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Celebrating Dr. Ruth Eshel and Ethiopian Shoulder Dancing in Israel

Posted on 24 January 2011 by Deborah Friedes Galili

Beta Dance Troupe. Photo by Irene Fertik.

She is a pioneer of Israel’s fringe dance, presenting avant-garde solos in the late 1970s when performing in large, established repertory companies was the norm.  She is a leading commentator on Israeli concert dance, contributing scholarly articles and books as well as lively criticism in major newspapers and journals.  And in the last fifteen years, Dr. Ruth Eshel has also filled another key role: that of a visionary, arranging the traditional shoulder dance brought by Ethiopian immigrants into entrancing contemporary compositions for the stage.

It is no wonder that Dr. Eshel was captivated by the Ethiopian immigrants’ movement when she set out to document their dance for the Dance Library of Israel.  There is something particularly mesmerizing about the minute isolations of the shoulders that these dancers perform; each articulation itself is clearly cut, but when strung together at high speed, the effect can be likened to that of a hummingbird swiftly beating its wings.  The dancers’ shoulders jump, skip, hop, roll, punch forward and back, and shift side to side.  With this vocabulary, their shoulders talk, sing, cry, and laugh.

Her interest piqued, Dr. Eshel formed a student company called Eskesta (“shoulder dancing” in Amharic) at the University of Haifa in 1995 and directed the troupe for ten years, leading it on tours to great acclaim.  In 2005, she founded Beta Dance Troupe in the Neve Yosef community center in Haifa, again building a distinctive repertory blending traditional shoulder dancing with a contemporary choreographic framework.  This company has also won accolades at home and abroad for its spirited performances.

Now, on January 26, a celebration of Dr. Eshel’s work with both the Eskesta and Beta troupes will be held in Tel Aviv at the Inbal Ethnic Arts Center.  After gathering at 8:00 p.m., a panel will convene at 8:30 to share memories.  Beta Dance Troupe will take the stage at 9:00 for a short performance, followed by a screening of the film Shoulder Dancing, which includes footage of the companies’ rehearsals and performances.  The evening will close with an invitation for everyone to dance.

Poster for the film Shoulder Dancing. Courtesy Ruth Eshel.

For those of you who cannot partake in the live celebration – or are curious about shoulder dancing – below is a clip of Beta Dance Troupe in Dr. Eshel’s aptly named Celebration (2007).

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