The Time We Tried to Figure Out Why a Dance Was Treif and Couldn’t

If you live in Israel and want to see a pretty awesome chareidi women-only musical production, you go to the annual Tzir Chemed benefit play in Jerusalem. This year they sold out about 6,000 seats for six showings, and they are hitting Belgium and London with their road show. Because they’re that good. (Full disclosure: my sister-in-law is a director.)

When I was in seminary, my sister-in-law had a small part in their production of “Olivia with a Twist,” so, even though I had never willingly been to a frum play in my life, I went with a bunch of classmates.

I was impressed by many things about the production: their use of the limitations of the stage, the authenticity of their costumes, and, my favorite, the way they spun Fagin as the Carmen Sandiego of London, including some sly references to the old DOS computer game. (Nostalgia!)

Part of the last bit was a dance in which Fagin (in trenchcoat and fedora) leads a shadowy gang of criminals through London. It was a breathtaking, truly professional dance, complete with the requisite Carmen Sandiego silhouette cameo moments.

On the bus home, we reviewed our favorite moments. We kept coming back to the dance, which had impressed us so much. It was not your typical bais Yaakov play dance. It was just a different level of dance. It was beyond anything you’d expect from a frum choreographer.

A few days later, via the gossip grapevine, we heard that the play had come under fire from the chareidi tastemakers – because of that dance.  Immediately, debate raged in our group about what made it objectionable.

“It was just too good,” argued one friend. “Frum productions aren’t that good.”

“It was the music,” someone else suggested. “Maybe it was too dark and heavy.”

We argued for a week. Then, somehow, we wound up in the office of a nearby seminary with some girls I didn’t know watching a bootleg DVD of the dance. We’d watch it once, rewind, and watch again, arguing the entire time about what was wrong with it.

There!” someone shouted, freezing the screen. “Right there! See how she moves her shoulder like that? It’s not tznius.”

We rewound and watched the shoulder-wiggle half a dozen times, trying to see that half-second move condemning the entire play.

“It’s the police siren at the end. Sirens are like, a rap music thing.”

“It’s the glorification of crime. That’s not a frum ideal.”

And finally, after about thirty minutes of rewinding:  “Why are we watching this over and over again if it’s banned? It’s obviously not appropriate. We just have too much timtum halev to realize why.”

Anyway: The choreographer quit the production team in disgust, and the company was saved from being put in cherem.

Fast forward to when I’m in college, and a great secular pop musician dies. The nation mourned. My classmates argue over what his  greatest works were.

“I’ve actually never heard any,” I confessed.

WHAT?”  the horror in the room was palpable. Immediately, laptops went on, YouTube was accessed, and I was sat down in front of the music video for Thriller.

And then I understood.

I understood why the dance had been so polished, and I understood why an American choreographer had slipped it into the production, and I understood why none of us aidel maidels recognized it.

What I didn’t understand was: how were those super-frum Israeli tastemakers so familiar with the works of Michael Jackson?

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The Time We Tried to Figure Out Why a Dance Was Treif and Couldn’t

7 thoughts on “The Time We Tried to Figure Out Why a Dance Was Treif and Couldn’t

  1. DF NYC2016 says:

    How did they know who Michael Jackson was? The same way the principal in one Bais Yaakov (but probably more) knows about social media. They “cheat” sometimes. Some are hypocrites. With the choreographer, it’s a safe bet she was working in pursuit of her craft, and looked to make a “profane” thing holy by doing it in the service of God.

    That’s admirable, but the charedi leaders probably wouldn’t see it that way. It’s sad that the ones today can’t see that good can come out of such things. It’s a safe bet that most Bais Yaakov girls have no idea how much of the music they listen to are song parodies. I’ll bet “Schlock Rock” is considered treif in your circles. What’s even sadder is the number of frum kids who DO listen to Schlock Rock or other things like it, and have no idea who the original composers and lyricists had been.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. polymath says:

    lol. Yes, I’ve always wondered how those “tastemakers” know what’s being re-purposed (aka ripped off) and how those camp plays, color war songs, etc., came to be…

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    1. Esther Bernstein says:

      Well, at least for color war songs I can provide some insight. When my cousin (way frummer than me) was head of a teen camp, she asked me to give her some good catchy tunes. So I sat down and watched some of my favorite 40s & 50s musicals (James Cagney, Gene Kelly, etc). She knew where they were coming from, but she would never watch them herself. I had already watched them, so I guess she wasn’t causing me to sin…

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  3. Judith Friedman says:

    Until 31 years ago (roughly) I was a professional dancer and choreographer. That is why I won’t look at frum productions. Cribbing from Michael Jackson videos is the highest professional standard? Not in the real world. I also have real problems with the erasable boundaries between parody, “adaptation” and plagiarism. Are royalties paid to the copyright holders? That is more important to me (halachically) than from whom the choreography was stolen without attribution.

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  4. Judith Friedman says:

    I was a little harsh in my last comment. Why, if you are “adapting” a Broadway show, wouldn’t you just adapt the choreography, too? Not only would it be more consonant with the show, but the police are less likely to know or identify Michael Bennett or Jerome Robbins. The first answer: because the ladies who will be dancing are more familiar with the Michael Jackson moves than with Agnes DeMille. Because you can get around censorship, but it’s a lot harder to replace it with an education.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Jon Baker says:

    #1) if you haven’t, you should see the movie “Bring it On” (Kirsten Dunst, Eliza Dushku), about a champion suburban LA troupe of cheerleaders that turn out to have been winning by stealing routines from a black inner-city school.

    #2) Faigin, hm? in our MO HS, plays were co-ed. One year they did Oliver, and the best person for Faigin was a girl who had played the role the previous summer at camp. But to be convincing, she had to bind up her chest. We went to the wrap party at the end of the week, my brother had some small role, and someone had gone to the Erotic Bakery and bought a small cake in the shape of male private parts for the Faigin actor, for having to hide her femininity to play a man.

    BTW, the plays were shomer negiah, even if none of the kids were in regular life.

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