Nirkod Lashalom, Nashir Lashalom
Harokdim ba’olam mishpachah
Let’s dance for peace, and sing for peace
All the world’s dancers are a family

On the second day of Passover this year, a Hebrew song and its accompanying Israeli dance, composed and choreographed in Melbourne, Australia, made international cultural history.

In Hong Kong.

Which is where a 27-person Chinese choir sang the Mandarin version of Nirkod Lashalom — Let’s Dance for Peace, and some 200 performers who danced it came from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Macau, and mainland China. Nirkod Lashalom was the opening ceremony’s centrepiece in the 2016 World Dance Day festival.

Every year since 1982, when the UNESCO affiliated International Dance Council (CID) introduced World Dance Day, millions of dancers in 170 countries, including Israel, have continued to celebrate it. Every dance form, from classical ballet to hip-hop, from modern dance to ethnic folk, and from tap to jazz, joins the festivities. But this is the first time, as far as my research could establish, that an Israeli dance has featured in a World Dance Day’s opening ceremony anywhere outside Israel.

Let me declare a “personal” and family interest. My wife Aura, a professional singer and songwriter, wrote the words and music for Nirkod Lashalom some 18 years ago, together with her late mother Vera Levin.

My mother-in-law was born in Harbin, and grew up in the Shanghai Jewish community. In 1949, as Mao-tse Tung led the Communist revolution, she moved to Israel, where she developed her passion for Hebrew song and dance, and then to Australia. She returned to Israel in the 1960s, and then resettled in Australia. But her love of both Chinese and Israeli culture was life-long. So she would have loved seeing how Nirkod Lashalom has taken on new meaning in Chinese.

The Hong Kong connection is also “personal”. It began last August after Aura was a guest at the International Symposium for the Preservation and Development of Folk Dance. When she’d returned to Melbourne, Aura’s Hong Kong dance-teacher hosts, Hang-Mai Fung and husband Lau Ting-Kwok, who’ve been to Israel and attended the Karmiel Dance festival, heard her recording of Nirkod Lashalom. As Mai later told me: “We just loved the music”. And as the song’s message of peace resonated in Chinese as much as in Hebrew, the rest really is history.

But there’s a back story. Aura had received the Hong Kong invitation because www.israelidances.com, the website she created and has developed over the past 12 years, has become the “go-to” online home for thousands of dancers in 35 countries. Many of them, such as those in Hong Kong and Singapore, aren’t Jewish, and keep up with the ever-expanding Israeli folk-dancing repertoire via the website by following the dances’ Hebrew song-titles in translated and transliterated Mandarin Chinese, of which the website lists over a thousand. But that’s still only a small percentage of the total Israeli dance repertoire.

That’s not a misprint. Israeli folk dance happens to be one of Israel’s least known, but more successful “soft power” exports. Even many Israelis, otherwise knowledgeable about their country’s cultural outreach, have only the vaguest idea about the worldwide industry of touring Israeli choreographers, dance camps, conferences, workshops and videos.

Outside Israel, apart from the aficionados, it’s rare to come across anybody whose awareness of Israeli dance extends much beyond Hava Nagila and maybe Od Lo Ahavati Dai at bar mitzvahs and weddings. But even in Israel its reach is often under-rated. Although folkdance has a Zionist history that predates 1948, and although the annual Karmiel Dance Festival, with its 80 performances and 5,000 dancers, attracts more than 300,000 visitors, no Israeli has ever come close when I ask how many dances they think there are.

For the record, www.israelidances.com lists the class schedules for 35 countries and detailed information for 8,724 different dances. No joke: 8,724. And that’s not even all of them. All the more reason for noting that Nirkod Lashalom has made a name for itself. In Hebrew, 33 other languages, and now certainly in Chinese.

Israeli dance, however, is not new to Hong Kong. The legendary choreographer, Moshe “Moshiko” Yitzhak-Halevy, a veteran of the Yemenite Dance Theatre Inbal and thousands of teaching sessions, visited Hong Kong in 1968. And ever since, the local folk dance groups have included Israeli circle dances, debkas, line dances and partner dances in their weekly sessions.

Earlier this year, when I met Hang-Mai Fung and Lau Ting-Kwok in Hong Kong, I had to ask: What attracts them to Israeli dancing?

For Mai, it’s that the songs and dances are “lively and modern,” and that the dances reflect the mood of the music. She likes the way old and young, experienced and novice, can tackle Israeli dances, however intricate they may become, because they’re built up from a few simple and basic movements that allow endless variations and combinations.

“And the dances tell us that Israel is a very special kind of nation, because the people there have come together from many countries, and that’s as a nation should be.”

So it really is special that Mai chose Nirkod Lashalom as the song to open World Dance Day. Granted, my personal bias may be showing again. But then Nirkod Lashalom itself began as something very personal — at a dance camp in New Zealand in 1998. Aura, Vera, and veteran Israeli choreographer, Shmulik Govari, were almost the only Jews there among more than 100 Israeli dance aficionados. The New Zealanders’ affection for Israel so moved Vera that she told Aura: “We have to write a song.” Which is what they began as they drove around New Zealand, and completed back in Melbourne.

After music producer Martin Splitter arranged the song, Aura recorded it, added it to her website XXX, and with Yehuda Kaplan, then a broadcaster at Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service’s Hebrew program, had it translated and transliterated into 35 languages, including Chinese. Then nothing much happened for the next 10 years.

Since 2008, however, Nirkod Lashalom has become “The Little Hebrew Song That Could”. It had its “world premiere” in June 2008 at Hava Netzeh B’Machol, the 38th Israeli Dance Festival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, when it was choreographed as a performance piece for the “Nirkod Lashalom Show.”

At about the same time in Melbourne, avid local dancer Peter Leipnik began developing a folk-dance version. On a visit to Australia, leading Israeli choreographer Shlomo Maman joined Peter to work on the dance. By August 2008, it was a short-listed finalist in the Karmiel Dance Festival, the first time the Festival had ever accepted a dance composed and choreographed outside Israel. This led, via the Internet, to dance groups performing Nirkod Lashalom from Montevideo to Riga, from Singapore to Vilnius, and from New York to Warsaw.

And now, on World Dance Day 2016, from Israel to Hong Kong, via Melbourne.

Sam Lipski is the CEO of The Pratt Foundation, a former Editor-in-Chief of the Australian Jewish News, and the founding publisher of the Jerusalem Report.