By Rabbi Daniel Brenner
80s Klezmer Aerobics? It’s Yentl meets Cyndi Lauper meets Miami Vice. It sports circa 1989 Reebok Pumps on its feet and does Richard Simmons dance moves to Shayn vi d’levana. It has rainbow legwarmers and a Shvitz! T-shirt. Really? 80s Klezmer Aerobics? Of all the things in the world of Jewish ideas this is what you want to read an article about for the next three minutes?
In all seriousness, last month I led Shvitz! The 80s Klezmer Aerobics Experience at Limmud NY and the good people at Jeducationworld asked me to write about it. So, nu, are your ready?
Flashback to 2015 at the Public Theater in New York City. There I attended an avant-garde theatrical show that was rather extraordinary. In the show, Here Lies Love, audience members enter into a nightclub like space where they hear a story about Imelda Marcos and the People Power revolution in the Philippines, and they dance. If young Imelda is at a concert, you dance like you are at a concert. When she is in a nightclub, her friends come off stage and dance with you, and when the revolution comes, you dance in the streets with the people.
The show planted an artistic seed: What would it look like to have theater-goers literally dance through a few decades of Jewish history?
First I wrote a story. I set the story in the 1880s in Poland and wove a tale about an older wedding badchen (entertainer and dancer) in the shtetl and his young student. I planned to tell the story to a group of Hebrew School children as part of a shabbaton that I was honored to lead at Kehillah Synagogue in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. As the weekend approached, I decided to add a fun dance element to the story and to wear a 1980s track suit as if I were an aerobics instructor. I used some simple music that I could play off of my phone. I was fortunate to have two documentary filmmakers from the community, Darryl and Mary Ann Freedman, capture the show and share it on Youtube.
After seeing the joy on the faces around me in Chapel Hill, I got serious about the project – and started to work on both the dance and the music. First the dance: I started reading about Jewish dance history over the last century and I came across the obituary of Felix Feibish and some video of his work.
Then I saw that one of his students, Steven Lee Weintraub, was traveling the world teaching.
I wrote him. Turns out he lives in Philadelphia not too far from my co-workers and friends at Moving Traditions in Jenkintown, PA. I was able to arrange a private lesson. Next I asked my friend, the Yiddish Theater scholar Debra Caplan, to contribute musically to the project. She analyzed my story and suggested Klezmer tunes that highlight the emotional and narrative elements of the tale. The dance and music started to come together:
I practiced on my commute to work.
And then it all came together last month at Limmud NY.
What’s next? I’m not sure to be honest. But I’m going to keep developing the show, bringing it to diverse audiences, telling my little story about the healing power of Jewish dance. Let’s shvitz!
Rabbi Daniel Brenner (www.rabbidanielbrenner.com) lives in Montclair, New Jersey and when he isn’t doing Klezmer Aerobics, he serves as the Chief of Education and Program for Moving Traditions (www.movingtraditions.org)