Review of It Could Lead to Dancing by Sonia Gollance

Naomi Jackson

Sonia Gol­lance, It Could Lead to Danc­ing: Mixed Sex Danc­ing and Jew­ish Moder­ni­ty. (Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2021). 296 pp. $65.

Sonia Gollance’s It Could Lead to Dancing: Mixed-Sex Dancing and Jewish Modernity (Stanford University Press, 2021), is a first-rate contribution to a new surge of scholarship in the subfield of Jewish dance studies. Her monograph follows the publication of Nina Speigel’s Embodying Hebrew Culture: Aesthetics, Athletics, and Dance in the Jewish Community of Mandate Palestine (2013), Rebecca Rossen’s Dancing Jewish: Jewish identity in American Modern and Postmodern Dance (2014), Hannah Kosstrin’s Honest Bodies: Revolutionary Modernism in the Dances of Anna Sokolow (2017), Hannah Schwadron’s The Case of the Sexy Jewess: Dance, Gender and Jewish Joke-work in US Pop Culture (2018), and an edited volume by Dina Roginsky and Henia Rottenberg Moving through Conflict: Dance and Politics in Israel (2019), to name just several of the most important works during the last decade.

Within this broader context there are several aspects that make Gollance’s contribution stand out as special and significant. The first is that the book was published as part of the Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture, which is edited by the distinguished scholars David Biale and Sarah Abrevaya Stein. Centering a book on dance within the field of Jewish studies and, in particular, Jewish history and literature, is an important step in making the body, movement, and dancing more visible in the field of Jewish Studies, which tends to marginalize these elements. The book’s focus on social dancing, addressing dances rooted in vernacular and ballroom forms, adds a fresh and valuable perspective to the existing literature, since the majority of studies have focused on either ‘high art’ forms (such as ballet, modern, and postmodern dance), dances from specific ethnic groups (e.g. Yemenite), or Israeli folk dancing. Furthermore, the use of literary sources, including novels, novellas, memoirs, short stories, plays, and poetry, as her main sources, and inclusion of literary analysis in her research, is highly unique and provides a truly interdisciplinary dimension to the study. And finally, the consideration of works in Yiddish, German, Hebrew, and English languages, by writers hailing from Europe, America, and Israel, offers an international perspective on the topic as well as marking a vital and encouraging engagement with Yiddish culture by young scholars interested in dance.

What is arguably the most important aspect of Gollance’s book, however, is its tackling one of the most well-known, yet little examined, topics of Jewish culture—the place of mixed-sex dancing in Jewish life, where mixed-sex dancing relates to social or vernacular dancing between men and women. As Gollance recognizes in the introduction to the book, such dancing has traditionally been considered taboo in Judaism, most familiarly because of its association with sex and physical intimacy. However, what she aims to prove, and does so very effectively, is that tracing the existence of mixed-sex dancing—because, as she shows, it very much took place both in reality and in fictionalized accounts despite the attempts to suppress it—is not only about witnessing changing ideas of sexuality, but also about how Jews addressed the radical transformations arising from modernity during the period spanning from the Enlightenment to World War II (which she dates as circa 1780 to 1940). These shifts relate to gender roles, secularization, debates about Jewish emancipation, urbanization, migration, and war.

While reading the book I recalled the scene in Fiddler on the Roof (1964) where the young radicalized Jew, Perchik, seizes hold of Hodel, and shows her a ‘modern’ couple dance from the city. While Gollance doesn’t discuss this famous exchange until the Epilogue of the book, it is clear that, as she observes, Perchik’s “most radical act is his introduction of mixed-sex dancing to the shtetl” (174). By then, she has so fully evolved her argument that the reader can concur that “it is neither the first, nor the only, instance in which this motif was employed” (175), and that like so many authors in the earlier period, Jerome Robbins, who arranged the choreography for the production, consciously chose dance “as an enjoyable form of social criticism” (175). In other words, by the end of her book, Gollance has provided an illuminating case for the deeper significance of this scene and the varied ways mixed-sex dancing addresses the forces of modernization on Jewish communities within both European and American contexts.

Gollance effectively traces this trajectory by dividing the book into two main sections. The first two chapters examine the traditional Jewish attitudes prohibiting men and women from dancing together and implications of mixed-sex social dancing for acculturation into modern European society. The first introduces readers to the high stakes for the traditional Jewish community, family, and individual with improper dancing across religious or class boundaries, and the second looks at how/where people learned these dances. Chapters 3 to 6 then consider four types of spaces where mixed-sex dancing typically occurred: the tavern, the ballroom, and the wedding and dance hall. The final chapter considers some recent developments from the 1970s onward.

Throughout the book, examples are drawn from primarily German and Yiddish writers with some deep dives into particular short stories and novels. As Gollance explains in the introduction, the roles of the dance scenes in these works vary. They convey emotional color and tension, provide an opportunity for characters to relate to one another without words in an embodied, physical, and sensual manner that can dramatically shift perceptions about masculinity and femininity, and are often “catalysts for changed social interactions between characters” (10). In fiction, the dance floor is essentially a liminal space of fantasy and desire, where “the social dancing body is caught in a dynamic interplay between dancer, dance partner, other dancing couples, and those witnessing the event on the dance floor” (13). As such, it becomes a titillating and effective literary device for examining the effects of modernity. Indeed, Gollance shows in her detailed analyses that often the dance style the author chooses to describe (whether it be a group quadrille or waltz for a couple) becomes a metaphorical organizing device for relationships within the narrative as a whole, such that “plot sequences often replicate the dance choreography” as the characters ‘dance’ with different key partners to propel the story forward (183).

One of the aspects I found most striking as I read through the book was just how much mixed-sex dancing occurred and how pleasurable it was—whether as a way for Jewish men to challenge traditional ideals of the studious Talmudic scholar and stereotyped views of the effeminate and ungainly masculine body and enjoy physical dexterity, or Jewish women to embrace their sensuality, and experience some liberation from a traditionally restrictive lifestyle. We learn, for instance, about how Jews learned the different dances informally from their parents or peers within their homes, or with the assistance of hired dancing instructors. People were also exposed to dancing within the context of weddings or, increasingly as time evolved, formal dancing schools. Among German Jews, dance lessons were a prerequisite for participation in nineteenth-century elite European society, displaying social refinement, proper deportment, class status, appropriate gender roles, and readiness for romantic love—in contrast to traditional arranged marriages. For immigrants from Eastern Europe to the United States, meanwhile, studying social dancing was part of the process of Americanization in the early twentieth century, learned at the same time as English and working as factory workers within a capitalist economy.

Most unfamiliar and interesting to me, however, were the descriptions of the many Jewish-run taverns that existed in central and eastern Europe. In an endnote Gollance reports that at the time of the partitions of Poland-Lithuania (1771-1795), for instance, approximately 85 percent of taverns were leased by Jews, and about 37 percent of Jews were tavern keepers or family members of tavern keepers she also points out that numerous celebrated writers, including Sholem Aleichem, Hayim Nahman Bialik, and S. An-sky were the children of tavern keepers. Gollance explains that these taverns, leased to Jews by the nobility, were an in-between transgressive space where the desires of peasants and the demands of aristocrats converged. Since there was no solid distinction between the domestic/private and public sphere—the living quarters were connected to the tavern—the inn-keeper’s children were exposed to and quickly learned the peasant dances of their non-Jewish neighbors. These might include the thrilling couple dances or highly virtuosic kamarinskaia, which was an improvised Russian folk dance often involving flashy male solos, with “stepping from heel to toe, with hands on the hips or spread to the sides, as well as squatting, jumping, leg extensions, and other acrobatic movements” (87).

Some of the key pleasurable and empowering aspects of mixed-sex dancing soon emerge, as such dances offered very different gender roles from traditional conceptions. For instance, the physical virtuosity needed for these dances allowed Jewish men to be admired for being handsome, healthy, well-dressed, strong, gallant, and nimble, in contrast to traditional attributes such as refinement and scholarly erudition. One such character is Yankl, a tavern keeper’s son, in Leon Kobrin’s 1898 Yiddish novella Yankl Boyle. Yankl attends festive village gatherings called igrishches where unmarried peasant men and women gather together and dance to the accompaniment of local musicians. He is the best dancer in the village: “None of the peasants could kick their legs as high as Yankele, none of them was as eager to strike his rear on the ground…” (87). Meanwhile, in Leopold Kompert’s 1848 German-language novella Die Kinder des Randars, Hannele, the daughter of a Jewish tavern keeper, is drawn to Bohemian singing and dancing, falling in love with a Czech Christian named Honza. Boisterous peasant dancing represents a challenge to traditional qualities for Jewish women related to modesty and obedience, and offers her liberation from an arranged marriage through a potential union based on love and physical compatibility.

However, as Gollance illuminates, many of these stories end tragically in violence, divorce, ruin, or suicide, emphasizing the deeply transgressive and dangerous significance of mixed-sex dancing for sustaining the Jewish community during this period. For instance, Yankl is portrayed as being caught between his desire to be part of a peasant community and desire for a non-Jewish woman, Natasha, and his father’s expectations for him to be pious and follow a devout Jewish lifestyle. In the end he is unable to reconcile these contrasting paths and commits suicide by drowning. Meanwhile, in Die Kinder des Randars, Hannele experiences deep remorse when she steals money from her parents to give to Honza to help him become a priest, at the very same moment as her mother is dying. This clandestine financial transition occurs during a drunken brawl in the tavern when a peasant snatches a dance partner from another man. As Gollance notes, “Hannele’s covert action undermines her loyalty to her family, which is mirrored by disorder on the dance floor” (82). Ultimately Hannele is convinced by her brother to refuse Honza’s advances, but “her decisions cost her her father (who dies shortly after), Honza’s love, and any chance for marriage within the Jewish community” (76).

Indeed, whether it be within the tavern, ballroom, wedding, or dance hall, the many variations of possible ‘dances’ between men and women tend to end in some kind of misery when characters strive to breach communal conventions related to religion, class, or background. Variations on this theme include: a Jewish man being drawn to a non-Jewish woman or vice versa; a Jewish man or woman from a lower class falling for a Jew from a bourgeois or upper-class household; a scoundrel or thief falling for a devout woman; a Jewish man being caught between an Eastern European wife from the old country and an American Jewish woman he met in the New World. In all of these iterations, Gollance meticulously outlines the emotional stakes and how climactic scenes of mixed-sex social dancing offer writers a means to “depict issues of inclusion and exclusion” and the limits of acculturation, whether for Jews into Christian society, or for Jews into different socio-economic and religious realms within the Jewish community. The main characters consistently end up miserable, ostracized, possessed (as in the case, for instance, of the famous story The Dybbuk), or dead.

The book concludes with a quick but fascinating overview of the noticeable change in contemporary fictionalized accounts with a positive shift to embrace mixed-sex dancing, and all that it signifies, especially for female characters. It is a topic that opens up exciting new avenues of research for future scholars. With acceptance into Christian European and American society, and increased secularization of Jewish populations in Europe and the United States, the anxiety and fear has abated. Instead, a film like Dirty Dancing (1987, written by Eleanor Bergstein) allows its upper middle-class Jewish heroine, Frances “Baby” Houseman, to unleash her sensuality and sexuality, and find liberation as she learns to mambo and fall in love with her non-Jewish working-class instructor during a summer vacation in the Catskills. In fact, Gollance successfully redeems for me the corniest line in the movie (which Patrick Swayze so famously hated): “Nobody puts Baby in the corner.” She notes that this phrase actually beautifully summarizes the transformation from earlier fiction that strove to do just that with its young Jewish women—put them in the literal and figurative corner of the dance space. In the culminating scene, Baby is led from the marginal position onto the center of the dance floor and her parents end up following her there to participate in a joyous communal celebration. In this way, mixed-sex dancing becomes a catalyst for a utopian joining of people from different classes and religious backgrounds, a far cry from the earlier portrayals and their tragic results—although undoubtedly the assimilationist nightmare so feared by traditional religious leaders within the Jewish community who warned, and continue to warn, against such dancing!

Jackson, Naomi. “Review of It Could Lead to Dancing by Sonia Gollance.” In geveb, January 2022:
Jackson, Naomi. “Review of It Could Lead to Dancing by Sonia Gollance.” In geveb (January 2022): Accessed Mar 27, 2023.


Naomi Jackson

Naomi Jackson is Professor in the School of Music, Dance, and Theatre of Arizona State University.