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Dance of the Soul

Shira Yehudit Djalilmand

Pirouettes. Pliés. Leaps. Spins. Twists. Leah Heinrich teaches women young and old how to use dance and movement to explore and express their inner selves. It is incredibly liberating — and also a lot of fun.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

dance “Tova!” Arms flung out and a showy jump forward.

“Hodaya!” A great leap into the air.

“Sarah!” An elegant spin.

This was my introduction to the world of creative dance, and more specifically, to creative dance as guided by Leah Heinrich.

In Tzfas, where I live, Leah is the one who is always around whenever there’s anything “dancy” going on — the Purim party, the Chanukah play, a charity performance — organizing, choreographing, encouraging, and suggesting, always accompanied by a smile on her face and frequent bursts of her characteristic laughter. Tall and slim, with a natural elf-like dancer’s grace, Leah exudes a flow of youthful energy — despite being a middle-aged mother of three.

That day, I was watching Leah enthusiastically lead a class of girls that included my daughters. She started with the “name movement exercise,” where she asks her dancers to give their name accompanied by whatever movement they feel suits the name. From that very first exercise, the girls — and I — were hooked.


Dancing through Childhood

Such a creative woman, you would think, must have come from a home where there was plenty of room for self-expression. But this wasn’t the case. “I’m a second generation Holocaust survivor,” Leah explains, her Australian accent soft but distinct. “I grew up in a family where emotions were not expressed. My father is fromKrakowand was in Schindler’s factory during the war. My mother is fromAustria— she came toAustraliawhen she was just two, as her family got visas right at the last minute before the war.”

Leah’s family kept only a few Jewish traditions, among them the Pesach Seder and fasting on Yom Kippur. Shabbos and kashrus were not part of her life, but the Sunday school she attended did teach her about the festivals and even some Hebrew.

Leah was just five years old when she began to learn dance. Twice a week, her mother would take her and her older sister to a dancing school at the other end of Sydney, where they learned all kinds of dancing, including ballet, jazz, and modern. “We didn’t have a car, and it wasn’t easy for my mother, schlepping us all the way there and back on the bus, but she thought it was important. And it stayed with me, so it’s really thanks to my mother that I am who I am.”

Leah’s high school years were spent in a co-ed Jewish school, and she was by now a strong Zionist. She was heavily involved in the Betar youth movement, going to camps and working as a madrichah, and at 18, she came toIsrael for a year, staying in kibbutzim and moshavim.

Back inAustralia, Leah trained as a general primary school teacher, specializing in dance and drama. After college, she first began to teach dance in schools and workshops for the Betar youths, gradually developing her budding ideas, and even choreographing Israeli folk dance events. She joined a modern dance company, both training and performing with them all aroundAustralia. Then, still bursting with Zionist enthusiasm, she auditioned for and was accepted to a prestigious dance academy inJerusalem.

After a year studying at the dance academy, Leah left, feeling it was too restrictive. “It wasn’t working for me. I didn’t even know what a soul was then, but I knew my soul felt restricted. Now, in perspective, I understand — if you force someone to do movements that don’t suit them spiritually, it doesn’t work. I felt physically sick.”

The blame, claims Leah, lies on the shoulders of the traditional dance world’s philosophy. “It’s too competitive — you try to push yourself to do stuff that’s not suitable for you and it can cause injury. That’s what makes people say ‘I’m not a dancer.’ It makes it exclusive and dance shouldn’t be exclusive. Dance is a human right — look at all the primitive tribes, how important a part of their traditions dance is — and they don’t need 20 years of ballet school!

“When I tell people about my dance classes,” she adds, “so many tell me, ‘I can’t dance!’ But if you can walk, you can dance! You never hear a three-year-old say she can’t dance — they don’t have that concept, they just love to move.” 


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