In his provocative book, La Passion d’être un autre. Étude pour la Danse, renowned French academic Pierre Legendre argues that of all the art forms, dance is the most sacred because it inscribes our search for the “other” within the self.
“Dance questions all aspects of ritual practice and mythological proclamations of meaning, at the heart of a social legality,” Legendre argues. Too often these days, however, dance is dismissed to the histrionics of reality TV and Hollywood films, where over exuberant mothers coddle their prodigy daughters while simultaneously jousting with other, equally strident dance moms. Indeed, here in Montreal, where the competitive dance scene is alive and well, there is no shortage of Jewish dance moms to be found.
I wonder what Jewish communities could be like if we recovered the sacred art of dance. By reclaiming the magic origins of dance as a religious phenomenon, we might begin restoring its mystical power of transformation within a revitalized society.
History supports such an effort. Recall the role of dance within Jewish civilization for millenniums – how it served to ritualize communal life as an embodiment of true joy. The Hebrew language has only around 70,000 words to choose from, and 10 describe dancing (by comparison, English has about 700,000 words, 49 of which characterize dance). The language of the Bible contains Hebrew words indicating that the Jewish people not only “danced” (sahek) but also “spun around” (karker), “jumped” (pazez, kafotz), “skipped” (rakad), “leaped” (daleg), “encircled” (savav, hagag), “skipped” (pase’ah), and even limped (zala’)
These various dances were intrinsically connected to celebrations of military victories, expressions of communal ecstasy and the holiday celebrations. Experts are still trying to decipher how the dancers described in our ancient texts actually danced, even as dance continued to evolve in Jewish communities, spanning the eastern European, Ashkenazic context of Hasidism to the Sephardic practice of hillula.
Ahead of my daughter’s recent competitive hip-hop dance competition, the two of us watched the documentary series Hip Hop Evolution, in which Canadian rapper and journalist Shad documents the living history of hip hop and how it has become such a staple of popular culture.
In the course of the series, Shad shows how certain precursors of hip hop are not duly acknowledged by the next generation. Rather, hip hop today – especially in my daughter’s dance studio – is a parody of itself, bloated with lyrics and images celebrating crass materialism, objectifying women, and promoting violence.
As a Jewish dance dad whose daughter is nearing her bat mitzvah, I’m left to wonder: is this what today’s young women aspire to? Watching the nasty, immodest poses, violent gestures, and irreverence that breeds bullying, I’m left wondering whatever happened to the empowered women of hip-hop history, like Nikki D, Monie Love, The Lady of Rage, Yo-Yo, Rah Digga, Mia X, MC Lyte, Eve, Trina and Remy Ma?
Imagine if today’s female teens would dance to Queen Latifah’s words in our local studios:
Who said the ladies couldn’t make it, you must be blind/ if you don’t believe, well here, listen to this rhyme/ Ladies first, there’s no time to rehearse/ I’m divine and my mind expands through the universe/A female rapper with the message to send that/ Queen Latifah is a perfect specimen.
Nonetheless, dance retains its redemptive potential inscribed in its magical origins. I witnessed this firsthand with my daughter when we attended the 60th anniversary performance of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York. The liberation tale of this group of African-American dancers is a familiar story of a disenfranchised tribe searching for a home.
The ragtag group was originally given space by the Jewish Dance Division of the 92nd Street Y; six decades later it has blossomed into a cultural phenomenon. The theatre’s lead choreographer, Richard Battle, set his provocative work, “No Longer Silent”, to Erwin Schulhoff’s percussive score Ogelala. These Ailey dancers dared to dance the impossible – to choreograph scores by composers banned by the Nazis.
We were bombarded with jarring gestures of flight and fatigue, chaos and unity, with individuals being swallowed into mass movements, as dancers dressed in black suits with white knee patches aligned in military rows. While Schulhoff died of tuberculosis in the Wulzburg concentration camp in 1942, his music sings on, its afterlife choreographed through Ailey’s thoughtful dance.
Ailey’s troupe has captured the African- American struggle for liberation by dancing through American fascism and returning to the oppression of the Jews. To choreograph concentration camp scenes, fascist rallies, and the dangerous magnetism of the herd mentality, displays an ingenuity lacking in most of today’s vapid hip-hop culture and battle rap.
The audacity of Ailey’s troupe to choreograph the violence of fascism by finding an esthetic language to embody it in dance, without whitewashing it, reminds us of that the sacred art of dance has the power to redeem us.