Learning the dance steps for hava nagila is not difficult, and can lend itself to loads of fun at all sorts of social events. It is also a great introduction to the fun of folk dancing in general.
The History of a True Classic Tune
Hava nagila was not always known as that name - in fact, it was originally simply a nigun or "wordless melody" that originated amidst the Jewish people in Eastern Europe. Like many folk tunes, no one really knew who wrote it originally, but it was just one of many ancient folk tunes until Avraham Zvi Idelsohn got hold of it. Called "the father of Jewish musicology", Idelsohn chose the melody to create a special piece celebrating a British victory over the Turks in 1918. He put the words (in Hebrew) from a psalm about celebration and brotherhood, and the piece took off, becoming a hit as first the common people and then pop stars began singing the song. Ranging from Neal Diamond to Harry Belafonte to the punk ska band "Me First and the Gimme Gimmes", the song has proven to have an immensely broad appeal. Part of the success of the song is due to the slow beginning of the tempo that gradually speeds up as the song continues. This combined with a very steady and active beat makes it easy to learn the steps slowly and gradually get faster and faster (as well as have more and more fun) as the music increases.
Hava Nagila and the Hora
Hava Nagila has functioned well as a song alone, played at various social events such as parties, bar and bat mitzvahs, and other community events both Jewish and Gentile. Over the years, starting in Israel, a particular kind of dance called the hora has also become associated with the song. Starting in the kibbutzim collectives, it spread through Israel as an immensely popular Jewish dance. Though it's also danced in other eastern European countries such as Roumania, the hora has become almost inextricably associated throughout the west with Jewish celebrations and the song Hava Nagila.
Doing the Dance Steps for Hava Nagila
The dance steps came to the U.S. long before Israeli independence, in the early 20th century. The steps to the actual dance are very easy to do, and can be done by a people of all ages and sizes, basically by anyone at all who wants to dance. That may, in fact, have something to do with the popularity. The dancers all join hands (or, in some traditions, the men hold a hankerchief with their female dance partners holding the other end) and begin to move in a circle. The steps are as follows:
- Step the left foot across to the right.
- Let the right foot follow.
- Step the left foot in back of the right.
- Follow again with the right.
This "grapevine" like motion is done in an exuberant circular motion to the right. That's really all there is to it; the dancers may or may not sing, and the tempo of the dance is determined by the sadism of the band, which can choose to speed things up to an apoplectic pace if they like.
Variations on the Theme
Because the dance steps for Have Nagila are so simple, the dance lends itself to variation and ornamentation. For example:
- Dancers may form concentric circles, sometimes dancing in opposite directions.
- At bar and bat mitzvahs, the youth being celebrated may be lifted on a chair by several strong people in the center of the circle, or even along the motion of the circle.
- At Israeli weddings, as well, it is traditional to raise the bride and groom (and sometimes other family members) on chairs as well.
With steps as simple as these and a song as catchy and fun as Hava Nagila, it is no wonder this is one of the most popular dances done at parties throughout the world.