Jewish Dance in America

Modern and postmodern concepts of individualism and female expression have challenged traditional Judaism--while creating new dance traditions.

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The term "Jewish Dance" in the American context can describe dance forms incorporated into Jewish religious and cultural life. For example, dances associated with Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions, especially wedding dances, were transplanted to America with successive waves of immigration, and have become part of the Jewish American cultural experience. Other social forms include folk dances associated with Zionism and the formation of the state of Israel, the popularity of which soared between the 1950s and 1970s among young American Jews. 

The same term--"Jewish Dance"--can also describe theatrical dancing that consciously engages with Jewish subject matter. This form of dance has found its greatest expression in post-WWII American Jewish choreographers working in the modern dance realm. These artists draw on the Bible, Hasidism, and the Holocaust as source material for their work. While contributing to a mostly positive conception of Jewish identity as uplifting, timeless, and spiritual, more recently choreographers have engaged in critical, ironic, and comic questioning of Judaism.

theatre and dance quizThough many Jewish choreographers have incorporated Jewish themes into their art in an effort to make positive statements about Jewish identity, their modernist and postmodernist perspectives--emphasizing individualism and female expression--often conflict with traditional Judaism. In combination with the preponderance of Jewish institutions, patrons, critics, and scholars in the dance field, choreographers have also greatly contributed to the growth of American dance as a contemporary art form, embracing racial, religious, and ethnic diversity and promoting humanistic values.

Early 20th Century Efforts

While many Jewish dancers were involved with broad social concerns of American life in the pre-war period, some participated in the creation of what was variously called Jewish, Hebrew, and Palestinian dance. Dancers such as Benjamin Zemach, Lillian Shapero, and Dvora Lapson functioned as part of a wide-scale effort to revitalize Jewish life in the Diaspora and Palestine, as the Zionist cause grew in fervor and as America's Jews created new outlets of cultural expression.

In these dancers' choreography, initial experiments were made in combining modernist conventions--individual expression, use of abstraction, belief in universal truths--with traditional sources of Jewish identification--the Bible, Jewish ritual, and custom--to create positive images of Jews.  

Zemach, a Russian immigrant, was the first to popularize the notion of a uniquely Jewish theatrical dance form in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. In creating his dances, he used a process of abstraction to invoke powerful images of the Jewish spirit--crystallized, timeless images of the praying Jew, the devout Yeshiva student, and the wandering Jew who fights for justice in the world. Farewell to Queen Sabbath was his signature work. In 1929, the influential New York Times critic John Martin wrote a lengthy article which reported that, for Zemach, there were two principal sources to which to turn in creating Jewish dance: "the actual physical movements of the Jewish folk in their daily life and…their religious practices, such as those especially of the hasidic sect."

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Naomi M. Jackson

Naomi Jackson is an Associate Professor of dance in the Department of Dance, Herberger College of the Arts, Arizona State University.