Dancing is not trivial. It is profound. It is not a mere accessory to music; it is in fact music of the body. It can be social, communal, personal, or presentational. Technically it can run the gamut from easily accessible to virtuosic. It is an essential part of every culture, but for now I will focus particularly on Yiddish dance, the dance that goes with klezmer music. Dance as a component of Jewish culture has too frequently been dismissed as a vain pursuit, in comparison with intellectual pursuits, for cultural and religious reasons, and symptomatic of an unease around things that concern the body. Only in reference to weddings has dance been historically validated, and an innovation of Chassidic practice has been to honor dance as a valuable form of spiritual expression. But we seem to have inherited a distrust of any dance that seems too polished or excellent.
Our knowledge of Yiddish culture is culled not only from interpersonal experience, but also from art and literature. In much the same way, we can draw knowledge from theatrical and performative representations of Yiddish dance, if we adjust for the necessary stylization for the stage or screen. It need not be dismissed (as I feel like I’ve often heard) as “just a performance” and treating it as in some way lesser than some abstractly pure dance of the people. My point is that even performative dance is dance of the people.
In a performative sense, dancing can range from COMMUNAL PERFORMANCE- dance intended to be viewed in a community setting (such as a broyges tantsa, tkhies hamesim tantsb, or wedding stunts to entertain the bride and groom) to PERFORMING COMMUNITY- a more formal presentation of community dance and themes for each other or a wider audience. Many early Israeli dances originated in pageants that performed the ideals of the kibbutz for the kibbutz community, and even the dances of Fiddler on the Roof can be seen as performing the Ashkenazy European community for the general public.
Performing Community would be taking an aspect of a community's culture and presenting it on a stage or some similar context. Felix Febich and his dance partner and wife, Judith Berg, performed dance based on Ashkanazic community culture while living in Poland, then touring Europe and Asia Minor one step ahead of the Gestapo, returning to Poland to perform for Jewish orphans after the war, and finally in the Americas. Fiddler on the Roof is a contemporary performing of community. Dances in Yiddish movies are performing community. My patsh tants (clapping dance), incorporating a dance figure from the wedding scene in the movie Der Dybbuk, has been refashioned as a community dance, but check out this wedding dance performance from an, I think, Scandinavian dance company that incorporates the patsh tants and the Worker's Circle Sher (a particular version of the sher, a typical Jewish square dance). Here a piece of danced community, refashioned as a popular community dance, comes full circle and resurfaces again as performed community:
I myself have done a fair bit of choreographing Performed Community. I created this dance last year for the Brigham Young University Folk Dance Company, it is based largely on my brother's wedding; the final section incorporates my Litvak dance (an arrangement of Lithuanian steps that I learned from two Lithuanian women) In every other respect it is a catalog of typical Yiddish dance figures:
Conversely, Community Performance would be a community dance with a performative aspect- like the bottle dance, broyges tants, kozatzkyc at a wedding, or, the kadatshkyd. The performer is doing something to earn the attention of the other members of the community, but it is not a theatrical show. These are however dances with a special sheen. The aesthetic qualities valued in Yiddish dance seem to be, in particular, elegance, exuberance, humor, pride, and sentiment.
My friend and colleague, Benjy Fox-Rosen, a klezmer musician, singer, and synagogue choir director, posited that athleticism is generally not encouraged in Yiddish dance, except in the performance of a mitzvah. The regular synagogue ritual of hagbah, lifting the heavy torah scroll high by the etzim (wooden handles) is somewhat athletic. Normally the torah is carried closely clutched the left side of the torso. However, at the holiday of Simchas Torah, it is customary for the torah bearers to join the dancing. I have seen one or more bearers lift the torahs by the handles well overhead while dancing, and even performing a kind of high five gesture of approaching and bumping one torah to another overhead. This is showy and is also something of a feat of strength.
At simchas, I’ve seen various athletic stunts performed before the bride and groom: walking on hands, juggling, fancy jump rope moves, and balancing heavy objects like a chair on the chin, as well as, of course, the bottle dance. This is often, but not always, done by men. My colleague, Sonia Gollance, who has been researching mentions of dance in German and Yiddish literature, points out that women were known to squat low and perform a kozatzky (Russian style kicking) as well.1
Yiddish dance, then, need not always be oceanic in its experience, i.e. allowing the individual to get lost in the group energy. It also retains the possibility of generous, even flamboyant, expression. And further, it has explored the didactic possibility of prepared dances that explain some aspect of the culture and community to the selfsame community and beyond. There is a long history of Jewish presentations intended to introduce the culture to others, and create sympathy, such as the grand spectacle of Romance of a People presented at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933 with 6,000 dancers, singers, and actors. This was followed in 1937 by The Eternal Road, a lavishly staged oratorio by Kurt Weill presented at the Manhattan Theater. Historically, these pageants were also created to impress people in positions of power, like royalty. For instance, the obviously Jewish entry (there was dialog in Hebrew) presented at the 1475 wedding of Costanzo Sforza and Camilla d’Aragona in Pesaro Italy, that clearly was designed to curry favor with the new prince.
In conclusion, just as our contemporary selves have come to a fresh understanding of the value and vitality of the Yiddish language and its literature, and we have reembraced klezmer music and allowed it to live and evolve, we can finally also give our dance culture the respect it deserves and allow it to spread, evolve, and achieve its own excellence.
1. Sonia Beth Gollance, “Gesture, Repertoire, and Emotion: Yiddish Dance Practice in German and Yiddish Literature,” Jewish Social Studies: History, Culture, Society 25.1 (Fall 2019): 102-127.
a. Broyges tants (angry dance) a presentational dance for two, frequenly mothers-in-law at a wedding, or any other two people with a theatrical disposition, enacting a non-verbal quarrel that resolves into a reconciliation.
b. Tkhies ha Mesim tants (Resurrection of the dead dance) A chassidic mimic dance that involves a mock fight between two men, resulting in the “death” of one of them. After various attempts to revive the slain, he finally spring back to life, to everyone’s relief and joy. Here’s one pretty inventive example https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cw0PYLSzrN4
c. Kozatsky (Cossack dance) Russian style squatting and kicking
d. Kadatshky A showy and evolving Chassidic style of men’s dance. This is a fairly representative example, but while there is a consistent movement vocabulary, it is realized by different communities and individuals differently: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mkHVqzU4mjw
Lines of opposition: Felix Febich, Judith Berg and a theory of Yiddish line.
The Yiddish movement repertoire has analogs in other European dance forms, with, of course, a Yiddish flavor. And there is certainly a vocabulary of Yiddish gestures. But I want to look more broadly at an internalized aesthetic that manifests in whole body shapes and lines and which has offered, and I believe, continues to offer, particular choreographic interest.
A few years ago I found myself standing at a graveside for the funeral of the Polish born dancer, choreographer and actor Felix Febich with whom I worked as a dancer and as an assistant and “handler” at KlezKamp, along with a number of others who had been touched and influenced by his life. The officiating rabbi had made the decision that, rather than those assembled tossing a few clods of earth into the open grave, we as a community would cover his coffin with earth. It was at once brutal and tender, both literally burying, and tenderly tucking into bed
There is a palpable finality to burying someone, but as I wielded the shovel, I found myself noticing that the area near his head had not been sufficiently filled in, and as I shoveled earth there, it was as if I was tucking Felix in for his long sleep.
A most appropriate thing to feel, as contrasts and dichotomies played such an important part in Felix’s life and art. His life story, which he would often narrate, and had polished to a fascinating and well-crafted tale, was filled with contrasts of triumphs and terrors, hope and despair, humor and tragedy and these elements were enfolded in his and his wife Judith Berg’s theory of Yiddish dance.
I had the privilege of working with and learning from Felix off and on for a number of years, absorbing as best as I could his experience, and the experience gained from his teachers and mentors, and they have become a great and important influence on my own understanding of Jewish dance. I also came to realize that he and Judith were not stylistically suis generis. A number of dance artists, going back at least to Baruch Aggadati, seemed to adhere to the same aesthetic.
Felix was Born 5 August, 1917 in Warsaw. Warsaw’s Jewish population at that time was
a mix of secular Jews, religious Jews, and Chassidim. He worked in his family’s restaurant, but would sneak off to see Yiddish theater, and yearned to join, particularly Michael Weichart’s Yung-teater (Young Theater) in Warsaw. He did, and in 1936 met Judith Berg, who was choreographing the troupe’s production of “Wozzeck.” Ms. Berg was a student of the German Expressionist dance pioneer Mary Wigman, and is perhaps best known as the choreographer of The Dybbuk, and danced the part of Death in the famous Dance of Death.
Judith felt that Felix needed dance training and became his teacher. Felix studied dance with Judith, but she encouraged him to study with a male dancer, as he was picking up too many of her mannerisms and his dance looked, to her, effeminate. This strikes me as a notable comment, as it was a typical anti-Semitic trope to accuse Jewish men of being feminine. He also had to rebuild his body from an academic to an athletic one. So, he studied ballet and modern German expressionist dance. Being a short man, he commented to me on how he used line to make himself appear bigger, with expansive negative spaces, like a hand held well over the head.
Felix escaped Poland alone during the war and danced a few steps ahead of the Nazis throughout Europe performing while being chased, bombed, arrested, etc. He met up with Judith again, in Bialystock, and they performed all over Soviet Russia, in Odessa, Baku and Ashkabad. In Ashkabad Felix married Judith because the landlady wouldn’t let them cohabit otherwise.
The dances of Judith and Felix incorporated Jewish gestural language in enactions of ritual and folk culture from songs and stories. Their dances tended to the narrative vs. abstract. He once criticized a performance in his honor of mine the deconstructed some of his movements, saying “so, you can turn, it doesn’t MEAN anything”.
Returned to Poland to find their families and neighborhoods lost. They couldn’t imagine dancing there again. “How can you dance in a Cemetery?” is how he put it.
However, they were invited to visit home for Jewish orphans. The children touched their hearts, they felt a responsibility to bring them a positive Yiddishkayt. First they performed for them, then they taught them about the Jewish holidays, songs, dances and eventually developed a school and a company.
Judith and Felix performing Elimelech at the Kinderheim Jewish orphange
All along they were thoughtfully analyzing their dances and developing a theory of Jewish dance:
These are excepts from an interview with Judith Brin Ingber included in her book Seeing Israeli and Jewish Dance, but these were concepts I often heard him explain:
When I started to analyze this [I realized that] when we are dancing, our movements are not round. Our movements are…like the Shin…the Hebrew block letters…those broken angular lines…All these things, all these are Hebraic in style which nobody realized, that these are the images.
Then another thing we discovered, I discovered in movement…Opposition: Jewish mood has two opposite moods: joy and sadness
This opposition also expresses when the Hasidim are dancing on bent knees yet reaching out and the bent knees standing. The body, for example, they take the ritual cord or belt, the gartel, to separate the body physical or sexual from the spiritual.
(or as I like to say, the part that works and prays from the part that has “functions”)
The division, the belt dividing the body in two parts, pulling in two different directions. So we discovered the opposition in the body. So when the arms go one way, the head goes the other way... Opposite, always opposition. This was the character, the style of the dance.
The soul, the Jewish soul, which is torn between joy and sadness…this reflects in our
body also when we are dancing. It’s connected. We found the connection, the reason why
we are moving in this way.
I find the idea of the tension of joy and sadness a little lachrymose. I prefer to liken Jewish movement to the way I describe the music as having a tension between Ecstasy and Longing, which I guess makes me a closet Chassid.
One of Felix’s stated inspirations, and I find this illuminating, is the in the forms of the Hebrew letters. Below, the Hebrew letter Aleph, and Baruch Aggadati in a pose reminiscent of that form:
Among the hallmarks of Hebrew typography are acute negative shapes, asymmetry, and little flags at the ends of lines. I find the acute negative shapes the most significant.
Yvette Metral (niece of Judith Berg) called these types of shapes “grotesque”- not something I agree with, and a very western lens, because where those shapes are seen in western art, it is usually representing the grotesque- the fantastical and misshapen, gnomish and convoluted
These shapes need not be craven, something unfortunately often depicted in Yiddish dance, but may be seen, rather, as constrained. The body lines are characteristically angular vs. the catenary curves of classical art and ballet and have a middle eastern, rather than a classical, aesthetic.
I like to liken it to difference between topiary (neat, symmetrical, architectural and artificial) and bonsai (representing a tree shaped by wind and natural forces) It is an aesthetic of precariousness. I suspect this represents a conscious non-conformity with Western aesthetic models, in line with the baked-in Jewish tendency to otherness: what they do, we don’t do.
It could be illuminating to experience embodying this aesthetic for yourself, so if you wish you can follow along on this little etude I developed that I and others find efficient and enjoyable. You will need a small handkerchief or bandana.
This experience may make you more attuned to and resonant with those shapes seen in other modern dancers of the era. The earliest example of this aesthetic in a dancer that I have come across is in the work of Baruch Aggadati who was born Jan 8 1895 in Bessarabia, grew up in Odessa where he received ballet training, and migrated to Palestine in early 1900s. Much of his solo work involved the representation of Jewish types, and there is a consistency in both his artwork and in photographs of him.
These lines were also visible in the works of Nathan Vizonsky, immigrant choreographer of the Meyer Weisgal pageant Romance of a People for 1933 ChicagoWorld’s Fair, and author of
10 Jewish Dances, with illustrations by Todros Geller, and Benjamin Zemach who was nominated for Oscar for dance in SHE (1935- on youtube),
and invited by Meyer Weisgal to choreograph The Eternal Road in NYC- with music by Kurt Weill, and directed by Max Steinhart.
These various nodern dance artists were not pulling these shapes and ideas out of thin air or their imaginations. They can be found in the expressive dancing of just plain Jewish folk. Here is a solo performed by a contemporary Hasid at a simcha in Israel.
In conclusion, I’d like to dedicate this post to the memory of Felix Febich.
A drash for Parsha Shemot
But first, a song "Kotsk"
Kayn kotsk furt men nit,
To Kotsk we do not ride,
Kayn kotsk gayt men.
To Kotsk we walk.
Vayl kotsk iz dokh bimkoym hamikdesh (2)
Because Kotsk is a sacred place (2)
Kayn kotsk miz men oyle-reygl zayn,
To Kotsk we must go on foot,
go on foot.
1. Reygl iz dokh der taytsh a fis,
1. "Regl" means "a foot",
Kayn kotsk miz men gayn tsi fis.
To Kotsk we go on foot,
In az khsidim gayen kayn kotsk,
And when Hasidim go to Kotsk,
Gayt men mit a tants! (2)
They dance as they walk! (2)
2. Reygl iz dokh der taytsh a geveyntshaft,
"Regl" means a "custom",
Men darf zikh gevaynen tsi gayn kayn kotsk,
You have to become accustomed to walking to Kotsk,
In az khsidim gayen kayn kotsk,
And when Hasidim go to Kotsk,
Gayt men mit a tants! (2)
They dance as they walk. (2)
3. Reygl iz dokh der taytsh a yontev,
3."Regl" means a holy day,
Git yontev, git-yontev, git-yontev!
A happy holiday, a happy holiday!
In az khsidim gayen kayn kotsk,
And when Hasidim go to Kotsk,
Geyt men mit a tants! (2)
They dance as they walk. (2)
(Kotsk sung by Henry Sapoznik with the band Youngers of Zion)
Today’s parsha, Shemot, is almost too rich. In it we have the origin story of the superhero Moses, but it reads like a dream; a fantastic tangle of interconnected themes. To name just a few: birth, death, water, blood, G-d, names, and feet. As a dance guy, I’m going to focus on, obviously, feet, but also on the many names that eponymously give this parsha its name: shemot.
The song I began this drash with, Kotsk, is about a Chassidic journey to the court of Kostsk. And this parsha concerns both a physical journey, from Egypt to Midian and back to Egypt, and also Moses’ spiritual journey, from being kind of Jewish and kind of Egyptian, to being a Jew like no other. And while Moses reconnects with his Jewishness on this journey, we discover G-d reconnecting with the Jewish people, all through being observant and sensitive. G-d hears the people and their suffering, and Moses sees, and wonders over, the burning bush. How long and how closely must one watch a burning bush to notice it is not being devoured by the flame? When Moses approaches the bush, we get the first reference to feet; G-d tells Moses to cast the sandals from his feet, as this is holy ground. This is the exquisite turning point in the journey, the still moment at the end of the pendulum’s swing. This moment is most resonant to me as a dancer and dance leader.
Just like Moses, we mostly use our feet to go places. It’s a prosaic thing, walking, running, traveling, journeying. Yet dance is not practical, we’re not trying to get anywhere. I often find myself chastising young dancers who disrupt a dance by going too fast in relation to others that “this is not a race”. No, when we dance, we’re not necessarily trying to get to some destination, in general we’re simply going around in circles. “Going around in circles” is often used to announce a pointless pursuit, but Judaism has a different view of circles.
Biblical Hebrew has a number of words to describe dance. One of the major ones is Machol, the root of which, chul, could describe turning or gyrating. In context it often refers to the dance of women- it is the word used to describe Miram and the women’s dance at the Red Sea, and has a connotation of a call and response dance-one of the simplest choreographic ideas. It is often a synonym for joy, and is frequently paired with the word for drum- tof – as in both the Miriam episode and the 150th psalm- Halleluhu betof u’machol.
Rikud has become another Modern Hebrew word for dance, but in the Torah it mostly refers to athletic capering and leaping like lambs and rams, or mountains when the Red Sea parted. Psalm 114: “Heharim rakdu k’eylim”- the mountains skipped like rams. It is also one of the words used to describe King David’s leaping, spinning dance before the Ark.
Hagag refers to processions, and gives us the word Chag for a pilgrimage festival, and more generally any holiday.
And finally, Sivuv refers to circling, or encircling. It’s the word used to describe how Joshua encircled Jericho, how worshippers encircled the altar of the Temple, how enemies seemed to surround the young David, how a bride circumambulates around a groom under the chuppah. In each of these instances, the circle energizes and transforms the center. So “just going around in circles” is actually very powerful.
When we dance at a simcha, the center of the circle becomes an exalted space. It is where the celebrants are especially welcomed and embraced, and where an exuberant dancer can express their joy and good wishes, in what is known as “shayning”- essentially, showing off. Even in a crowded room, the circle maintains this open space at the center that allows more expansive dancing. I was once dancing with some of my Yiddish dance students from the festival in Krakow at a crowded underground nightclub where the klezmer musicians would jam until dawn. Despite the packed crowd, we were able to form ourselves into a circle which people somehow made room for. And in the center was a clear space where one or two people could spin or swing a partner, and generally dance out in a room where otherwise one could barely lift an arm.
What the circle gives, it can also take away. I’ve seen a video of mostly Chassidic dancers at the Lag B’Omer celebration in Meron. The dancers were in a large circle, and in the spacious center a couple of guys were doing lively kadatshki solos- rhythmically flinging arms and kicking legs. Then one non-Chassidic outsider was moved to jump into the center, too, and performed a somewhat awkward version of the same dance, with chaotic energy. One Chassidic dancer tried to take the interloper’s hands and partner him in a more appropriate dance, but the other dancer wouldn’t calm down. And then, the most astonishing thing happened. Spontaneously, the circle shrank and closed up, and the sacred space, now seemingly profaned, disappeared, and the rowdy dancer was absorbed into the crowd.
I used the words “sacred” and “profaned” on purpose. The center of the circle becomes a kind of sacred space, a holy ground.
G-d instructs Moses to cast off his sandals and go barefoot into this holy place. There are many opinions of why it was important for Moses to take off his sandals. Where they soiled in a way that would profane the place? (he was, after all, herding sheep). Were shoes a sign of power and conquest, and Moses need to humble himself? Perhaps, but I like this explanation I stumbled across:
In the collection Bible Borders, and Belonging, an essayist suggests that “In cultures where people remove their shoes or sandals when they enter a home, the command to Moses suggests that he is welcomed.”
I like that. Welcomed into G-d’s presence. Welcomed into a transformative experience. Welcomed into an awareness of his deep Jewishness and growing responsibility. I think I relate to that because, as a dance leader, it is my aspiration to welcome people into the circle and let them have a transformative experience.
(The Klezmatics sing "Holy Ground")
But like many would-be dancers I encounter, Moses is full of doubts, insecurities, and excuses. The Israelites won’t listen to him. He’s weak of speech. He won’t know what to say. I hear a similar litany of excuses when people are anxious about dancing. I’m awkward. I don’t know the steps. I’ll look foolish. I’m too old. I have a physical limitation. People like me don’t do that. I’m scared.
But just as it took time to observe that the bush was not being consumed, in that holy place I imagine time stretched and expanded to accommodate the long conversation. Moses remains in that holy space- he does not flee- and is convinced by G-d that he can do it. And in the dance, all you need to do is to welcome yourself onto the holy ground of the dance floor, even to the center of the circle, and take the time to let the dance transform you and connect you.
Moses is also introduced to G-d in a very personal way. Moses is provided with a name for G-d, as an introduction to the Israelites. In fact, G-d has a tangle of names. It’s rather like the White Knight in Through the Looking Glass, who says:
The name of the song is called "Haddocks' Eyes".'
'Oh, that's the name of the song, is it?' Alice said, trying to feel interested.
'No, you don't understand,' the Knight said, looking a little vexed. 'That's what the name is called. The name really is "The Aged Aged Man".'
'Then I ought to have said "That's what the song is called"?' Alice corrected herself.
'No, you oughtn't: that's quite another thing! The song is called "Ways and Means": but that's only what it's called, you know!'
'Well, what is the song, then?' said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.
'I was coming to that,' the Knight said. 'The song really is "A-sitting On a Gate": and the tune's my own invention.'
G-d is called Elohim or Adonai in the torah, G-d says I call Myself the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but when asked for a name to give the Israelites, gives the cryptic Ehye Asher Ehye, I will be what I will be. Not a static name, but a name tasting of eternity. G-d’s name too invokes a journey.
And now Moses can say absolutely who sent him. Names are important- they make one noticeable, and not simply blend in with the background. The parsha is full of named individuls- the sons of Jacob are enumerated at the beginning of the Parsha. According to the rabbis as a testament to G-d’s love, to remember them by name. The midwives are named. Moses is given a name, as are his Midianite father in law and wife and son. Persons who are named become memorable, their characteristics stick with us. We begin to truly see them. In contrast are the “some guy”- ish- characters in the story: the taskmaster, the slave who is being beaten, the “no ish” who doesn’t bear witness to the taskmaster’s slaying, but then seems to be manifest as the two guys who are quarreling and let Moses know his deed is known, and ironically ask who made him their chief. These nameless characters perform functions fraught with violence, and the Torah does not invite us to remember them.
Curiously, in songs based on Jewish dancing calls, names are used, unlike in most square dance calls, where positions are called. Rather than say “head couple forward” or “First gent swing your corner”, the calls are recorded along the lines of “ Motl, Motl, tzu mir mitn punim, Yente, Yente, gey in der mit. Gitl, Gitl, gey shoyn aher, Dvoreh, gey shoyn tzurik” (Motl, look at me, Yente, go in the middle. Gitl, go there now, Dvoreh, come back now.) Where the dancers know each other, this makes sense.
As a dance teacher, I kind of hate nametags, but find them very useful. A name lets me see someone more clearly and remember who they are. My student Ray is enthusiastic and picks up quickly, his wife Beverly enjoys herself but is a little slower and rarely smiles. “Ray, that looks great! Beverly, use your other hand”.
So much of what I try to achieve when leading dancers is for them to truly see each other too, and over the course of a dance achieve a timeless joy. The same kind of intense noticing can take place, just as Moses noticed over time the burning bush not being consumed. As we pass by and interact in the dance, we see that friend Motl smiled at us, Aunt Gitl is dancing with her granddaughter Dvorah. That’s so much deeper than someone smiled, someone danced with someone else. Or, if a stranger, the dance creates an opportunity to learn their name and maybe more about them.
The art and practice of dancing itself relies on names to a great degree. What kind of dance do you want to do? What dance is that? A waltz is not a polka. A zhok has steps and is generally slow, a bulgar has different steps and music and is usually fast. Even steps and figures (patterns in space) can have names. And those names make the activity familiar. Names like Threading the needle, Over and under, Leading out; once one is formally introduced to them, evoke a specific activity. It is a way of noticing what this thing is, and how it’s different from that thing. They can become friends, rather than strangers. And with the Jewish dances, the dance names also become names of mishpokhe- family.
At the end of the parsha, G-d promises that Pharoah will release the Israelites because of a “greater might”. We achieve a greater might in this world when we are able to come together as family and as a community. Together, we can do greater good. Hineh ma tov…
And just as Moses’ journey was to gradually embody his own Judaism, it is my goal to help people embody their Judaism, from the feet up, whether born to it or borrowed, as is the case when I teach non-Jews and they find the place where their soul intersects with a Jewish soul. It requires allowing oneself to feel welcomed, to pay attention, and to let the timeless holy moment touch the soul. Oh, and it’s also a lot of joyous fun!
(Creating holy gound in Krakow, Poland. Welcoming the Shabbos Shekhinah on Friday afternoon with a backwards march)
I’m a fan of the animated characters Wallace and Gromit. Rendered in brilliant stop motion, Wallace is a middle aged British fellow, good hearted and inventive, and Gromit is his highly intelligent and mutely expressive dog. In one of their short films, A Close Shave, which involves a knitting lady love interest, a nefarious bulldog, and a clandestine flock of sheep, there is a chase scene, with the sheep and the knitting lady prisoners in a speeding truck driven by the bulldog. Wallace, in hot pursuit on a motorcycle, somehow manages to bridge the gap between the truck and his motorcycle using a long straight ladder and his own body. The sheep then make their way across Wallace and the ladder and pile willy-nilly on top of the motorcycle, with Wallace perched atop the now vertical ladder. This of course is not a tenable situation, even in an animated feature, so Wallace calls down to the sheep:
“Get yourselves organized down there!”
And after cutting away, the next shot reveals the sheep now arranged like Chinese acrobats in an upside-down pyramid on the ladder. Still precarious, but much better prepared for whatever road hazards await them.
In this week’s parsha, Bemidbar, which means In the Wilderness, G-d speaks to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai. A wilderness is a perilous place, and the Israelites, recently escaped, liberated, and given Torah, are literally in the middle of nowhere- they are neither in the old bad place they called home, nor in their new, yet to be disclosed place.
And yet, even without a home, they need to begin to function as a nation. And so G-d, through Moses, calls down to them: “Get yourselves organized down there!”
Actually, what G-d commands through Moses is to take a count, a census of the people. Some commentators feel that G-d so loves his people, that he finds many opportunities to count them. But the words used in the parsha are “Seu et Rosh”: Raise the Heads of the people so they can be counted, and also see one another. I prefer to believe that, since G-d clearly knows how many Israelites were camped together, the counting was an opportunity for the new nation to take stock of themselves. Not “Wow, there’s a lot of us” but very specifically, each individual, each one person, plus One person, plus One person as part of a family, and those Ones plus other Ones, as part of a tribe, and all those Ones together as part of a nation.
Here’s a question, a kind of treasure hunt, for the young people. Kids, which tribe had the most? Which had the least? Look at the parsha and try to figure it out. I’ll ask you again in a minute.
Actually, two censuses are taken, one military, the other religious. In the first, only men over 20 who are capable of fighting, and not of the tribe of Levi, are counted. Later, their arrangement around the Mishkan, the portable Tent of Meeting, is determined. As a choreographer, I can tell you it’s good to know how many bodies you are dealing with when you try to arrange people in space. It reminds me that Busby Berkely, the golden age Hollywood director and choreographer of those spectacular, kaleidoscopic dance numbers in old musicals like 42nd Street, started his career organizing marching drills in the army.
So kids, which tribe had the most men over 20? (Judah, with 74, 600) Which had the least? (Menasseh, with 32,000)
If you put those two tribes together, which add up to 106,600 men, on one end of a scale or one side of a boat, which two tribes could you put together on the other side, to more or less balance them? I won’t ask for an answer, but you can see why the information might be useful: for instance, if you’re trying to have even columns marching, or distribute your strength around the Mishkan.
I’ve discovered that there is a pretty intimate relationship between the military, and counting, and dance, which is one of the things that makes this parsha fascinating for me.
There is an important French renaissance dance treatise, Orchesography, written by Thoinot Arbeau, first published in 1589, which begins its discussion of the social dances of the day by talking about military marching! This makes sense, really, because an army doesn’t simply walk to its destination, it must move in close formation and march all on the same foot and all at the same time, or they would bump into one another. Like a dance, they need to keep in time and in step. In order to keep in step, they march to the sound of a drum- with everyone stepping on the 1st and 5th drumbeat of an 8 count rhythm. The soldier doesn’t have to count, the drum does that for him. Arbeau even goes on to estimate the length of two strides, and how many drumbeats it would take to travel a league (about 1,666 if you must know).
My former dance partner, the rebbetzin Sharona Paller Rubinstein, made an interesting observation and guess on a visit to Israel, and specifically the excavations at the southern part of the temple mount. There, some stairs leading to the gates to the temple had been excavated. She saw that the stairs had a rhythm- one narrow step, followed by one broad step, over and over. To walk up the stairs required two climbing steps, then one more level step before climbing again. Up, Up, Across. Short, Short, Long. Since we know music was played by musicians at the temple, she wondered if a rhythm was played that coordinated with the climbing rhythm. For example, the rhythm of our modern melody for Shir HaMalot (a song of ascents!). How much more orderly and powerful and peaceful would it have been, if the multitude of Israelites surged up the stairs in stately unison, in time with the music, than if they simply queued up and struggled forward. In that case, it would be the musicians, combined with the architecture who, like the military drummers, kept everyone in step and cooperating.
Back to the subject of counting numbers, let me share an interesting, and for me, ultimately profound, approach to dance teaching I stumbled upon. I taught for ten consecutive years at the Festival of Jewish Culture in Krakow, Poland. I developed a loyal group of repeat students, and with a limited repertoire of Yiddish dances to teach, I would try each year to come up with a fresh approach to the material. One year I thought I’d take inspiration from counting songs, like Echad me Yodea (Who Knows One), and assign a dance or dances to each number from one through eight. Two was easy- that’s the bouncy walk of the freylekhs- the big kaleidoscopic circle dance we now tend to call the “hora”. Three- the waltz and similar dances. And so on up through Eight. Eight for the essential Jewish square dance, the sher, for four couples, or eight dancers. But ONE had me stymied. What kind of dance could I associate with one? And then I thought, and I must admit at the time I thought it was a cop-out, let’s say One is the transition from standing on two feet to taking all the weight onto one. The sway. The prelude to a step. (You can do that in your seat- shift to one sitting bone, or cheek, if you will, then the other.) I explained to the dancers (and to myself) that this is the most elemental atom of dance. That when you shift your weight, you’ve accomplished a lot. I had them point their thumbs at their chests, and say Here I Am, with each weight shift. And then, gesturing outwards, There You Are. I discovered that, for the dancers, knowing and appreciating that the change of weight, or a change of weight with a step, was a sufficient accomplishment, gave their dancing incredible clarity. If I said “Take 3 steps forward” I didn’t get some random movement forward. I got precisely 3 steps, and the readiness to do something else. A pause, a kick, as stamp, a clap.
We used that “Here I Am” step and gesture during an outdoor dance we held on Friday afternoon. At the conclusion of the dance party, we enacted a backwards march, an eastern European custom that has become part of the culture of KlezKanada. We walk backward as if welcoming Hamalka Shabes- the Sabbath Queen and bride, into our presence. Walking backwards as a sign of respect, so that we don’t turn our backs on the one we are honoring. As we started the backwards march with just a sway, I had the crowd repeat the “Hear I Am” gesture, and raise their heads, and look around: at each other in the crowd, at the square, and at the Jewish dancing happening in public in a square in Krakow. It was a very profound moment of being present. So many individuals so many “ones”, and even among the mostly non-Jewish participants, a sense of a collective Jewish neshome, a Jewish soul.
When we Seu et Rosh- raise our heads- we see who we are and where we are in relationship to others. An individual, and part of a collective, both and at the same time. In dance we get to be like the scientific definition of light: both a particle and wave. Individual agents, and a part of a greater movement. If you have the custom of connecting with your neighbors during a song- holding hands, linking elbows, holding shoulders, and swaying to the music, you’ve felt that sense of being an individual and a group in your kishkes- in your gut.
We’re coming to the conclusion of another kind of Jewish counting- that of the Counting of the Omer. A friend on Facebook has been posting the daily count, along with a bit of Talmud wisdom, so I’ve been more keenly aware of the counting this year. Apart from its ancient biblical purpose, the counting of the omer for us is now a way of counting the march from Passover and Exodus from Egypt to Shavuos and Revelation at Sinai.
Of course, I’m going to bring this around to dance. It is in the scene at the Sea of Reeds, after the Israelites had successfully crossed through the Sea of Reeds, and Moses has recited his song of praise, it is at this moment that the Torah for the first time finds it important to mention dance. Not that no dancing ever happened in history before this, but this was a monumental and historical dance: Miriam the prophetess takes and timbrel in her hand, and the women go after her, with timbrels and dances: b’tofim u bim’chalot. The word used here, machol, is one of about a dozen words used for dance. Machol is often used to describe the dances of women, it’s root, chul, can mean whirl or gyrate. It is also almost a synonym for joy. Psalm 150 includes my favorite line: Halleluhu b’tof u machol- Praise G-d with drum and dance. There we go again, with drums and movement, as we heard from Arbeau!
But it wasn’t just Miriam and the women who danced (and I’m of the opinion that the men danced too, only the bible ascribes poetry to the intellect of Moses, and dance to the emotion of Miriam). No, according to psalms, even the hills and mountains skipped like rams and lambs: “Rakdu Heheharim”. There’s another common biblical word for dance –rikud. (Both machol and rikud have become the modern Hebrew words for dance). Rikud has a more masculine or animal connotation- it’s how lambs and rams and skip and jump. It is one of the words used to describe how King David danced before the ark as it was brought into Jerusalem. He skipped, jumped, whirled. I suspect he danced backwards some, beckoning and ushering the ark forward. There is a popular expression “dance like no one is watching”. I strongly disagree with that. David’s dance was public, a tribute and an offering, and so he danced with all his might, all his intention. Rikud has the implication of high energy showing off. People all around were watching, David I’m sure was aware G-d was watching, and David’s wife was watching, thought she didn’t much care for the dance. But David didn’t care, she wasn’t the intended audience. His audience was greater, and higher.
At Sinai, there was the worst example of dancing as if no ONE is watching: the dance around the golden calf. It was not pretty. It was wild, unbridled, self-indulgent. The people did not Seu et Rosh- raise their heads to look around and be their higher selves.
Rather, for us Jews, dance is frequently understood not just as a recreation, but as a gift to give. We dance at a wedding not just because the band is good (one hopes) but because dancing is a way of fulfilling the mitzvah of gladdening the bride and groom. I help lead dancing at a lot of parties, and I’ve seen a lot of “I came, I ate, I texted, I left”. That is not contributing to the joy of the party. And the funny thing is, when you give joy, you get joy. If all you feel up to is joining hands in the group machol- following the leaders, that’s great. If you can do something extra- the showy rikud of the kozatky, say, or juggling, or some other stunt, even better. That’s a way to raise up the mitzvah. It’s also an opportunity to raise your head and say “here I am” and “there You are”. And realize, here We are together.
That feeling doesn’t have to be limited only to weddings. At that same festival in Krakow, Poland, which I talked about earlier, where we did the backwards march, I taught, as I usually teach, the wonderful old Jewish square dance, the sher. It used to be a staple at every wedding, and for good reason. Here’s a case study in why. In my class in Krakow, I had a number of students who would show up yearly, and who had become friends with each other and with me. When I taught the sher that year, I created a square of some of those dancers, who had previously learned the dance, to be my demonstration square. After walking through the dance, I got to dance the sher with these people I had gotten to know over the course of several years. Many of them spoke little or no English (I had an interpreter to help with teaching the class). But as we danced the fifteen or so minutes of the dance together, it was like a gathering of good friends or the kinds of family members that you love, but only get to see occasionally. We smiled, we circled, we crossed paths and twirled together, and we were even able to make little jokes and pay little compliments, without speaking a word. For me, and I’d like to believe for the others, happy little endorphin bombs were going off in my brain. It was just delightful and lovely.
That is what dancing to me should be. When you count yourself in, when you dance with and for each other, you raise yourself up and you raise up the group. It becomes not merely a formal exercise of counts and positions, although it helps to learn and appreciate what the counts and positions are. But that is easier than it seems, if you raise up your head to see where you are and what others are doing, and relax a bit and let yourself get swept up. You can enjoy those moments of being an individual and being part of a group, maybe in alternation, maybe simultaneously. Or you may just notice that you, and the people around you, are immensely happy and in the moment.
In the workshop and party coming up, you have an opportunity to have a taste of what the Israelites experienced in this parsha. If dance is not familiar to you, a kind of scary unknown territory, a wilderness if you will, I invite you to Seu et Rosh, raise your head and count yourself in, and dare to be an individual within the group. My hope is that we can create, for a little while at least (and maybe that is the best we can hope for in this life) a sheyner and beserer velt. A better and more beautiful world. A tam olam haba- a taste of the world to come. And what better activity for a shabes?
Gut shabes- Shabbat shalom.
Making the rounds of the internet, YouTube and Facebook is an oddball new dance being done by Chassidic men. It’s done in the traditional file formation, called a honga, but what are those steps they’re doing? Is it? No, it can’t be. Oh yes, it is. It’s the BUNNY HOP!
The bunny hop dance evidently came out of Balboa High School in San Francisco around 1952. According to a TIME magazine article from 1953 the dance came first, followed by the eponymous tune, written and recorded by Ray Anthony as an instruction song also in 1952:
Put your right foot forward
Put your left foot out
Do the Bunny Hop
Hop, hop, hop,
Etc., and again as an instrumental in 1958.
Yes, that party standard from the youth of the boomer generation has reared it bunny ears and fluffy tail again, to a recent Moldovan tune and as a Moldovan wedding dance, having undergone a species change. The Bunny Hop is now the Penguin Dance. The number of videos of this dance phenomenon, and the obscure places around the world (including Saudi Arabia!) where it is springing up are multiplying like, well, you know.
A couple of observations about the way Chassidic men dance it. First, they eschew the more typical, and intimate, not to say ticklish, waist hold, for the shoulder hold typical of a Chassidic men’s honga. Second, Jill Gellerman, who has done wonderful research into Chassidic wedding dances, especially among women, has noted that bunny hop type steps have long ago infiltrated the women’s simcha dance repertoire. Chassidic men, though, don’t tend to go for choreographed, so this is an interesting exception. And finally, at about 1:10 in the video you can hear someone, probably the musician, say “Ma Zel Tov!” on the three hops. I suspect that to traditional Jewish ears, most any short-short-long rhythmic figure in music sounds like “mazel tov!”.
Whatever made this dance catch on globally, even in the Chassidic community? It’s a thing, but is it a good thing? It’s certainly novel (in the Chassidic context) but it is chiefly low cost, in terms of effort required to learn it. It’s just so darn easy. I think that explains a lot. For instance, there is a Finnish dance called Jenkka that is the local version of the popular 19th century dance, the Schottish. That dance takes some practice with a partner, so in this video you can see how the unschooled can dance to the same music in a familiar looking letkajennkka long line.
For religious Jewish men, virtuosity in dance is not highly valued; one should be studying with that time and energy. We are not all religious Jewish men, though, and I think there is a place for virtuosity in Jewish dance, or at least the sense of there being some acquired skill involved. Accessible is good as an introduction, but I fear for a culture that is only always easily accessible.
This, standing on one foot, is my problem with the Penguin Dance Honga.
This past fall, I saw a notice for a big Greek festival in my new town of Philadelphia. I love ethnic festivals, and this one promised food, music and dancing, so I invited a Greek friend of mine to join me for the evening. When we arrived at the suburban location, a big Greek Orthodox church, there was a great white tent erected and the sound of lively music emanating from it. After finding a spot in the crowded parking lot, I reacted like I do when I arrive at an amusement park: I made a mad dash for the entrance, with my bemused friend barely keeping up. I have been an international folk dancer since high school, and the sound of live Greek music had my heart racing and my feet straining at the leash. (I wonder if a lot of Jewish kids, like me, got into international folk dancing just because we were starved for music in minor keys and modes, and it reminded us of the vaguely remembered music of our parents and grandparents.)
The interior of the tent was open and brightly lit, with a bandstand at one end, and a large central dance floor surrounded by tables. At the edges of the tent were the concessions: a few with Greek clothing, jewelry, crafts and packaged food, but mostly a number of tables offering a variety of Greek meals and desserts. Even though I was itching to dance, we decided to get some food first, and did our best to find an empty table, from where we could watch the dancing. The crowd was mostly Greek and probably members of that church- they were seated in groups of family and friends, occasionally greeting familiar passers-by. The folks managing the food tables were gracious and happy to have outsiders visiting. A bunch of international folk dancers were there too, and were among the first to get up and dance a serious syrto or two to the live band. Later, costumed performing groups put on exhibitions, and some of the locals got up to dance the requisite syrtos with their own style. But the floor really filled up when the band played a Pontic tune- a huge long line of all ages formed to do a repetitive, but rhythmically complicated dance. In general, I got the feeling from the festival that this was a community of people enjoying themselves in THEIR way, and while others were welcome, this was distinctly a Greek way of having a good time. And this was even more obvious when they danced that Pontic dance- there was a sense that this is OUR dance and we know how to do. It was not just fun, it was also identity affirming.
This was the first of a series of dance events I got to participate in over the next couple of months, with different communities. One of the ideas I'm always going on about is how Yiddish dance has such great community building benefits. This Greek festival reminded me of what a universal phenomenon communities celebrating themselves in their own way is, and how joyful and necessary that is.
A month or so later, I took part in a yearly gathering of folks involved in teaching and sharing traditional folk arts: dance teachers, mostly, and music teachers, callers, musicians and storytellers. The event is called Pourparler and presents a yearly opportunity for professionals in the field to share and learn from one another. This year's event was held in the epicenter of New England contra dancing, Brattleboro, VT.
Like many of the workshops that I teach at, Pourparler is a once a year gathering with a good balance of repeat attendees and a quick embrace of newcomers. Even if one doesn't go every year there is a sense of society that exists from year to year. Newcomers make new friends easily- perhaps because we're all doing that sociable dance thing- and faces you haven't seen in a year or more feel like extended family. This is pretty typical of these fairs and festivals: a heady holiday camaraderie when like minded folks create a festive encampment. Each of us there was dealing with, within their own specialties, the goal of creating fun and nurturing environments for whatever population we they were dealing with, be they kindergarteners, school kids and parents, families, millenials, seniors, or any other mixed or specific group. But we were sharing and practicing with each other in a workshop setting, a sort of artificial microcosm.
That Saturday night we were all invited to participate, and some of us to lead, at the regular monthly family dance at the hall where we were holding Pourparler. This was the real deal- locals were used to showing up at this- families with young kids, long time folk dancers, a whole gamut. They were used to this and many of the children danced with wonderful skill and confidence. The presence of the Pourparler group added a bit of the exotic- the circus had come to town, bringing with it new personalities and new dances- and so there was some extra excitement in the room. Even though the group was most familiar with contra and barn dances, I was privileged to lead a few sure fire Yiddish figures with the whole group, who all had a fun time. What was wonderful for me to see was how this close knit community- most everyone at the dance knew everyone else- was committed to having their fun together and expected nothing less than a good time. THIS is how they spent an autumn Saturday evening. It's just what THEY did, and we, the Pourparler group, were welcome guests.
Benji and Julie's Wedding
I had to leave early on Sunday for another event in New York. It was hard to leave the intense warmth of the workshop, but I had committed to leading dance at the wedding of two very close friends from the klezmer world. Benji and Julie had, in fact, met at KlezKamp. Benji is a wonderfully talented bass player, singer, and composer, Julie is an ethnologist who had just returned from Moldova when we met, and we formed an immediate bond over martinis- which she hadn't had in a couple of years, and which I always bring supplies for making wherever I travel. Benji and Julie became a very obvious couple and were something of regulars at KlezKamp for several years, so it was no surprise about their getting engaged, more of a feeling of “about time”. And being part of the klezmer scene, it was clear that this was going to be a first rate wedding party, with music and offerings from their very talented friends.
And so it was: the ceremony in Prospect Park in Brooklyn was sweet and lovely, and the party afterward was a modern reboot of an old world wedding, a hip traditional khassene. I'm used to leading dance at weddings and b'nei mitzvah where the celebrants are mostly strangers to me. But at this wedding I was struck with the sudden temporal shift from the theoretical and almost academic, at the workshop, to the practical and lively celebration with my extended klezmer family. When friends weren't on the bandstand playing, they were with me on the dance floor, and not only knew exactly what to do, but they were anticipating doing it. By request we danced a sher (I normally wouldn't try such an elaborate and long dance at most parties that I'm hired for) and since it was a dance so many already knew, they were able to just have fun doing it with their friends. I, too, was dancing with my extended and well informed klezmer "family", and it made being there, at this wedding, with these people, so much more loving and satisfying. For this special group of friends and family, this was the only right way to celebrate Benji and Julie's wedding.
Late December found me, once again at the source of so much of what I do and teach: the Land that Christmas Forgot, The Mothership, The Jewish Brigadoon, KlezKamp. Begun 30 years ago this year, KlezKamp came into being as a way of introducing a new generation to the sources of klezmer music, and to put it into a cultural context. Much of that context had been obliterated by historical forces- the Holocaust, the nascency of Israeli culture, and the residual shame about and devalorization of Ashkenazy culture that formed from that intersection.. With musician and researcher Henry Sapoznik at the helm as director and curator , aided by clarinetist Sherry Mayrent and the late, influential Yiddish singer Adrienne Cooper, Klezkamp became a major crucible and engine of the klezmer revival, with scores of today's musicians soaking up and growing up in the rich environment of music, language, dance and folk arts. Many of the players on the old 78's that were the primary source for tunes and style were found to be still alive, and became faculty and mentors to the new musicians, making the learning a true oral tradition.
I started as dance instructor there about 15 years ago, with a fairly muddled and half baked understanding of the traditional Yiddish dances, but with a lucky ability to get folks moving to the music, and make the dance floor the fun place to be. Building on the research of those who entered the study of Yiddish dance before me, assiduous viewing and analysis of dance in vintage film, my own encounters with dancers from the tradition and my own dance background, I've gradually built up an approach to the dance that I feel well justified in teaching. And in that time, since there are a couple of hours of dancing every evening, I've had the opportunity to cultivate the dance floor there into a magic garden of possibilities. There is a society and set of expectations on the dance floor that regulars look forward to and embrace, and newcomers quickly come to understand and be part of. Dancing is at a level way beyond what can happen during a one time party or workshop. I firmly believe that the dancing is one of the things that helps this ephemeral conglomeration, which exists for as a formal entity for just one week a year, to unite into a real community. At the 25th anniversary of KlezKamp, I devised a dressed-up ball to commemorate the milestone. People took their dressing up seriously, and even somewhat whimsically. The evening was built on the model of 19th century balls, starting with a formal Grand March, and the glorious orchestra was comprised of the all-star faculty. Everyone looked spectacular, and the formal clothing and atmosphere gave the dancing an extra sparkle. That night KlezKamp put on the ritz, and celebrated itself. The Hoohah!, as the evening was called, was a such a hit that it has become a yearly tradition.
I think there are lessons to be learned from all this. What creates a group identity? This has been an urgent topic in the Jewish world, where it seems that it isn't necessarily religion, or social action, or politics that make us feel like us, like Jews. As often as not, these are the things that are divisive of a community. Rather, I'd argue it's the often overlooked integument- the foodways, the jokes, the music and songs, and yes, very importantly the dance, that let us celebrate who we are. These need not be exotic museum artifacts, or kitschy nostalgia, but can be a lively part of what holds us together. If the connection to those traditions has become broken or tenuous, there are people and processes that can revive and revitalize them. It takes a little dedication and commitment but it's hugely worth it.
For a several decades, we have enjoyed what could be called a renaissance of Yiddish music, dance and culture, often called “the Klezmer revival”. For those involved in this movement, the revival is old news, and among the musicians and other cultural practitioners I know, there is rather a sense of cultural continuation. A language, music and culture that for decades were being practiced by a rare few have become, within some circles, a lively locus of artistic activity. This is particularly apparent in Europe, which after the tragedies of the Holocaust, is making efforts to reincorporate Yiddish culture into the greater cultural web, and at the various North American Klezmer festivals, which have acted as a hothouse for nurturing a contemporary adaption of the historically rich tradition. Musicians and poets/lyricists, in particular, have for a while even been bold enough to not only reinterpret old material, often with contemporary and world music influences, but also generate brand new material.
The Yiddish dance scene, however, has maintained a curiously conservative approach, mostly seeking to reconstruct dimly remembered dances, and teach today’s dancers to dance like their great-grandparents. Where the musicians have embarked on an age of exploration, maintaining a conscientious link to the past, but exploring and incorporating material from other cultures or developing the music along the lines of contemporary pop, jazz, and art forms, the dance scene has been wary of any such similar exploration, preferring to delve ever deeper into fine points of “traditional” style. But just as the music, when it was a lively form, frequently borrowed from and incorporated local or pan-European influences, or in America, jazz and popular music influences, the dance too historically incorporated what were deemed appropriate dance forms and styles from surrounding cultures. (In the US, the quasi folk dances Miserlou and Korobushka became favorites of Jews of the immigrant and post- immigrant generations). So it is curious that while contemporary Klezmer musicians have continued this practice of borrowing and developing, the dance scene has not followed suit.
Perhaps this is because it is a bit optimistic to speak of a dance “scene”. It is mostly an artificial environment that exists only at festivals or family and community events, usually under the tutelage of a dance leader. And it so far has been the choice of the dance leaders to adhere to an implicit orthodoxy of dance practice. But that has started to change.
In an absolutely unprecedented move, the long running cultural program Yiddish Summer Weimar, directed by Alan Bern, which has for many years offered week long courses in instrumental music, song and Yiddish language, and dance, this year seized upon the idea of offering, in a year dedicated to New Yiddish Music, a course in New Yiddish Dance. Whatever that might be.
That was left to the instructors of the course: myself, an American Yiddish dance specialist, and Vivien Zeller, a German violinist and avid dancer with experience in many folk forms, especially from the Bal Folk movement (itself a contemporary revival of folk couple dances that had faded from common practice) with the assistance of Sayumi Yoshida, a Japanese-German student of Italian pizzica tarantella, Andreas Schmittges, German musician and experienced Yiddish dance teacher, and Asya Schulman, American Yiddish scholar and dance teacher. We were the captains of a vessel about to sail strange and unchartered waters, with a crew of some 2 dozen intrepid students of varying ages and backgrounds, who had no clear idea of our course or destination. I’m happy to report that, together, we appear to have discovered a rich and strange new shore.
I’d already made a few tentative excursions into new dance territory: incorporating a dance sequence from the movie The Dybbuk into a choreographed folk dance to the tune Khotinskaya, which is now taught by others beside myself, enlivening the traditional set dance Couple’s Bulgar by adding the non-traditional element of a chaos mixer (a way of reforming sets by wandering, rather after a dancer in a class I was teaching spontaneously changed dance sets that way, and creating a few Yiddish inspired flash mobs(in Paris and Krakow) to make Yiddish dance more public and well known. With this course, however, our goals were much more ambitious.
We decided to focus our attention on exploring three existing types of Yiddish dance: the couple freylekhs which is mostly done without any touching, couple dances that are led or involve hand contact, and set dances, like the Jewish square dance, the sher. Our approach was to be to explore world dances that had similar structures. We would explore other non –touching couple dances like the pizzica from Italy, bourree from France, and the chacarera from Argentina. We would learn wickler, the general term for a number of north European couple folk dances that involve elegant and complex arm positions, something shared with a number of world dances, including meringue and western two step. We would look to longways and ancient set dances for ways of updating the Yiddish set dance tradition, in an effort to make it as lively and inventive as the Contra, English and Scottish dance scenes. And finally, we would explore Schottische and Pizzica as sources of more energetic ways of moving, involving skipping, springing and leg lifting. This proved to be a fruitful but obscure plan; it yielded wonderful results but the final outcome was not entirely clear, especially to the students. They each, to their surprise and perhaps dismay, found themselves to be the crucibles of transformation. Each day they were schooled in mostly orthodox Yiddish styling (if not the orthodox roster of dances in the Yiddish repertoire) as well as these new, alien styles. In previous years at YSW, there had been courses in other, related, dance styles. I’d been present for courses with teachers of Moldovan, North German and Bavarian dances, but while these dance styles were looked at as parallels or possible sources, they were kept discrete from the Yiddish dances, and were never consciously mixed together. Here we were trying to consciously hybridize the dances.
What was the difference between this experiment and the creation of Israeli dances? Perhaps that we tried to maintain a sense of connection with previous Yiddish dances, as opposed to the Israeli goal of creating a clean break with the past, particularly the Ashkenazy past. The early Israeli folk dance choreographers did consciously enfold elements of Arabic and Yemenite dance, however, as they seemed more Middle Eastern and thus Israeli. We strove to maintain Yiddish qualities of elegance, seemliness, and simplicity while incorporating European dance influences.
Our most successful experiment may prove to be what we called the Tzepl Tants (little braid dance). This was our development of the Wickler, which works beautifully with music in a terkish rhythm especially. It also worked to newer Klezmer music in a slow tempo. We used a combination of slow and quick steps, ad lib, to keep with the rhythm of the music, and with Alan Bern’s suggestion, made it a repeated 3 part form: an open position promenade, then one handed led figures, and finally two handed led figures. We encouraged dancers to not overpopulate their dancing with too many figures in quick succession, and also added a unique element of advancing and retreating (like going in and out of a circle) with a slight lift and pause on the change of direction. A floor full of people dancing Tzepl Tants looks both stately and sexy- a bit like a Yiddish dance tango!
Our development of non touching couple dance we called the Kompot- a sweet mixture of several influences. Like bourree and chacarera, it allows freedom of improvisation within a clear structure: a section of partners opposite each other describing a small circle, followed by a section of crossing over and changing sides. The crossing over section had a meeting of partners, leaning and facing each other then retiring, before changing places (a bit like the sher). The circling could be varied with one or the other partner in the center of the small circle, with the other partner dancing around them, or even each partner alternately shining in the center. We leavened the dancing style with some step and gesture vocabulary adapted from pizzica. The result is a Jewish looking dance that can be danced equally to traditional or fusion Klezmer music.
We tried setting schottische skipping steps to music with a skotchne feel, and used it when dancing with a tikhl (handkerchief) creating a fun and frisky dance game.
Vivien brought a method for constructing longways set dances using a modular system of interchangeable figures. For groups familiar with the method and vocabulary, it is possible for each foursome in a longways to improvise their own dance. But I advocated for more inclusive dances- ones that someone could perhaps join in progress. By using the formula for improvised dances, we created 2 new Yiddish style longways dances- Little Star (Shterndl) and Road to Minsk (Forn Kayn Minsk). We even, as an experiment, let the group create a dance by committee; there are endless possibilities for new dances. What made these dances Yiddish was the choice of figures and the style of execution. Also, I took the popular gallop/Galopede style long dance and created the very simple and easy to join Ferdl Galop (Little Horse Gallop). All these longways dances worked to a variety of bulgars from the standard Klezmer rep.
Andreas stitched some Playford figures together to make a quadrille dance that suited a Klezmer tune with an early music feel, and created a patsh tants (clapping dance) to a tune collected by Beregovski.
And finally, I cobbled together a little couple changing dance called The International, because it begins with the internationally distributed forwards and backwards figure seen in Gay Gordons and Le Chappeloise, to name just a few. It also incorporated some Lithuanian figures I had learned from two Jewish Lithuanian women I met in Atlanta. Adding to the international flavor, we danced it to the Yiddish theater gem In Odess, although any square tune would work.
At the dance ball on the final night of the workshop it was amazing to see how these dances had been absorbed by the participants. Even when the music was not played in an old-time Klezmer style, the dances and dancers were flexible enough to adapt. There was space for individual expression, and opportunities for shared group experience, like in the set dances. Whether any of these dances becomes incorporated into the Yiddish dance repertoire remains to be seen- I’ll certainly be teaching them for a while and see how they are received and how they adapt outside of the hothouse environment in which they were created. And there are certainly more interesting dance forms that can be mined for their possible contribution to Yiddish dance.
Anyone care to join me in a Tzepl Tants?
I just returned from my 6th time working at the Jewish Cultural Festival (Festival Kultury Zydowski) in Krakow. It has become a highlight of my work year- I teach a daily hour and a half Yiddish dance class with 60 to 100 participants each session. My first year I performed a bottle dance as part of a wedding program in one of the evening concerts, and was asked repeatedly to do it again- including in front of many thousands at the final outdoor concert of Szyroka Street. (More about that later). In the following years, I’ve organized a model wedding, a Purim party, an outdoor “Tea Dance”, and 2 flash mobs. So it is always a special time.
But this year it was somehow more special.
My first year there, my ambivalence about presenting Jewish culture in Poland was aggravated by the ubiquitous presence of little carved wooden figurines of bearded Jews available from every souvenir shop and stand. Commercial and kitschy, they held a strange fascination for me and my Klezmer friends. But it was the little figures of Jews holding a money bag, and often a shiny penny, that were especially troubling. This was the year when I was asked repeatedly to perform my bottle dance. Was I being perceived as a Jewish toy figurine, I found myself wondering? The quaint dancing Jew with a bottle on his head? It took a week of royal and respectful treatment by the festival organizers, and seeing the positive and lively , and not at all stereotypical expression of Jewish culture being presented by the festival to bring me to understand that, of course, if I did something interesting and iconic, people would be interested. And the onus was on me, once I had their attention, to direct them to a more nuanced understanding of Jewish dance and the Jewish body. Which I feel I’ve been doing for the last 6 years.
One of the things I’ve been trying to wean people away from is the “Chassidic” style of Jewish dance. This is a collection of stereotypical tropes used by Israeli, and other, folk dance choreographers to telegraph “Jewish”. The only problem is, it relates to no actual way of dancing, and is entirely self-referential. It’s characterized by flapping elbows, hands thrusting skyward, and high kicking knees. Here is a pretty ripe example: Hasidic Dance.
Many Israeli recreational folk dances have been choreographed in some version of this style, and for the life of me I could not see the appeal. Even some dance teachers whom I like and respect would resort to teaching these. To me, they are the choreographic equivalent of those kitschy figurines. This year, there was an exhibit in Krakow about the figurines, Souvenir, Talisman, Toy, supported by several panel discussions, which created a week long conversation on the subject. Finally! The exhibit did many things: one was to make obvious to anyone, both Pole and Jew, how weird and offensive the “penny Jews” were. (They are considered a kind of magical talisman to attract money to a house or business). But more intriguingly, it helped frame the other figurines as a naïve expression of memory, nostalgia, and perhaps as icons of a kind of sublime spirituality. I’ve been thinking that the collecting of Chassidic artworks by Jews, especially, and the dancing of those “Chassidic” dances, is a way for some to honor and connect with a less secular, more spiritual side of themselves. And that is a valid longing. I just think there are more informed ways of doing it. Ways that involve a little more observation and personal investment.
A couple of other very significant things happened to me this festival.
One was that I was asked by my good friends, Deborah Strauss and Jeff Warshauer of the Straus/Warshauer Duo , to perform a dance in their concert commemorating 18 years of performing together. Many other friends were also invited to make guest appearances, but they were all musicians or singers, I was the only one presenting a solo dance. I tend to hate solo dancing- it is lonely and scary for me. I tend to choreograph every step, and until I’ve performed a dance many times, I find myself preoccupied with how the dance goes, and don’t really get to enjoy the performance. This time, instead of fully planning every step, I basically shaped the dance with a number of landmark events. The dance, a yet another version of an idea I keep returning to, involved my discovering, holding, donning, and ultimately removing a long black Jewish coat- the one I'm seen in on my home page. I associate the coat with Felix Febich, a dance mentor of mine, and I love the shapes I can make with the coat as I dance with and in it. I was very nervous though, since I felt both prepared and unprepared for the performance. I’d done several run-throughs, and had planned my narrative and ‘beats’ carefully, but the dance was going to have to be greatly improvised – albeit from a familiar vocabulary. The body shapes and moves I was going to use are ones I’ve researched and developed over years, drawn particularly from depictions of Jewish dancers in art, especially the paintings of Baruch Aggadati.
As we’d arranged, I started the dance in silence, the coat trailing after me, following me. Deborah started her slow doyna, and I let the coat swirl around me, and finally embraced it. I danced with it like an absent person, and, when the music changed to a rhythmic slow hora, I donned the coat and danced. When the music got faster still, I finally shrugged off the coat, and continued dancing without it. During the performance, I felt extremely present- aware of my surroundings, an exhibit in the Galicia museum, of the music which was almost but not quite like the recording I’d rehearsed to, and even of the audience. By leaving room for improvisation and spontaneity, I was able to listen to the music and really perform. Deborah was able to watch me and lift me up with her violin playing. One of my moments was to face the audience with the coat beside me, then bring it in front of me. Here I am, here I am with a coat. It was a thrilling experience for me, and from what audience members have told me, it was exciting and involving for them too. That dance, in that place, with that music. We were all-performers and audience- fully present, and that was important.
My dance class had a few moments of shocking presence for me as well. I have a number of repeat students who have taken my class year after year. They are Polish, and many of them speak little or no English. And yet it is always a pleasure to see them when the walk in the door on the first day of class. This year, in order to keep things interesting for them, and myself, I presented my material in a new format. Taking a cue for Echad Mi Yodea (Who Knows One) and other counting songs, I presented the repertoire of Yiddish dances by the numbers, with a dance association for each of the numbers 1-8. Most profoundly, on the first day, I associated 1 with the simple clear shift of weight from one leg to another, leaving the other leg to gesture or not. Each shift of weight was a statement of Here I am, and had an element of sublime stillness. We used this emphatic weight shift in the Khossidel and Slow Hora dances, both of which use one emphatic step per measure. 2 was the bouncy walk of the Freylekhs, 12121212 etc. Here we go. Later, as we got to more complex step patterns, the ability to be clear about taking a single step and walking was very helpful.
At the end of the week, we got to 8. 8 was the sher, a square dance for 4 couples, or 8 people. I’ve taught this dance countless times. It was a centerpiece dance at weddings. I describe it as “ a party with 7 of your friends”. This year I got to dance it with a model set of some of the best dancers in class- several of my regulars. People I see only once a year, for a few days. People who, over the course of several years, have become more than just familiar faces, but personalities, too. As we danced, we were able to really see each other, to kid around and make little non-verbal jokes. For me, it was like seeing distant relatives, the kind you only see at big family functions. And it hit me the real value of a dance like the sher. 15 minutes of lively, intimate quality time with special people. Nobody was putting on a Jewish act- we were just familiar people doing a fun Jewish dance and enjoying the rare opportunity of each other’s company and attention. An opportunity we wouldn’t have again for another year, at least. It was pretty moving.
Later that afternoon, just before Shabos, we held our now annual Tea Dance on a large public square in the old Jewish quarter of Kazimirez. (Here is video from the first Tea Dance, in 2010). The weather was favorable, the threat of rain had passed and we were able to set up a sound system for the musicians and make the music brilliant. Students from the class were joined by many other festival goers and passers-by. A lot of them joined the dancing- it was a big, lively crowd. At one point I found myself moved to say, between dances, how happy I felt the stones of the square must be to have this joyous Jewish dancing happening on them now. Ok, it was I who was happy, and I suppose I was projecting that onto the stones of the square, and the surrounding buildings and windows, but they did not rise up to contradict me. Later, as we were ready to wind up the party and get ready to greet Shabos, I invited the crowd to face the musicians and dance a little Khossidl. I repeated the idea of the first day's class- stepping from one leg to the other on the emphatic 1. With each step, I asked them to gesture with a thumb to their own chest: Here I am! And then, with an open gesture, like the prelude to a hug, to the others around them: Here you are. And I found myself saying to everyone there: Being here, now, in this place, at this time, in this way, is important. It is a statement of belief and of faith and of hope. No one rose up to contradict me.
This year was definitely more special.
Here is some information I’d like to share about my understanding of the various Klezmer rhythms. I owe a great deal of my knowledge to the many talented musicians I work and talk with, particularly Josh Horowitz and Cookie Segelstein of Veretski Pass, Kurt Bjorling, and Jim Guttman of Klezmer Conservatory Band with whom I’ve taught a class called ‘Make ‘em Dance”, where we try to connect musicians to the dance groove in order to make the music danceable.
I hope this will be of help to both dancers who wonder what to dance to which music, and musicians as well.
Freylekhs can be considered the default Ashkenazic Jewish celebratory dance. Characterized by a bouncy walk- with a step on the strong beat, and an upward bounce on the offbeat: 1 and 2 and. It can be danced in circles, serpentine lines, couples or solo. So long as everyone in line or circle moves in the same direction and same speed, footwork need not be identical, and rarely is. Other options include: walking backwards in direction of travel; prances, either forward or backwards, 2-steps and small pas de basques; shuffling; and scuffing steps. Hands may be held high or low, and may vary through group. When arms are free in solo or couple dancing, they tend to either frame the self, show time and dynamics (like conducting), or gesture to others. Gestures tend to be in slower time than footwork (on the 1 of 2/4 measure) or lyrical. Use of space tends to be varied and kaleidoscopic- figures will change spontaneously, often with changes of musical section. Advancing and retiring as a group tends to be elastic rather sharply tied to the measure, rather like the swing of a pendulum.
Several types of music are suitable for dancing Freylekhs:
Freylekhs- Tunes in a happy walking tempo, characterized by a clear 2/4 or 4/4 feel, with light, tripping melodies and 16th note passages. Usually in several sections, with distinct changes in mood between sections (this is true of most klezmer dance tunes). Musicians should try singing the tune while doing a bouncy walk to find the important offbeat stresses.
Bulgar- Heavier bounce than the freylekhs. (To me, freylekhs sound like Mozart; bulgars, Beethoven.) Related to the Romanian sirba, bulgars have an underlying galloping, triplet, giddyup feel. Bulgars replaced the old style freylekhs as the standard party tunes, perhaps because of their more modern drive. When danced, the bouncy walk of the freylekhs becomes almost a jog. Bulgar tunes also support the 6-count bulgar step: 2 quick steps in line of direction followed by 2 half time weight changes in place, often with kicks, lifts or other gestures of the free leg. It’s similar to the Israeli hora and dozens of other dances. It is not, however, required that a bulgar be danced to bulgar tunes. Freylekhs is more typical. Musicians should try singing the tune while galloping to discover the underlying drive and “swing”.
Khossidl: A type of freylekhs with a slower, weightier feeling. Supports one weight change per measure, on the 1. Also can be more expressive, grand, dreamy or “spirititual” in feeling and when danced. Not necessarily Chassidic in origin, but perhaps with references to nigunim (Chassidic spiritual tunes). Musicians can try singing the tune while swaying side to side on the 1 of the measure, with a strong weight change.
Skotshne: Yet another freylekhs variant. I wonder if it has a relation to the German Schottish and Scottish dancing, thereby implying a hopping, springing, skipping style of dancing. Often the melodic structure lines up with the classic schottish dance structure of [123 hop] [ 123 hop], [1 hop, 2 hop] [3 hop, 4 hop], where each bracketed unit corresponds to one measure. That’s my two groschen, at least.
Sirba: A popular Romanian dance rhythm, characterized by an underlying, insistent 6/8 or triplet rhythm. Usually played Fast or Faster. There are several typical Romanian dance steps that correspond to sirba, they all involve a mix of stepping and skipping. (N.B. a step hop is in a square, quarter or eighth note rhythm, a skip is in a syncopated 6/8 or triplet rhythm; Mary had a little lamb, vs. Humpty Dumpty.) A few of the typical sirba steps are very close in pattern to the bulgar step. Musicians can try singing a sirba tune while skipping briskly or sliding (chasse) for some interesting insights.
Honga: Can refer simply to dancing in a file with each dancer placing one or both hands on the shoulders of the dancer in front of them. Musically, refers to 2/4 Romanian sounding tunes with a sharper upbeat than the freylekhs, and which supports a scuff on the upbeat, rather than just a bounce. Zev Feldman, whose family came from Moldova, has demonstrated a number of unique footwork and arm patters appropriate to this music.
Sher: The sher is a Jewish square dance that often has distinct music associated with it. The music is similar to freylekhs, and the dance is danced like a freylekhs with the typical bounce, but has a number of square dance figures – generally a chorus for the group, and a leading out figure for each individual. Therefore, the dance sequence goes through 8 times (chorus, lead out 1, chorus, lead out 2, etc) and requires a considerable amount of music- about 15 or more minutes worth. A suite of tunes is typically played. Designated sher tunes often have 1 or 2 sections that are broad and support the long figure phrases of circling, promenading, and crossing over, and then sections that are more divided, with a distinct break in the tune, that support the shorter movement phrases associated with leading out. Tunes can be freylekhs-like or frequently bulgar-like, but played more squarely, almost like a march. Here is an example of a SHER.
Other typical Klezmer rhythms:
Slow Hora or Zhok: This is a very popular dance, processional, or listening rhythm, originating in Romania. It is characterized by a syncopated feeling that is often described as in 3, with the pulse falling on the downbeat and an auxiliary pulse on the preceding upbeat. If played in a strict 3, however, it is very difficult to dance to, and to my mind is better thought of as in 1, with a precipitous upbeat: 1! aaaaaaaaaaand 1! aaaaaaaaand 1! aaaaaaaaaand 1! Etc. The dance requires dancers to mostly take one step per measure, on the 1, and I encourage people learning the dance to imagine stepping across a stream on stones, where you need to reach then balance with each step. This feels very awkward if the music adheres to a straight 3 (even if it’s notated that way).
Terkish: Actually Greek sounding- a sort of squared-off syrto rhythm, but played with this accent pattern: 1…45. 7. This is sometimes played almost like a rhumba. Can be danced as a sort of syncopated freylekhs, allowing a great deal of expression, but I’ve discovered that Boieresca patterns also fit nicely on this rhythm.
Kolomeyke: A Ukrainian rhythm meaning "from Kolomey", that seem to be related to Hutsulkas (Romanian Hutsul dance tunes). Kolomeykes mostly have a strong accent on the 1 of every 4 beats, and frequently have a distinctive, strong 2 beat cadence at the end phrases. Can support Russian style dancing with 2 steps and pas de basques, but is also well suited to exhibitionist, athletic and acrobatic moves. Ukrainian youths frequently use it as such at parties, and Jewish bands will often switch to a kolomeyke or Russian "kozatzky" tune when someone starts doing a spectacular stunt, like squatting kicks, or flashy jump rope jumping.