Sara Levi-Tanai

Taking ancient Yemenite moves to create modern dances.

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Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Review.

Nobody, even she herself, can be sure what age she really is. This is not because of the usual vanity of grand ladies of the dance, who think they can cheat time but succeed only in making the life of dance historians difficult. The true date of birth for perhaps the most important Israeli choreographer of the last fifty years is unknown.

Sara Levi-Tanai was born in Jerusalem sometime before the First World War to parents who had come from Yemen in the 1880s. They moved to Jerusalem during the era of the Ottoman reign and under the Turks there were no official birth certificates. When Sara was about four years old, her mother and siblings died in an epidemic, probably of cholera. Her father, who had severe alcohol problems, abandoned his daughter to her fate. She was raised in an orphanage in the Galilee by teachers from Europe.

Encounter with Yemen

sara levi-tanaiIn 1949, one year after the foundation of the independent State of Israel, she met with her true destiny. She encountered a group of youngsters who had just arrived from Yemen to settle in Israel and began teaching them Israeli songs and dances. Her students were exceptionally gifted boys and girls and from them she learned many aspects of the Yemenite-Jewish traditions. As the ancient Hebrew adage has it, "I learned from all my teachers, but most of all from my pupils."

They would sing and dance for her in their traditional and exuberant manner, so different from the European songs and dances she had been taught in the orphanage. Sara began experimenting with the traditional Yemenite dance steps, rhythms, and melodies that were her students' expertise.

She particularly noted a stepping pattern they referred to as the Da'asa (swaying the torso and hips gently forward and back, progressing counter-clockwise). For Sara Levi-Tanai, the Da'asa became symbolic of walking in the desert, of caravans, of the wide empty spaces that she so loves. She has utilized this and other folkloric traditional patterns in many variations in her choreography.

Only when Sara became a student at the Levinsky Teachers Seminar in Tel Aviv in her late teens, did she go to visit the Yemenite quarter, Kerem Hateymanim. There she heard and saw Yemenite song and dancing and encountered the rich artistic heritage of her ancestors. As she has often said, "I knew Dostoevsky and Shakespeare long before reading the poems of the great Yemenite poet Shalom Shabazi . . .

From Dostoevsky to Shabazi

In order to fully understand her work and its relation to ancient Yemenite folk traditions, it is necessary to deal with several important points, including the contrast in her own background between her Western and her Yemenite ancestry; the difference between a constructed Israeli folk dance and ethnic dance traditions; the Yemenite-Jewish dance tradition and how she changed that in her work.

Firstly, one should consider the contrast between her education grounded in classic European and English texts, as well as Hebrew poetry and the Bible, with her own Yemenite background. Yemenite Jews are perhaps the single Jewish ethnic group to possess a folkloric tradition comprising all aspects of art with a distinct style of music, dance, poetry, and visual ornamentation (as seen in jewelry and costume).
To what extent this is similar to non-Jewish Yemenite folk culture is until now a moot point because of geo-political reasons. It has been nearly impossible for Israeli researchers to visit Yemen. If one may make a comparison with Jewish traditions in Eastern Europe to Yemenite, perhaps the answer is that just as hasidic or klezmer music and dance is a variation of Slavic folk art, used at distinctive Jewish events, so is Jewish-Yemenite art, though this has yet to be proven.
Be that as it may, Sara Levi-Tanai was concerned with a total experience and her dancers, especially in the beginning, sang and drummed as well as danced, thereby affecting their audiences in very strong ways.

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Giora Manor

Giora Manor is a theatre director, journalist, and dance critic in Israel. He recently completed a biography of Sara Levi-Tanai called Sara's Way and is writing a book on important non-dancers who have had an impact on the art of dance.