Dancing with divinity

Religious all-women dance company Nehara is the first that performs in front of mixed audiences.

Nehara 521 (photo credit: Deborah Danan)
Nehara 521
(photo credit: Deborah Danan)
The dancer’s 120-cm. braid stretches from the crown of her head to her foot, where it is fastened to her toe. She moves gracefully across the stage, weaving in and out of the braid that acts as a chain imprisoning her, trying to find her way around it. The symbolism is not lost on the audience.
This is, after all, a performance given by a religious, all-women dance company in Tel Aviv, and hair plays no small role in religious women’s life.
Although there are a number of religious dance companies in Israel, Nehara is the first that performs in front of mixed audiences. Founded in April by Daniella Bloch, it took a mere three months for Nehara to debut at the Suzanne Dellal Center – the most prestigious venue for dance in Israel.
“Suzanne Dellal is where anyone who’s anyone in the dance world comes,” Bloch enthuses prior to the show. Now 35, she has been dancing for as long as she can remember, attending the Bat Dor Dance Company – arguably Israel’s finest dance academy – from the age of 13 until she was 20, and over the years performing in both Israel and the US. A native New Yorker, Bloch arrived in Israel with her family at the age of nine. Apart from the usual strife associated with making aliya, Bloch also had to contend with the challenges of being both a religious girl and a dancer.
The dance scene in Israel was not a comfortable one for Bloch, who was Bat Dor. Feeling like an outsider was part and parcel of her upbringing, and is part of what spurred her to establish Nehara.
“I remember a [dance] piece done in Bat Dor that portrayed religious people as dark, depressing and dreary,” she says. “The dance world at large has no religion, no boundaries, and you have to commit suicide for it. Dance becomes the god.”
Not so for Bloch, who describes herself as “bi-religious.”
“I’m a dance freak,” she says. “It’s a religion, yes, but I want to show that it doesn’t have to clash or collide [with my faith]. We have an amazing gift – a gift from God – and there has to be some way to bring together these two things.”
AND THUS, Nehara was born. Bloch had watched a performance by Ka’et, a religious all-male dance company, and was so moved by it that she decided to start a similar company for women.
Nehara has four dancers, all of whom are Orthodox and all with backgrounds in professional dance.
“The most important thing for me was to recruit women that were first and foremost trained dancers, on a very high level. That’s something I couldn’t compromise on. But these women also have a Jewish soul – a religious soul – and it shows on stage. But they’re also the kind of people that are asking questions all the time and that are constantly learning.”
For Bloch, it wasn’t just about providing a forum in which religious women would not have to compromise on central tenets of their faith, such as being asked to perform or rehearse on Shabbat.
It was also about showcasing the inherent connection in Judaism between body and soul, between spirit and movement. “You can feel the connection with God on the stage,” she says. But more than that, Bloch claims that her chief goal behind the project was to draw the secular and religious communities together. This was one of the primary reasons for her somewhat controversial decision to perform in front of men.
“There’s something un-organic about an all-women audience,” she says, “There’s also an attitude of ‘we’ll take whatever you give us’ – even if means that the level of dance is lower. Plus, what secular woman would attend an all-women event? I want secular people to be able to see the beauty, soul and color of these religious women.”
Does she fear that she will be criticized by people in the religious community for her decision? “Yes,” she answers unequivocally. “We’re not bringing the ‘I’m-a-good-little-religious- girl’ on stage. There has to be guts. I’m concerned that people will say we’re not religious enough.”
According to Bloch, the separation of the sexes in the religious world has become something of an obsession in Israel. She notes that in the Diaspora, religious people are less threatened and more open about such issues. Still, while Bloch’s dancers are far from scantily clad, some of them wear tight shirts or pants on stage – another fact that is prone to generate raised eyebrows within religious circles.
“[Their costumes] need to allow for movement on stage and while they’re not completely covered up, they also aren’t showing it all off,” she says. “A [male] friend of mine who had seen the performance joked that after watching it he questioned his sexuality because, while he appreciated the beauty of the dance, at no point did he take it to a sexual place.”
Recently married, Bloch covers her hair, and she isn’t the only dancer to sport a head covering. One of the dancers, Dalia Peretz, who is a mother of three, dances with a head-covering that ultimately turns into the subject of the routine itself. At one point during the performance, Peretz enters the stage with an additional head scarf to the one already on her head, and gives a demonstration to the audience on how to tie it. In the background, the other three dancers stretch and move according to Peretz’s instructions.
One member of the audience praises the routine, commenting that it had has the effect of breaking down barriers.
“Not talking about the scarf on her head would be like not talking about the elephant in the room,” he says.
Appearing on stage with a head scarf was a conscious decision for Peretz. “I didn’t always perform with a head scarf,” she says, “But now I have kids and I feel it’s my responsibility. I can be a role model.”
The routine continues with all of the dancers moving in sync, except for one who dances all over the stage, gesticulating wildly to the beat of the music.
Ultimately, the dancer is calmed by Peretz, who holds her and places a hat on her head.
“I think that at the end, when I put the hat on [the wild dancer’s] head, she experiences a kind of kabbala – a moment of acceptance,” says Peretz.
However, she is quick to add that each person will interpret the routine however they wish.
Leia Weil, who is another of Nehara’s dancers, agrees, claiming that the art should never become didactic. “There are dangers that come with ‘religious’ art, dance or any other type of creativity that has an undercurrent belonging to a specific value system or that carries a message of some kind,” she says. “It can be abused, either as a coercive tool or to feed people and tell them what their mode of experience or their reaction should be. Which is a shame because then it becomes bad art. It should never say, ‘No, your interpretation isn’t right; this is what you should think about hair, or religion, or anything at all.’ “One person in the audience saw [the routine] as a struggle with femininity.
Women are tied to their own images and are trying to break free of it. In this case, they use conformity to break free but of course, conformity also binds you. I love hearing the interpretations after the show and I would hate it if only one interpretation was understood.”
For Weil, the multiplicity of dance interpretation translates into her life as a religious Jew.
“What’s rich about the religious world is that it’s never one thing. There are times when Shabbat is joyful and amazing but there are also times when it’s really challenging. [Being religious] is never just clean and storybook-like; It’s far more complex. And I hope that’s what comes across in the dance.”
Following in her sister’s footsteps, Weil became religious five years ago after making aliya from the US. Originally from a Reform community in Fresno, California, Weil trained at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts before moving to Jerusalem to study Judaism in a seminary. During that time, she began reevaluating her attitude to dance and embarked on a process of investigation and introspection.
“For me it was a real cleansing process,” she says. “I grew up with dance being my identity and my entire existence and at some point I lost [the answer to] why I was doing it, why I loved it. That was a part of my religious process, but it was also about coming into maturity and checking the definitions that you keep hearing. Becoming religious gave me a safe platform for taking a break from dance.”
Despite this, Weil admits that she wasn’t able stay away from dance entirely and she found women-only classes in Jerusalem. “It was incredible – for the first time I saw women that were there just because they loved to dance and nothing else. No one trying to impress the teacher to get accepted into a company, no one had ambition, they were just there for the love of dance.”
But eventually this wasn’t enough for Weil, who wanted to advance her passion beyond the limits of a mere hobby. “I started leaving the classes extremely frustrated. There is something important about ambition; Like anything, it can be used for good and bad, and it’s vital in many ways. I wanted to be with people that also felt that this was something that was clawing at them.”
Eventually, Weil, who admits to having been in dance situations in which she felt that there wasn’t a lot of morality surrounding her, found the answer in Nehara. “Any place can become godless – even a religious place – if it lacks a feeling of awareness and care and something greater than all of us that has meaning.
For me, it’s about finding an authentic space inside myself. It feels right.”
Authenticity within dance is something that Peretz also feels strongly about. “You are who you are and you broadcast that on stage. With Nehara, it’s very real, very clean and there are no masks. You’re not showing off that you’re religious but you’re not concealing anything either. You don’t have to stand out and you don’t have to hide; You can just be you.”
Weil recalls a pivotal moment with Nehara that helped her frame her current attitude. It was a Friday afternoon and the first time that the group got together for a rehearsal. All the dancers entered with bags that were filled with chicken and halla and other Shabbat groceries.
“I realized then that the roots within me are strong enough that I can do this consciously and still be connected to my identity,” she says. “Being with other [religious] women is an anomaly in the dance world, but having these women creates a sense of community. My hope is that the company will allow for openness and flexibility and conversation from a place of offering, not preaching – otherwise it would be boring. We’re talking about a human experience.
“[In Nehara] we share a connection with Jewish tradition and professional dance and seeing how they conflict.
And I’m slowly finding out that they don’t have to.”