Radical Dancing Annas

The Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA), a Massachusetts-based organization devoted to uncovering and chronicling the history of American Jewish women, recently invited me to contribute to their blog as they celebrate the anniversary of Anna Sokolow’s 1937 debut on Broadway. Since the JWA is all about connecting history with contemporary issues, events, and people, I focused my post on a young Jewish dancer – and good friend of mine – who is as fierce as Anna Sokolow was in the 1930’s. The post is below, or you can read it at the JWA’s blog.

Anna Sokolow in her piece The Exile, 1939 – photo by Barbara Morgan

Seventy-one years ago today, Broadway got a little bit feistier when 27-year-old choreographer and dancer Anna Sokolow made her debut on Broadway with several politically and socially charged compositions. Eight years earlier, in 1929, Sokolow had joined Martha Graham’s dance company and gotten her first taste of “radical dance”. Later, she branched out to explore her own choreography, much of which was thematically inspired by her ethnic and cultural Jewish background.

Anna Schön, a 23-year-old graduate of Barnard College, is a present-day radical dancer of another kind: she performs professionally with several dance companies, is a Modern Orthodox Jew, and strives to balance her passion for both religious tradition and the arts. I sat down with Anna (whose initials are the same as Anna Sokolow’s!) to learn more about her connection to Judaism and dance.

Evan: How has Judaism inspired your love of dance and the way you move?

Anna Schön: My religious struggle manifests itself in dancing. I have trouble davening (praying), so dance is the way that I daven, but it has to be with music – the most important part. Unlike Anna Sokolow, I don’t really connect specific themes or events in Jewish history to my dancing.

How have your interactions with choreographers from different cultures shaped or broadened your understanding of dance?

AS: Reggie Wilson [founder of Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group] has been very understanding and open to my religious observance. I’ve had some amazing discussions with him about Judaism and how important it is to me. Most of the other choreographers with whom I’ve worked have also been supportive and interested in learning about my Jewish background. But one choreographer, a secular Israeli Jew, was annoyed at me when I told him I couldn’t come to a rehearsal on Yom Kippur because I would be in synagogue.

How has dancing strengthened or altered your identity as a young Jewish woman?

AS: It’s made me rebellious because I don’t fit into what a Modern Orthodox Jewish woman “should be”. I embrace my identity the most when I’m in situations without a Jewish presence – like when I’m in a dance setting. Maybe I wouldn’t embrace Judaism as much if I weren’t dancing.

Anna Sokolow danced in Israel and Mexico. You spent a semester in South Africa. How did South African culture affect your development as a dancer and as a Jewish woman? Did you experience a shift in the way you balanced the two?

AS: Learning African dance was an eye-opener and definitely enriched my movement style. My Judaism really grew because I was the only observant Jew in a house of twenty Americans. I had to make an extra effort to maintain my observance, but it was actually much easier in South Africa than in NYC to balance dance and Judaism because of differences in the work-life balance. Things were more laid back there.

Have you had opportunities to share Jewish culture in a secular dance environment?

AS: In the summer of 2007, I was studying dance at Jacob’s Pillow. There was a performance on Saturday – Shabbat – and everyone had to introduce themselves after the show. I didn’t want to use the microphone when I spoke [because I refrain from using electricity on Shabbat], and someone in the audience asked why. I explained to everyone that I observe Shabbat, and it turns out that a religious family was in the audience that day. They came up to me after the performance and told me how meaningful it was to hear me talk about that.

Do you think you’ve been a role model for other Jewish women?

AS: I hope to be a role model for others who grew up in homes similar to mine – ones that were religious – because it’s possible to balance religious observance with other interests. Religion doesn’t have to limit you, but sacrifices are made along the way. Next year Reggie Wilson’s company will be touring across the country, and I have to figure out how to do this while maintaining my observance. If I don’t go on tour, will I resent Judaism for holding me back? Or if I do go on tour, will I resent myself for breaking Shabbat? There’s no way to do it perfectly.

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