a history of Jewish dance
Since the times of the Torah (~3000 years ago), ritual dances and music have held deep spiritual meaning for the People of Israel. The Tanakh, Mishnah, and Talmud all emphasize the spiritual nature of dance, as well as its importance as an expression of joy.
There are many references to dance in the Torah. In Exodus, after the pharaoh’s army is destroyed in the Sea of Reeds, Miriam leads the Israelites in the Song of the Sea (“Shirat HaYam” in Hebrew). Interestingly, the Song of the Sea is written in a much more archaic version of Hebrew, as opposed to the rest of Exodus. As such, some scholars consider it the oldest surviving text of Exodus.
Dance is particularly sacred at Jewish weddings. It’s a mitzvah (commandment) to celebrate brides and grooms; dancing at a wedding is a way to fulfill this particular mitzvah.
Ecstatic dance — a form of dance in which dancers abandon specific steps and instead lose themselves to the music and rhythm — is described in the Torah. In Samuel, Saul goes to the hill of G-d, where he comes across a group of people dancing to instruments and prophesizing while in motion. Another example is David’s dance before the Ark in Tehillim (Psalms).
In ancient times, it was customary for Israelites to receive victorious soldiers with dance and drums. Generally these dances were performed by women. There are various references to this practice in the Torah, such as:
“Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbres and with dances” (Exodus 15:20-21).
“On his triumphant return from battle to Mizpah, Jephtah was greeted by his daughter with timbrels and dancing” (Judges 11:34).
“…the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with timbrels, with joy, and with rattles” (Samuel I 18:6).
The Israelites enjoyed singing and playing instruments, such as the lyre.
During the Three Pilgrimage Festivals — Pesach (Passover), Shavout, and Sukkot — all able-bodied Israelites were commanded to make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. Farmers would go on a long procession to the city, accompanied with music and parades.
ANCIENT FOLK DANCE
During the Mishnaic period (10-210 CE), folk dance was an important part of Jewish spiritual tradition. For example, during the festival of Tabernacles, following the sacrifices, a daily procession around the altar of the Temple would take place.
Since ancient Judean society was deeply agrarian, many of these spiritual folk dances were deeply tied to the reverence of the Land of Israel. Of particular importance were the dances at the water-drawing festival. “Whoever has not witnessed the joy of the festival of the water-drawing has seen no joy in life. Pious men and men of affairs danced with torches in their hands, singing songs of joy and of praise, and the Levites made music with lyre and harp and cymbals and trumpets and countless other instruments” (Sukkah 5:1b).
Tu B’Av — also known as the Jewish holiday of love — is an ancient Jewish festival that marks the beginning of the grape harvest in the Land of Israel. In ancient times, unmarried girls would dress in white garments and dance in the vineyards, a practice that has been revived over the past 100 years.
During the Talmudic period (70-500 CE), dancing at weddings was considered especially sacred. Bridal processions were treated with deep reverence. Attendees would dance with joy in honor of the bride, all in their own ways: “Rabbi Judah ben Ilai would take a myrtle twig and dance before the bride singing. Rabbi Samuel ben Isaac, even when he was old, would juggle three myrtle twigs as he sang and danced. Rabbi Aha danced with the bride on his shoulder.”
There is a reference to a folk wedding dance in the Song of Songs, known as “the dance of the two companies.”
The expulsions of Jews from our homeland, as well as the colonization of the land at the hands of the Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, and Ottomans, changed the nature of Jewish dance, as Jewish celebrations ceased to exist as major national festivals.
Oftentimes, the rabbinical authorities became hostile to dance, but dancing during Shabbat, Purim, Simchat Torah, Lag ba-Omer, and weddings was still encouraged.
During the Middle Ages, when the Jews of Europe experienced terrible persecution and segregation in ghettos, dancing just for the pleasure of dancing became common. Almost every Jewish community in Europe had a wedding-house, used for special occasions, where a dance leader would accompany the musicians.
In sixteenth century Europe, a new Jewish dance/music tradition was born: klezmer. In the 1600s, Jews in Poland were granted a new freedom: the right to form musician guilds. As such, klezmer gained popularity, particularly when coupled with the rise of Hasidism, which placed emphasis on dancing as a major component of Jewish practice.
Klezmer’s popularity came in waves, as oftentimes, Jews were placed under restrictions that prohibited Jewish cultural expression. For instance, post-1948, the Soviet Union repressed Jewish culture, meaning that Jewish music was no longer allowed to be performed.
For Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews, folk dance remained of utmost importance in the diaspora. In particular, dancing was central to the practices of Kurdish and Yemenite Jewry. Yemenite Jewish dances are very expressive, with clapping and many other gestures, often accompanied by the copper plate and drums.
In Sephardic communities, many women became “tanyaderas,” or song and dance leaders for life celebrations (e.g. weddings, bar mitzvahs). This tradition had ancient origins, dating back some 3000 years.
HASIDIM & CEREMONIES
In 18th century Eastern Europe, the rise of Hasidism among the Jewish community correlated with a revival in the spiritual importance of dance. The founder of Hasidism, Israel ben Eliezer Ba’al Shem Tov, believed that dance was a vehicle to attain religious enthusiasm and devotion to G-d. He stated: “The dances of the Jew before the Creator are prayers.”
According to Nahman of Bratzlav, Ba’al Shem Tov’s grandson, dance in prayer was a sacred command, so much so that he composed a prayer to recite before dancing.
Hasidim place great spiritual importance on dance during Jewish holidays, even on solemn days, such as Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, and even Tisha B’Av, the saddest day on the Hebrew calendar, during which we commemorate the destructions of the two Temples.
Hasidic dances are performed in a circle, symbolizing that “every one is equal, each one being a link in the chain, the circle having no front or rear, no beginning or ending.” The dances begin slowly, eventually speeding up in tempo, until the dancers raise their hands in the air to reach “spiritual ecstasy.” The dances are accompanied by melodies originating in the Tanakh or Talmud.
During Simchat Torah, the rabbi dances with the Torah scroll held in his hands, wrapped in a tallit (prayer shawl) and pointing to the sky. The rest of the congregation dances in a circle around the rabbi, clapping and singing.
Hasidic dance has deeply influenced Israeli folk dance, as well as dancing at other important Jewish ceremonies, including the Brit Mila, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, weddings, and Shabbat.
Oftentimes, at Jewish weddings, particularly among Orthodox Jews, dances, such as the famous chair dance, where the bride and the groom are elevated on chairs, the bride and the groom will both hold what is known as the separating handkerchief, so that their hands won’t touch. This tradition comes from the idea that we must honor a bride by making her happy on her wedding day.
MODERN FOLK DANCE
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, tens of thousands of Jews from across the diaspora returned to the Land of Israel, at the time under Ottoman, and later, British (Mandatory Palestine) control. Just as it was 2000 years prior, dance resumed as an expression of Jewish national identity.
A new tradition of dance, now known as Israeli folk dance, was born, borrowing from all the corners of the diaspora, as well as ancient Israelite dance traditions.
A big early proponent of Israeli folk dance was choreographer Rivka Sturman. During the Mandate period, she noticed that Jewish children were being taught songs that were European, rather than Jewish, in origin. She felt that it was important that Jewish dances reflect the culture of the Land of Israel. As such, she created an organization sponsored by the Histadrut (General Organization of Workers in Israel, then known as the General Organization of Workers in the Land of Israel) dedicated to the creation of folk dances.
In 1944, Gurit Kadman started the First Fruits dance pageant, to be celebrated during Shavout, much like, in ancient times, Jews received Shavout with dance and parades.
Two of the most common Israeli folk dances are Tza’ad Temani, originating from Yemenite Jewish folk dance, and the Hora, deriving from Ashkenazi Jewish dance.
An important Israeli folk dance with ancient Jewish folk dance influences is “Mayim Mayim” (meaning “water water”), which was first choreographed for a 1937 festival in celebration of the discovery of water in the desert, following a seven-year search.
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