Dancing grandmas

'You can't dance only with your feet. You need to engage your whole body and soul.'

THE DAMES of the Dance (photo credit: REBECCA KOLWALSKY)
THE DAMES of the Dance
(photo credit: REBECCA KOLWALSKY)
Standing room only. An audible gasp of anticipation as the lights dim. With the first chord, the electricity begins: more than 100 skirted dancers in their iridescent reds, yellows and peacock blues fill the community center stage for an evening of ebullient dancing.
They call themselves Dames of the Dance – a takeoff of the Irish mega-hit Lord of the Dance. From the first stomp of feet, I’m grinning. This is going to be fun.
Many of the dancer are grandmothers and religious. A good percentage are American-born. They dance wearing their hats and headscarves and wigs. They can do it all: ballet, tap, Bollywood. These grandmas learned to dance in the 1960s and they never forgot how. Their earlier years included the Twist, the Watusi and the Hitchhike. Despite decades of turning out Shabbat dinners, they can still do the Mashed Potato and the Funky Chicken – and it shows in how they move, whether the dance calls for fluid motion or rhythmic. If anyone has arthritis, it doesn’t show. Ballerina slimness and Modigliani necks aren’t required. Dancing Dames are light-footed, whether swan-like or Rubenesque, while whirling in folk dances or undulating in belly dance.
Tonight is a particular celebration: the 10th anniversary performance of Dames of the Dance. The setting is the Alon Shvut Community Center in Gush Etzion. No men are allowed.
The genre of public performances of dance, singing and theater by religious Jewish women has developed in Israel over recent decades, but it builds on older Jewish ethnic traditions. For example, the late Ofra Haza, one of Israel’s greatest vocal artists, told me that her mother was a premiere performer at women-only wedding entertainment in Yemen. The women’s side of the barrier in religious weddings is, of course, a place of fun-filled entertainment where women kick up a storm even if they don’t literally let their hair down. For religious Jewish women who don’t want to sing or dance before men, limiting the audience to women only means they can use uses voices and motion without restriction.
Not that there’s anything ribald or vulgar to hide in these performances.
The first women-only entertainment I remember goes back 1981 in Jerusalem, when women gathered for an evening of song and music to raise money to help a new immigrant whose Old City rental apartment had exploded in fire from a gas leak. Chaya Malka Abramson, then a mother of three small children, was critically burned and the family’s possessions were turned to ashes (she has fully recovered and is a grandmother today). Religious women tapped into their talents to help the family rebuild. Young women’s religious seminaries formed rock bands. The idea of making women-for-women entertainment a tool for fund-raising for worthy causes has remained since those early performances.
Tonight’s performance will support a new home for Lone Soldiers in Rosh Tzurim in Gush Etzion, to be named for the late Yitzhak Weinstock who was murdered the week before he was to be inducted in the IDF. The Dames ticket sales have raised half a million shekels so far.
THE DAMES founder and a charismatic presence on stage is Sharon Katz, a film producer and journalist from Efrat who graduated from with honors from NYU. Her granddaughters are in the audience.
Researching an article some 11 years ago for a local English-language newspaper she edited, Katz learned to her surprise that 350 families in Efrat and the nearby villages of Gush Etzion were living in poverty. Around the same time, she was diagnosed with osteoporosis. Her doctor advised her to lift weights, but she just raised her eyebrows.
“Well, you could always dance,” he said.
She didn’t know how, but that very evening, she noticed in a community flyer that a new women’s class was starting: tap dance. It felt like a personal message from above, so she signed up. In the first class, they learned an exhilarating step called paradiddle, (“dig, spank, ball, heel”). A fellow dancer shouted, “Wow – it’s like Lord of the Dance.” Katz shouted back, “We can be the Dames of the Dance.”
And so Dames of the Dance was born. Even though she didn’t really know how to dance yet, Katz imagined them performing and raising money for causes, like helping her needy neighbors. She approached the most popular dance teachers who readily signed on.
A year later, they put on their first show. Each year, they spend many months refining and adding to material, preparing the show and practicing. Youngsters and young women participate, a number of whom are the daughters of the original Dames, but they are overshadowed by the senior Dames.
My favorite dance is “Great Grandmas with Canes,” a lively take-off of the little old ladies’ tap-dance number with walkers in Zero Mostel’s The Producers. On Broadway, young women played great-grandmas. In Dames, they are authentic.
Katz knew that talent was abundant. Some of the North American women even have substantial backgrounds in dance and music. Take Cheryl Harmony Mandel, for example. Back in Canada, when she was called “Cher” Mandel, she was a flamboyant go-go dancer, one of those young women who dances when a band plays at a nightclub. She traveled as a dancer and performed on national TV. But with her transformation from flamboyant dancer to a religiously observant mom, her dancing went into hibernation.
“Go-go was gone-gone,” she says. Dames woke it up. She began teaching 1960s dancing to the women and took up Israeli folk dancing.
“You can’t dance only with your feet. You need to engage your whole body and soul,” she says. When tragedy struck her family – the death of her beloved son Daniel, a soldier in the IDF – her sister dancers gave her the love and support that helped her through.
She also found solace in dancing.
“That’s a choice, to get up and continue your life through the pain,” says Mandel. A mournful dance she choreographed about tragedy ends with her fellow dancers around her.
Don’t let the bright costumes and lively music fool you. Like most mature women, these dancers have faced their share of life challenges.
But on stage, when the music starts, their joy is so heartfelt that it will reach your heart strings as well.
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.