Music. Energy. Dancing. Moving your feet to the beat is at the heart of many bar/bat mitzvah and wedding celebrations. But the style and the steps vary depending on the simcha, crowd and community.
Bar and bat mitzvah parties today are all about nonstop action that combines performance with engagement. A DJ keeps the music flowing. Dancers/motivators get the crowd pumped and do the moves upfront while encouraging the kids to follow along. The emcee makes the announcements and guides the party from the microphone.
Rachel Carus has been dancing at bat mitzvah parties for 15 years—since she was 15 years old. She tried then to join a company as a motivator but was told she was too young. So she started her own company. She presented her business plan to her parents and they helped her buy equipment to get started. Today she heads JAP Entertainment, Jewish American Parties, along with her husband, Ari, who is a DJ, emcee and dancer. She hires additional male and female dancers as requested by the client.
Carus divides her three- to four-and-a-half hour parties into segments, making sure the party is all about the bar/bat mitzvah, cheering them on and making sure they have an amazing time. The mix of songs depends on the requests. While every Jewish celebration used to include a version of the hora, now Carus sees it just at parties where the hora is the token Jewish dance before the hits. Some parties only have Jewish/Israeli music and others include some secular songs. “Israeli music is popular—it has an upbeat vibe,” said Carus.
At bat mitzvah parties, the first set is usually circle dancing, with Jewish and Israeli music. Like a kallah at a wedding, friends pick up the bat mitzvah in a chair, in which she bobs precariously to the music for a few minutes, before returning to earth. When she comes down, she dances with friends. “During circle dancing, we sometimes change things up to keep the excitement going,” said Carus. “I’ll do dance moves that they’ll follow. Or we’ll do a train when they hold onto each other’s shoulders. Sometimes they just want to jump around.”
After allocating an hour for the meal, it’s time for line dancing, with the girls following the lead dancers. Some of the dances have been around for a while, like Cotton Eye Joe and Cha Cha Slide, and there are newer ones like Watch Me Whip (don’t ask) and Comme Ci Comme Ca. After dessert there are games, like the ever-popular Coke and Pepsi, followed by freestyle dancing where Carus does moves that the girls copy. She knows lots of steps—she is also a Zumba instructor, figure skater and hip-hop dancer. Prizes add another level of intensity to the dancing, Carus said. “I’ll say, ‘Whoever does the most energetic dance gets a prize,’ or ‘Whoever has the coolest dance move.’ The prizes can be things like a gift card or a plush pillow.”
Entertainment is the key to a successful simcha celebration, said Sarah Friedson, who started her company, DanceMotivators, for bar/bat mitzvah parties and other functions, in 2016. She works all over the tri-state area and travels for destination parties, most recently to Bermuda. She has a roster of talent she hires and she also works as a dancer or emcee, depending on the event. “The DJ, emcee and dancers work as a team,” she said. “The dancers are the first to be clapping, bringing energy to the party. They’re at the front, leading the line dancing. And sometimes they’re going to different groups of kids on the dance floor.”
Friedson said the dancers introduce moves that are easy to follow, like waving their hands from side to side, rolling their arms, and clapping in different directions. “We’re looking at each other and making eye contact to decide who comes up with the next move; it’s not choreographed. Someone is always facilitating games, announcements, giveaways and dance moves.” Although their main focus is the bar/bat mitzvah and their friends, grown-up guests enjoy it, too. “Adults love it,” said Friedson. “The women feel like they’re in a Zumba class.”
Friedson has been dancing at parties since childhood. She grew up doing musical theater and developed as a dancer in high school. She broke into the world of dancing at parties through a job she had working at a bar in Connecticut in 2011. One night, a DJ who played there was breaking down his set for the night and she noticed that he and the crew were wearing t-shirts with a company logo. She asked if they worked at bat mitzvah parties with dancers. The answer was yes. She was in. Since starting her company in 2016, she estimates that she’s worked with over 100 DJs to date. Over the years, Friedson became shomer Shabbat. She frequently works for Sheer Simcha, one of the first shomer Shabbat entertainment companies she joined, among others.
Dancing at weddings is less structured. The energy is higher around the kallah and chosson and their friends, while the parents and guests do their circles in a more sedate but still simchadig fashion. Meir Popowitz, a vocalist who sings with musicians at simchas, said in the last 10-15 years he has seen friends and family of the chosson and kallah perform a flash mob dance for the couple, choreographed and practiced in advance, with only the band being informed when it would happen.
So what do women do in their dance circles? Judy Davidovics, a dance instructor formerly from Englewood before making aliyah, coined the term ‘sharks in the mikvah’ for a step women do as they glide around the kallah or her mother/mother-in-law. The other classic step for circle dances is the mayim step where you run into the circle, run back and then do grapevine steps to move around.
There was a time when girls and women learned choreographed Israeli dances to do at bat mitzvahs and weddings. In the early 2000s, 11-year-old girls in the Teaneck/Englewood area routinely took lessons with Davidovics or “Dance With Dassi” to be ready for the next year’s bat mitzvah parties. Their mothers learned as well. Today, you no longer hear Avraham Fried’s “Chazak” or “Didoh Bei” at simchas, two of the most popular songs from that era. Dances are still being created and taught but mainly as a hobby for enthusiasts. “Dances are still being choreographed by me, my friends and dance teachers and being taught at Pesach programs, schools, shuls and homes,” said Davidovics. “I still get videos of new dances being created and done in the States. All ages can do real simcha dancing; it doesn’t require jumping and high energy but has real simcha!”
It was dancing that finally motivated Davidovics to act on a longtime wish to make aliyah. She was visiting her son and family in Rehovot, Israel when she bumped into an old friend at shul on Shabbat who asked if she wanted to go to an Israeli dance group Motzei Shabbat. Afterwards, walking home under the stars, she thought, “I can do this!” She left three days later, having gone to contract and picked out furnishings for a home that was then still a hole in the ground.
The dance teacher who taught Davidovics, Ora Delbery, is still teaching girls and women in Brooklyn; they dance to current songs by Mordechai Shapiro and Yaacov Shwekey. At simchas, they also do classic secular dances like the Electric Slide, but to Jewish music. And mostly the simchas have DJs, not bands. Delbery noted that it’s a lot of work for bands to learn new music. When the DJ plays a song, it’s instantly familiar and the DJ adds special effects like lights, smoke and drums that make it more exciting.
Davidovics added to Delbery’s observation about the decline in simcha dancing. She said at one point there were so many dances being choreographed that it became overwhelming for the musicians to keep up with the music, so they limited their repertoire to the most popular dance songs. She also told me a story that gives another explanation for why simcha dancing, as it is still called, is not being done at simchas. “Years ago, someone in one of my classes who knew a lot of dances invited me to a bat mitzvah. I was astounded that she didn’t want to do all those dances she knew. She said, ‘I don’t want it to be just people who know how to do the dances—I want everybody to be able to dance.’ She felt it was more important for all to be sameach.”
By Bracha Schwartz