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Praying With Your Body

‘Conscious dance’ hits the Jewish world

Rishe Groner
December 14, 2016
Photo courtesy Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center
Ali Schechter dances at the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Smicha Ceremony. Photo courtesy Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center
Photo courtesy Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center
Ali Schechter dances at the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Smicha Ceremony. Photo courtesy Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center

In the middle of the dusty Black Rock desert in Nevada, during the annual Burning Man festival, lies an open dance floor made of bamboo. The canopy above billows in the breeze, and colorful flags invite passersby to experience the spectacle within. People of all ages, shapes, sizes and genders are aflutter in the crucible of dance. Grown men cry with vulnerability and openness; women howl and thump their feet with war cries. As the music shifts and changes from the thumping sounds of chaos into softer, lyrical melodies, bodies connect and hearts align. A soft voice croons into the microphone. “Welcome to Rhythmwave,” it says. “What you’ve just experienced is the 5Rhythms.”

One of thousands of theme camps at Burning Man, the annual desert arts-and-music festival in the Nevada desert, Rhythmwave is based on the 5Rhythms, a “conscious dance” practice founded in 1977 by Gabrielle Roth. Conscious dance foregrounds the movement, not the party around it. Without drugs or alcohol, dancers use the sounds of the music to move the body while stilling the mind, in a moving meditation. When Roth died in 2012, she left behind over 250 certified teachers, a burgeoning community of conscious dancers whose practices include offshoots such as Open Floor (founded by her students), and a school of “movement as medicine” taught from Albuquerque to Australia.

Conscious dance is becoming more popular. Morning sober dance events are popular in urban centers, “ecstatic dance” is a growing movement, and despite the city’s allergy to New Age practices, all of the above can now be found in New York. And Jewish organizations are catching on, too. From Brooklyn to Berkeley, alternative Shabbat and prayer services are incorporating dance and movement. Dance has always been an integral part of religious ceremony, but the conscious-dance movement has invigorated it for this generation, as a desperately needed medicine for Jewish healing and revival.


Roth’s pioneering 5Rhythms are a “map” of dances meant to cover the full gamut of human emotion and experience during a typical one-hour “Wave” class. Not everyone takes the dance so seriously, though; Conscious-dance practices can be celebratory and frivolous as well as spiritual. Contact Improv, for example, encourages dancers to improvise movement around one another’s bodies. Soul Motion focuses on embodiment and leadership on the dance floor. Open Floor incorporates psychotherapy. Ecstatic dance, originally from Hawaii’s Big Island, blends 5Rhythms with DJ dance culture and is now especially popular in Oakland, California, and slowly growing in New York City. Daybreaker and Morning Gloryville have quickly blossomed into international morning rave events, and New York’s DJ Tasha Blank hosts The Get-Down in early evenings on a monthly basis, bring conscious dance into a user-friendly environment on a dancefloor with no phones or drinks (BYO cowbell!).

But dance has always been spiritual, so it’s not surprising that conscious dance has also moved into formal Jewish practice. Last winter, Rabbi Jessica Minnen hosted a series of “Ecstatic Mincha” dance sessions on Shabbat afternoons in Brooklyn and Manhattan. In Berkeley, Yosef Rosen and Mikey Pauker created SHUL, a Shabbat morning service that interweaves traditional Hebrew prayers and niggunim with ecstatic dance. “Dance is an important element in emergent Jewish communities,” Rosen said, “because it provides a point of access for those who are unfamiliar with Jewish liturgy but want to express their prayers in a Jewish communal context.”

Dance therapist Ali Schechter, the founder of Full Circle Dance, has hosted “Move Into Shabbat,” a Friday night ecstatic-dance party at the Manhattan JCC. She has also facilitated creative-movement rituals for communities like Romemu, a Jewish renewal congregation on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where her events have included a Yom Kippur session on “T’Shuvah Movement” and an ecstatic-dance party plus Havdalah at Romemu’s annual retreat.

“As a tribe, we desperately need this,” Schechter said. “There is so much fear on a cellular and collective level. Fear of breaking the rules. Fear of being Jewish. Fear of simply being. We need more spaces to play and experience our joy, freedom, and belonging. In movement, we remember our wholeness and infuse our cells with that new imprint.”

Gabrielle Roth, the early innovator, was not herself Jewish; she once described meeting a rabbi and asking him, “Do Jews hate their bodies as much as Catholics?” He laughed, then told her the story of his father, also a rabbi, who had recently died. “He’d asked his father on his deathbed, ‘What was the most important thing in your life, the Torah?’” Roth recalled. “And the old man had answered, ‘My body.’ ‘I was stunned,’ his son now told me … ‘I always thought my body was just a vehicle for my mind; feed it, clothe it, send it to Harvard.’”

Of course, dance has long been a Jewish practice, for Ashkenazim at their simchas, or joyous events, for Hasidim in ecstatic prayer, for Sephardi Jews in their celebrations. In the Torah, Miriam the prophet leads the women in dance and song with the timbrel drum following the exodus from Egypt and crossing the Red Sea, which in Kabbalah is said to represent a journey into higher consciousness. “When Miriam and the women dance,” Schechter said, “they stand at the threshold, right at the edge of the sea. Their dance is a portal into the new paradigm: transcending duality, it is said that they embody a state of realization, a heightened presence that moves the collective into liberation.”

Jennifer Coffey, a Jewish woman who danced alongside me at Rhythmwave, described the integral healing of dance as it relates to ancestral Jewish trauma. “I can mask my Judaism with my lack of interest, my lack of official membership, my non-Jewish sounding name, my non-Jewish looking bone structure and complexion,” Coffey said. “I can fool myself and those around me into believing it’s healed, but the wounds are there. I cannot forget. History, memory, karma—call it what you like—will not let me forget. Now, what will I do with this knowing, this feeling, and this sensing? How will I move through this life?” With movement, she can “exhaust the mind and allow spirit to move through” her, she said. Despite never attending formal Jewish services, Coffey believes that she prays regularly—on the dance floor.

Schechter, the dance therapist, recalled a story she once heard from Zalman Schachter Shalomi, the late Jewish Renewal rabbi. “He said that as a young man, he used to care for chickens in the morning, and then teach a group of children in the afternoon,” Schechter said. “In order to not treat the children like the chickens, he would dance in between. He would dance, he said, to create a state shift: to shake off one way of being and embody another. I love this story for how it values intentional movement as a way to transform ourselves and generate greater sensitivity, empathy, presence, and compassion. In this way, our dance becomes the most direct expression of our soul’s truth, moving us closer to who we came here to be.”

Recently, at Brooklyn’s floating Korban Shabbat, a Friday night experience featuring a “potluck” of rituals facilitated by attendees, I brought my own dance offering. It was the week of Nov. 9, post-election, and people were feeling low. I asked everyone to get up and shake out their shoulders, shake out their hips. We started to sing an up-tempo version of “Shalom Aleichem,” the classic Friday-night tune. People joined hands together and circled the table, some stood and clapped while shifting their feet, others lifted their arms to the sky and shook their bodies. We all laughed. We all cried. It was the ultimate embodiment of joy, at the most trying of times. Through our dance, the prayer was real. The dance was the essence of Shabbat and its joy, even when it was hard to feel it. Because in dance, we set our spirits free.


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Rishe Groner, a writer and strategist living in Brooklyn, is the founder of The Genesis.