Gaga: A Foreigner Explores Ohad Naharin’s Movement Language

Posted on 03 January 2009 by Deborah Friedes Galili

Gaga Class November 2008

(Photo: Gaga class with Ohad Naharin, center, in November 2008.  I am “connecting to pleasure” on the left.  Photo by Gadi Dagon.)

(I originally wrote this post for The Winger on May 4, 2008, under the title, “Going Gaga All Over Again.”)

When I took my first Gaga class in fall of 2007, I was like an infant, tentatively trying out a new way of moving while also beginning to learn Hebrew. Everything was foreign to me, and processing a different framework for dancing in an unfamiliar language was a challenge.  Thankfully, my Gaga teachers were willing to pepper their instructions with English, and my Hebrew tutor helped me learn the frequently used terms which I wrote down after lessons.

Like a child, I steadily gained more mastery of my body and built up my communication skills; I acquired a physical language and, at least partially, the accompanying verbal language.  It’s not always easy to see progress in language acquisition – but when I successfully took two Gaga classes taught almost entirely in Hebrew on April 22, 2008, I was floating both figuratively and literally (to float, or “latzoof,” is one of the most common directions in Gaga).

April 22 was a special day.  Besides taking my usual morning Gaga class at the Suzanne Dellal Center, I got to catch up with a friend visiting from abroad who enjoyed her first Gaga class ever.  We spent hours dissecting it and continued our conversation with another friend of hers who has danced both here and in Europe, taking on an array of topics.  Here’s a tasting of the questions we tackled: What techniques are primarily concerned with the body’s relationship to space, what techniques are more focused on the sensations and movements within the body, and where does Gaga fall in this spectrum? What is unique about the physicality used in Gaga and Ohad Naharin’s work? How has Gaga and/or the Batsheva aesthetic influenced the larger Israeli contemporary dance scene?  What are the other training methods used in major contemporary companies today, both here and abroad?

I’ll leave these big questions aside for the time being – they’ll take a lot of time, space, and energy to explore (clearly, even while I write, I’m a Laban-influenced dancer) – and for now I’ll continue on with the events of April 22.  To cap off my day of Gaga, I joined over 70 people for a special monthly class taught by Ohad Naharin himself in the Batsheva Dance Company’s spacious main studio.   By 8 p.m., Studio Varda was packed with a diverse crowd: men and women; 20-somethings and 30-somethings, middle-aged folks, and senior citizens; dancers (including some I recognized as Gaga teachers, Batsheva company and ensemble dancers, and people I’ve met at contact jams) and non-dancers; even a few young Ethiopian students who have been studying Gaga as part of one of Batsheva’s outreach programs.

With such a range, I couldn’t help wondering, what are these people’s stories?  How did they come to Gaga, and what kept them coming back to classes? Gaga’s ability to attract followers outside of the typical dance class population is truly extraordinary.   Not only do participants commit to at least one class weekly, but many Gaga enthusiasts take advantage of the unlimited monthly plan and eagerly take multiple classes per week.  When it comes time for Ohad’s monthly class, a huge crowd shows up, and the energy in the studio is absolutely electric.  The evening of the 22nd was no different – the excitement was palpable when Batsheva’s artistic director entered the room.

Although at other Gaga classes I’ve met an assortment of new immigrants or foreigners on extended stays in Israel, the population of this class was overwhelmingly Israeli; indeed, when Ohad asked if there was anyone who didn’t speak Hebrew, I was one of (I think) only 2 people who raised their hands. Floating (literally) while he asked if my Hebrew was good enough for him to teach in his native language, I reflected on my morning class and answered “Ken” (“Yes”).  Thus I plunged into his most Hebrew-based class yet.  We walked, stretched, and shifted our weight from leg to leg.  We found circular motions in different body parts, generated movement from the image of balls traveling through our bodies, and gave and received energy from partners far away from us.  We grooved, laughed out loud while grooving, and then let the memory of that laughter guide our own personal dances.  We shook, moved in slow motion, and then did the two actions together (it’s possible!).  And yes, we floated some more.

As has happened to me before in Ohad’s class as well as in several other lessons, there were many magical moments of transcendence during this evening – moments when, as the introductory Gaga handout states, there are “links” formed between “conscious and subconscious movement.”  If the verbal cues in Gaga are indeed suggestions rather than the hard-and-fast rules which govern many dance techniques, they are at times picked up by my body and mind with neither resistance nor with a concerted effort to follow them.  It’s as if they seep into me through the air, and I respond physically without forcing myself to act in accordance with what I heard.  The processing of this verbal information (and, for that matter, of the visual information around me – and perhaps the energetic information flowing through the room) is not purely a conscious one.  It’s almost as if I am responding to subliminal messages, despite the fact that the messages are conveyed directly and I know I am receiving them.

I should note that this is not always the case.  Remember the first time someone asked you to pat your head while rubbing your belly, and your brain hurt from concentrating as you tried to master that coordination?  That still happens sometimes, like when I attempted to shake and move in slow motion simultaneously during this last class.  Particular challenges – especially new ones – demand a heightened level of attentive, active exploration.  But when I’m just shaking, quaking, floating, or responding to certain other suggestions, it can be a different matter.   The wonderful upshot is that through both the conscious and subconscious exploration that Gaga affords, I am discovering a wealth of movement possibilities, physical connections, and dynamic options beyond those fostered by my previous training.

* * *

Related posts on Gaga on Dance In Israel

Gaga in the Dance Blogosphere

  • “Get Your Gaga Groove On,” from IsRealli, the new blog of Israel, was posted during Naharin’s residency at Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet (post date: Mar. 2007).
  • “Ohad-ing It,” from The Winger’s Matthew Murphy, who discusses Gaga briefly in the context of Ohad Naharin’s choreography (post date: Nov. 2007).
  • “Ohad Naharin’s Gaga,” by Jonathan Krebs of the Joyce Theater Blog, who also explores Gaga along with Naharin’s repertory (post date: Feb. 2008).
  • “Going Gaga for Gaga,” from Evan at Dancing Perfectly Free, who took some Gaga in New York last spring (post date: Mar. 2008).
  • “Gaga Class in Tel Aviv,” by Rebecca Crystal of Art in Motion, who took several weeks of Gaga here in Israel this summer (post date: Jan. 2009).
  • “Thoughts on Batsheva and Gaga” by Michael J. Morris of Betwixt Thee and Me Let There Be Truth, who experienced a Gaga class at Ohio State during Batsheva’s 2009 tour (post date: Feb. 2009).
*This post was made possible thanks to a Fulbright student grant funded by the U.S.-Israel Educational Foundation and hosted by the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.

25 Comments For This Post

  1. JustinPeck Says:

    I’ve seen the Batsheva dance company on several occasions and i loooove their stuff. Ohad is such an innovator. I’m hoping that they come back to new york to perform again soon. I wish there was a class that offered Gaga technique in NYC so i could see what its like, it sounds fascinating. Do you know of anything?

  2. Katy Callie Says:

    I love, love, LOVE your posts! Ever since I read about Ohad Naharin and Batsheva in Dance Magazine, I’ve been dying to learn more about the dance scene in Israel, and I’m learning so much from your writing.
    How difficult is it to take dance classes in other languages? It’s a long term goal of mine to travel and study regional dances and languages, specifically in Greece. And while I’ve studied Greek for a year, I’m definitely nowhere near fluent! Is it difficult to get a lot out of dance classes when you don’t speak the language fluently?

  3. Deborah Says:

    Justin, I think there are going to be some Gaga workshops in San Francisco and New York this summer; I’ll be happy to pass along the information as soon as I get it. Also be on a lookout for classes whenever the Batsheva company is in town – often they will have a guest class.

    And Katy, well, it’s been a process 🙂 I have to say, dancing has been quite good for my language skills (one of my friends jokes that I know more words for body parts than he does!), and my lack of Hebrew has been quite good for my powers of visual observation. I’ve found I can always get a lot out of dance classes regardless of the language issue, though it’s easier in certain classes than others (a ballet class or another class in a codified technique will always be the most accessible, followed by modern/contemporary classes where the teacher provides combinations/movement phrases; classes that are more based on improvisation and verbal suggestions are much harder to get through). My teachers’ willingess to either give me notes in English, answer questions during class, or talk after class has helped; it would be great if your future teachers in Greece or elsewhere would be as willing and able to help!

    I’ve thought about re-posting this essay here on The Winger and maybe I will soon, but for now, you might enjoy reading an old blog post, Dancing in Another Language. Here’s the URL:,%20MFA/blog%20/BF975717-A04C-49E4-BEE9-6F876F8C0F5F.html

  4. Ireri Says:

    Dear Deborah,

    Thanks a lot for yous words. I live in Mexico and you may imagine how difficult it is for us to get fresh information about dancong in other countries.
    Since I heard about this Gaga stuff I’ve been searching everything I can find about it and I got this feeling I have to try it again, deeply jeje. Quite a strong feeling indeed, I cant describe it very well, as well as it is difficult to describe gaga movement just with words. I would like to know more about this summer intensive. Can you help me out with information like housing and costs???

    Thank’s a lot

  5. Deborah Says:

    Hi Ireri,

    See my latest post – it has some info about workshops going on in Tel Aviv as well as NY and San Francisco. I posted the full ad for the Tel Aviv one, but it doesn’t seem to be the kind of workshop with housing included; if you do come out here for it, you may be able to find a relatively cheap hostel for that time period. Hope this helps!


  6. mgm27 Says:

    Thanks for posting this again! I can’t find your info about the summer workshop – will you post it again? I want to make the trip this summer…


  7. Deborah Friedes Says:

    Hi Megan,
    Thanks for your comment and for reading Dance In Israel!
    Yes, I’ll be posting my article about last summer’s Gaga workshop in Tel Aviv here, so keep following Dance In Israel (if you want to keep up easily with what I’m writing, you can subscribe to free e-mail updates by entering your e-mail in the “Subscribe” box).
    I’ll also make sure to post a listing for any workshops on the Events page, so you can check there too for information.

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  25. Jay Robinson Says:

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