Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A golden dance

Chai Folk Ensemble celebrates 50 years of performing

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PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Chai Folk Ensemble dancers rehearse at their Notre Dame Avenue studio.

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PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Chai Folk Ensemble dancers rehearse at their Notre Dame Avenue studio.

In 50 years, the Sarah Sommer Chai Folk Ensemble has gone from a group of girls dancing to a record player in the founder's basement to a professional group of more than 40 dancers, singers and musicians.

"I was there when there were eight 12-year-old girls dancing in the basement and the metamorphosis the group has undergone is just incredible," said Chai president Hillel Sommer, the son of Chai founder Sarah Sommer.

Since the group formed in 1964, it has become North America's oldest and largest Israeli folk ensemble and the only one of its kind to perform exclusively to live musical accompaniment.

Chai lived to claim those titles partially because of Alex Sommer, the late Sarah Sommer's husband. He helped the group continue after she died five years after founding the group.

"My dad, his role when my mom was around -- other than being the cheerleader -- he would make sure that he would hang out and give all of the performers hugs and kisses after and cheer them on. He wanted to continue doing that," said Sommer.

"I guarantee you, if you see him after a show today, he will be backstage hugging and kissing the dancers and singers," he said. "It was to keep the legacy going."

Sommer said his mom's legacy has grown beyond what she could have ever envisioned. The turning point for Chai was in 2011 when they performed at Festival Aviv Carlos Halpert in Mexico. The group performed in Mexico 16 years prior, but the response they got this time made them realize how much better they've got.

"When they had first gone, they were laughed off the stage, but then when we came, the last night everyone was chanting 'Canada, Canada,' " said Elan Marchinko, who has been dancing with Chai for seven years.

"It was this incredible moment."

Beyond dancing and singing, Marchinko said Chai is like a family and the group has helped her through dark times.

"Before, I had suffered a lot with self-doubt and I just felt really lost in professional training, and Chai, it was like it breathed new life into me."

"I'm not Jewish, I'm not part of the community, or at least I didn't used to be, but Chai is just such an inclusive group," she said.

"It has changed my life. It's everything for me."

Chai is celebrating its 50th anniversary with three performances in early June. The group has been preparing for these performances since fall 2012, when choreographers from all over the world came to Winnipeg to teach Chai dancers their choreography.

As for what happens after Chai's 50th anniversary performances, Marchinko has an idea of what's in store.

"We'll get bigger and better."

cloutierdanelle@gmail.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 31, 2014 D17

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