Educator combines dance and Jewish study
By Stacey Dresner
Dalia Davis of Longmeadow is a Jewish educator, dancer, choreographer, and artistic director. Her latest project, Beit Midrash in Motion, was inspired by her twin passions for dance and Jewish study. Beit Midrash in Motion offers workshops that blend movement, meditation, and text study in a supportive environment.
The five-part workshop series, offered in both Springfield and Northampton, focuses on topics relating to the creative powers of attended women and is funded by a grant from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation.
After dancing and performing throughout her childhood, Davis went on to the study at Barnard College, where she double-majored in dance and Jewish history. While serving as artistic director for Columbia University’s Israeli Dance group, she also performed with and choreographed for Parparim Dance Ensemble of New York.
Upon graduation, she spent a year in Israel engrossed in Jewish studies at Nishmat’s Jerusalem Center for Women. Her pursuit of Jewish learning lead her back to New York for two years of intensive Talmud and Halachah study at Yeshiva University’s Graduate Program for Advanced Talmudic Study for Women.
Davis co-founded of Nishmat Hatzafon Jewish Women’s Performing Arts Company and as the group’s artistic director, she creates Jewish theme-based performances. Her choreographic works are generally set to Israeli music, deeply emotive, and display a fusion of modern dance, lyrical jazz, and Israeli folk dance genres. Besides running Beit Midrash in Motion, she now also teaches at the Florence Melton Adult Mini School, serves as the Springfield JCC’s Jewish Educator, and works as a Dance Educator for the Foundation for Jewish Summer Camps.
Davis lives in Longmeadow with her husband, Rabbi Max Davis, and their daughter, Revaya. She recently spoke to the Jewish Ledger about Beit Midrash in Motion.
Q: How and when did you come up with the idea for Beit Midrash in Motion?
A: I envisioned Beit Midrash in Motion after searching extensively for ways to integrate my two passions, dance and Jewish learning. I have been privileged to dance and choreograph for several New York-based dance troupes, but these experiences seemed entirely disconnected from my other professional pursuits. Following three years in Israel and New York devoted to full time study of Jewish law and Talmud, I found myself living a divided life, never fully able to integrate the dancer/choreographer and Jewish educator parts of myself.
For a while I struggled with the sense that my career could only consist of such fragments, and I would never truly be able to throw my whole self into any single project. However, one Shabbat afternoon following another round of mulling these matters with my husband, the idea for Beit Midrash in Motion was born. Since then, I have run focus groups, created programs and worked to clarify my vision of building Beit Midrash in Motion into a meaningful and relevant project.
My aim is to develop an alternative approach to Jewish learning, rooted in text and nourished by movement, meditation, and personal reflection. Ultimately, by engaging one’s mind with text, one’s body with movement, and one’s soul with meditation, I believe we can understand the source material in a manner that is profound and personally relevant.
Q: How do you actually incorporate dance and movement into Jewish study?
A: My process for creating workshops begins with Biblical, Midrashic, and/or Talmudic texts based on a particular theme. I seek out stories that are provocative, poignant, touching, and occasionally even humorous. The next step involves discerning which aspects of the text – which questions, lessons, and dialogues – resonate most powerfully. I then work to create ‘movement exploration’ exercises to encourage participants to move in ways that express
aspects of the text. Using motion as metaphor not only familiarizes participants with the text, but affords a sense of physical encounter with key themes and personalities that is difficult to achieve through traditional modes of study.
Because Beit Midrash in Motion seeks to be inclusive and accessible, periods of movement and study are interspersed throughout the workshops. I do not prompt any action that demands physical aptitude or skill – this is not ballet class. Furthermore, though I do love to choreograph, I conscientiously avoid doing so for Beit Midrash in Motion workshops. The goal is for participants to have a physical experience of their own devise; to enjoy the opportunity to create on their own, rather than learn pre-conceived dance steps.
Q: How does dance and movement enhance Jewish learning?
A: Many of us have been trained to study Jewish texts using our intellectual faculties. We parse paragraphs, consider questions, debate meaning, and discuss historical context. While this method of study is essential, it can sometimes feel one-dimensional insofar as the action revolves around only one area of the body.
To better explain how movement can enhance Jewish learning, I refer to the Talmudic tale of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son hiding in a cave to evade the Romans. To preserve clothing, Rabbi Shimon and son dressed only for prayers. For the remainder of their days, they buried themselves up to their necks and studied Torah. This model of study involved their heads alone. Upon exiting the cave the son struggled to reconnect with the surrounding world and, ultimately, caused great harm to others.
This story hints at the flaws inherent in an isolationist approach to Torah study. Of course, social isolation was the key challenge, but I believe the story also critiques a disembodied approach to study. Study of the head only goes so far. Sometimes, it is possible to more deeply assimilate the material through a more active fully embodied approach.
Beit Midrash in Motion invites participants to experience specific themes with their whole selves before using analytical skills to interpret the text. This initial stage of physical engagement and personalization of the themes makes the text feel all the more relevant to participants when they later encounter it.
Shared movement also functions to remove inhibitions and create community. This is of great value during workshops as it energizes group discussions and encourages participants to think in new ways.
Q: You are co-founder of the dance ensemble Nishmat Hatzafon. Can you tell the readers about the group’s work? Is it still active?
A: We founded the group seven years ago in northern Manhattan, hence the name Nishmat Hatzafon – Soul of the North. Conceived as a Jewish women’s performing arts company, Nishmat Hatzafon offers Jewish themed performances that interweave music, dance, and text. Most performances have been in the NY/NJ area, ranging from private functions to full-scale productions, and most shows include an audience workshop component. As the group’s choreographer, I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to create pieces expressing a range of texts from Shabbat zemirot to Ezekiel’s messianic vision.
Although many of the company members have moved around, we managed to keep Nishmat Hatzafon alive by coordinating visits to NY with performance opportunities. More recently, since my husband and I relocated to western MA, the group has been able to resume some of our earlier activities. This includes performance in the New York area as well as at the Jewish Nursing Home and Congregation B’nai Torah, sponsored by a generous grant from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation.
Since Nishmat Hatzafon is now interwoven into the fabric of Beit Midrash in Motion, we have decided to rename the group to reflect a deeper connection between the two entities. Our new name, La’ad Dance stems from a Rabbinic acronym commonly used by commentators to introduce their opinions as it stands for “L’fi aniut da’ati” (in my humble opinion). As an English acronym, La’ad stands for Learn. Ask. Analyze. Dance.
We are currently rehearsing a new work, Im Eyn Ani Li, Mi Li? – ‘If I am not for Myself, Who Will be for Me?’ We hope this will serve not only as a performance piece, but also as the foundation for a workshop about self-perception.
Q: Can you describe what a Beit Midrash in Motion workshop is is actually like?
A: To begin with, upon entering the workshop space, on may notice the absence of tables and (most) chairs. Our perch of choice is the yoga mat, several of which are arranged in a circle on the floor.
We remind participants that they are part of a safe space; a judgment free zone in which personal information may be shared without risk of it being repeated elsewhere. Additionally, we encourage participants to push themselves beyond their comfort zones, to explore movement without inhibition, as if each individual were the only person in the room. – And then we begin.
We perform various ‘movement exploration’ exercises designed to focus our attention on the relevant themes of the workshop and to prepare us for the text. For example, if our ultimate focus is a text about parenting and the challenge of letting go, before encountering the text, we engage in movement explorations built on hold-and-release patterns. As we focus on holding and releasing various muscles and poses, we become physically invested in the theme. This is merely one example of a small exercise which may sound simple, but in concert with other movements and meditative components, immerses us in the textual motifs before we encounter them in writing.
Having warmed up our bodies and spirits, we return to the mats to study text together. We learn from the sages, from each other, and from our own thoughts rendered clearer by the process. We may approach the text in segments, repeating the process of movement and meditation before each new step. All texts include both Hebrew and English and everyone, regardless of educational background, is encouraged to question, contemplate, and suggest interpretations.
We conclude with a movement or meditation affording one final fleeting reflection on the journey we have just completed.
Q: You described the upper and lower valleys as “separate canvases” Explain that and how the workshops in the valleys will be different/similar?
A: ‘Separate canvases’ refers primarily to the geographic distinction that exists between the two communities. Twenty miles of separation is an unfortunate barrier which limits inter-community participation in programming and events. My goal in running dual programs is to make Beit Midrash in Motion accessible to as many participants as possible. I believe this will benefit both program and participants alike.
I will present identical material at the workshops in each valley, although the workshops are largely driven by participants.
I am, admittedly, curious to learn how each cohort will respond. It’s no secret that, in general, there are social and political differences between the valleys. This is a positive opportunity, from my perspective, as Beit Midrash in Motion is designed to function within any community. There is an ancient teaching that the Torah has “seventy faces”, in other words it may be understood in multiple ways. Beit Midrash in Motion is a form of Torah study intended for use by anyone so inclined.
I am most looking forward to the final workshop, a joint gathering of both groups. It is in this diverse milieu that Beit Midrash in Motion can achieve its full potential, fostering meaningful discussion and connecting community.
Q: You also run Mishpacha in Motion at the JCC. Can you tell us about that program?
A: Mishpacha in Motion is a family oriented version of Beit Midrash in Motion that is kid-friendly, inclusive of parents, and just plain fun! Every week, parents and children participate in a variety of movements centered on the themes of a Jewish children’s story.
After exploring these themes through movement, we read the story together and suddenly all of the ideas we explored throughout the class coalesce. Sessions conclude with a collaborative effort to reconstruct the story through movement.
Classes meet Tuesdays, 4-5 p.m. at the Springfield JCC. They are free and we welcome all families.