Beta troupe has opened new lines of communication. “Dancing is the best way for people to see our culture and for us to spread the emphasis on love, hope and respect that are so important to us,” Beta dancer Sandaka Maharat explained in a telephone interview.
Like the majority of the Beta dancers, he was born in Ethiopia, having immigrated to Israel at the age of 2 1/2. The journey through Sudan on foot was difficult, and he lost his mother and two sisters along the way. When the family entered Israel, their way of life changed, seemingly overnight. The transition from farming, growing their own food and milking their own cows, to having to earn a living and purchase everything was challenging. Today, 27 years later, dancing is a way for Maharat to reconnect with his former homeland and lost relatives.
“To release yourself in dance is like a meditation. After I finish dancing, I feel like I can breathe again,” he said, explaining that Ethiopians begin dancing as soon as they are born, and movement forms an integral part of the Ethiopian culture, both Jewish and non-Jewish. It is a way to enliven celebrations as well as express sorrow.
In November, in honor of the Ethiopian Jewish holiday of Sigd, the Beta troupe has been invited to perform in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. In Los Angeles, they will perform Oct.19 at the Westside JCC Auditorium, hosted by the Consulate General of Israel, the Westside Jewish Community Center and the Little Ethiopia Cultural Resource Center. The Sigd celebration, held exactly 50 days after Yom Kippur on the 29th day of the month of Cheshvan, officially symbolizes the acceptance of the Torah. For the Ethiopian community in Israel, it is also a celebration of the return to their homeland. Despite the overall joyous occasion, the day is also tinged with regret for the thousands who did not survive the journey or who have not yet been able to make it.
Maharat said he is looking forward to meeting Ethiopians in the United States and seeing the cultural differences. He is also excited about the prospect of sharing a more positive slant on Ethiopian Jewry. “We don’t have a good name in Israel, and people often look down on our community, so I’m always happy to show people this dance and see the amazed looks on their faces. It emphasizes the positive aspects of our culture.”
Although Eshel says it wasn’t her goal to have people admire the Ethiopian community through the Beta dancers, she appreciates the positive responses, both at home and abroad. Invited to perform all over the world in the 15 years since the company’s inception, she calls her work Ethiopian dance for the new millennium and sees it as an important art form. The choreography, costumes and music are a fusion of authentic and modern that strives to express human emotion in a unique way — largely through the head, neck and shoulders.
“Although the prayers we use are Jewish, the Beta dancers are not of interest to Jewish communities alone but also to the dance community at large,” Eshel said. “People are often surprised by our dances because they expect something traditional. We are stylizing the DNA of Ethiopian shoulder dancing, and the result is a special art form that is authentic and original.”
The Beta Dance Troupe performs Oct. 19 at 7:30 p.m., Westside JCC Auditorium, 5870 W. Olympic Los Angeles, Calif. 90036. Tickets $10. For more information, go to israelconsulatela.org or call (323) 938-2531, (310) 633-4830 or (323) 936-0907.
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