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

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

That year, the KMT, which had ruled China since 1912, lost a long-running civil war to the Communist Party and retreated to Taiwan. Estimates indicate that around 2 million Chinese followed the migration to the island in the following years.

The KMT ruled Taiwan in a bubble under strict martial law in order to suppress the potential presence of Chinese Communists or any anti-government activity. This resulted in heavy censorship of newspapers, books, television, radio and other forms of entertainment, as well as a ban on “unlawful assembly”. The government has promoted Chinese culture and the Mandarin Chinese language, prohibiting the study of Taiwanese history, the practice of the Taiwanese language and dancing, saying the activity is “against morality”.

But there was a reason Taiwanese could congregate in groups and a kind of dance they were allowed to do – for political and nationalistic reasons.

“The whole island was closed. Under these conditions, no one was authorized to [practice other forms of] dance, they could not participate in these activities because they were controlled. But there was one genre you could do, and that was folk dance,” says Xu Wenhong, a 57-year-old food science professor at Yilan University who runs weekly folk dance classes.

“Back then, we really didn’t have any form of entertainment. Even some movies couldn’t be shown, they were all controlled,” he said. “So when I was a kid and saw my mom dancing, I thought it looked fun. So when I got to college, I joined a club. There he meets his wife, Tsui-yen. The two have been together ever since and run these regular events in Yilan.

Folk dancing “played a role both as a political tool and as a community activity during and after the period of Taiwanese martial law,” wrote Wei-Chi Wu of the University of California, Riverside. his thesis on the subject. “For the national government, the international folk dance was a cultural work that helped it propose Taiwanese nationalism and show Taiwan’s alignment with the United States and opposition to Communist China.”

To this end, in the 1950s, the Taiwanese government invited American dance teachers to present dances to teachers in Taiwan, who brought them to their elementary schools and universities. Soon, almost every school here used folk dances from around the world as an exercise activity for students, and almost every university had a folk dance club.

At the time, the United States was still offering Taiwan military, political and economic support, before it officially recognized the Communist People’s Republic of China in 1979.

Taiwanese dancers in Yilan perform a Ukrainian circle dance for a world dance rally in support of Ukraine. (Jordyn Haime/JTA)

Americans like Rickey Holden, a prominent choreographer and folk dance teacher, brought songs such as “Mayim Mayim” (from Israel), “Shibolet Basadeh” (Israel) and “Wooden Shoes” (Lithuania) to Taiwanese teachers during from his first visit in 1957. “Mayim Mayim” – which in Hebrew means “Water, Water” and became known as the “Water Dance” in Chinese – was one of the first folk dances introduced to Taiwan and has become synonymous with the activity. Its impact was so great that The Taiwan International Folk Dance Association has made it the theme of its 50th anniversary seminar in 2007.

holden too stopover in Japan during his late 1950s tour of Asia, where “Mayim” has since become entrenched in pop culture and appeared in commercials and video games.

“It was a kind of internationalization. It allowed people to gain “worldwide” experience [when they couldn’t leave the country]”, said Xu. “Because we dance the dances of other countries, we can begin to learn about the people of other countries, how they exist, whether with difficulties or happiness, we can see these things from the dance.”

Fang-chih Chen, a 77-year-old retired teacher and well-known dance instructor in Taiwan, was probably among the first groups of children to practice dance at school. Every day, within 10 minutes of the start of class, teachers would dance with students in the school hallways, she recalls.

At that time, the dances known to teachers were still very limited, mainly to Scandinavian and Israeli dances such as “Mayim”.

“Most [Israeli] the dances were in 2/2 or 4/4 time, and the rhythm was very clear, and they were easy for everyone to learn,” Chen said.

Jiaxing Jiang, a 62-year-old man from Yilan, said practicing another country’s folk dance lets him feel the spirit of that country or people. What kind of feeling does Israeli dance give Taiwanese people?

“Strength and unity”, he told me.

Jiang says he is inspired by how Jews have managed to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive through international literature and film. He showed his family, including his daughter Lucia, now 25, films such as “Fiddler on the Roof” and “The Pianist”.

Lucia’s grandmother left her home in China for Taiwan in 1945, expecting only to stay temporarily to care for her sister’s baby. Martial law kept her from returning home, but when she met her husband and decided to continue her studies here, Taiwan began to feel more like home.

“I also like movies about our history,” Lucia said. “I hadn’t really connected those two parts of the story before, but I think we have a similar journey. They have connections, similarities. And I think for me, to see Israel so strong now, I think that’s encouraging.

Lucia is not the only one to think so. As Taiwan faces growing hostility from China, which claims the island as its territory, some commentators idealize Israel as a model of military strength and nation-building.

In high school, for her graduation project, Lucia decided to explore Jewish and Israeli culture more deeply – by studying Israeli dance.

“Some of the gestures are praising God, or honoring the rain, thanking God for giving them rain because they lived in the desert,” Lucia said. Although she is not religious, she said that “when I danced, I felt very peaceful and happy. I felt the same, like I respect whatever the world gives me, like rain, food, everything.

When Taiwan’s martial law was lifted in 1987, folk dancing largely went out of style. For the first time, Taiwanese were able to experiment with styles like hip-hop, jazz and street dance. Taiwanese native dances and indigenous dances have also resurfaced. Today, few schools still teach folk dancing to children, and few colleges still have clubs.

Although Lucia still occasionally joins her parents for a dance class, she now sees it as an activity “for a certain age of people, not for everyone”.

But Israeli dances remain popular among remaining international folk dance groups due to the abundance of new dances that have emerged from Israel over the years, especially those choreographed to Israeli pop music, Chen said. long-time dance teacher. Some have even applied Israeli dance moves to Taiwanese popular music. Groups have been able to attract more participants simply by including Israeli dances and music in their practice.

So, despite the general decline in popularity, Chen and Xu, Yilan’s teacher, don’t seem too discouraged. Both still practice with groups that meet regularly and, in pre-pandemic times, regularly traveled to dance festivals around the world, inviting foreign teachers to events like the annual Asian Dance Camp in Taiwan, one of the most famous international folk dance events in the world. world.

“The younger generation now has better opportunities than in the past. Fortunately, they can go anywhere and learn the dance of that country. I feel very comforted and happy when I see them dancing,” Chen said.