Blues dancing Feelin' Blues Blues dancing Feelin' Blues The Feelin' Blues festival in Tel Aviv features performances and opportunities for blues dancing enthusiasts to strut their stuff. (Photo: Courtesy of Feelin' Blues)

American blues dancing swings into Tel Aviv

A blues dancing festival gets people moving.

Tel Aviv's flourishing dance scene, with its active contemporary, ballet and hip-hop troupes, is well-known. But there is a new dance style that’s fast becoming the talk of the town: blues. This weekend, from Jan. 23-26, top dance teachers and disc jockeys – including American instructors Justin Riley and Brenda Russell – will touch down in Tel Aviv for the fourth annual Feelin’ Blues festival, joining other international movers and shakers on Tel Aviv’s dance floors.

Most people associate blues with music, but while music plays an integral part in the festival, the focus will actually be on blues dance. Born of its namesake music genre and of the African-American experience, blues was first practiced in turn-of-the-century juke joints and house parties, particularly in the American South. Like many other retro dance styles, it is generally performed in pairs, and it is characterized by a strong connection between partners, and between the dancer and the music, allowing for interpretation and improvisation. With the revival of swing in the 1990s, modern dancers rediscovered the style. Since then, it has experienced a renaissance.

Justin Riley, a renowned dance teacher originally from the Midwest, caught the blues bug early on. “I always listened to blues music when I was growing up. Even when I fell in love with Lindy Hop [a Harlem swing style] 13 years ago, I still continued to listen to blues,” he told From The Grapevine. “And so when the neo-blues dancing movement started 10 years ago in the States, I fell right in – and [fell in] deep.”

“My own love of blues was developed in my hometown of Portland,” dance instructor Brenda Russell told From The Grapevine. Russell is another American blues dancer who came to teach at Feelin’ Blues last year and will return for the 2015 event. “My grandparents got into jazz jams later in my grandpa's life. They hung around at coffee shops and bars with jazz players – I found this boring at the time, but it was training me for the future. Once I was of age I started to go to blues bars myself with friends to dance.“

Russell’s passion for the genre has only gotten greater the more she has been exposed to it. “As I become more and more familiar, my appreciation grows, and my soul is so deeply seeped in this music at this point, it is what brings me the most pleasure and joy in any moment.”

With the growing popularity of the blues movement, dance festivals have been springing up all around the world. In Tel Aviv, there’s a burgeoning scene. The Israeli Blues Society hosts monthly jams, and the Tel Aviv-based Holy Lindy Land dance school also helps to get feet on the floor with its swing and blues lessons, workshops and weekly parties. 

In fact, Holy Lindy Land's founders, Ron Dobrovinsky and Sharon Guzman, are the people who run Feelin’ Blues. They created it to fill a gap in the festival calendar. “I was exposed to blues dance in 2010, and started searching for blues dance events around Europe to travel to,” Guzman told From The Grapevine. “At the time there weren't so many of them. In the first international blues dance event I visited (Blues Baby Blues, held in London), I was thinking that there is no reason that big international dance events should only be held around Europe and that it would be great to have something similar in Tel Aviv, which is a great city to visit.”

Since the inaugural festival in 2012, Feelin’ Blues has taken off. Not only does it reel in top dance talent from America, but it also draws in dancers from even further afield, including Russia, China and Europe. Many of them, including Russell, are returning attendees.

The 2015 edition of the festival will be the largest yet. “We opened more tracks and levels for the dancers,” said Guzman. “We have four partnered levels, including an invitational level for the top blues dancers from around the world. This year, we also have a one-of-a-kind solo blues track with three amazing teachers. We are going to hold a special teachers’ training day with some of the leading blues dance teachers from around the world, since improving the ways the dance is being taught is also very important to us.”

In between the classes and competitions, there will also be plenty of time for play, with a host of spirited parties running until the early hours of the morning, each with their own unique vibe. Riley, who will DJ at one of these, teases at what attendees can expect from his set. “Right now, I’m really into playful jazz blues, faster country blues with interesting syncopations to play with, and blues music with a lot of empty space,” he said. Yet, in the true freewheeling spirit of blues, the set list is fluid rather than predefined. “But who knows what I’ll play? I’ll see what the room wants at the moment.”

Blues dance is an accessible style, and while technique and form matters, so too do expression and passion. “It's a meditation, a conversation, an artistic expression, a path to healing, a sensual experience. We can use this music and dance in many ways that bring healing to ourselves, our communities and our world,” explained Russell. The goal of the festival is to help spread the love of blues dance among dancers of all levels and abilities. 

When talking about the classes he’ll host, Riley sums up the spirit of the blues community: “I don’t just want to teach the dance, but rather the love of it!”

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