When Dvora Lapson, the celebrated dancer, choreographer, and Jewish educator, published Dances of the Jewish People, a spiral-backed compendium of steps and directions, in the mid-20th century, little did she imagine that, in America of the 21st, the Hasidic practice of lifting the happy couple aloft in the air would become the thing to do at Jewish weddings, even among those celebrating what used to be called a “mixed marriage.”
Perched precariously on a set of ballroom chairs, whose wobbly legs are held by equally wobbly well-wishers, their faces flush with drink and physical exertion, the newly married bob up and down. Sometimes, they clutch at either end of a hanky or a cloth napkin, waving it merrily about or bridging the distance between the two chairs. And sometimes, they do both.
Like conquering heroes, or royalty, the newlyweds are also paraded around the dance floor, accompanied by singing, shouting, and clapping guests. Depending on the crowd, the music and the look on the couple’s faces, which ranges from “I’m lovin’ this,” to “put me down NOW,” staying aloft might last a tad longer than a New York minute or go on and on until the bearers’ arms grow weary.
Limited at first to weddings, the “chairs,” as the dance is called by those in the know, has become such an entrenched part of a simcha, a Jewish celebration, that is now customary at contemporary bar and bat mitzvah parties. On these occasions, parents and grandparents, as well as the adolescent celebrant, are hoisted upward, extending the movement’s symbolic circumference.
Whatever the occasion, the heavy lifting doesn’t follow any prescribed pattern. Sometimes, it erupts spontaneously while a hora, or circle dance, is underway. At other times, especially within more ritually observant and knowledgeable settings like those among the modern Orthodox, the moment might follow on the heels of or precede a traditional dance known as keytsad m’rakdim in which the nuptial couple are seated on two chairs as guests perform all sorts of antics in front of them. Then again, it might not. The “chairs” move to their own beat. Meanwhile, when there’s little by way of Jewish dance literacy, a professional Jewish dance leader like Steven Lee Weintraub might step in to set things in motion.
If modern secular dance is about the self and the body, flirtation, and sexuality—cue the hips—the “chairs” dance and the larger circle in which it’s quite literally embedded—cue the arms—celebrate community. As Weintraub puts it, the dance is a “gift that elevates the newly married couple and amplifies their status while also bringing people together.” That you don’t have to be mindful of its significance or even know the steps to participate is an added bonus. An example of what Weintraub calls “dancing happily,” its fun, fast-paced, easy, and joyful nature draws you in.
A high point of the festivities and in more secular circles, the culmination of the Jewish segment of the evening, the “chairs” has become a hallmark of a Jewish wedding, distinguishing it from its non-Jewish counterparts. It also calls into being and heralds a contemporary Judaism that is fleet of foot, inclusive, and gestural rather than obligatory.
How this came to be—and why—is anyone’s guess. Like so much else associated with grassroots behavior, where several intangible factors—opportunity, motive, and taste—appear to converge all at once, giving rise to a new cultural phenomenon, pinpointing the history of the “chairs” dance in the United States is equally elusive.
To compound matters, documenting the history of dance is famously difficult. Photographs might freeze the moment, videos might capture its intensity, and participants able to recount with various degrees of glee and apprehension what it felt like to be elevated, but how and when this particular dance came on the scene and whom to hold responsible—the caterer? The band? The increasingly indispensable and ubiquitous party planner? Fiddler on the Roof?—is murky and hard to pin down.
Dance ethnographers such as Jill Gellerman speak of the “ripple effect,” of the ways by which dances in one cultural arena spill over and take root in another, a process facilitated informally by popular culture, word of mouth or cultural sightseeing. The “chairs” dance, for instance, moved from a Hasidic context to a yeshivish one and onto modern Orthodox circles, from whence it radiated outward.
Often, passing familiarity with a dance or a song is obtained by being on the sidelines as a wedding guest who observes, and takes a shine to, the goings-on. Slightly more formal channels of circulation such as the internet and its self-appointed apostles also beat the drum for Jewish dance, while immersive Jewish arts festivals such as KlezKamp or KlezKanada expose audiences to an expanded repertoire of possibilities.
Klezmer, in fact, has much to do with setting the stage for the current appeal of the “chairs” dance. A phenomenon of the 1970s, which came into its own a decade later and stayed for several more, the revival of interest in a style of Old World music-making that had long been passé—and declassé—took youthful American Jewish audiences by storm. A literal blast from the past, with nothing mellow or subdued about it, klezmer provided a new generation of American Jews with an assertive, unrepentant Jewish identity.
At the same time that klezmer was tooting its horn (or, more to the point, its clarinet), another revival was underway: the Jewish renewal movement. Best understood as an “attitude,” it married several sensibilities that had hitherto lived far apart: the “socially progressive values of egalitarianism, the joy of Hasidism, the informed do-it-yourself spirit of the havurah.” The objective, explains Shaul Magid in American Post-Judaism, his deeply reasoned account of Jewish renewal’s evolution and development, was to “construct a radically new Torah emerging out of but not confined by the old.”
Tout ensemble, both klezmer and renewal challenged the status quo, making room for and repositioning prewar acoustic patterns and ritual behaviors in postmodern America. Floating free of the traditional anchors of Jewish communal life even while rooted in the pursuit of authenticity and the promise of continuity, these two instances of cultural efflorescence shook things up in every which way—sonically, performatively, structurally, emotionally. Ultimately, they seeded the ground for one of the most striking developments of our day: post-denominationalism.
You don’t have to cite chapter and verse from the Pew study on Jewish affiliation to know that aligning one’s Jewish self with any of the four American Jewish denominations, as our parents and grandparents did before us, no longer fits the bill. Rejecting institutional boundaries and its associated labels, millenials and their successors prefer a much looser, more freewheeling, pick-and-choose approach to modern Jewish life. With cultural fluidity and openness as their mantra, equal access to Jewish resources of all kinds, be it studying Talmud and Kabbalah, or dancing up a storm at a simcha, is also high on their list of priorities, challenging the claim of one group over another to maintain a monopoly.
Which brings us full circle.When joined together, klezmer + renewal begot post-denominationalism and post-denominationalism, in turn, begot the “chairs” dance, circa 2000-22, whose origins are Hasidic, whose expression is boisterous, and whose access is unguarded and open.
Am I making more of this phenomenon than it warrants? It could be. I’m under no illusion that, if asked about the rationale for or motivation behind the “chairs” dance, not one of its participants would prattle on about post-denominationalism or cultural fluidity. They’re too busy enjoying themselves to be overtly staking a claim for authenticity or making a bid for inclusion.
Still, there’s no getting around the fact that lifting the celebrants into the air as guests enfold them in a circle is a gesture that beckons, invitingly, even if you have two left feet.
Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.