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
I'm a dance guy. I love to move and to get people moving, and I've been especially steeped in how Jews have moved throughout history.