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There is nothing especially newsworthy about a college-level dance course. But one such program in the West Bank is just a bit different than most: classes are for girls only, all of whom dress in long skirts and many of whom cut out of rehearsals to nurse their babies at a nursery nearby.
Welcome to Orot Israel College in the West Bank town of Elkana. Eight years ago, the college introduced dance classes into the religious community, a pioneering step some religious figures called "daring."
"This is a revolution for the religious sector," explains Talia Pearlstein-Kaduri, head of the seminary for dance and movement at the college. "In the past, there was no setting for teaching dance in this sector, certainly none that received the blessing of our rabbis.
"Through this academic track, the body is no longer in exile, so to speak, and dance has won legitimacy in the religious world, much more so than the other art forms," she says.
Aya Tourjeman, 29, a graduate of the first class to complete the program, says dance does not come natural to the religious personality.
"The whole issue of connecting with the body is very complex for the religious world," she explains. "To us, the body represents the most
debasing things, including sexual drive, lust, and the absence of modesty.
"The ambition of religion is to fulfill God's will," she says, "and celebrating the body seems material and worldly. Many religious edicts in Judaism hide the body, and therefore it is very problematic to perform on stage in front of an audience, to dance when the body is highlighted or in front of huge mirrors which reflect the body from all angles."
Rabbi Nerie Gotel, Rabbi Felix's successor at the helm of Orot Israel, agrees.
"We are an academic college for teaching, and it is important to emphasize that we have introduced a new educational domain into the schools. The connection between art and holy matters, if done in accordance with religious edict, is not less worthy than the good word of God," he says.
The college managed to overcome the problem of modesty: Only women dance, modestly dressed, and never perform in front of men.
The program began a decade ago, with approval from several influential rabbis when Hila Mualem, originally a non-observant student at the Jerusalem Dance Academy, became interested in religion but couldn't find a religious setting here she could dance.
She turned to then-Education Minister Zvulun Hammer, who approached then-head of Orot Israel College, Rabbi Yehuda Felix, with the idea of launching a special academic track for dancing.
What may have sounded strange to many rabbis struck a chord with Rabbi Felix, who welcomed the initiative to combine a religious perspective with such a physical and extroverted art, but also issued guidelines: only women dancers, modestly dressed, and never in front of men.
Felix then turned to Talia Pearlstein-Kaduri (then the head of the dance program at the Jerusalem Dance Academy high school), to head the initiative with Moshe (Musa) Kedem. Together, they developed a unique program and set up a team of instructors.
The only problem was finding students. Apart from a few newly Orthodox dancers, they had a hard time finding religious women, so they mostly approached secular dancers.
Since then, dozens of women have completed the program. Next month, the fifth graduating class will present a senior recital. Of this group, 80 percent expect to work as dance instructors at the forty-or-so kindergartens and religious schools that offer dance curricula across Israel.
Teachers and students of the dance program make a point of emphasizing their commitment to the mitzvot.
"Our students study dance theory and learn all styles of dance, says program director Pearlstein-Kaduri, "but it is all grounded in their life in accordance with the Torah. For instance, we may have a creative lesson in the spirit of the weekly Torah portion. We place restraints on the dance moves as well.
But she emphasizes the program keeps to several strict guidelines.
"We won't have any rudeness, promiscuity, defiance or even disharmony. In history of dance class, you won't find any remnants of work that hints at nudity or that feature ideas which may clash with Judaism," she says.
Those guidelines present a challenge for non-observant staff who previously taught in secular schools. One such teacher is Amira Kedem, a modern dance instructor who has that learned, in her words, to "watch what she says" in class.
"When I teach at the college I never use Darwinist evolutionary imagery. I don't speak about how our human anatomy is similar to that of the monkey or affects our stance and equilibrium. It is out of the question," she says.
There is another element that differentiates them from their secular colleagues: "For many non-observant dancers, pregnancy and birth are processes that physically impair their work," says Michal Beshari, 31.
"But for us, it's the complete opposite. There are hardly any classes without at least one pregnant dancer. Except for certain cases, women dance up until the ninth month of their pregnancy, even if they have to follow specifically tailored exercises."
The fact that the college is located in Elkana, rather than downtown Tel Aviv, has its influence, but the religious dancers do not always manage to stay away from external influences. The clash between religious values and the secular world isn't always easy.
Efrat Azuri, 24, a fourth-year student, says she "went with friends to see Renena Raz and Ofer Amram's latest show. The performance itself was okay, but there were parts in which Raz put her hand down Amram's mouth, or chewed on his ankle. To me that was fascinating, but difficult to watch at the same time.
"My friends thought it was so unbearable that they felt the need to mention it to the artists. As far as they were concerned, things could be done in a more round-about way, hinting things and still making it powerful and convincing. For these reasons, our lead instructor, Talia Pearlstein-Kaduri, makes sure we are aware which performances are kosher and which are not, because we hold a different level of sensitivity."
Reproduced with permission: Ynetnews