Israeli phys ed teacher uses movement to break down barriers

Children and adults alike enjoy Levi Bar Gil’s creative dance techniquesAt an early age, Levi Bar-Gil discovered that being light on his feet was a great way to stay out of schoolyard fights. Today, the Israeli physical education teacher and …

Children and adults alike enjoy Levi Bar Gil’s creative dance techniquesAt an early age, Levi Bar-Gil discovered that being light on his feet was a great way to stay out of schoolyard fights. Today, the Israeli physical education teacher and dance specialist is teaching others to use movement as a means to replace violence.

Using a self-created method called Movement in Time (MIT) Bar-Gil combines popular music and simple communal movements to promote non-violence and to help cultivate an inner desire for peace. MIT is effective with young children, teenagers and adults, according to Bar-Gil, because it allows people to break down barriers – both within themselves and with the people around them.

“I have found that when you build an atmosphere, using humor, love, and play, kids will learn much more than if you force them by giving them orders,” he told ISRAEL21c.

Bar-Gil’s techniques have worked both at home and abroad. In addition to providing guidance and instruction to Israelis, Bar-Gil has taught his MIT technique throughout the US and Europe. Most recently he traveled to California State University, Chico, where he was a guest lecturer.

There, Bar-Gil led a series of workshops called “Dancing for Peace,” where he taught students and adults how to teach his MIT dance method, as well as leading classes for a variety of age groups.

“It was very successful, and they kept asking when I was coming back – why I wasn’t staying. Even if they didn’t understand the Hebrew words of the song, they still liked the rhythm of the music.”

He was initially invited to come and teach at Chico State by his friend Michael Leitner, a recreation professor at the university, after Leitner saw his work. He has since been back five times.

“My goal is to find the commonalities among people, not the differences,” Bar-Gil told ISRAEL21c. “Using the MIT technique we can find the thing that connects us, and puts us all on the same level. This method allows people to succeed from the beginning in the specific way that I have created, and can help us to see that everyone is the same all around the world.”

The foundation of MIT is basic steps, hand movements, and body and hand positions, which are mastered and then used in more complicated ways. The initial simplicity allows all of the students to take part and become motivated, and then gives them the confidence to move on to the harder steps and more complicated dances. Using 25 basic moves in different sequences, Bar-Gil has developed a wide repertoire of dances for his MIT series.

“I pick songs that motivate building peace and sharing. We dance to songs with words like ‘here is my house’ and ‘big family’. Sometimes we use songs that have animals as the subject, and the kids can imitate the animals and play with this idea. Sometimes we use songs about vehicles, and the kids can be inspired by a train, truck, or car, and they can use that movement in the dances.”

More than just dancing to build self confidence and have fun, Bar-Gil has found that engaging children in physical activity, specifically dancing, both in the classroom and at recess, helps them to develop positive behavior, and to formulate a type of self-expression beyond violence – a concept that came to him through his own personal experience.

“When I was young, I was a very problematic child. I came from a house that couldn’t afford to give me almost anything, so I became a street boy. Solving problems was usually done through fighting.”

Unlike so many others, Bar-Gil was lucky enough to find a physical education teacher who took him under his wing and introduced him to gymnastics. Still an inspiration to him today, Bar-Gil recalls him fondly. “He is my ideal person. He always talked about giving everyone the opportunity to participate in something, and he helped me to become number one in my school for gymnastics. He helped me to choose the positive way over violence, and it became my wish to be able to give something like this back to society.”

Bar-Gil has taken this concept and has made it his life’s work, as well as the subject of his PhD research. “I am trying to discover not only that dancing can effectively prevent non-violence, but can help to incorporate sharing into other areas of school as well. Children can learn math and reading more easily if they have first connected with each other through dancing.”

Today Bar-Gil works with people of all ages, helping them to find the positive in their day to day life. He is a junior high school PE teacher, and teaches dance five nights a week in Hod Hasharon, Ra’anana and Herziliya.

During his most recent California visit, Bar-Gil, in conjunction with others at Chico State, realized that the MIT method could work for people as old as 80-90, as well, and so he began giving classes to the elderly. “As soon as I left, they were asking their therapists when I was going to be coming back,” Bar-Gil recalls with a smile. “With this age I add dances that involve sitting on a chair.”

Much of Bar-Gil’s success can be attributed to his ability to adapt his technique to a wide range of students. He defines his success not just in the end product, but in the personal relationships that are formed along the way. “Even after many years, when I see kids that I worked with, they remember me not just for the dances that I taught them, but for the way that we communicated with each other. This is more important to me than learning a lot of dances. They always tell me that I taught them how to behave, and how to share with each other.”

Over the two hours that he sits and talks of his work in Hod Hasharon’s Aroma café, three different students run up to Bar-Gil, giving him a warm embrace and attesting to the fact that Bar-Gil is a wonderful teacher who invests time into each individual.

“When people come to my classes, I try not to forget anyone, and to speak to everyone. It’s not because I’m acting, it’s because it’s what I believe. I always wonder, ‘Does he feel good?’ ‘Can I make him feel better?’ This is my goal.”

His success on the individual level has convinced Bar-Gil to take his method to the next level, using his dancing for non-violence to serve as a tool in the perpetual search for peace. He is in the process of starting a program called “Dancing in Kindergarten” which is a project that combines Palestinian and Israeli kindergartners, and will teach them the fundamentals of coexistence through dancing together.

This will not be the first time that Bar-Gil approaches the daunting task of working towards coexistence through dance. As part of his Master’s degree, Bar-Gil did a project with Arabs and Israelis called “Breaking the Walls through Art,” in which a group of Arab and Israeli fifth grade students did a special arts exhibit that combined paint, drama and dancing.

Though Bar-Gil seems to be a veritable master at what he does, he has still encountered difficult situations along the way. “At first when I gave lectures to Israeli Arabs there was a kind of distance and trust problem. But when I showed them that I was coming in peace, they started to trust me more easily. This taught me that even when you are facing a problem of connection between people, if you believe in your way, and are patient, then the technique will work.”

And it was in fact his model of teaching that initially gained him attention. As part of his army service Bar-Gil was in the Nahal Unit and was living on a kibbutz for the year. There he started a dancing group for kids.

“Amazing stuff happened there,” he recalls. “Because I built this in a group atmosphere the kids were comfortable and even boys joined the group.” His work with the 5-12 year old kibbutz children was so successful that teachers from the surrounding area came to learn from his teaching model.

After completing his army service, Bar-Gil went on to study to become a PE teacher at the celebrated Israeli sports center, the Wingate Institute in Netanya, where he specialized in teaching young children.

It was at Wingate that Bar-Gil’s theory of dancing to form a new community really took off. “I started doing many kinds of music and movement activities for children together. I used techniques to encourage bonding, and we learned how to share, how to lead and how to be led.”

“I specialized with kids that were physically disabled or had hyperactivity disorder. I found that my technique gave them a very good ground space to express themselves in a positive way.” And from there, with his warm heart and natural gift for teaching, Bar-Gil has never looked back.

“I have found that if you know how to use my method correctly, you don’t even have to speak, just act. A teacher is supposed to be a kind of actor, and play with the sound level and facial expressions – to be close to the people and not work from a distance, to give respect, and also to lead the process. Through the years, by observing kids and adults from many different kinds of populations I have realized that my way can be another tool to give people the opportunity to share, laugh and interact with each other.”

Having created approximately 160 dances for children, Bar Gil is currently teaching a course at Tel Aviv University on how to teach dancing in kindergarten.

“When I see what I’ve done, I believe that until now, even though I am improving my technique, I have achieved one of my main dreams about why I came to this world. It seems to me that through this experience I have achieved one of the main goals in my life. This isn’t the end, but this is the way.”