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Tools in Action

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Shema Dance

This workshop outline was developed by Bea Wattenberg, a Dance Exchange company member from 1993 to 1996. It describes a dancemaking structure appropriate to a religious setting, where the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange Toolbox has been applied extensively. The workshop draws on participants’ assumed familiarity with the shema, one of the central prayers of Jewish faith practice. It is, however, readily adaptable to prayer or scripture from other traditions and even to non religious source materials.

Starting with the question: “When was the first time you recall hearing the shema,” this exercise develops a dance that draws on individual impressions and memories of an experience common to Jewish participants.

Working with a group of participants who may or may not know each other, form a standing circle and gather names. Ask each person to say their name, while at the same time doing a simple gesture (this may be related to a Jewish theme, such as shabbat.) In this round, have the group repeat both the name and the gesture after each person’s turn.

Using the Build-a-Phrase tool, pick out five or six gestures from the group’s movements and have everyone follow in the development of a simple phrase. Request suggestions for variations. Ask “How can we change these gestures to make them look different?“ (Faster or slower movements, repetition, using different parts of the body). Break out of the circle and have everyone move around at their own timing with the movements that they have just learned. Offer suggestions for further variations that the group can add if they like.

Direct participants to both sides of the room. With music playing, invite them to enter the center at their own discretion, doing their version of the movements. Offer the option to go into the center alone or to meet someone else to form a duet.

Hand out photocopies of the shema (in Hebrew) and tell participants to look at the shapes of the Hebrew letters. Ask them to think about forming these letters with their bodies. (Editor’s note: The use of Hebrew letters as a movement source is a very versatile technique that was developed during the creation of Liz Lerman’s Shehechianu.) Then, spread throughout the room, directing each person work alone in place to form shapes and movement. After several minutes, have everyone start walking around in space, filling the whole room in a random flow. Then call out: When was the first time you recall hearing the shema? Allow time to think while walking. Tell class to find partners and tell each other about their first time. Have class start milling about again. After a little while, have participants choose a series of new partners. With each one, have them ask each other about details of their shema memory, such as: Where was it? What season? Who else was there? What were you wearing? Have the class take one more walk and choose a final partner.

These final pairings will work together for a little while. Tell partners to take turns telling their stories to each other. While one speaks, the other should use the Spontaneous Gesture tool to observe the natural hand and facial gestures that accompany the telling. Partners should remember these movements for later use.

From here, reassemble as a group. Ask everyone to think about the various movements they have gathered from the warm-up, the Hebrew letter shapes, and the shema storytelling exercises. In a more extended version of Build-a-Phrase, take suggestions from those who volunteer movements and combine them into a group dance, with various elements of change and variation. Ask the group if they would like to include spoken text, such as an individual’s story.

Once the dance has been choreographed, rehearse until everyone is comfortable with the movements.