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How Israeli songs became integral to Taiwan’s national folk dancing tradition

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YILAN, Taiwan (JTA) — It was a cool spring day in Yilan, a town on Taiwan’s northeast coast known for its picturesque rice fields and delicious spring onions. On a concrete clearing beneath a bridge that doubled as a dance floor, against a cloudy mountainous backdrop dotted with white cranes, about 10 Taiwanese adults danced expertly to classic Israeli folk music — songs such as “Hinei Matov,” “David Melech Yisrael,” “Sulam Yaakov” — and other folk tunes from around the world. Altogether, over 35 dances were practiced over three hours.

For many of these locals, the dances are familiar, almost second nature. All over the age of 50, they grew up at a time when international folk dancing was the only group activity allowed by the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) government, starting in 1949.

That year, the KMT, which had been in power in China since 1912, lost a longstanding civil war to the Communist Party and retreated to Taiwan. Estimates say around 2 million Chinese followed in migrating to the island over the following few years.

The KMT ruled Taiwan in a bubble under strict martial law in order to suppress potential Chinese Communist presence or any anti-government activities. What resulted was heavy censorship of newspapers, books, television, radio and other forms of entertainment, as well as a ban on “unlawful assembly.” The government promoted Chinese culture and the Mandarin Chinese language, banning the study of Taiwanese history, the practice of Taiwanese language, and dancing, claiming that activity was “against morals.”

But there was one reason Taiwanese could gather in groups, and one genre of dance they were allowed to practice — for political and nationalist reasons.

“The entire island was closed. Under those conditions, no one was allowed to [practice other forms of] dance, they couldn’t join these activities because they were controlled. But there was one kind that you could do, and that was folk dance,” says Xu Wenhong, a 57-year-old food sciences professor at Yilan University who organizes weekly folk dance classes.

“At the time we really had no form of entertainment. Even certain movies couldn’t be released, they were all controlled,” he said. “So when I was a kid and saw my mother dancing, I thought it looked fun. So when I got to college I joined a club.” There he met his wife, Tsui-yen. The two have been together ever since and lead these regular events in Yilan.

Folk dancing........

© The Times of Israel

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