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Ruth Eshel (Israel)

Dance of Ethiopian Jewry - past and present

Eshel, Ruth (Israel): "Dance of Ethiopian Jewry - past and present", 18th International Congress on Dance Research, Argos, 3-7/11, 2004.

Israel is a society of Jewish immigrants who have returned to their ancient biblical homeland. [1]. It is also a complex society made up of people of varied cultures and ideologies. This paper will endeavor to unveil the dance of Israelis of Ethiopian descent focusing on Eskesta Dance Theatre as a reflection of this people's aspiration to preserve traditions of the past while creating modern artistic dance inspired by their culture.

The dream of going to Jerusalem was part of the Beta Israel (Amharic for The House of Israel) worldview and there are an estimated 80,000 Ethiopian-Israelis today. Most arrived in two waves of mass immigration. The first, in 1984, was given the appellation Operation Moses. This was a clandestine airlift from the Sudan. Reaching the Sudan from Ethiopia in secret entailed walking for months to reach the refugee camps there. Several thousand died on the way.

In 1991, fearing a government upheaval and revolution, the second wave of immigration, Operation Solomon was born, with an airlift of immigrants from Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. In a thirty-six hour period, almost 15,000 Ethiopian Jews arrived in Israel.

I began this research paper on the Ethiopian ethnic group in 1991, during the second great wave of Jewish immigration to Israel from Ethiopia. Mrs. Gila Toledano, who was then head of the Israel Dance Library, asked me to document the dance of this group. As part of the documentation, which was carried out over a period of five years I filmed these immigrants who were living in trailer camps all over the country. I filmed weddings, bar mitzvas, circumcisions, their daily conduct, behavior and practices: how they prepare injera [2], how they make baskets from straw, the way they carry their children on their backs, and the manner in which they greet and give respect to one another. Tens of hours of film were put in the archives of the Israel Dance Library.

It was during the course of the documentation that I got the idea to establish an Ethiopian artistic dance troupe. In 1996 that idea materialized and became a reality while giving my lectures at the University of Haifa.

Literature survey revealed that research carried out in reference to Ethiopian dance was scant. The first undertaking was a joint Ethiopian-Hungarian government project in 1964. The Ethiopian professionals who participated in the research project included Debalke Tetsegaye and Yoel Yohannes. The Hungarian musicians were György Martin and Balint Sörosi. Tibor Vadasi, another Hungarian musician, continued the research and published his analysis of a number of Ethiopian dances, among them the dance of the Amharic and Tigrean nationalities. In 1974, the outbreak of political unrest and revolution in Ethiopia brought his research to a halt, as well as any exposure of Ethiopian dance to the outside world (Kimberlin, 2000: 534). Only in the last few years has there been an increase in documented evidence, to be found in the archives of the Ethiopian Ministry of Culture, through the use of video cameras to tape the dances of the tribes inhabiting Ethiopia.

The immigration to Israel of the Jewish Ethiopians has facilitated research by making it possible to document the changes in its dance when encountering a western country of many ethnic groups, Jews and non-Jews, each one trying to preserve its own traditions.

Most Ethiopian Jews are from the northern highland region of Ethiopia, where they are known as "Falasha" (Amharic for strangers). It is speculated that the roots of the form of Judaism they observe go back to SecondTemple times. However, little is really known of their history or the origins of the Jewish customs they practiced prior to the Medieval Period. Notwithstanding that, for many centuries, they were almost completely isolated from Jewish communities outside Ethiopia, they have maintained a distinct identity and have remained socially and religiously separated from their non-Jewish neighbors.

In the 13th to 16th centuries, the Jews of Ethiopia fought and resisted several attempts by Christian Ethiopian (Amhara) emperors to subjugate them and to impose their religion on them. The last independent Jewish stronghold in the SemienMountains was finally defeated in the 17th century.

As we have said, since the end of the 19th century, Ethiopian Jews have been in increasingly more frequent contact with the outside Jewish world. In the 1980s and 1990s, nearly the entire Ethiopian Jewish community was brought to Israel.

Folk dance

The rich culture of Ethiopian folk dance is a result of the many tribes and nationalities that populate Ethiopia (about eighty), and not the quantity of dances of one tribe or another. Each nationality or tribe has its own specific form of dance and it is rare for one tribe to have a number of different dances (Gy?rgy 1969: 23). Each tribe's dance can be adapted for every occasion—celebrations, weddings and national holidays—by changing the lyrics of the songs that accompany that dance. The form of the dance, however, remains the same. The dances were picked up by watching. The music was learned by listening, notes were not studied. The musician, himself, takes part in the dancing and can even be seen leading it.

The majority of Ethiopian Jews lived in villages in the Gondar province inhabited by the Amharic nationality, and they adopted the eskesta (Amharic for 'shoulder dance') of this group. Other Jews, who lived in northeast Ethiopia in the Tigriniya area (modern-day Eritrea), adopted the dance of the Tigric nationality. The Jews danced barefoot in the villages and wore the traditional white embroidered costumes (shamma) of their non-Jewish neighbors, outside or in a pavilion especially set up for celebrations. Males and females dance in groups and couples.

In eskesta, the shoulders undulate vertically, horizontally, and diagonally. Shoulder movement can be symmetrical or asymmetrical. The basic movements are built up by creating imaginary scales of motion--a map, of sorts, of shoulder stations.

According to Vadasi, in eskesta, there are three vertical stations between the normal position of the shoulders and the potential point, the highest, and two stations bringing them from their natural position to the lowest point; additionally, there are three horizontal stations going forward and two others going backward.

Two forms of eskesta can be discerned which the dancers may combine in the same dance. One is composed of improvisational motifs of shoulder movement which pass through two to three stations, where at least one of them is not in close proximity to the other. It is made up of vigorous jerking movements which come to a sudden standstill. To intensify the eskesta movement, curvature is added to the upper torso, forward and backward. The arms are passive, elbows touching the sides of the body, thumbs on the hips.

Examples of typical shoulder rhythms:

Another form of eskesta is a continuous movement (usually horizontal) of the shoulders between two stations in close proximity, a movement that creates a trembling effect, a kind of tremolo. This is done by moving both shoulders together, or by just moving one. Typical rhythms of the above shoulder motif:

Contrary to the elaborate movement of the upper half of the body, movement in the lower half support the upper portion to enact the eskesta movements. Head movement accompanies the shoulder dancing. Face remaining forward, head is pushed forward and back, right and left..

There is plenty of leeway for improvisation with the feet and the head. For example, the legs bounce and are kept parallel, close together or slightly spread. Either the body weight is shifted from side to side, or the feet move to parallel fourth position, and body weight is shifted forward and back. As the pace quickens, the dancers progress from bounces on both legs to leaps with legs held together, or to jumps, landing on one leg or the other. The accent can be on a downbeat or upbeat.

The following is the Amharic eskesta as observed by me in a wedding in Israel in 1993:

A cluster of dancers clapping to a 2/4 beat start to move in a circle and then turn to the center of the circle. A wall, of sorts, is created, made up of people clapping their hands while dancing the eskesta, all the while shifting their body weight from leg to leg, their knees freed and moving gently up and down. The arms come down to the sides of the bodies and the eskesta gets stronger. The excitement is palpable and the atmosphere heats up until two soloists burst into the center.

This is a genteel competition in which the soloists, rivals of sorts, exhibit their creativity for all to see by inventing original movement motifs of the shoulders and head. In the spontaneous dialogue of movement among the soloists, a movement is never repeated in response to a question. The answer is always given in a different motif. Each dancer performs the motif he enjoys instinctively and through this medium reveals his individuality. Because the solos are exhausting, they usually do not run on for more than forty-five seconds. The soloists, worn out, rejoin the main group of dancers and others take their place. The dancers who encircle them urge them on by clapping their hands and calling upon them to reach new heights while they, themselves, stand in place and dance eskesta. At the climax, the dense cluster of dancers jumps in place, accompanied by hand clapping and shoulder-head movement. Afterwards, it begins to move counter clockwise, as if it is swallowing the soloists inside it. When they tire, the dancers return to the format of knee bounces and clapping, saving their energy in preparation for the next soloist contest.

Eskesta is accompanied by music made with instruments built by Amharic artisans, such as the kabaros, a drum whose musicians beat with their hands; the masenko, a kind of violin - a diamond-shaped, wooden resonator with one long string which is attached to it by a hair from a horse's tail; the krar, a type of small harp with six metal strings; and the bamboo washit with four air holes. The musicians sit or stand to the side of the dancing group and provide the set 2/4 beat. The words are sung by a male or female singer. The singing, itself, is antiphonal with the exchange of questions and answers (z?f?n) between the solo singer and the group.

The other dance style I observed, the Tigrean dance, is characterized by its circular walking form. The drummers enter the open area with the Tigrean drumming and beat the kabaros hanging down from their shoulders and invite the audience to dance. The beat is 3/8 time. Contrary to Western music, there is no stress on the first eighth.

The women who participate in the dance place a white scarf (natala) on their heads. Only their faces can be seen. Their hands are hidden under the natala. The men wrap part of the natala around their waists, and place the rest of the cloth on their shoulder. Their arms are limp. They pair up and form a large circle, couple by couple, and begin moving forward in a horizontal row in the circle, with Tigrean steps.

The Tigrean dance step is made up of three parts: a forward step with the right foot with a slight upward swing of the body to the right (1), the left foot moves lightly to the side of the right ankle (2), the left foot weightlessly slides a little forward (3). This is repeated with the other foot, but now the weight is shifted to the left foot and the slight upward swing of the body is toward the left.

The drummers are located in the center and excite the dancers. Their steps become bounces and then leaps. They hop from one foot to the other, forward and back, advancing or turning in place, jumping with two legs and landing on one foot, and then they leap even higher.

The dancers in the circle pair off, and each couple, at different times, turns to face his partner, dancing a delicate eskesta, or only moving their necks. The dance can continue for a long while, but when the dancers tire, they sit down and others join the circle.


The greatest Ethiopian Jewish cultural legacy is its prayers, at times accompanied by body movement. The Ethiopian Jewish liturgical tradition has been handed down orally, for the most part, over the generations, and is performed from memory. The community religious leaders and liturgical experts are the Keses (Amharic for 'priests'). Prayers are chanted responsively, in complex overlapping melodic patterns, combining solo and choral performance. The main language of the prayers is Ge`ez, a Semitic language, which is also the liturgical language of the EthiopianChurch. Movement and dance accompany portions of the prayer service of Beta Israel.

Dance is an important part of the service on Yom Kippur when the prayers for purity of soul and pardon from sins are said. The Kesses state that dancing is a certain way of castigating the body and soul through strenuous effort, such expiation of sins “bringing redemption closer.” And if deliverance is approaching, that is of course a good reason to rejoice in dance. Movement also accompanies prayers on the holidays of Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot, but to a lesser degree.

The following is a description of a Yom Kippur prayer as documented at the

Neve-Carmel trailer camp in 19923.

Two or three Kesses stand up with their stick, sing, and change places among themselves. They accompany the prayers with knee bounces and a slight upward swing from side to side while leaning on their canes. Sounds of the quacek (a round iron disc struck as a gong), hand clapping, and feet stomping are the musical embellishments—all directed by the Kesses. At moments of happiness, for example when Jerusalem is mentioned, they clap. At other times, the Kesses may bow down to the ground. They lift their arms, bend their knees, spread their bodies and arms on the floor, kiss it, and rise.

Occasionally, the kesses lead the dance in a circle. They dance in the innermost ring of the circle, in the next ring are the adults, and the young people dance in the outer ring. When the kesses dance, they seem to be gliding and undulating forward, hands folded and stretched forward at chest height, going up and down in a wavelike. The Kesses say these movements describe Israel`s historical crossing of the Red Sea fleeing Pharaoh`s army.

The congregation accompanies the prayers with movement, each one in his own individual style. There is no uniform way of moving, except that the movements are those of entreaty. The arms reach upward with a slight bending of the torso or the elbows are brought close to the waist. The fingers open and close to the rhythm of the music accompanying the text, as if in supplication.

The young generation of Ethiopian-Israelis which arrived in Israel as children, is already unfamiliar with this way of praying.4

Ethiopian dance in Israel

The Ethiopian Jews are proud of their heritage, yet, living in Israel, these people have been exposed to other types of dance and music. Middle Eastern music speaks to the hearts of the younger generation, and buttocks wiggling aping belly dancing can be seen. Another genre they love is Greek music, and one can watch the young people dancing a hodgepodge of Greek dance steps with Ethiopian shoulder movement. Of course, they also Israeli folk dance.

Since the mid-1980s, a number of Ethiopian folk groups were formed, but none of them lasted very long. Most of them took as their model Ethiopian video clips sold in Israel.5 The first Ethiopian dance troupe in Israel was formed in Nazareth, and named Meseret (“Tradition”). After this, there were other dance groups in other cities: Afula, Lod, Kiryat Gat, Ramla and Safed. In Be'er Sheva, Kohavim ('Stars') was formed, and in Petah Tikva there was Hatikva Porahat ('Hope Blossoms'). At the beginning of 2000, Bahalchin (“Roots”) was created (directed by Shlomo Akala) and Chili (directed by Devora Zilberberg), in Rehovoth. Some of these groups were sponsored by the municipalities or community centers. The dancers were good but amateurs and the groups faced the problem that Ethiopian dance does not have the tradition of a choreographer and is not meant to be put on the stage.

In the past decade, there has been an abundance of popular Ethiopian singers and Israeli composers like Shlomo Gronich and Idan Raichal who have woven Ethiopian music with Israeli pop.

The Eskesta Dance Theater is an oddity on the Ethiopian dance scene in Israel. Its members are immigrant Ethiopian students studying at the University of Haifa. The troupe was established in 1996, coming into being as a result of a course I taught in movement composition in the Faculty of the Humanities.

The members of the troupe receive academic credits for a course in which theoretical research is translated into performance on stage. The troupe focuses on three channels: preserving the community`s ancient liturgies, authentic Ethiopian folk dancing, and creating contemporary artistic dance based on the group's culture.

The creative process undergone by many twists and turns. There were a number of phases to the creative process. The first two years were mainly dedicated to observing the richness and variation in eskesta, discovered through improvisation. Also, in rehearsals, the dancers became attuned to the distinctive body language and every day movement of their ethnic group. Most of the rehearsals were without musical accompaniment in order to allow for internal observation without the influence of external factors. The experiment to guide improvisations by abstract assignments connected to elements like time, space, strength, etc., did not work out well. Instead, rich material was revealed when imaginary improvisations were asked for, some of which dealt with topics related to the community.

During the course of rehearsals, rich movement material was discovered but it was very difficult for the students to go back to movement sentences which they had just danced a short while beforehand. Observing a video of themselves dancing did not help.

For the first program, I focused on the prayers and on short shoulder dancing. Kes Pikado was invited to teach the students a number of prayers in Ge'ez and the traditional movement that accompanies them. Much latitude for improvisation was left within the framework of the choreography.

When the troupe performed the prayer before the people in their community, the adults were overcome with emotion and cried. The young children were fidgety, and tittered from embarrassment.

In order to expand the movement repertory of the troupe, Abdu Negash, choreographer of the National Theater of Ethiopia, was invited to Israel to teach the students an assortment of ethnic Ethiopian dances.

A new phase in the process of creation began when a number of shoulder or head movement motifs were used as basic for variations. I was more knowledgeable and confident, and the dancers were already better trained and able to repeat, exactly, a specific movement and rhythm.

Applicable to this, I created a number of dances, without music, as well as movement sentences of different lengths, in order to permit creative freedom. Afterwards, the music was composed. In those same years, many of the dancers in the troupe were also very capable singers. The music composed by

Deganit Elyakim, a meritorious student in the Music Department, was meant to be sung a cappella. Because of its complexity, the music was taped and the dancers danced to the music to which they sang.

About a year ago, I realized that the dances I was creating at the time reached a point where they were too far removed from their original movement language. I changed course somewhat and decided to create a medley of solos. The starting point could be a movement in which the dancer excelled, quality of movement, or provoking the dancer to react to a topic that bothered him or was important to him. And again, we returned to improvisation.

On this footing, I created the solos with the dancers. Some of them were minimalistic. Contrary to the first phase, this time the choreography was constructed in the minutest detail, and much attention was invested in polishing every movement and achieving quality by the help of images. Original music, composed by the renowned Israeli composer Oded Zehavi who is also the Head of the Department of Music at the University of Haifa, was based upon the poetry of two dancers in the troupe, Aman Chula and Daga Hanoch-Levi.

The Eskesta Dance Theatre has performed many times in Israel. The troupe has appeared abroad, as well: at a 1996 summer festival in Paris devoted to Jewish prayer; in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Asamrah (Eritrea) in 1998, when it was selected to perform as part of Israel’s 50th Year Jubilee celebrations abroad; at the Rawena festival in Italy, also in 1998; at the International Festival of Liturgical Music in Markoberdof, Germany, in 2000; at the Guelder Rose International Folklore Festival, Ukraine, in 2002; in a tour of the U.S.A in 2002; in Croatia in 2003 and in South Africa in 2004.

Our work is still in process. It is still too early to know how much of the culture of the Ethiopian community in Israel has penetrated the surrounding culture, and how Ethiopian dance will eventually enrich Israeli concert dance. The inclination is strong to preserve the heritage and, at the same time, to contribute to, and assimilate into, Israeli culture. The Eskesta Dance Troupe is part of this process.


Beck, Mordecai. "Eskesta—Dancing from the Shoulder". Ariel – The Israel Review of Arts and Letters, no. 109 (1990).

Eshel, Ruth. "Shoulders Dance—Dance Traditions of the Ethiopian Jews". Dance in Israel, no. 2, September (1993): 52-57.

Gy?rgy, Martin. "Dance Types in Ethiopia". Journal of the International Folk Music Council, vol. XII (1960): 23-27.

Horwitz, Lille Dawn. "Ethiopian Dance in Israel". Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Review, vol. 20, nos. 1-2 (2000): 98-105.

-------------------------. "Ruth Eshel and the Eskesta Dance Company". Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Review, vol. 20, nos. 1-2 (2000): 106-109.

Kimberlin, Cynthia Tse. "Ethiopia", The International Encyclopedia of Dance, vol. 2. New York (2000): 530-534.

---------------------------. “The Music of Ethiopia” in Music of Many Cultures, Elizabeth May, ed.University of California Press, 1980.

Lemma, Tesfaye. Ethiopian Musical Instruments. Addis Ababa (1975).

Powne, Michael. Ethiopian Music. London, 1968

S?rosi, B?lint. "Melodic Patterns in the Folk Music of Ethiopian Peoples". Proceedings of the Third International Conference of Ethiopian Studies. Addis Ababa, 1969.

Shabtai, Malka. Between Ranai and Rap. Chirikover (2001).

Toledano, Gila. "The Eskesta Dance Troupe – Artistic Dance Inspired by Ethiopian Folklore". Dance Now, no. 3, November (2000): 30-35.

Vadasi, Tibor. "Ethiopian Folk Dance". Journal of Ethiopian Studies. July (1970): 119-146.

-----------------. "Ethiopian Folk Dance II: Tegr? and Gurag?". Journal of Ethiopian Studies. 8.2 (1971).

----------------. "Ethiopian Folk Dance III: Wallo and Galla". Journal of Ethiopian Studies. 9.2 (1971): 191-218.

The author

Dr. Ruth Eshel is a research scholar, choreographer, dance critic and author. She was awarded a Ph.D. in philosophy from TelAvivUniversity for her thesis, Theater Movement in Israel 1976-1991. Between 1977-1986, she was choreographer and dancer in recitals in Israel and abroad in works of her own creation. She authored the book, Dancing with the Dream – The Development of Artistic Dance in Israel, 1920-1964. She is the dance critic for the Israel daily Haaretz and editor of the dance journal Dance Now. She is a lecturer at the University of Haifa, with courses on the history of dance and movement composition. Between 1991-1995, she conducted documentary research on the dance of the Ethiopian ethnic group for the Israel Dance Library. In 1995, Dr. Eshel founded the Eskesta Dance Theater at the University of Haifa.

1 At the end of the nineteenth century, most immigration was from Eastern Europe. Immigration from Central Europe arrived in the 1930s After the State of Israel was proclaimed in 1948, large numbers of Jewish refugees arrived form Arab countries. In the 1970s and 1990s, many immigrants came from the former Soviet Union. Jews from Ethiopian arrived in two great waves, one in the mid 1980s and the other in 1991.

2 Ethiopian pita bread.

3 . With the closing down of the trailer camp three years ago, its habitants were scattered in permanents sites throughout Israel. There are only few places today where such prayers are conducted on Yom Kippur.

4 The tradition is passed from Kes to Kes, but in Israel there is not one to whom to pass it. With one or two exceptions there is no training for a Kes in Israel.

5 . In Addis Ababa and other major cities, there are folk dance groups who perform for tourists. The are no concert dance groups. The traditional form of the folk dance gives way to group frontal and unisono dancing, or couples dancing eskesta. There is a large cassette and video industry supporting this.

Dr. Ruth Eshel



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