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Arts & Culture Bringing Dance to Prayer: Activist Wins ‘genius’ Grant

Liz Lerman is the only true genius I know,” declares Rabbi Daniel Zemel of Washington’s Temple Micah, “and I know some very, very intelligent people.”

It’s taken the rest of the world a little longer to accept what the Reform rabbi believed in his heart from the moment he met the activist choreographer more than a decade ago.

Choreographer, dancer, community organizer, teacher and now public persona, Lerman last week received a five-year MacArthur Fellowship for $500,000, a prize that carries with it the public recognition of genius status.

The fellowship, which comes with no strings attached, is given to 20 to 30 individuals annually. Those selected in the highly secretive process demonstrate outstanding creative and intellectual achievement in a diversity of fields. Recipients have been writers, scientists, social scientists, teachers, activists and others without standard institutional affiliations.

“It was completely, totally shocking,” Lerman says about receiving the phone call with the news. “I don’t remember much of what was said, but I do recall that they emphasized that” a MacArthur “is not about past achievements but about what you’re going to do in the future.”

The Silver Spring, Md., resident with her 25-year-old Dance Exchange has been doggedly pushing dance into nonconventional environments where people of all ages, backgrounds and levels of experience can join in the creative process.

Working with a variety of groups, Lerman’s work has cut a broad swath across the nation, asking the question, “Who gets to dance” and answering it, unequivocally: “Everybody.”

Much of her work has been deeply rooted in exploring Jewish themes and issues, like her 1991 piece “The Good Jew?” which pressed the issue of being Jewish enough in a contemporary society.

In 1997, “Shehechianu” explored the universal nature of prayer through a particularly Jewish lens.

In August, Lerman, 54, wrapped up her most ambitious and far-reaching project yet: The “Hallelujah Project” traversed the country asking “what are we in praise of.”

For the past three years, Lerman and her company set up residencies in 15 U.S. cities to investigate issues of praise and belief in contemporary society, allowing each community to maintain its own voice as individuals’ personal stories took on mythic universal meanings.

For Lerman, the question of “who gets to dance?” has been with her since she came to Washington in 1975.

She taught teens at a private high school and began working with frail elderly at the Roosevelt Home for Senior Citizens in Northwest Washington. Her 1983 book, “Teaching Dance to Senior Adults,” broke new ground to influence a generation of artists in reaching nontraditional populations.

Her Dancers of the Third Age, a company of senior adults, performed professionally throughout the Washington metropolitan area for many years.

Recently, Lerman has challenged the eight members of the Dance Exchange, who range in age from 26 to 68, to discover methods to unleash creative experiences on regular folks.

As she says, “I feel the absolute utter belief on my part and the part of the company that each human being is that diamond spark and is capable of mending the world. That I’m completely passionate about.”

Growing up in a Reform Jewish household in Milwaukee, Lerman found that passion for social activism in her father, who worked with the Anti-Defamation League. For Lerman, to leave the world better than she found it is an exhortation of the centrality of tikkun olam, repair of the world, to the Reform movement.

A member of Temple Micah, Lerman at times used the congregation as a laboratory, developing synagogue-based programs like dance midrash to bring movement and dance into the stand-up-sit-down world of traditional Jewish prayer.

When Lerman joined the board of Synagogue 2000, the national collective of Jewish organizations and rabbis that is re-envisioning the synagogue for the 21st century, she had worked her way into establishment Judaism without forgoing her roots or her cutting-edge philosophy that dance can — and must — make a difference.

“To bring movement to the life of prayer is extraordinary,” says Ron Wolfson, vice president of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, director of the Whizin Center for the Jewish Future and co-founder of Synagogue 2000.

“Liz is able to make people comfortable with the idea that movement is a possibility, and she expresses it in a nonthreatening way to people who never believed they could move.”

He adds, “Personally my prayer experience has been changed forever” by Lerman’s work.

Zemel envisions the ramifications of the recognition to an artist like Lerman, who is committed to the centrality of Judaism while living in contemporary secularized society.

But organized Judaism — not just alternative basement services and chavurot — he says, must acknowledge the primacy of Lerman’s work as an example of the power creative expression can provide to help create community.

“It should be a signal to the Jewish community about what I’ve said all along about Liz: that there are incredible artists out there and that we have to be open enough to embrace them and bring them into our synagogues and communities. Liz is out there in the art world blazing new forms. We have to allow this in and allow it to affect the mainstream.”

“If we don’t bring these artists right into the mainstream,” Zemel warns, “if we don’t recognize them, we’re blind to the geniuses among us, and they’ll go elsewhere, out into the secular world.”

Still reeling from the news, Lerman can’t predict how the fellowship will change her life, although she already has numerous creative projects in mind, among them an interdisciplinary approach to collaborate with dancers and scientists working on the human genome project.

“We have been doing such hard work,” Lerman says of the Dance Exchange’s dancers and administrators.

“I want to take my time and find a different relationship with community engagement. The beauty of the MacArthur is that it’s all about creativity and vision, and you never know where you’re going to end up when you get into working on ideas and visions.”

This article was first commissioned by the Washington Jewish Week.

Lisa Traiger writes on the performing arts and has written frequently about Liz Lerman since 1985.

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