We Will Not Stop Dancing

A Choreography of Healing in Israel

Dance Is a Journey: In this case, DNAWORKS went on a journey from America to Israel and from paralysis to dance.
Dance Is a Journey: In this case, DNAWORKS went on a journey from America to Israel and from paralysis to dance.

By Micah Kelber

Published March 03, 2010, issue of March 12, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Last August a gunman entered the Aguda building in Tel Aviv and opened fire on the crowd at Bar Noar, a safe space for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth. He killed two and wounded a number of others before escaping without trace or identification.

Two of the wounded, 15-year-old “Alef” and 19-year-old “Yud” (names changed for privacy reasons) had studied dance, concentrating on ballroom and hip-hop, but their gunshot injuries left them without sensation or mobility below their ribs. Confined to wheelchairs, they believed their dancing days were over.

Enter Daniel Banks and Adam McKinney of New York-based DNAWORKS. Banks, originally from Brookline, Mass., and McKinney, a former Alvin Ailey dancer who grew up in Milwaukee, heard about the attack at Bar Noar, and through their friend Avi Blecherman — a social worker with the International Gay Youth Organization in Tel Aviv — they heard about the tragic injuries to the dancers.

DNAWORKS, the organization they founded, creates original dance and theater (plays, multimedia, etc.) with groups around the world, using an innovative organic process designed to draw out creativity and self-expression. A grant from the Jerome Foundation had enabled them to work in Israel with an Ethiopian dance company, Beta Dance Troupe. While working with the troupe, they connected with many different theater and dance groups, Arab and Israeli alike, specifically those that use performance as a way into identity exploration.

The apparent hopelessness of the situation flew in the face of their belief that anyone can dance and in dance’s transformative power. So McKinney and Banks decided to get involved.

They traveled from Haifa to meet with the young men at Sheba Rehabilitation Hospital, where they were being treated. At first, Yud was not really sure how he was going to dance. But after 45 minutes of contact improvisation and creating choreography during their first interaction, he enthusiastically invited his friend, Alef, to join in future sessions, and a new dance experience opened up.

“The way that we were dancing had nothing to do with the attack,” McKinney said. “In fact, initially Alef only wanted to do MTV video dancing, to Britney Spears and Madonna. But after a while, we were able to move beyond it,” and they were able to do more personal and creative expression.

Not wanting the young men to believe they got involved with them for publicity purposes, Banks and McKinney were extremely reluctant to speak of their involvement. Nor did they get involved with them in order to play hero. DNAWORKS is not a therapeutic dance organization and does not go into communities to heal pain. Still, McKinney and Banks cannot deny that their interactions have a nurturing effect. During one of their sessions, they assisted one of the young men in standing up for the first time since the attack.

“We are artists. We feel that the power of art is healing. We didn’t go in thinking about how this would help their rehabilitations from a medical perspective — we know that creativity can help in the healing process,” McKinney said.

In this case, they started by simply trying to be “four people experiencing joy and sharing in the creativity that each person brings to the room,” Banks said. Their lives in the hospital were challenging, with intense, daily rehabilitation, tests and physical therapy. McKinney and Banks tried to give to them a couple of hours a week where they could go back to something that they loved. And although Alef and Yud’s bodies have changed, McKinney explained, they did not work from a perspective of the bodies being “incomplete.”

“They are still connected to their bodies,” McKinney said. “We all have what could be called ‘disabilities’ of our own. I have had physical injuries, and sometimes that affects the way that a dance is made. Every once in a while there would be a little ‘oops’ because we didn’t realize that they couldn’t use their abdominal muscles, but we would then make an adjustment and find an even more creative solution.”

The DNAWORKS process, whether used for performances or in workshops, starts through discussion and dialogue among participants. McKinney and Banks do not necessarily come in with set choreography, casting or even music in mind.

“We use personal stories and improvisation to create a gestural vocabulary of movement. We use imagery and body exploration as an impetus, asking questions like, ‘Tell me your first memory of playing,’” Banks explained. The gestural vocabulary that was stitched together to make the choreography emerged from what the young men could and wanted to do.

This was similar to the process they had been using with Beta Dance Troupe. To generate ideas for the troupe, they asked the dancers to use their bodies as calligraphy pens and to dance the letters of their names — in Amharic and Hebrew. They asked those who had both Amharic and Hebrew names to “dance the space in between” the two names.

While the encounter with the young men at Sheba Rehabilitation Hospital did not generate a final choreographed performance, judging from the video of their rehearsals, their time together was extraordinarily well spent. Even the beginning movements that they had started to piece together into a dance look beautiful and playful. McKinney is a magnetic and elegant dancer, and his physical charisma spills over to both young men. Sitting between them, he provides a model of composure to imitate, inspiring them to extend their movements. At the same time, he looks on encouragingly, and then physically riffs off their ideas. The dance and the interaction look restorative and graceful.

Since 2006, Banks and McKinney have been to Ghana, South Africa, Israel and Hungary, working with communities in each locale to create original compositions. Seeking out places that might be underserved or under-voiced, they believe that their practice — both in dance and in theater — is a form of tikkun olam, repairing the world. Their conviction is that art can help express ideas that have been ignored and blocked, especially in marginalized communities. Furthermore, they believe that their work ultimately connects communities to each other by drawing out the common struggles and values. In this way, Banks and McKinney hope to cultivate a “Global Judaism” — a term they have been using since 2006, which emphasizes the unity of the people worldwide and expands the possibilities of Jewish thought, ritual and experience.

While they insist they will continue to travel, they are also working to find a home to which they can invite guest artists. Among his many goals, Banks said that he hoped one day to connect performers from all different parts of the Jewish Diaspora — to put people together onstage to tell their common story of exile.

The process of doing all this, Banks said, reminds him of something he once saw at a science fair when he was young. The goal of the experiment was to pass a coil of tinfoil along a rod that would light up when the coil touched the rod and completed the circuit. “There are a lot of holes in the world’s circuitry, and our work is to connect the circuitry,” he said. “We do that by inviting people to share what is unique about them, and that helps people understand each other and love each other in different ways.”

Micah Kelber is a writer and freelance rabbi in Brooklyn. He is currently writing a screenplay about divorce in New York in the 1940s.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.