.Dance Your Heart Out

Berkeley icon Ashkenaz turns 50

Possibly the most Berkeley of all Berkeley arts institutions is turning 50. And the choice of “Rhythms of Resilience” as the theme for Ashkenaz Music & Dance Community Center’s gala anniversary event Nov. 4 is perfectly apt.

In its half-century of existence, Ashkenaz has survived Berkeley’s transition from its ’70s beads-and-headbands era; the shocking murder of center founder, David Nadel, in 1996; an earthquake retrofit shutdown during 2020-22; and the accompanying pandemic shutdown. Through it all, the community continued to show not just support, but love for a place envisioned by Nadel to be welcoming to everyone, and to bring people together through the power of dance and music.

David Nadel was a visionary, but he was also a man of many practical talents. He was a dedicated human rights activist and a longtime folk dancer. He had the woodworking and construction skills to lead a team that took a warehouse on San Pablo Avenue and created a unique and beautiful dance and music hall, modeled after a Polish wooden synagogue and named for Nadel’s Ashkenazi Jewish roots.

Entering Ashkenaz, visitors find a 1,500-square-foot wooden dance floor in the main hall, alongside the cafe, hand-built by Nadel and friends. Above, light filters through the stained glass which is found throughout the main hall as well as the rest of the 4,400-square-foot building.

Although Nadel was inspired by his love of Balkan music and dance, the Ashkenaz community expanded quickly, now encompassing African, Balkan, Brazilian, Cajun/Zydeco, Caribbean, Middle Eastern, reggae and American roots, from bluegrass to swing. The center presents nightly live music, dance and movement classes, workshops, programs for children and benefit shows.

Suzy Thompson, now director of the Berkeley Old-Time Music Convention, knew Nadel. She began playing at the center as a fiddler in the late ’70s and by 1983 was bringing her California Cajun Orchestra to Ashkenaz. “That was an amazing experience,” she said. “I saw people of all races, all different backgrounds … professors from UC, computer nerds, Creole people from the Bay Area community, a Latino couple who liked to dance to Cajun music. If [all these people] had been discussing politics, there likely would have been no common ground. But they were dancing together.”

In 1996, Thompson was part of the movement to reopen Ashkenaz after Nadel’s death. “It was kind of impossible,” she said of the effort to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy the building. But they did it. Community members who didn’t know each other, but shared a love of Ashkenaz and what it stood for, all worked together to save it. And they shared the joy when it did reopen.

In 1998, the Ashkenaz Peace Wall was dedicated to David Nadel. Created through a collaboration between World Wall for Peace and members of the center’s West Berkeley neighborhood, its wall tiles were painted at Ashkenaz at the first danceathon on Jan. 17, 1998, and at the People’s Park Fair on May 10, 1998. It is still on display on the front of the building, and is now one of walls in 31 countries. 

In 2001, a successful “Fund the Floor” campaign gave donors the opportunity to commemorate themselves, their organizations or a loved one by contributing $200 or more toward a plank for the new floor. The new floor, installed in January 2002, is made of maple flooring originally part of the Hudson Pencil Factory in San Leandro.

Vicki Virk, co-founder of Non Stop Bhangra and founder of the Dholrhythms Dance Company, never met Nadel, but began teaching classes at the center in 2003. She immediately recognized it as a special place. “The staff was very welcoming,” she said. “I taught my first classes in the Back Studio.” These became so popular she moved them to the Main Room, where they still take place. Ashkenaz remains, she said, accessible, affordable and supportive of teachers and performers who often struggle to find class and performance space.

“I teach an Indian dance class, and we get all ages, all different backgrounds. It’s very inviting, even to non-dancers,” Virk said. “Very Berkeley.”

Sarah Travis became executive director of Ashkenaz in May 2022. A fiddler, she’s been familiar with the center for years, although also too young to have met the founder.

But staff and volunteers, some of whom have been with Ashkenaz for decades, have community memory, and have conveyed to her a solid picture of who he was. Thompson specifically mentioned former managing director Larry Chin, who is still the center’s night manager and sits on its board. “He started working at Ashkenaz in the ’70s and just never stopped,” she said.

“David Nadel was a unique person, with strong values, who believed in the power of music and dance,” Travis said. “That message resonated with people [at the founding], and people are missing that these days.”

One of her goals is to introduce more younger people to Ashkenaz and all it has to offer. “The programming is strong,” Travis said. And if a visitor comes for the show, and “digs deeper, they’ll find legends … the gold of history.”

Both Thompson and Virk agree. 

“There used to be places like Ashkenaz in every university town,” Thompson said. Now, few still exist. Ashkenaz hasn’t tried to expand, “it just kept doing what it does,” she said. “It’s a place to dance that is down-home, like you’d find out in the country … Louisiana or Kenya or Macedonia.” Nadel, she said, “prided himself that it was a safe place, where women could go by themselves. It still feels very safe to me.”

It remains a place that has “kept its finger on the pulse of music. It’s not just a listening place,” she said, but one where “free-form” dancing is not only OK, but joyously embraced.

“Ashkenaz now hosts so many events that are inviting to young people,” Virk said. “It’s the space that empowers local artists to share their heartwork. It’s home.”

The 50th-anniversary event will be a special moment for the center. “We have such a rich history of both beauty and pain,” Travis said. Four artists from the worlds of music and dance will be featured, and Travis noted that VIP guests will get to see the tiny space above the studios, where Nadel lived.

Thompson referred to this space as “a little monk’s cell.” Nadel, she said, would allow homeless people to sleep inside the center at times, and “gave work to indigent people. In a certain way, he was kind of saintly.”

Ashkenaz materials note: “Funds raised from the event will support Ashkenaz’s efforts towards promoting traditional folk and international music, supporting artists, and reaching new community members while keeping the venue accessible to everyone who loves music and dancing.”

The Rhythms of Resilience event schedule includes:

5:15pm: VIP Reception, personal welcome by executive director, board members and staff. Tour “behind the scenes” at Ashkenaz, the apartment space, now the Ashkenaz office, where David Nadel lived.

6pm: Dinner, performances and special presentations

8:30pm: Closing remarks

9pm: Mix, mingle and dance, with a dessert buffet

Rhythms of Resilience: Honoring 50 Years of Ashkenaz, 6pm, Nov. 4. Tickets starting at $100. Ashkenaz, 1317 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley. 510.525.5099. www.ashkenaz.com

1 COMMENT

  1. Alexis and I met at Ashkenaz in 1980 dancing to Queen Ida and The Bon Temps Zydeco Band. We have been dancing ever since.

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