Tamar Cohen and her husband, Michael Gal. (photo from Vancouver Israeli Folk Dance Society)
After 43 years of teaching with the Vancouver Israeli Folk Dance Society (VIFS), Tamar Cohen is retiring. One of the early leaders of the VIFS and co-founder, with Rivka Cohen, in 1981, of the Shalom Dancers, an Israeli dance performance group, Tamar Cohen has inspired generations of dancers.
Cohen’s passion for dance began in Israel, in her teens, when she was introduced to Israeli dancing in school, in Kiryat Haim, a suburb of Haifa. At that time, in the late 1940s, in the formative years of the state of Israel, there was an avid interest among the youth in Israeli cultural activities, including folk dance. She joined a performance group in high school and then trained as a teacher, both as a profession and as a dance instructor.
“We did couple and circle dances, no line dancing, and there really weren’t that many dances, not like today,” she explained.
Cohen also trained as a school teacher, and taught Judaic studies for more than 40 years in Israel, the United States and Canada, including at Vancouver Talmud Torah.
It was in 1960 that Cohen brought her dance talents to Canada, teaching and starting a performing dance group in Winnipeg, where she met her husband, Michael Gal. In 1975, moving to Vancouver, she was part of the formation of the Vancouver Israeli Folk Dance Society, where she has taught continuously since 1976.
“In those days, we used records, and then tapes,” she said. “My son would help me shlep all these big cartons with records on Sundays and Wednesdays.” Now, of course, everything is on computers.
Cohen taught at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture and at Congregation Beth Tikvah. Many dancers who still gather at the JCC on Wednesday and Sunday evenings, including Lorna Donner and Marilyn Weinstein, both on the current VIFS executive, were introduced to Israeli dancing during the nine years Cohen taught at Beth Tikvah.
“In 1992, in the Beth Tikvah social hall, Marilyn and I started dancing by following our teacher, Tamar, around the circle,” said Donner. “Here we are, decades later, still sharing our love and enthusiasm for Israeli dance. Thank you, Tamar!”
Cohen became a VIFS board member when it first became a society, and served as president from 1985 to 1987. She remains on the VIFS executive and is a valued part of its community of dancers – approximately 80 active members – who come from a range of ages and walks of life: teenagers to dancers in their 80s; students, artists and professionals; beginners to those, like Cohen, who have danced all their lives.
“I’ve known and shared the dance floor with Tamar since the early ’80s, when I first began to attend Israeli dance sessions at the JCC,” said Nona Malki, VIFS executive director. “Tamar’s dedication and commitment to the local dance community, to the Israeli dance movement and to the Vancouver Israeli Dance Society, as one of its founders, was both profound and inspirational. Tamar took it upon herself to mentor me and, due to her guidance and encouragement, my passion for Israeli dance was sparked.”
Reflecting on the changes in Israeli folk dance over the years, Cohen said, “To me, folk dancing is for the folks, not for the professional or the advanced. I’m a little bit nostalgic in that regard. The dances used to be much shorter and quite symmetric. It came so naturally. I find that, nowadays, the dances are longer and more complicated. The old dances were easier to remember. I might belong to a different generation,” she said, chuckling.
Speaking about the future of Israeli dancing, Cohen said, “Israeli dancing is very popular.” There are scores of choreographers from Israel and around the world, she said, and countless new and challenging dances.
Certainly, it was the joy of dancing that hooked Cohen decades ago. However, she said, “I also see Israeli dancing as an ambassador for Israel. By presenting the folklore, the culture, the music and songs, it brings people, Jews and non-Jews, closer to Israel. Israeli dancing is beautiful. I think it’s very important that it continues.”
For more information about VIFS, visit vancouverisraelidance.com.
Glenda Leznoff is a member of the Vancouver Israeli Folk Dance Society.