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.