All-female dance troupes wow a frum crowd in Karmiel

karmiel, israel   |   If you want a snapshot of the current social divide between secular and religious Jews in Israel, the Karmiel Dance Festival, held every summer in this northern development town in the Galilee, offers a prime, if unusual, vantage point.

Begun 28 years ago as a three-day summer showcase of nationalistic folk dance, and famous for its midnight-to-dawn dancing-in-the-streets revelry, the festival evolved out of an early Zionist project of building Hebrew public culture.

Noga Dance Company includes married women, even new mothers. photo/adi ovadia

This year at the July 28-30 festival, in a quiet theater space nestled among the food stands, giant flea market and stadium extravaganzas, the Baruch Center became the setting for a very different kind of dance, but one that is emerging as the next wave of dance innovation in Israel.

To call it new is a paradox, because what the Baruch Center showcased was one of the oldest ritual practices in the nation, the physical actions of devout Jewish prayer, reanimated as the core of a new movement: Modern Orthodox dance.

A hybrid between Orthodox Judaism and contemporary dance, this religious dance movement started in Israel six years ago and today includes two all-male troupes, two established women’s dance companies and 10 or more informal women’s groups. This year, for the first time, this emerging hybrid of a religious movement vocabulary and a secular aesthetic was included at Karmiel in a daylong series of performances and workshops in the Baruch Center, a venue that for the occasion was restricted to women.

Dancers with Nehara, an Orthodox women’s troupe in Israel, perform “to glorify God’s image,” says the group’s founder. photos/tami weiss

In keeping with the Orthodox prohibition on women dancing, singing or otherwise performing in front of men, no men were allowed to watch the women dancing, a restriction that extended to the festival security staff who sat guarding the theater doors, but with their backs respectfully turned away from the dancers.

The featured group on the opening day of events on July 28 was Noga, a women’s troupe founded in 2009 at Orot Teacher’s College, which established Israel’s first academic dance program for religiously observant women in 2007.

Noga dancers adhere to the strictures of religious observance, keeping bodies covered with long-sleeve, conservative costumes and movements that honor a culture of modesty; married women also cover their hair. They become mothers at a young age and, unlike secular dancers, perform well into their pregnancies and then again soon after, often bringing their infants to rehearsals and performances.

With Noga’s performance at Karmiel, both were in evidence as one woman visibly in her eighth month of pregnancy performed in the role of a young man flirting with a female dancer in “The Racing Heart,” a parable described as depicting “the heart’s longing for unity with Creation and the Creator.” At the margins of the stage, another young dancer who had recently given birth juggled her tiny infant, her fourth child, while welcoming the audience.

“What makes it work is that they have so much desire,” says Talia Perlshtein, a dance faculty member at Orot. As Orthodox women, their religious rules of not performing on Shabbat, not dancing with or in front of men and not deferring pregnancy, made it impossible for them to be in established dance companies, but the Orot program enabled them to keep dancing. “They all danced when they were young, but they couldn’t continue. Now four of them are married and several have babies and they are still dancing,” she said.

In artistic director Sharona Florsheim’s “Geometries of Faith,” an ensemble of seven women made a series of sweeping passes across the stage, assembling and disassembling like flocks of migrating birds. The dancers radiate a closeness bound by a shared goal that feels more than choreographic. “There is something very honest here and pure,” one of the dancers said of this work, which was inspired by a verse from Isaiah and offers a physical interpretation of the Hebrew letters, words and their meaning. “We believe we don’t have to find God in the synagogue. God is here in the floor. It is a search for God here.”

The physical presence of prayer as written text on paper was also the focus of a performance by Nehara, the other leading religious women’s dance group at Karmiel. “Draft,” choreographed by Rachel Erdos, is a dance theater rumination on the tensions between prayer as an intimate, individual experience and a ritualistic, communal one. It makes stunning use of torn pages (from non-religious texts) that the dancers animate as tiny vehicles of transcendence, folding them into paper boats, airplanes and origami-winged cranes.

The theater was packed with Orthodox women and girls for both performances, and they watched with a deep focus. “We dance to glorify God’s image,” Daniella Bloch, the founder and director of Nehara, explained in a post-show Q & A with the audience.

“Some people within the Orthodox community say dance is sacrilegious,” added Bloch, who trained professionally in the United States and Israel. “That is why the process of building a work takes so long. The choreographer has to understand this and then break the code.”

Janice Ross
is a professor in the Theater and Performance Studies Department at Stanford University. She recently returned from an Israel Institute-sponsored research trip to Jerusalem.