A Different Drum: How a Modern Orthodox 23-Year-Old Danced Her Way Into a Unique Spotlight

Dance

By Rukhl Schaechter

Published July 17, 2008, issue of July 25, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

One of this year’s arts fellows at Drisha, a Torah study center for women that is located on New York’s City’s Upper West Side, is a 23-year-old Barnard College graduate named Anna Schon. As a product of the Modern Orthodox day schools, she blends into the student body easily.

But when she is not studying the Prophets or the talmudic laws about transactions in the tractate Bava Kama, Schon leads a very different kind of life. She is an active member of four New York dance companies — an unusual profession for an observant Jew, since many performances take place on the Sabbath, and since, according to the laws of tsniut (modesty), dancing with or performing before unrelated members of the opposite sex is not permitted.

Although Schon struggles with these competing impulses — her passion for dance and her commitment to traditional Judaism — this has not deterred her from embracing both worlds wholeheartedly. In fact, this year she was accepted into (and is the only white dancer in) the acclaimed Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group, a Brooklyn-based company that blends contemporary dance with African traditions, the blues and the gospel culture of the Deep South. New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff has declared the company’s performance “stimulating and refreshing,” while Tobi Tobias of The Village Voice called one of its shows “infectiously joyous.”

Schon’s love of dance began early. Her mother, a graphic artist, recalled that “at age 2, she was already dancing to ‘Carmen,’” the French opera by Georges Bizet. Her father, a molecular biologist, loved classical music so much that he kept the stereo on daily. But like most parents, her mom and dad knew that passing on a love of the arts to children wasn’t a sure thing. Schon’s parents enrolled her in a ballet class when she was 4, but they now admit that they assumed she would eventually lose interest.

But several years later, as a fourth grader at the Bronx’s Salanter Akiba Riverdale Academy, she announced that she wanted to go to “real” ballet school and perform “The Nutcracker” at Lincoln Center. Her parents researched the possibilities, but upon learning that rehearsals and performances took place on the Sabbath, they decided it would not work for her. “She could have gone on to become a professional dancer,” her mother affirmed, “but we wanted Shabbat to be Shabbat, and we thought it was important for her to have a normal childhood.”

Instead, Schon enrolled in Studio Maestro, a rigorous after-school ballet academy, even though the schedule occasionally conflicted with her classes at SAR. “My eighth grade science teacher let me leave early on Tuesdays, because I was a good student,” Schon recalled in an interview with the Forward. “I was in such a rush, I had to put on my leotards and tights in the car.”

Schon’s two worlds came to a head when she started applying to high schools. At the admissions interview at one high school for Orthodox girls, the rabbi advised her that she would need to give up dancing in order to attend the school. She refused — though surprisingly, she got in anyway. She also got into the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and the Performing Arts, and Ramaz, a Modern Orthodox Jewish school on the Upper East Side. After agonizing for weeks, Schon decided that Judaism took precedence, and so she chose Ramaz.

“I figured I’d find a way to continue dancing. But I had such a heavy workload, I had no time to dance,” she said. “I was miserable.”

Several years later, while taking classes in Barnard’s dance department, Schon became enthralled with African dance. “I realized that when I do ballet or modern, I’m very conscious of my technique; it feels like a performance,” Schon explained. “But when I do the African dances to the beat of the drums, I’m transported to a desert alone somewhere. It’s a very spiritual experience.” She spent the following semester in Cape Town, South Africa, learning African dance traditions.

During her senior year, Schon was one of 12 women chosen to dance in a piece created by Reggie Wilson, the celebrated black choreographer and founder of Fist & Heel. She felt a kinship with Wilson, who, ironically, once had danced with Ohad Naharin, the Israeli choreographer who now heads the Batsheva Dance Company. In fact, Wilson told her that there was a time when he had considered moving to Israel.

After garnering praise for several performances in African dance, Schon asked Wilson if she could join Fist & Heel. He didn’t reply, and a week later she asked again. Wilson looked at her squarely and deadpanned: “You know, Anna, you’re white.” But after Schon described her experiences studying dance in South Africa, and her own spiritual struggle to remain both a dancer and a religious Jew, Wilson was impressed.

“We have dancers from Senegal, Trinidad, Jamaica,” Wilson told the Forward, “and many of them recognize that they’re working outside their strict religious tradition. So Anna fits right in there.”

This past May, Schon had her first performance with Fist & Heel at a venue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Since it was Friday night, she had to go home, to the Upper West Side, by foot. When she arrived, close to 11 p.m., her friends were waiting with Sabbath dinner.

“I do whatever I can to keep Shabbat,” she explained. “My bookkeeper pays me for the weekday rehearsals instead of performances, and on Shabbat I ask one of the dancers to put the makeup on me.”

On the matter of modesty, Schon admitted: “Well, I guess the only way I can keep on dancing is to ignore certain things. It’s similar to someone using a Sabbath clock to watch a football game on Sukkot. I used to think I would be able to settle this conflict, but now I see that I’m just going to be in flux my whole life. Maybe the reason people like my dancing is because I bring that struggle to the table when I dance.”

“The truth is, I just don’t connect to God through davening as much as I do through dancing,” she remarked, adding, “There must be a reason why He made me this way.”

Rukhl Schaechter is a staff writer and editor at the Forverts, from which this article was adapted.


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!
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • 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.