Dancing at Camp Isabella Freedman in Falls Village, Connecticut, 2015. (Courtesy of Hazon)

Jewish Dance

In the Bible, dance was an expression of joy, awe and worship.

In the Bible, the Israelites use dance as a form of religious expression. From images of Miriam leading the women across the Sea of Reeds to numerous references throughout the Psalms, it is clear that dance was an expression of joy, awe and worship.

After the end of the biblical period and throughout most of the Middle Ages, one finds fewer examples of sacred, ritual dance in Judaism. However, because of the mitzvah (commandment) to celebrate a bride and groom, dancing at Jewish weddings was always encouraged. According to Fred Berk’s work on Jewish dance, Ha-Rikud, men and women danced separately at religious functions, but dance was nonetheless an important part of the celebrations.

Elaborate dances honoring the newly married couple have been created over the last several centuries, including the iconic ritual of lifting the bride and groom and dancing with them raised on chairs. Wedding dances continue to be an important part of Jewish cultural identity today; many Jewish American couples who consider themselves secular still feature traditional hora dancing as part of their wedding celebrations.

Hasidism, which began to emerge in the 18th century, focused on praying with joy and passion and seeking connection to God through song and dance. As in biblical times, dance once again became a form for religious expression. The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, and his followers danced in circles, with increasing fervor, seeking a kind of ecstasy through their repeated movements. The dancers would sing a wordless melody (niggun) as they moved, and sometimes their rebbe would dance on his own before the group–creating new movements for the circle to pick up and integrate. This kind of circle dancing, still practiced in some Hasidic communities today, could last for hours.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, another kind of Jewish dance emerged: Israeli folkdance. Pioneers who came to the land of Israel from across Europe brought with them their own native dances. Using this material they created Israeli folkdances, expressing their passion and desire to return to the Promised Land. Dancing barefoot, with fast movements like leaping and running, Israeli folkdances became an important form of expression for new immigrants. As the new state of Israel emerged, folk dancing became a national pastime. Gradually, Israeli dancing spread to Jewish communities all over the world, becoming an important way for Jews in the Diaspora to connect to the Jewish state. Israeli dance has also expanded its repertoire as Jews from different cultural backgrounds, including Yemen and Ethiopia, have contributed to the beauty and diversity of Israeli folk dance.

In more recent times, Jewish choreographers and dancers throughout the world have explored Jewish themes in modern dance. For example, the Avodah Dance Ensemble, founded by Joanne Tucker, has created many modern dance pieces inspired by Jewish liturgy, and has taken its work to congregations and prayer services around the world. Sometimes set in a concert setting and sometimes designed for the synagogue, new Jewish dance ensembles are synthesizing our long history of worship and expression with a renewed passion for dance.

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