The Human Spirit: Waltzing with Shoshie

For extremely religious Jewish women, a dance group provides an opportunity for self-expression and imagination

The revolting image of supposedly religious men supposedly protecting the sanctity of Shabbat by throwing their babies' soiled diapers at police officers shames our city, its inhabitants and Jewish tradition. This year's flashpoint is the free parking lot operated by non-Jews on a sparsely occupied street. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat is correct in standing firm in the face of pressure from the most extreme elements in town. But sometimes such conflicts can be avoided. Last year in June, demonstrations predictably flared up over the dedication ceremony of the Bridge of Strings designed by Santiago Calatrava at the city entrance, across from the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva. In an ill-thought-out decision, a girls' dance troupe was invited to perform at the dedication. When protests began, the girls were hastily cloaked. This "solution" intensified the protests. Instead of one unhappy side, there were now two: those who didn't want girls to dance at all in this neighborhood, and those who understandably hated to see girls forced to wear "Taliban robes." Friends in Tel Aviv shake their heads and ask how we can live in Jerusalem. But these highly publicized conflicts eclipse the areas where conflicting points of view can yield creative tension, and new solutions actually enrich the life of our city. TAKE, FOR INSTANCE, the little-known saga of Jerusalem becoming the capital of dance among Orthodox Jewish women. Hundreds of girls and women in the extreme haredi community take part in ballet and modern dance classes that rival those of their secular sisters. Who would believe it? Not long ago, I was invited to a women's-only evening performance of such dancers. "Shoshi Broide's Dance Troupe" was appearing at the Gerard Behar Theater, bringing Jerusalem's haredi residents into the Jerusalem Festival of the Arts. Ofer Maliach, head of the festival, and Sammy Navot, head of the dance section, had insisted on widening the parameters of representation. The evening program was called Hafuh, "upside down" or "opposite" in Hebrew, and in many ways it did indeed turn cultural preconceptions on their heads. I'm intrigued but admittedly skeptical, standing in line for tickets in an unruly crowd of long-sleeved teenage girls and their mothers. The scheduled starting time has long passed and the rows are still filling with boisterous youngsters. At last, Shoshi Broide steps onto the stage and the room quiets down. Broide is 32, slim and lithe, as beautiful in a blond wig as any ballerina. In addition to the expected warm welcome, she issues a stern warning against photographing or filming the performance. Several times during the show she'll have to repeat this rule, warning that the show will be stopped if it's violated. There will be no YouTube exposure or even home movies of these performers. Anyone who has watched children or grandchildren on stage knows that amateur performances vary from cheerful clodhoppers to charming talent displays. Even if our offspring are paralyzed with stage fright, it's okay with us. But these girls and women, students in Shoshi Broide's dance school, look confident. The repertoire includes elements of classical ballet, modern dance and post-modern Contact Improvisation, a duet-form of dance where parties explore weight-sharing and counterbalancing. The dancers themselves are of different heights and weights - thinness is obviously not a prerequisite. There are married dancers wearing head coverings, and even pregnant dancers. The girls and young women glow with enthusiasm and dance with agility. They're terrific. Modern dance expresses internal life, and the subjects of the performances are germane to young girls coming of age. For example, prizewinners in the choreography competition include a thought-provoking series of opposites such as "Single and Plural," "Despondency and Hope," and the more whimsical "UFOs and Human Beings." There are no men in the audience, but tutus and leotards aren't allowed. Broide's rule is that dancers have to be dressed modestly enough to walk on the street if necessary. Her dancers are wearing colorful, easy-fit high-neck, flowing dresses and socks that don't appear to impede them in the least. The dresses don't obscure their obvious womanhood and creative energy. BEHIND THIS REMARKABLE enterprise of more than 300 dancers is Shoshi Pepperman Broide, a mother of three, married to a teacher at a yeshiva and the third of eight daughters. Even as a little girl in an extremely religious home, she was interested more in movement than "guitar or math." "My parents - musical themselves - were wonderfully open about this and didn't stifle me," she says. "People kept asking them when I would grow out of it, but I never did." Broide's parents allowed her to attend general ballet classes, but she was zealous in obeying the restrictions. She couldn't dance if there was a male piano player. And she couldn't take part in the performances.. "The hardest part is not performing, because preparing for performances is where you work hardest to grow and improve," says Broide. She took a course in folk dance and graduated as a teacher, investing her earnings in other creative dance classes. From there she started running her own after-school classes for little girls, putting into practice what she had learned in the ballet classes. As a teenager, she formed a troupe for dancing in charity and bat mitzva performances. Her after-school club eventually developed into a school and she started employing teachers. It wasn't easy. If, on one hand, she was trying to acquire the skill she needed while maintaining her religious values, she was also up against prejudice from the haredi world in which she lived. "When I started 14 years ago, most religious people in Jerusalem weren't familiar with professional ballet. They were more comfortable with dancing at weddings - a natural outburst of happiness before the bride. They didn't think it was good to take bodies too far, couldn't see the physical instrument being used for spirituality. There's a fear - not specific to Judaism - of anything that 'opens you up.' But slowly, we have won recognition. Rabbis and educators began to understand that dance can be a nourishing outlet for energy and creativity if the role models share their core values. I don't believe in bottling up emotions and vitality." All the teachers in her dance school are religious. She has recruited professional dancers now religiously observant. A number of her religious-from-birth students have followed in her graceful footsteps and opened up their own afternoon classes, further spreading the dance network. One of the ongoing challenges is tiptoeing on the thin line of imparting professional standards without being judgmental toward the girls themselves. "We push for posture and refinement, but not the thinness or self-abnegation which is so common in dance instruction." The other challenge, says Broide, is to show that dance can be animated without being either provocative or stilted. When Broide started out, most of her early students lived in Har Nof, with its large English-speaking families who are more open toward the arts. "Today, students come from all over the city and from out of Jerusalem too." The printed program booklet lists the dancers' full names. That's a change from the early years that Broide began her programs and pupils feared the retribution of principals and peers. "Now dancing is 'in'," she says. Broide confesses to being a little envious that her pupils have what she wanted as a youngster - the training within religious boundaries to become a greater dancer. One of her younger sisters teaches dancers; another is among her star pupils. Tonight, Broide's dancers have created their own version of the "Ugly Duckling." One frustrated and disheartened duckling simply can't learn the structured ballet steps. But she eventually gains the respect and appreciation of her dancing peers with her own iconoclastic yet beautiful style. A social message? "Dance is abstract, open to interpretation. Make it what you like," she advises. For extremely religious Jewish women, Broide's dance group provides an opportunity for self-expression and imagination. For those who picture religious Jews as automatons without emotional depth or creativity, it's an education in appreciation of the inner world of the other. Such are the bridges we need over the fractious chasms of life in Jerusalem.