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Jewish dance class reaches to unite body and soul
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Jewish dance class reaches to unite body and soul

‘Physical movement can be spiritual,’ says teacher Lisa Sturm

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Lisa Sturm leads “neshama dancing,” a kind of spiritual dance form she has created at the Maplewood Jewish Center. Photos by Johanna Ginsberg
Lisa Sturm leads “neshama dancing,” a kind of spiritual dance form she has created at the Maplewood Jewish Center. Photos by Johanna Ginsberg

Some people like dancing with the stars. Lisa Sturm prefers dancing with soul.

The Maplewood resident, a social worker who is also trained in teaching aerobics and Pilates, has fused her passion for Judaism, dancing, and fitness into something she calls “neshama dancing,” literally, “soul dancing.”

Set to the contemporary sound of such popular Jewish artists as Debbie Friedman, Neshama Carlebach, and Soulfarm, her classes combine aerobics, line dancing, circle dancing, and even a hint of square dancing. She does not intend it to be guided soul searching — there’s no Jewish imagery or kavana accompanying the dancing — but Sturm does choose her music carefully, offering a brief summary of each selection, with the intention that it will set a spiritual tone.

“Any physical movement can be spiritual — when I’m dancing, I feel something; however, that feeling is intensified when the words and the beat are meaningful — it lifts the spirit beyond the ordinary grounded everyday life,” Sturm said.

Neshama dancing is her attempt to help others connect to something higher with the tools she is most adept at using. She tried it out first last spring at a Rosh Hodesh women’s group at Maplewood Jewish Center-Congregation Beth Ephraim, the Orthodox synagogue where she is a member. Participants clamored for more.

This fall, on a series of Wednesdays, she is leading women’s neshama dancing sessions there.

Spiritual dancing is certainly not new in Judaism. Sturm herself points to the ecstatic, joyful dancing of the hasidim, especially in the Galilee town of Meiron, on Lag Ba’Omer. From her own background, she recalls dancing and singing at Shabbatons held by NCSY, the Orthodox youth group.

“There was something very spiritual and connected to God then, and it was not just the words,” she said.

Five women gathered for the first of her sessions Oct. 20, in the spacious basement room of the synagogue’s Charles Kimmel Building, darkened and candlelit for the occasion.

Slim and fit, Sturm looked part dancer (with a lavender loose-fitting skirt, black leggings, and black top), part traditional observant Jewish woman (long sleeves, a scarf on her head). She called the steps into a microphone headset.

As the group gained comfort, she added plenty of arm movement, some hips, and even jumping for those seeking a more high-impact effect.

The dance steps themselves differed only slightly from a regular fitness class. “There was definitely more reaching and uplifted arms — it’s reaching for something, whatever that something is,” Sturm said.

She also limited the Israeli circle dancing, she said, because it can be difficult aerobically, and if someone can’t pick up the steps, they have to sit out the dance. But there was another reason, one coming straight from her fitness training.

“To maintain mobility and keep moving, I feel we need to move the whole body. Traditional Jewish dancing doesn’t do that. Also, strengthening the core is really important. It supports the internal organs and provides better balance. As we twist and move our hips and spine, we work all the muscles of the torso,” she explained.

But while the music and the steps matter, part of neshama dancing also stems from the intention of the participant.

“People aren’t just coming to get thinner thighs and look good in the dresses they are planning to wear to the next affair. They are doing something healthy for their body and their spirits,” she said.

“I hope people at least feel lifted beyond everyday life and possibly might feel a closer connection with God.”

There were scarves available for participants for two Soulfarm songs, “V’chol Karnei,” and “Kumi Roni,” and tambourines for Debbie Friedman’s “Miriam’s Song.” As the dancing wore on, Sturm gained a kind of glow, an aura of joy. “I feel connected to Hashem when I dance,” she said the next day over coffee at Starbucks in Millburn.

Asked if there was anything therapeutic in the dancing, she said, “I don’t think that plays much of a role except that I’m very in tune with how people are receiving whatever I’m putting out there. And, well, emotions and spirit are all kind of intertwined.”

Sturm said she hopes the classes will provide some positive energy.

“I don’t want to sound hokey, but there’s a lot of negative energy around that can drain us and make life more difficult. If you have good energy, positive energy, it’s easier to function.”

The evening ended with Friedman’s setting of “Mi Shebeirach,” traditionally a prayer for healing, and a quiet, spiritual stretch of personal meditation and prayer.

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