Dancing Jewish: Jewish Identity in American Modern and Postmodern Dance

By Schwadron, Hannah | American Jewish History, April 2015 | Go to article overview

Dancing Jewish: Jewish Identity in American Modern and Postmodern Dance


Schwadron, Hannah, American Jewish History


Dancing Jewish: Jewish Identity in American Modern and Postmodern Dance. By Rebecca Rossen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. xvii + 312pp.

At the 2014 joint conference of the Congress of Research on Dance and the Society of Dance History Scholars, Rebecca Rossen was among the few invited to speak on "Keywords" in the field. Sharing excerpts of her new book, the first of its kind, on the history of Jews in American modern and postmodern dance, Rossen introduced an obtuse category of "Jewish Dance" and its layered contributions to an American dance canon.

Dancing Jewish highlights period-specific efforts of choreographer-performers to appear more or less "Jewish" across an assimilatory century. The introduction and five chapters imagine the balancing act of ethnic and artistic acculturation that has typified a Jewish American dance legacy and a certain acrobatics of the proscenium stage. For this metaphor of high wire Jews, Rossen, a professor of dance at the University of Texas at Austin, recalls the words of Rabbi Milton Steinberg, whose sense of American Jews in the 1930s offers imagery ripe for Jewish dance studies: "Only a people of acrobats could preserve a semblance of poise on a footing so unstable." (1) Rossen foregrounds the idea of suspension to theorize Eastern European Jewish American identity as enacted through embodied performance history. Suspension, she argues, reflects an active engagement with multiple, opposing forces working on and through the body at once. On a mythic tightrope between Jewish particularity and assimilatory aesthetics, Rossen's subject is an acrobat of the concert dance stage, suspending "not to achieve inertia," but rather a "dynamic positioning," resulting from "projecting energy in several different directions" (12). Jewish choreographers thus navigate a "coexisistence of contrasts" in negotiation of shifting public desires and demands on dance (12).

Not meant to be encyclopedic in scope, Rossen's research zooms in on specific choreographic works that range in content, context, and aesthetic investigation. Moving from the 1930s Hasidic drag of Molly Picon, Paula Kroner, and Dvora Lapson to the midcentury modern dances of Anna Sokolow, Pearl Lang, Sophie Maslow, Helen Tamiris and Benjamin Zemach, and finally to the postmodern milieu of Liz Lerman, Margaret Jenkins, Dan Froot, Victoria Marks, and David Gordon, chapters track the often contradictory meanings that have come to define how and when to dance Jewish.

Rossen's "Jewish dance" does not name a static or fixed sense of style or genre, nor does it present a history of Judaism. Instead, the category names a process that embraces a fluid, complex Jewish American identity through costume, gestural vocabulary, and labeling. It likewise encompasses what happens when largely secular choreographers interpret Judaic practices through dance and how that process has supported, or critiqued, Judaism. While clear that there is no distinct genre called "Jewish dance," Rossen spotlights the artistic, ideological, political, and racial implications of this term (10).

Rossen speaks of her own scholarly acrobatics, too, whereby a book like this one hangs suspended across distinct disciplinary bounds. Her performance-based approach confronts the challenges of writing the body into a field of Jewish Studies that has largely sidelined dance and aptly adds a Jewish focus to dance scholarship's concern with the role of race, gender, nationalism, and identity. …

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