Traditional dance encompasses forms regarded by both Jews and gentiles as “Jewish” and danced over a wide area of Eastern Europe. For the most part, this discussion must be limited to the period for which documentation exists: from about 1850 to 1940.
The terminology attached to Jewish dance in northern Europe contains both ancient and recent elements. In many cases, this terminology refers to a social function and not to choreography or musical form. For example, the term mitsve tants appears as early as the fifteenth century; it alludes to the commandment, or mitzvah, to bring joy to the bride and groom at their wedding. In a source published in Venice in 1590, the mitsve tants is described as a group dance in which men danced with the groom and women with the bride. In later sources, men danced with the bride while holding a handkerchief between them. By the middle of the nineteenth century, though, this name of the dance was used interchangeably with kosher tants, although some sources regard the latter as a separate custom. One polonaise melody, composed in 1803 by the Lithuanian aristocrat Michał Kleofas Ogiński and titled “Farewell to the Fatherland,” became a standard melody for the mitsve tants or kosher tants. Thus, although the social function of the mitsve tants or kosher tants is undoubtedly many centuries old, the terms themselves do not seem to have been connected with a dance of Jewish origin or character.
Dance names such as koylitsh tants and bobes tants likewise refer primarily to social function. Koylitsh refers to the large braided bread used at weddings, which was held by the mothers-in-law as they danced together following the khupe ceremony (the ceremony under the wedding canopy). In some communities a particular tune of rather archaic character was employed for this dance. In certain sources this dance is regarded as identical to the bobes tants; in those sources, the name refers to a type of cake. (And in this context the meaning “grandmothers,” a definition of bobes, seems unlikely.)
Similarly, there is no indication that the betlers tants (dance of the beggars) involved a specific choreography. The mimetic aspect seems to have been foremost in the besem tants, in which a man danced with a broom symbolizing a weapon or a horse. This may at times have been identical to the shtok tants (stick dance), which involved an acting out of death and resurrection. Music for this dance survives. Of a similar character is the music for patsh tants, also known by the Slavic name pleskun (clapping). In this case, the choreography—a combination of a circle dance and a couples dance, in which partners are exchanged—also survives. Also of a musically similar character is the shusters tants (shoemaker’s dance), but its choreographic character is now unknown. The basic dance formation (but not the music) of patsh tants appears to be of Germanic origin, and the musical similarities found in the shtok tants, shusters tants, and the patsh tants suggests that all represent an old stratum both of Ashkenazic dance and of dance music generally.
The mimetic aspect of Jewish dance was most pronounced in the broygez tants (dance of anger), a wedding dance in which the mothers-in-law expressed their potentially mistrustful relationship. Generally one woman acted offended, while the other attempted to mollify her. The scene ended with a sholem tants in which they became reconciled. The broyges tants could also be danced by a man and a woman outside the context of a wedding ritual.
Certain names of dances still in use in the earlier nineteenth century are now completely obscure, such as semele, which was apparently conflated with the equally obscure shemene or semerle. Cantorial manuscripts of the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that contain instrumental dance tunes (e.g., by Aaron Beer and Hirsch Weintraub) use only the terms nign and nigundl, never the names of specific dances. Terminology is clearest with regard to recently borrowed dances, such as the polonaise, minuet, mazurka, kolomeyka, hora, or bulgarish.
Apart from these relatively recent developments, most Jewish dances can be performed to the same music as circle dances, as line dances, as couples dances, or as solos. Thus the symmetrical structure of the music is not reflected in the dance. The tendency of many of the Jewish dance tunes is to stretch over eight or sixteen 2/4 measures (longer units of 32 measures are also known). This length is often reflected in the form of the circle dance, which may proceed in each direction for 16 beats.
Different Jewish communities had different names for the same combination of circle, line, couple, and solo dance. Southeastern regions (Ukraine, Moldavia) used the term freylekhs, while in Lithuania karakhod and hopke were employed. The terms redl, rikudl, and beygele were found in Belorussia. Skotshne was used in Ukraine. In Galicia and in Hungary (and with Slovakia, Transylvania, and Transcarpathia), husit (khosid), and khosidl replaced other terms for the group dance. Thus most of the choreographic system that was peculiar to the Ashkenazic Jews (apart from the large repertoire of cosmopolitan, coterritorial, and “transitional” dances) involved several dance concepts applied to the same music.
The solo dance category had a professional as well as a folkloric aspect. Good male dancers often preferred to dance as soloists—indeed they might pay the klezmorim (musicians) just for this privilege—but a solo dance might also be performed by a professional dancer attached to a klezmer band, or by a dancing badkhn (jester) who had developed extraordinary technique. Solo dancing might also have a comical or even a grotesque, parodic aspect, depending on the character of the dancer and the mood of the occasion. One type of solo display dance—known as a flash tants—involved balancing a bottle on the dancer’s head. A dancer might also dance barefoot on a mirror to display his agility.
Celebration at a siyum ha-Torah (completion of the writing of a Torah scroll) in a synagogue, Dubrovno, Russia (now in Belarus), ca. 1905. (YIVO)
In regions where pietism weighed more lightly on the community, the freylekhs (or equivalent regional variant) might be danced in lines of mixed couples, mainly through motions of the hands and arms, with more intricate legwork performed by the younger men. Although specific connections between the hand gestures of dance and the gestures of Torah instruction cannot be established for Ashkenazim as they have been for Yemenite Jews, there seems little doubt that many of the Ashkenazic dance gestures are ultimately speech-related.
Many choreographic features of Ashkenazic dance can be found in a single complex in the dance known as the sher. The participants number four mixed couples (in more pious communities, four female couples). An initial circle formation breaks up into a couples promenade, after which the first male dancer invites his partner to circle with him in the center. This process is repeated by all the dancers in turn, and each dancer also has a turn at a brief solo dance in the center. At the close of each cycle, the circle formation is repeated. The dance concludes with a grand promenade of all the dancers interweaving through their lines. The fixed succession of moves for each dancer with a new partner, followed by a new circle formation, results in a lengthy performance of a half hour or more. In weddings, several groups of eight dancers may take the floor.
The music of the sher is usually of the same character as for a freylekhs (especially in Ukraine), except that many tunes must be used over the course of the dance. Lengthy suites of short dance tunes, sometimes with a prearranged sequence of musical modulations, are also known. Early gentile writers on Jewish music and dance, such as Ivan Lipaev, singled out the sher as a striking example of Jewish folklore.
Choreographically, the sher is a species of Western European contra dance to which the typical Ashkenazic body posture and hand gestures have been added. In particular, the sher furnished an opportunity for women to employ their shoulders and arms to create a subtly flirtatious mood. While more recent contra dance formations, such as the quadrille, were danced by East European Jews, these were adaptations of a cosmopolitan nature, and they retained their original gentile music. The sher, however, was universally regarded as a “Jewish” dance, both by the Jews and by their gentile neighbors in Eastern Europe. The Jewish sher was adapted by Moldavians and Ukrainians; certain dance tunes were known as shaer moldovanesc to distinguish them from Jewish melodies.
Since the sher was, under the same name, part of the dance repertoire of most East European Jewish communities, the ultimate origin of the dance was no longer remembered and the name received various folk etymologies, usually connected with the word sher understood as meaning “scissors.” The dance researcher Nathan Vizonsky believed that the sher had been a Western aristocratic dance that Jews took up in Poland in the eighteenth century, but German musical sources of the sixteenth century mention a dance known as Schar oder scharer Tanz. The original name of the dance may have referred to the “crowd” or “pairs” (Schar) of dancers on the floor. Franz Boehme, writing in the later nineteenth century, mentions a contra Schar dance in Bavaria, apparently derived from the older Schar. Thus it would seem that the prototype of the sher was already known in sixteenth-century Germany and would have been brought to Poland with the incoming Ashkenazim.
There were communities in Poland that would not dance the sher at all, because it involved mixed-couple dancing; others allowed it only for girls or women, while many insisted on using a handkerchief between the sexes. But others danced it in its original manner, allowing contact between the sexes. The sher proved to be among the most tenacious elements of Ashkenazic dance, as it was diffused from the Baltic to the Black Sea. In America it was preserved both among the landsmanshaften (immigrant social and mutual aid societies, based on communities of origin) and among political leftists (who appreciated its secular nature), into the 1960s and in some cases even later.
In contrast to the sher, the khosidl reflected a religious or spiritual perspective. Apparently based on the solo dancing of rabbis in ultrapious and mystical circles, especially at Saturday-night celebrations, in recent generations it developed in a Hasidic milieu. Although the music was identical to that used for some of the wedding ritual dances, emphasizing the role of the in-laws or of respected elderly figures in the community, the khosidl allowed for more individual choreographic interpretation, as it was not part of a specific wedding ritual. These were highly expressive dances, performed at slow to moderate tempos, revealing both the inner feeling and the dignity of the dancer. In general, such dances were geared to the mentality and the physical capabilities of men more than 50 years old. In northern Bucovina, Moldavians adopted the music of the khosidl (or husit) as part of village weddings, at times even using it to accompany wedding rituals, but to what extent this also involved the dance is not known.
Tsevi Fridhaber, Ha-Maḥol ha-yehudi, vol. 2 (Haifa, 1972); Lee Ellen Friedland, “A Step Toward Movement Notation: The Case of a Freylakhs as Danced in the Ukraine, 1900–1915,” Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Newsletter 4.1–2 (1981): 29–31; Lee Ellen Friedland, “Tantsn iz lebn,” Dance Research Journal 17.2 (1985/86): 77–80; Ivan Lipaev, “Jewish Orchestras,” Russkaia muzykal’naia gazeta 4–6, 8 (1904): 101–103, 133–136, 169–172, 205–207; Mark Slobin, Robert Rothstein, and Michael Alpert, trans. and eds., Jewish Instrumental Folkmusic: The Collections and Writings of Moshe Beregovski (Syracuse, 2001); Nathan Vizonsky, Ten Jewish Folk Dances: A Manual for Teachers and Leaders (Chicago, 1942).