Head, Shoulders, Stomach and Arms: Eskesta with Dege Feder

Dege Feder is a multidisciplinary Ethiopian-born artist based in Israel. She began her dance career as a dancer with Eskesta, an Ethiopian dance group in Israel and in 2005 received a degree in Arts Education from the University of Haifa. Feder is the choreographer and manager of Beta, a dance trouped formed by members of Eskesta .

With the sun peeking in through the drawn curtains in her home dance space in Israel, Dege Feder welcomed us to her master class with enthusiasm and gratitude. Just like the warmth of the sun, Feder exuded a caring grace and stirring passion. It has not gotten any easier or less awkward taking movement practice classes or masterclasses over Zoom in the year we have spent doing so during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, this class leaned into the circumstances, embracing the oddity, and in doing so, provided comfort and ease. While the material presented comes from a dance language I have not studied, it was familiar and established in my body. Indeed, the welcoming tone Feder maintained throughout class aided in this familiarity, but I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the similarities in the movement practices in which I have spent my life training and the material presented in Feder’s class.

The Eskesta, which means “shoulder dance,” is the base of Feder’s class. This traditional Ethiopian dance lives in Feder’s body and came with her when she immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia as part of Project Moses. The isolated head, shoulders, stomach, and arms, all practiced in Feder’s class, also reside in my body through my jazz dance training. The polyrhythmic musicality and polycentric movements are both hallmarks of Africanist dance aesthetics, a foundation of jazz dance. While my study of African dance has been limited to and focused on West African dance, the presence of these elements in Feder’s class made evident the cross-cultural connections between Africa’s embodied dance histories. Studying the dance practices from African cultures has taught me that the training in Western concert dance forms I have received are inextricably linked.

We begin with an improvisation designed to wake up isolated parts of bodies, focusing on the possibility of movement and range of motion of each segment. Feder guides us from head to toe, instructing us to play with the speed, weight, and effort. When we reach the hands and arms, Feder has us explore these extremities’ distance from the center of our body. Admittedly, this is not something I consciously think about regularly, nor can I recall this being something that is regularly explored in improvisation exercises in which I have participated. As I think about my past experiences, I know that I involve the expansion and contraction of my kinesphere, but it has never really been called to my attention in such a manner. There was something about how Feder’s words, “close to the body,” made the experience more personal and human. In my other experiences, the instructions felt more clinical and external. Phrases like “Expand your reach,” or “Shrink your kinesphere,” now seem overthought and even esoteric. Feder’s guidance through the improvisation not only prepared our bodies for the rest of class but also primed our minds to be open and receptive, acknowledging the possibility for learning and self-discovery.

The second part of our class was filled with learning specific movements from the Eskesta dance form. Shifting through a series of head and shoulder isolations, which increased in difficulty as the class progressed, we reached the stomach and torso. I have experienced pelvis isolations and articulation of the spine in my training, but I have never worked on the isolation on the stomach. Moving from the core is something I am familiar with, but Feder’s demonstration made clear that this is an isolation of the stomach itself.  This stomach-centered maneuvering rippled and pushed my core as I had never before experienced. The specific movement we practiced eventually incorporated the ribs and affected the shoulders, but the initiation from the stomach resulted in something that was undulated yet precise and confidently understated. Ricocheting from the abdomen, through the ribs, and bouncing into the shoulders, I found myself trying to perfect the motion. It wasn’t until I let go of the perfectionism driving me that I could experience the sequential stream through my torso. Learning to lean into the experiential nature of movement practice classes is something I struggle with, but Feder’s quick-paced class flow allowed me to be in the moment, gaining knowledge by just being and receiving.  

With a small arsenal of Eskesta specific movements, we were now ready to combine these elements into a devised dance of our own making. Feder informed us that Eskesta is often performed with daily or household objects, like a water jug or walking stick. She instructed us to grab something from our homes and incorporate it into our dance. Turning off our videos, we worked individually to piece together a short phrase using elements we had just learned. I chose a broom and got to work. In reviewing the steps that stuck out to me, incorporating my prop choice, I started to assemble my phrase. I found that I knew and remembered more than I thought, and I became aware that Feder’s playfulness in her teaching methods served me well. I felt empowered to explore this new but familiar movement vocabulary. When it came time to share, of course, I was nervous, but I leaned into the newness of it and permitted myself to experience the joy of just being. Watching my classmates and other masterclass participants, I was blown away by the creativity and authenticity with which each person performed. Feder’s love, dedication, care, and passion for Eskesta were transferred to the students and were evident in the performances of each individual’s original choreography.  

As graciously as she had begun, Feder closed the class by thanking everyone for their willingness, openness, and creativity. Her sincerity and humbleness radiated wisdom and confidence. In just a short time, Feder had taught me that not only does movement experience stay in our bodies, when it resurfaces it also reconnects us to our past while opening new pathways for learning. The bridging cultures and recognition of the multitude of dance histories that exist in our lived experiences were the biggest takeaways for me. Here I was, a gay white man living in Ohio, interacting with a Jewish woman from Ethiopia living in Israel, experiencing, creating, and sharing. I made connections between my past training and new ones, learned new ways of delving into movement, and challenged my creative mind. Feder not only expanded my understanding of Eskesta but allowed me to reflect and make connections, giving me confidence and appreciation in my personal dance history. 

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